CO Balinese Yoga & Yoga in Bali – Balinese Yoga

Balinese Yoga & Yoga in Bali

My first encounter with the word yoga was when I was about ten. My father is a cultural enthusiast, especially its mystical elements. That passion led him to meet various elders that considered mastering specific Balinese Mystical Knowledge. And I am just a kid who likes to take a trip with my father.

One day, we visited a Balian (“Balinese Healer,” but it does not just refer to healing practitioner, but broader spiritual adept). I just like to listen to their talks, even though I have no idea what they’re talking about. When we were about to leave, the Balian approached me and said, “Lad, when you’re ready to take your yoga journey, start it by understanding yourself and your four brothers.”

I just smile politely and have zero ideas what he is talking about while amazed by his bright long white beard.

It’s only after I’m in college that I vividly recall that episode of my childhood when I sit in a chair in Lontar (Balinese Traditional Manuscript) Musem. I was reading a transliteration of a manuscript about Kanda Mpat, which literally means Four [Sacred] Brothers. We will not discuss the teaching here, but in short, The Four Sacred Brothers consists of our demonic and divine “inner siblings” and how to work with them to make us whole and powerful.

At that time, I didn’t pay attention to the word yoga because, like the Balian I had met decades before, I still understood yoga simply meant “spiritual practices,” as did most of [rural] Balinese people at that time.

My encounter with “yoga” as some sort of postural training happened when I was a teenager. It was when an Indian guru taught Suryanamaskar (sun salutation) on a local TV channel. So, I got a new understanding of yoga: its postural side. But I was more into traditional Balian­-like spiritual enthusiasts, so I didn’t really dig deeper. Not until I stumbled upon an Indonesian translation of Svami Sivananda’s book on Suryanamaskar. It was more spiritual for me; hence, I found it captivating.

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A few years later, postural yoga apparently became prevalent in Bali. At the tourism centres, foreigners organize yoga training, workshops, and retreat, offering varied types of certification. We can also easily meet yogis in a bikini doing a complex posture on the beach, temples, or other Instagram-able spots.

Ubud is usually the centre of spirituality in its various forms, including yoga. This yoga training done in a fancy villa, lux resort, or premium yoga shala is sometimes complemented with various other activities, from sound healing to ritual performances and surfing to anything fun.

Bali as a place to do yoga and yoga training is one tourism trend that plays a significant part in promoting Balinese tourism and contributes considerably to the Balinese economy that relies on tourism.

This form of Modern Yoga is also popular within the Balinese community itself. Since Balinese deeply identified itself with Hinduism, yoga is promoted as a part of Hindu Religiosity. These activities are usually initiated by Hindu Universities and schools — included as a mandatory subject or as part of their extracurricular. And a few years ago, some universities also offered a major in yoga and yogic-related study.

Outside the academic wall, yoga is also part of the public: from yoga communities in urban centers conducting scheduled free training on beaches and sports centers to yoga as an activity in “Hindu Sunday schools.” The rousing of yoga activity in Bali is also shown by various yoga festivals that attract people from metropolitan cities outside Bali.

Yet, that is just a modern yoga activity done in Bali, not represent traditional Balinese yoga. Regardless if the claim comes from a Balinese “guru.”

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Yoga has been a prominent part of Bali for more than a  millennium. The epigraphical, archaeological, and textual sources confirmed that yoga has been prevalent in Bali since the 9th century CE [we will discuss the historical development of Balinese yoga in a separate lesson].

The discourse on yoga continued to dominate Balinese literary tradition to the colonial era. But, it needs to emphasize that none of the traditional yoga refers to postural training or involves any posture other than seated meditative positions. Balinese yoga [and maybe any traditional yoga] is a meditative and contemplative practice, and there are dozens of them.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that there are two types of traditional Balinese yoga. First, the seated yoga practices, and second, non-seated yoga practices. The seated-yoga practice can be seen as “sit and meditate,” while non-seated yoga is a way of being. These two types of yoga are interrelated and support each other.

There is countless meditation method revealed in traditional Balinese scriptures. From imposing sacred syllabary into the body (akṣara-nyāsa), taking a journey to layers of the subtle body, internalizing the deity in the body, making a bridge between micro and macro cosmos, cultivating inner fire, conducting internalized-ritual, and many more. There are also several texts that teach yoga that involves breath control and chakra meditation (not the standarized 7 chakra system, but an earlier form. And yes, we will have a specific lesson on it).

The non-seated yoga is about two practices; activating a certain state of consciousness while conducting one’s own duty and living life, or integrating the divine power into it.

The aims of traditional Balinese yoga range from achieving worldly dreams to soteriological purposes. Other practical implementations include healing, supporting ritual ceremonies, purification, self-empowerment, success and victory, and many more.

Fortunately, the Balinese yoga tradition is still preserved in traditional manuscripts called lontar (palm-leaf manuscripts). Unfortunately, most Balinese Yoga traditions only exist in the literature. Just tiny portions of Balinese contemplative practices are spread among the people, even less that practiced it. Other forms of yoga that have been expressed as cultural elements, by all means, are not called yoga.

And there is no lineage of yogis in Bali except a priestly lineage that, in reality, is concerned chiefly with ritual, even though their literature dedicated a huge part to yoga.

Balinese culture is a yogic practice built on the Tantric philosophy. The Tantric exegesis of Bali ranges from Ātimarga to Māntramargic Śaivism, from Pañcārthika Pāśupata to Kāpalika, from Śiddhāntika to left-handed teachings, all are widespread in Bali. A lot of studies have been done to explore Balinese spiritual tradition ever since the colonial era.

Not just śaivism, Tantric Buddhism also play a major part in constructing Balinese spiritual tradition and all its cultures. That is why one name to refer to Balinese Religion is Śiwa-Buddha Religion, because both Śivaśāsana and Buddhadharma co-exist and mix to form a single tradition. This was before “Hindu” was recognized as an official religion by the Government of Indonesia, with all its regulations that distant Bali from its root teachings [we will also discuss this in detail in a separate lesson].

So, considering its long history and massive textual resources, discussing Balinese yoga is not limited to just certain methods of meditation but Balinese culture in general. Because again, Balinese culture is tantric and yogic culture.

NOTE: This post is transcripted [and edited] from the Intro to my Course, Balinese Yoga Tradition.

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