Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Do Yogis Still Fly? Fables and Flightpaths of the Itinerant Yogi: An Interview with Jim Mallinson PhD

Sir William James Mallinson PhD, self-portrait
Dr. Jim Mallinson and Balyogi Shri Ram Balak Das

B ob Dylan, birds, planes, yogis. Motorcycles, birds, magicians, yogis.
Backpackers, soothsayers, wandering mendicants, paragliding pilots, and of course, yogis.

  A “musical expeditionary” if you recall, is what the always touring, ever-itinerant Bob Dylan wanted to be (for anyone who has seen the Scorcese documentary No Direction Home). Birds, (especially the aquatic kind, or hamsa) have long been associated with enlightenment and the migrant yogi. I don’t need to mention the complicated relationship modern yoga has had with travelling magicians, soothsayers and backpackers in the trippy 60s. So why does postural yoga so often focus on physical stillness when the yogi - if we take tales of the yogi in Tantric mythology seriously-, is the consummate vagabond: traversing geographic boundaries with ease, and even entering, inhabiting and exiting other human bodies imperceptibly? What is the relationship between movement and stillness given that those who may have devised yoga were likely themselves wanderers?

This is something Dr. Willam James Mallinson is uniquely well-suited to explain. Although he has never practiced his postural yoga in a modern studio environment (save for once with Danny Paradise), he does have a thing or two to say about itinerant sadhus and modern practice. And this is a good time to listen to what he has to say: If you haven't already heard, yoga scholars Dr. Mark Singleton (previously interviewed on this blog) and Dr. Jim Mallinson have teamed up to put together a corpus of hatha yoga texts aimed at the modern practitioner entitled Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions. The Kickstarter initiative to fund this new set of yoga texts has just sixteen days left towards its goal of raising $50,000. As of today, the campaign is just shy of the halfway mark, meaning the next modest contribution through Kickstarter could get the project airborne.

William James Mallinson, Bt., DPhil., is an Indologist specialising in the Indian yoga and yogi traditions. His main method is textual studies – he has studied Sanskrit since his undergraduate work at Oxford. His ethnographic research comprises almost a decade living in India, most of which was in the company of itinerant yogis and ascetics. From 2002-2008 he worked for the Clay Sanskrit Library as its most prolific translator, completing six volumes of translations of Sanskrit poetry. His prizewinning MA thesis at The School of Oriental and African Studies in 1992-93 was on the place of the ascetic yogi in Indian society. His DPhil at Oxford, which was supervised by the world’s leading scholar of Tantra, Dr. Alexis Sanderson, was a critical edition of a fourteenth-century text on a key technique of haṭhayoga, namely khecarīmudrā. The thesis was revised for publication in 2007 in the Routledge Tantric Studies Series. In 2010 it was reprinted in paperback and an Indian edition was published.

In addition, Mallinson has a non-scholarly book on his time living with yogis in India currently placed with the London literary agents Gillon Aitken. A documentary film which Mallinson devised, associate produced and co-presented, The Beginner's Guide to Yoga, was broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 in 2007. In February 2013 he will film a documentary on The Original Yogis at the Kumbh Mela, to be co-presented with actor Dominic West. He has most recently been asked to advise on the Yoga: Art of Transformation exhibition to be held in Washington DC late next year, for which he is also to write a catalogue essay on the depiction of yogis in medieval miniatures. He is currently collaborating with the photographer Cambridge Jones on an illustrated history of yoga.

In honour of Mark and Jim’s Roots of Yoga project I interviewed Dr. Jim Mallinson at some length about the Kickstarter initiative and his ongoing scholarly research. But instead, as you will see, our conversation weaves through some unsuspected terrain. A self-described “contrarian” who began studying Sanskrit as a teen, Mallinson is also an avid paraglider pilot who won the British Open in 2006 and recently captained the south of Britain against the north in the 2011 inaugural North-South Cup. Add to this an expertise in filmmaking, a non-scholarly book project in the works and a more than casual interest in juggling and you have what I suspect one might call a polymath yoga expeditionary.

Dr. Jim Mallinson, photos: Claudia

Priya Thomas in Conversation with Sir William James Mallinson PhD, July 2012:

Priya Thomas: You know in order to orient myself with your work I read the paper you presented last year at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, as well as the Goraksasataka which appears in David White’s Yoga in Practice as well as brief snippets of something else... oh and your CV which was quite diverse. Now you describe yourself as an Indologist so I wondered if you might want to tackle that term for our readers and then what drew you to Sanskrit and the study of yoga.

Jim Mallinson: Ok well, Indology...well sometimes I have to look that one up myself. I'm not sure anyone's 100% clear what it means. But it means someone who studies classical India primarily through texts but not only through text. So yeah, I would say I'm an Indologist. How did I get into it all? Well, I started studying Sanskrit kind of by chance to be honest by a process of elimination. I was seventeen and I was at school and thinking about what I was going to do at university and I had kind of settled on Oriental studies. So I went to Oxford for an open day, to Oriental Studies and the main subject was Chinese. And the Chinese professor gave an introductory lecture and it was so boring! And it's a four year course and I was sitting there thinking god there's no way I can do this. He was a rather uninspiring teacher. And then, he said at the end of his talk, "if anyone's interested in Sanskrit, the Sanskrit professor's at the end of the corridor". I was the only one out of the fifty or so there that wandered down. And I already knew a bit about it because I had done classics at school and I had friends who'd been to India who had regaled me with stories of the lovely times they'd had there, and the two professors who were there in the study were kind of inspiring. And they turned me onto it and yeah I signed up. And I guess I was slightly contrarian as well; I probably wanted to freak my parents out!

Priya Thomas: Ah...yes.

Jim Mallinson: And then in England people quite often take a year out between school and university. So I worked in London for a bit, got enough money together and went off to India for six months and I was hooked. So since age seventeen, I've been back to India every year since.

Priya Thomas: So you got into all this by chance in some ways, but really by through the personalities you met then...

Jim Mallinson: Yes absolutely I would say. And then one of the two in the room was Alexis Sanderson who then ended up being my supervisor for my PhD.

Priya Thomas: So what was it that drew you to Alexis Sanderson?

Jim Mallinson: Well, he was clearly brilliant. To be honest, when I was an undergrad I didn't really realize quite what amazing work he was doing because he was just the lecturer at the time. To be honest when I read Sanskrit as an undergraduate, I wasn't that hooked. I was hooked on India but Sanskrit didn't grab me completely. But what did was India, and travelling around India and I sort of fell in with some of these yogis and ascetics and I spent a lot of time wandering around with them.

Jim Mallinson (far left), Balyogi Shri Ram Balak Das and other ascetics

Priya Thomas: It's not often you hear of people falling in with yogis!

Jim Mallinson: Yeah it's like falling in with a bad crowd!

Priya Thomas: Yeah can I ask how that happened?

Balyogi Shri Ram Balak Das and Jim Mallinson
Jim Mallinson: did it happen? Well I can remember the first time it happened, it was on my first trip to India before I had even started at Oxford. And I was up in a place called Pahalgam near Srinagar, well you know it's in Kashmir, and it's the beginning of the trek to the Amarnath cave where there's a big ice lingam. So there were a bunch of sadhus there and - in fact that trek is going on right now, there's half a million people apparently signed up for it, it sounds incredible - but anyway, they were camped at the bottom and then I happened to be there by chance but then I had very rudimentary Hindi but then I started talking to them and then I realized that you know if I went into town I could go and buy some vegetables and milk and stuff at the village shop, come back and for fifty rupees I could feed the whole camp and they'd be happy for me to sit around and make a fool of myself! And that was kind of how it started.

And I became intrigued, you know, these charismatic guys who are just wandering around... and some of them were doing yoga, some not, some doing various tapasyas (austerities), but kind of on this constant, ancient pilgrimage round and seeming to lead these ancient lives but making them real in a very modern context.

Priya Thomas: You just made a verbal distinction between the tapas they were doing and yoga; as in some were doing yoga, some were not doing that, some were doing tapas. So, in your mind, what constitutes that distinction?
Jim Mallinson: Well, yeah that's an interesting question because most people do distinguish it quite clearly although I would actually argue and I actually have in a recent paper that particularly the physical practices of tapas are the origins of the physical practices of much of what we know as yoga. Or hatha fact the word hatha kind of implies tapas to a certain extent, you know force...and things that are difficult. But there does seem to be a distinction even amongst ascetics today; people are known for their practice of tapas and some for their practice of yoga. And there is a certain amount of distinction. But they are both used I think, or understood as cultivating some kind of power which can then be translated into worldly power. 

Priya Thomas: Right. Maybe this would be a good time to tell our readers a bit about the Kickstarter project that you've launched with Mark Singleton. What's it all about?

Jim Mallinson: Mark and I have discussed this for a while. I'm actually trying to set up a project at Oxford, a big five year research project, one of the outputs we discussed would be a reader of yoga texts but that's probably something that's much longer than what we envisaged for this Roots of Yoga project. This is the same idea but shorter, you know maybe two or three hundred pages. And what we want to do is it's going to be themed; there are going to be ten or fifteen themed chapters and then we are going to trace the history of each of those elements by providing translations from texts which discuss them and try to show how they've developed over time...

The curious fact is that the texts on yoga, on hatha yoga in particular, which are most relevant to the practice of yoga in the world today have been really poorly studied you know. So that's what I ended up doing for my PhD. I found a text that hadn't been worked on at all which is this text called the Khecarividya which is about the khecarimudra, so the practice of turning your tongue into your skull to drink the amrta which is meant to be dripping down. But then as I dipped into that I realized that:

a) there is a wealth of texts out there that hadn't been looked at at all
b) that most of what had been said about yoga or specifically hatha yoga had been based on just three texts that hadn't been very well edited.

Even the dates of the Hathapradipika, the Sivasamhita and the Gherandasamhita have not been ascertained properly. So when I finished my PhD I still felt totally lost contextually in that whole world because no one had looked at the corpus as a whole. So I said I'm going to go back to first principles I'm going to establish a corpus of texts on hatha yoga and that's what I've been doing for the last six years I suppose, on and off.

And so through doing that I've identified a bunch of texts that no one had ever paid any attention to before. And if you look at them and then try and fit them in historically you see who has borrowed from them and what they've borrowed from and you can work out a relative chronology and you can see how the ideas and practices of yoga have changed over the years. It's a common fault of writings on India and Indian religions in particular that people think of it as a kind of static monolith and that it was always the same, but clearly it wasn't with yoga.

Priya Thomas: So which texts in particular are you looking at for this project?
Jim Mallinson: Ok well there's a couple of really interesting texts that I've been working on that have been completely overlooked. One is called Amrtasiddhi which is a fascinating work; it's probably eleventh century. Amazingly I just got scans of a manuscript in a library in Peking. The reason it's such a fascinating manuscript is because it's bilingual, Tibetan and Sanskrit, and we know that the scribe has written at the end that it was copied in 1169. So it's very, very old. The oldest manuscript I've worked from is from 1477. Generally, manuscripts in India below the Himalayas don't last very long because of the monsoon climate. They're also written on paper so generally they've crumbled away in three or four hundred years. But this one, because it was in Tibet, survived all this time in the dry air of Tibet. So I've got that to work with. I already had a paper manuscript of the same text that I transcribed a while ago and the readings are similar to this new manuscript. Sorry to go on for ages about the nitty gritty details but it's the first text that teaches the physical practices of hatha yoga. The mudras specifically, like mahamudra and mulabandha. And verses from it have been found in later texts such as the Hathapradipika as well as subsequent texts right through to the nineteenth century and commentaries on the Hathapradipika. But no one, very few modern scholars have looked at it at all.

Priya Thomas: Wow. Ok, so that's one of them…
Jim Mallinson: Yeah there’s another one that I've edited from eight or nine manuscripts that's called the Dattatreya Yoga Sastras, (the yoga texts of Dattatreya). That is probably thirteenth century and it's the first text to teach hatha yoga and call it as such. So I've established this corpus of texts and when you look at all of them and you look at the ones that are attributed to Naths, (this Nath sect is always said to be the originator of Hatha yoga), and yet strangely enough they never call their yoga hatha! It's only the texts from other traditions that talk about Hatha yoga. I've argued in a recent paper that it’s because there are kind of two traditions: a kind of ancient, ascetic tradition and it's those guys that talk about hatha because hatha has this connotation of force. So this Dattatreya yoga text is associated with the forerunners of the ascetic order now known as sannyasis, you know the ones who run around naked at the Kumbh mela and stuff. 
Priya Thomas: You mentioned that this text is circa the thirteenth century; has asana been introduced at this point? And when I say asana, I'm meaning fixed asana as opposed to the sequential movements we associate with modern, postural pratice. Are you suggesting that we're seeing asana at this point?
Jim Mallinson: Well that text, the Dattatreya Yoga Sastra says that there are 84 lakh or 8.4 million asanas, but it only names one: padmasana. And the other one in this Nath siddha tradition also lists siddhasana. But we do have earlier reference; the earliest references I've come across to asanas as such but not just purely meditational, seated asanas are from a slightly different tradition which then gets funneled into the Hathapradipika.

But what I would argue is that asana then becomes a repository for any physical practice...any practice where you do anything with your body. So in the Dattatreya Yoga Sastra it mentions various different techniques or approaches to yoga. And one of them in Layayoga. And it mentions a bunch of techniques of layayoga one of which is lying on the ground like a corpse. Layayoga is a kind of dissolving your mind - that's the ultimate - laya means dissolution. It's generally a meditative thing. So this idea is basically the predecessor of the corpse pose which then in the Hathapradipika gets slightly tweaked to actually become savasana, the corpse pose. And we see this with lots of things. We see this again with some of the physical mudras and also postures of tapas or austerity...things that are really quite old. It's not until the maybe sixteenth or seventeenth century and after that we get proliferations of actual textual descriptions of the eighty-four asanas, and in some cases we even get illustrated manuscripts. And there you find things like this text called the Jogpradipika which is an eighteenth century medieval Hindi version of the Hathapradipika (but not quite) which features for instance, a tapkarasana, (or a tapas-asana); that's illustrated in a lovely manuscript in the British Library. It features a guy hanging from a tree performing a very ancient tapas or austerity which is not called an asana until this period. So basically all kinds of things get funnelled into the rubric of asana. We don't really get any suggestions of the sequences (associated with modern yoga).  

Priya Thomas: Right. Well what is the specific use of this particular corpus for practicing yogis?
Jim Mallinson: You know I'm generally fascinated with where things have come from and I would imagine that anyone who takes their yoga practice seriously would like to know why and where their practices come from. And for example, the corpse pose you know you can read about in these texts that we'll be providing translations from and explain how it's used as a method of dissolving your mind so that you can achieve samadhi through that. Similarly, some of the postures that come from the mudra some of them are aimed at making your breath rise up through your central channel. Others are said to just be good for your body and make you feel good. But as I say, it's kind of interesting because I've never been to a yoga class in my life! 

Priya Thomas: Oh is that right? I wondered whether when you had done your ethnographic study with yogis whether you had undertaken a practice?
Jim Mallinson: Oh yeah I do. I practice yoga every day.  

Dr. Jim Mallinson
Priya Thomas: Oh ok. so you mean a yoga class in a modern studio.
Jim Mallinson: Yeah well I hung out with my guru for years and years and he's taught me plenty of yoga but no, I have been to one class. It was in the west...

Priya Thomas: No no. First tell me about your time with your yogi teacher. Did you study one on one?
Jim Mallinson: Well I spent years just wandering around with him just the two of us. Well, actually, my wife Claudia, was there most of the time too... So yeah… 

Priya Thomas: Ok so how did he teach you?
Jim Mallinson: Well he demonstrated the asanas, but then it's not just asana it's the whole yogic way of know the diet and what have you. So I've kind of aspired to that although I've always realized that I was never going to get there 100 percent. 

Priya Thomas: So were you living this way because you wanted to be an observer? Or were their other reasons for getting involved in the lifestyle?
Jim Mallinson: Well no. You couldn't do it for so long just to be an observer. No I just loved the life as well. I definitely found something very satisfying about it. Now why...why is a question I often ask myself! I'm not actually sure... 

Priya Thomas: Ok...
Jim's guru Balyogi Shri Ram Balak Das and Dr. Jim Mallinson

Jim Mallinson: But it's a whole way of life of hanging out with him and similar guys and wandering around and being on a perpetual pilgrimage round and it all integrating with the classical tradition that I was studying; it just seemed like...seemed to bring some kind of meaning to my existence. I mean I've always enjoyed that life of the itinerant sadhu kind of gives it some justification. Yeah so I spent most of my twenties with some kind of framework - I did all twelve of the jyotirlingas around India - and so I used that as a structure, to give some kind of excuse for my wide-eyed wanderings. But aesthetically I guess it appealed to me as well.

Priya Thomas: So in the context of what you've experienced, what was your proximity to the goals of yoga, namely mukti or siddhi?
Jim Mallinson: Have I got near it?  

Priya Thomas: No, not really. not so much what I meant...
Jim Mallinson: (laughing) I can't say I can make any claims to that.

Priya Thomas: (laughing) I meant more what is your perception of those goals? I wouldn't really ask you if you'd got near it. Although I'm equally curious about that mind you, but I wouldn't know what to ask you to figure that one out... No really, what do you make of those goals, mukti and siddhi?

Jim Mallinson: Of the goals? What I've been taught by my guru for example is that you can't really guarantee anything through the practice of yoga even if you do exactly what you've been taught to do or exactly what's said in the texts or whatever. Ultimately, they would say that it's unconditional and that you need some kind of divine grace. Or to be accurate to the context, my guru's a Vaishnava which means he's a follower of Ram, although ultimately he's that kind of nirguni that believes in a formless god, but he would say that his practice of yoga is a way of making his body most amenable, most receptive to divine grace, but that ultimately he can't be sure of anything and that he has to hope that that will come.

Priya Thomas: Do you find that modern postural yoga, at least in its studio setting, is just not itinerant enough? I mean it's not paragliding!

Jim Mallinson: (laughing) Mind you I have done one class. There's a guy I think he's pretty well-known called Danny Paradise and he's a very good friend of a friend of mine and he was over near where I live doing a weekend and kind of residential thing. And we were hanging out; he's a great guy...and he said why don't you come along to the class. And so I said, sure why not? And you know I'm reasonably bendy and I can do tricky asanas and stuff but then it was ashtanga so I had no idea of the sequence or anything and I just felt completely out of place. It was quite funny.

Priya Thomas: You're not going to go back then.

Jim Mallinson: To be honest I've been doing it for a long time and there are certain things I like doing and certain things I don't. Know what I mean? I mean I try and keep up especially over the last couple of years, I've been trying to get switched on to the whole modern yoga thing.

Priya Thomas: Why?

Jim Mallinson: Why??

Priya Thomas: Yeah why?

Jim Mallinson: Just because I'd like to make my work more relevant you know. I don't want to get stuck completely in an ivory tower.

Priya Thomas: Ok.

Jim Mallinson: So I'm trying to engage that. That's why it's great working with Mark. He's been there. You know and I love reading Mark's book. (Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice) Again, I felt such a disconnection for years until I read Mark's book; I kind of couldn't really see where what I studied fitted in with what was going on in the west. So now I kind of understand much more how it does.

Jim Mallinson airborne
Priya Thomas: Right...I should ask you about paragliding though since it was mentioned earlier and I didn't follow through. This interest in paragliding is quite interesting. How did you wind up in that world?

Jim Mallinson: I got into that again quite by chance, a bit like Sanskrit. Just when I started doing my PhD which was on this text called the Khecarividya about khecarimudra. Strangely enough not within the text but within the kind of popular understanding of khecarimudra is a sense that it is meant to give you the power of flight.

Priya Thomas: Yes of course.

Jim Mallinson: So if you do it, you're meant to take off! And in a strange coincidence at just about the time I started doing my PhD, this friend of mine said "hey let's learn to paraglide, there's a place we can do it." 

Priya Thomas: laughing.

Jim Mallinson: I was like yeah ok great what's that? I had no idea what it was or wasn't. Both I and my wife, -well now my wife-, we both learned and straight away I got completely hooked. It just sort of appealed to me. I could bang on about it for ages but it's not like an adrenalin sport. I've never been a crazy guy who'd climb out of the window at a party and walk along the window ledge or something like that! I mean I don't like going near cliff edges unless I'm strapped into my flying harness.

Priya Thomas: Ok.

Jim Mallinson: And it's kind of cerebral. And you can fit this thing into a backpack. And I live quite near just some small hills here in England and on a really good day I can fly a hundred miles just hanging from this kite which I can fit into a rucksack!

Priya Thomas: Wow, so it really is a kind of nomadic journey.

Jim Mallinson: Yeah exactly and I'd done a bit of that in India! And it's easier to do in the mountains where you can fly and then if you land up high somewhere you can spend the night and then you take off the next day and you carry on.

Priya Thomas: How strange, because I was thinking about yogis in mythology and the power of flight as well and so I was going to ask if you found anything in common between yoga and this flying business but you've already answered my question!

Jim Mallinson: Yeah I guess I do see a similarity. Yes I do. yeah. Yeah and it's amazing that it's not terrifying. As in, if it's scary I've definitely done something wrong you know. It shouldn't be scary. But it still completely transports you, you don't think about much else. If you see what I mean. It kind of takes your mind off your mundane worries. Which is what I guess you're trying to do with yoga to a certain extent as well.

Priya Thomas: It's interesting that you describe paragliding as cerebral...seeing as you're throwing your body off of a cliff right?

Jim Mallinson: Yes, but you only step off the cliff once the glider's above your head and inflated so it's not like going to free-fall at all, you step off and you kind of...

Priya Thomas: But you really need to be able to manouver your body to get things to happen the way you want...

Jim Mallinson: Yeah yeah there's a lot of that. You control the thing with your weight a lot, you swing it around and stuff yeah...

Priya Thomas: Now you're also a filmmaker is that right? You've made a film called The Beginner's Guide to Yoga?

Jim Mallinson: Yeah well I was associate producer on that and I devised it five or six years ago.

Priya Thomas: So here you are exploring connection with this thing called modern postural yoga which you appear to be sort of ambivalent least in the modern, studio context right?

Jim Mallinson: Well... ambivalent...well I wouldn't want to do it down because I do it myself to be honest. Especially now that I'm busy and I have children, my yoga practice is mainly postural these days. My wife would kind of look askance at me if she found me meditating too much! (laughing)
Once the kids have gotten a bit older, it might be a bit easier.

Priya Thomas: But the interest in translating postural yoga to film/television? Why?
Jim Mallinson: Yeah well the idea was to pitch this idea to a production house, to Channel 4, which I don't think you would have heard of in the States, but it's one of the four big broadcasters here. And so we did and nothing happened. And I kind of forgot about it. Then a year later they came back and said, yeah love the idea and we found the perfect celebrity to present it. And then they dumped this well perfectly nice lady who's a celebrity for no particular reason, and while I wanted to show what yoga meant in India in contrast with what's going on in the west, (again not to do it down)
but somehow it became more about her. And the following month I made another film… a flying film that was about a kind of pilgrimage by a paraglider which we got broadcast...we managed to sell it to a few channels and stuff and I still get feedback from that.

But what I'm really excited about now is that I'm doing a film at next year's Kumbh Mela in February. Yeah we got a really big, a really pukka production company in London who are very excited about it and they're pitching it to the broadcasters. At the moment it's looking like it's almost definitely going to go ahead although I can't claim all the responsibility for that cos a guy called Dominic West whom you may have heard of who is an actor is an old friend of mine...he is going to present it with me. And he's just recently won the top TV acting award here in Britain. So he's pretty well known. You know cos he was the lead "The Wire".

Priya Thomas: Oh yeah, The Wire of course.
Jim Mallinson
Jim Mallinson: So yeah, he's on board but of course he's also sympathetic to all my fears and genuinely interested in the Kumbh Mela. So we'll retain a decent amount of editorial control over this one and hopefully do a better job.  

Priya Thomas: Well that's a big part of the whole thing isn't it...and well film involves so many people that editorial control is a hard one...You also have a non-scholarly book on yoga that a literary agent is currently handling is that right?
Jim Mallinson: Yeah well I'll tell you what it's about. 

Priya Thomas: Yeah..
Jim Mallinson: It's about the last Kumbh Mela that I went to three years ago in Haridwar. So I stayed in my guru's camp as usual and I was there just for two weeks and I'd always been wanting to write a non-scholarly book about that world but informed by my studies as well to kind of contextualize it. And then there was enough crazy madness happening in that two weeks to give me a frame to hang it off which is what I'm doing.  

Priya Thomas: Is it a novel?
Jim Mallinson: No, well I mean it's all factual. The order of some of the events might jump around a bit. But no, it's purely factual.  

Priya Thomas: Ok.
Jim Mallinson: It's about some of the crazy characters...and yoga will figure in it - not massively, maybe twenty percent or something will discuss the yogis in the camp and where they're all coming from and what they get up to.  

Priya Thomas: Do you think that modern postural yoga has any relationship now to tapas - the likes of which you might associate with those wandering ascetics?

Jim Mallinson: Funnily enough in some of the stuff I've read like In Mark's edited volume, I can't remember the guy right now, someone called Smith (referring to Benjamin Richard Smith's chapter entitled "With Heat Even Iron Will Bend: Discipline and Authority in Astanga Yoga") wrote about how particularly in ashtanga yoga there did seem to be this concept of tapas and curiously enough there's strong parallels between what these very traditional yogis in India, yogis who do tapas get up to and Bikram yoga. I was just hanging out with this guy, a lovely, quite young yogi called Jagganath Das and I saw him in India in January at his place in Bihar and when I'd met him before he was doing lots of asana and he was doing this dhunitap, this fire penance they do every spring and summer. So they'll be starting at the Kumbh Mela when I'm there on the Vasant pancami which this year is at the end of February, and then they go for four months into the hottest part of the year and for a couples of hours every day, middle of the day, they sit and they meditate in the sun surrounded by burning cow dung fires. So when I saw Jagganath Das in January I asked him about this practice and he said well that's really my main period for when I do yoga cos it's a bit cold now and really you want to get the heat going, get yourself really hot and then your body becomes all supple and then it all works. (laughs)
There are interesting parallels there with the concepts of Bikram yoga.

Priya Thomas: Getting back to this idea then that asana - I think in the paper you presented at the American Academy of Religion last year you suggested that some of the militant practices associated with the subcontinent be examined more thoroughly before we are able to make a claim that sequential asanas don't predate the modern period.

Jim Mallinson:
Yeah, god I can't remember what I said in that. (laughs)

Priya Thomas:
Oh it's ok I've got it right here, you said: "in order to be sure however, that there are not Indian precedents for the sequences of postures I suggest that traditional wrestling exercises and training regimes of militant ascetics need to be examined more thoroughly"

Jim Mallinson: Yeah. Exactly.... you've got to clear out all the other possibilities. And that might well be possible. There's a guy called Joe Alter who has studied a lot with the wrestlers but I don't think he's...they do these exercises with dands which I think Mark looked into a bit...But I suppose he didn't find any evidence there.

Mallakhamba: Indian wrestling
Priya Thomas: No, not from what I’ve read. I have read Joseph Alter's work on wrestling as well…. But from your comment I take it that there are a few dark areas regarding asana worth revisiting…

Jim Mallinson: Yeah and in some of these akharas there are not just the wrestlers that Joe Alter studied but also ascetic traditions that are still doing exercises and I don't think that world has been studied at all, to be honest.

Priya Thomas: Ok

Jim Mallinson: It's slightly distinct from the guys I hang out with but it would be quite easy for me to find out actually. I keep meaning to make a list of questions to ask at the next Kumbh Mela but I will write that one down actually.

Priya Thomas: Yeah yeah sure.

Jim Mallinson: I've got some Naga friends; there's a split between the regular kind of ascetics who do yoga and tapas and the ones who are designated fighters. And they do do some different training, some different stuff. It would be worth asking them that. But I would be surprised to be honest, even though I did say that, but you've got to dismiss all possibilities. You know I think Mark covered things pretty well in his book.

Priya Thomas: Right of course.You're also collaborating with Mark Singleton as an advisor for an exhibit next year at the Smithsonian called Yoga the Art of Transformation...

Jim Mallinson: Ah yes, that's very exciting.

Priya Thomas: Yes it is.

Jim Mallinson: Yeah that's been really good fun. And Deborah, Deborah Diamond she's curating it, she's a good friend of mine, she's great. And what I'm writing about for the catalog has really informed my recent work actually; I'm going to a conference in Portugal next week where I'm giving a paper in which I use Mughal painting in particular to trace and really inform our understanding of the history of these yogi sects….which is what I'm writing about for the catalog. Also, I'm writing a shorter piece on the history of asana up to about 1650. So I think then Mark is then doing subsequent to that. But yeah Deborah just said that they got two more venues for it over the next three years and they reckon at least 800,000 people are going to come and see it.

Priya Thomas: Yeah it's quite exciting actually. Let's see here, to move on…oh also mentioned on your CV that you're a juggler.

Jim Mallinson: (laughing) Oh god, it's that awful CV again!

Priya Thomas: It's awesome, it's a great CV. I've never seen one like it!

Jim Mallinson: (laughing) Ha I think that's what the person at Oxford said as well... Yeah again I think the juggling tied in to when I got into doing asanas and stuff. And it's a bit like paragliding in that it's about brain and body at the same time.

Priya Thomas: But what activity with the body isn't though? But I think I see what you're saying. So you appreciate the cerebral quality of the juggling.

Jim Mallinson: It's fascinating what it does with your brain and what it really teaches you about your brain. Although I had about five years when I was really obsessed with it...actually before I went to paragliding (laughs) Before paragliding took over! (laughs)

Priya Thomas: Oh ok. So would you consider yourself as good at juggling as you are at paragliding? I believe you won the British Open in 2006, you were the captain of winning South in the inaugural North South Cup earlier this year...

Jim Mallinson: No not anymore no...I'm still, I'm still....well it's a bit like riding a bike.

Priya Thomas: What’s good? Are we talking more than three balls at a time, four balls? Just to quantify (laughing)

Jim Mallinson: Oh yeah I can do seven balls.

Jim Mallinson flying over the UK
Priya Thomas: Ok awesome. (laughing)

Jim Mallinson: (laughing) No one can really relax when doing seven but I can do six and five and get seven round a few times and five clubs and stuff like that.

Priya Thomas: Ok! Well that's interesting. Well on the CV it also says that you are by inheritance a baronet.

Jim Mallinson: Ah yeah. yeah yeah.

Priya Thomas: Do you want to tell me a little bit about the family? Is that of interest?

Jim Mallinson: Well my father's side of the family...the original baronet, it wasn't that long ago...I'm the fifth I think...and he, the family made a lot of money through timber.

Priya Thomas: Oh ok.

Jim Mallinson: timber. And then whoever he was the first one William, because we've all been called William, (see I'm known as William James) anyway he was extremely generous and gave away loads of money, most of his money and funded libraries and schools and hospitals and stuff like that. So he was given this title in reward.

Priya Thomas: I see...

Jim Mallinson: And yeah my grandfather was a very eminent psychiatrist; he was the Queen's psychiatrist, the royal psychiatrist, their family psychiatrist. He's probably the most interesting figure in my immediate family. But yeah I've kind of moved away from where we were originally from; we've all moved about. And it's quite a small family so it doesn't loom that large in my life and it seems slightly absurd, but occasionally I play with it. (laughs)

Priya Thomas: Yeah. That's curious. (laughs)

Jim Mallinson: It got used in some of my books and...well I will never put it forward...if you see what I mean. But people sometimes do put it forward and care about it.

Priya Thomas: Well you know it's funny because after I read that you were a baron I wasn't sure whether I should put it forward...

Jim Mallinson: Yeah, ultimately I think it's slightly absurd the whole thing.

Priya Thomas: But then it's interesting.

Haridwar Kumbh Mela, 1850s
Jim Mallinson: It is interesting. Yeah. Funnily enough in this film I'm doing with Dominic at the Kumbh Mela, I rang up my guru to say - well cos you know we're all going to be staying in the camp - and he said, well I'll put up a tent for you. And there was only going to be three or four of us so we could all stay right there in the middle of the camp. And I said now look in return for it we want to pay our way and how much will it cost to put on a big feast cos that's what goes on at the Kumbh Mela. And they throw these feasts to move people's elevation to a higher rank or just to kind of spread wealth around their order or their tradition. And I said how much would it cost to throw a feast and he said well "how long is a piece of string?" "But the biggest one you could do it would cost you a couple of lakh or something"  And then he said, "and for that we could make you a mahant". i.e. make me an abbott or whatever of the order. (laughs) And I laughed and said don't be ridiculous. But then I told the guys making the film and they said, "No, no Jim we're going to make you a mahant." (laughs) Which I feel very silly about.

Priya Thomas: (laughing)

Jim Mallinson: I'm still not sure I'll be able to go through with it. You know that's something I want to play on in the film we're going to do, a lot of these guys who do hold these senior positions, several of them have pretty checkered pasts.

Priya Thomas: Right.

Jim Mallinson: There are a bunch of dodgy rumours about them. You know, just cos you've got a name or a position or something doesn't necessarily mean you're anything special.

I f you’ve ever complained that you don’t understand the textual basis of your postural practice, all the while making do with the tidbits you’ve heard from other yogis between classes, you might consider an alternate route to developing your yoga knowledge: become a patron to the work of yoga scholars. For while at one time yoga scholars might have remained sequestered within the walls of academia, Jim Mallinson divulges that scholars are increasingly reaching out to a non-scholarly readership changing the reach of the exacting philologist who labours in relative isolation hunched ever over crumbling manuscripts. And so yoga does for Jim Mallinson what it likely does for the likes of the rest of us: it allows us to accumulate energy, to generate a heat that can be unwavering, single-minded and still, and yet appears anything but stationary. Perhaps, herein lies the usefulness of the yogi’s wanderlust.

• Dr. Mark Singleton and Dr. Jim Mallinson’s Roots of Yoga Project seeks to reach its goal by August 10, 2012. Pleaser read more about the project at: The Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions

• Contribute generously to the project here

• To learn more about Dr. Jim Mallinson’s research, please visit:

To participate in a sky safari, or just learn more about Jim Mallinson’s paragliding adventures please visit Himalayan Sky Safaris and for kicks here's another article on Jim's Paragliding adventures from The Gazette and Herald which I take it is located somewhere in the UK.


1 comment:

  1. Well done yet cool.

    "Who persists in his folly becomes wise."

    Keep up the open-hearted practice & check out
    Theos Bernard, the kid from Yale who purportedly
    became one of the (two?) westerns in Babaji's posse.

    Supposedly he's the mountain climber who jumped off the cliff in Autobiography of a Yogi, when Babaji refused to be his guru.
    Then Babaji had his crew go fetch the body & brought him back to (immortal?) life right then & there with a mere touch.

    Do I believe it? I believe it's possible & even if it's entirely fabricated, still what a cool story.

    It seems like just the sort of thing that could happen to a kid like you if you're not careful!