Yoga, an entirely positive sexuality and the Siddha tradition all belong together.

What is the Siddha Yoga Tradition?

Mark Whitwell | Yoga Teacher at Heart of Yoga

Mark Whitwell

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Baba Nityananda (1897–1961) One of the last known Siddha gurus of modern times | Mark Whitwell

How to respond to the ancient Vedic spiritual transmission from Reality Realizers with an actual Yoga, with actual Life positive sexuality, and without any power structure that creates the delusion of superiority or inferiority in any way to any body or any thing.

In the early 1970s, I spent several months with some extraordinary siddhas in Northern India, including Swami Muktananda, who lives were the sublime possibility that is the human potential. I loved meeting with these people, many of whom were unknown as teachers then and remain unknown today. They were ordinary men and women who were living lives of quiet devotion to the Goddess. I learnt from them, sometimes simply via a nod or a glance, what Yoga actually was.

It wasn’t until I met Krishnamacharya and his son Desikachar in Madras however, that I learnt the Yogas that made these meetings truly useful. When I learnt and felt the Yoga tantras that Krishnamacharya taught, I was amazed to see how perfectly it allowed the energy of Life — the Shakti — to be smoothly conducted in my system. Desikachar showed me that Yoga is an entirely complete devotional practice to the One who lives us; the perfect means to imbibe and relate to the Shakti, the nurturing force of life, the Mother force of all.

Nights in Madras with Desikachar and his wife Menaka | Mark Whitwell
Nights in Madras with Desikachar and his wife Menaka | Mark Whitwell

After a lifetime of deep scholarship into the religious traditions of India, Krishnamacharya concluded that if you are in a relationship with a Realizer like Nityananda or Muktananda, then the physical wisdom practices of the Yoga tantras must be there. Krishnamacharya was a bridge that brought these ancient, nearly lost practices, to the modern world for all people to make use of — these sublime technologies of whole-body breathing that allow any person to actualise what has inspired them.

I realised that Yoga, a life of intimacy, and the siddha tradition all belonged together. If we don’t get this right for humanity and turn around the ship of orthodoxy, the course is set for more tragedies like that which happened in Muktananda’s organisation. Sex is where humanity is stuck and the entire world is traumatised in this area. The orthodox doctrine of celibacy only leads to outbursts of sexual abuse. The Yoga tantras that flourished between the 5th and the 14th centuries, adapted to modern times, are the practical means to move beyond this negative cultural inheritance. It does a quick job in restoring to our systems the Natural State.

In this article I want to explore the history of the Siddha Yoga tradition, what went wrong, and chart a way forward.

When you practice Yoga the imagined limits around your heart fall away. The first insight of Yoga is the recognition that there is restriction. This observation is said to be “the unavoidable motive of practice.” It is to be honoured | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

For millennia, across all geographies of Mother Earth, Reality Realizers have appeared in human society. Known in Vedic culture as rishis and seers, saints and sages, avatars and gurus, the Reality Realizer is one who is unobstructed in body and mind from the Powers of Creation. Their function is to bodily communicate the Truth: that there is only One Reality; that there is God only; and that the human presumption of separation from Truth is just a mirage of mind.

We count among the great Realizers of human culture the Abrahamic fathers, the Buddha, Christ, Guru Nanak, Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir — and in our own time, the Dalai Lama, Anandamayi Ma, Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi, Ramana Maharshi, J. and U.G. Krishnamurti, Robert Adams, Neem Karoli Baba, Amma, and the subject of this essay, the Siddha Yogis from Northern India: Bhagavan Nityananda and Baba Muktananda; though there are, of course, countless more.

The intimacy found among friends, be they formally recognized as teachers or not, is the transformative means of Yoga | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Our Reality Realizers are human treasures who dispel the darkness of presumed separation for everybody. They often led humble lives as wanderers who roamed the planet, not owning anything because they were everything, abiding in infinity and blessing everything and everyone they met. They were worshipped as the divine because they embodied the identity attributes of the gods and goddesses of religious culture.

Simply by sitting closely with a Realizer (upasana), a flow of powerful energy ignites in the recipient, a form of yogic transmission known in the traditions as shaktipat and well-documented through the ages in Kashmir Shaivism and other religious cultures. In the Christian tradition, such transmission was described as “Spirit Baptism.” It was considered the necessary initiating spark of an individual’s devotional conversion to the Power of the Cosmos, (or Goddess Kundalini Shakti; the manifestation of all Life; the Mother of all; the All in the “All”).

Click here for free access to the Heart of Yoga Teaching Standards, a set of principles you can use to judge whether a teacher is empowering or disempowering their students.

Nityananda in Ganeshpuri | Mark Whitwell

This living-love transmission from Realizer to student is regarded as the universal means of all wisdom traditions. Bhagavan Nityananda (d. 1961), one of the last known Siddha gurus, himself said:

“You must have an initiating guru in spiritual life.”

Nityananda’s most renowned student was Baba Muktananda (1908–1982), a man who did a great work in bringing the realization-siddhis of the Siddhas to the attention of the entire world.

Nityananda’s students Swami Muktananda who spent twenty years with his guru before travelling the world to spread the Siddha tradition | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Born as Krishna Rai into a wealthy family in Mumbai, Muktananda first met the wandering Nityananda when he was just fifteen. He became inspired from that point on to lead a God-Realizing life. He spent the next two decades studying the traditions of Sanskrit, Vedanta, and Yoga with many teachers.

In his adult life, Muktananda returned to Nityananda — whom he called his “root guru” — moving to his ashram in Ganeshpuri, a small village of dirt roads and humble buildings about forty miles North of Mumbai.

Nityananda’s method of teaching was energetic rather than verbal: his whole body was effulgent with shakti power and he transmitted this spiritual energy into those around him. Muktananda was an impeccable devotee who sat at the back of the room for twenty years quietly absorbing this living-love transmission.

In the 1950s, Nityananda acknowledged that his transmission to Muktananda was complete. He then declared that the guru function had come alive in his student and that Muktananda was ready to teach — a spiritual process known as Siva-pat.

A young Muktananda | Mark Whitwell

Muktananda began teaching in 1962. After his guru’s death he formed his own ashram and many people came from world-over to sit with Muktananda, to receive his blessing-force, and to seek spiritual guidance from a living Siddha (“perfected master”). Over the decade his reputation grew and grew.

Then, in the 1970s, Muktananda took the extraordinary step of taking the Siddha tradition global through a series of three world-tours. With the shakti-force of Nityananda behind him, he took the grace of the Siddhas out of its hermitage setting in India and into capital cities across Europe, Asia, England, America and Australia.

Muktananda achieved huge success around the world in a short period of time | Mark Whitwell

When he went to New York City, Allen Ginsberg and the hip luminaries of the art world voted him the coolest cat in town. He appeared on the scene as if from another world, a real-life Indian saint with a laid-back attitude. He always appeared in an extravagant knitted cap and black sunglasses.

In intimate gatherings of eager and open-minded students, Muktananda seeded shakti experience to many people. He loved to play his one string “guitar” (the ektara) and sing Vedic devotional songs. People loved him for his joyful and mischievous personality; and his radiant body, that literally shone with light.

Each successive world-tour saw Muktananda and his organisation grow in public esteem and cultural reach. In 1971, he was featured as a living Indian saint in Time Magazine; as well as appearing in many newspapers and television interviews across Britain and Australia. He declared his intention to start a meditation revolution. By 1981, his teachings had entered into many Western academic institutions, prisons, and healthcare facilities.

When you feel you are in safe hands, then something can happen | Mark Whitwell

People reported that Muktananda was deeply useful to them. He was profoundly helpful in releasing obstructions of all kinds from their lives. And he was available to personally support a person in how two live a life of intimate connection to Reality; a life that was given over Life as it actually is. He brought people together regardless of their position in society into the consideration of Love. His was a universal message of the Heart that transcended rivalry between different “points-of-view.”

“If everyone could experience that inner Truth,” Muktananda said. “If everyone could understand his real nature, there would no longer be enmity among people, but only friendliness, affection, and the feeling of universal brotherhood…When we look at ourselves with the true awareness of humanity, we will see that same humanity in everyone else.”

You could say that Nityananda and Muktananda followed in the world-tradition of saints and sages who come in pairs: like Ramakrishna and Vivikenanda; Jiddu Krishnamurti and U.G. Krishnamurti; Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; or John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. One initiates and the other delivers. Muktananda is thus recognised to be the Shakti (the form) that sprung from Nityananda’s eternal stillness (Shiva) — the force that could make Nityananda’s realisation tangible in the modern world.

Many powerful teachers arose as a result of Nityananda’s and Muktananda’s Realisation-Siddhis travelling to the west.

We must be in life as life and love horizontally and be with somebody in name and form. You can’t tell the difference between that person and God, that is the end of dualism | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Tragically, the world-work that Muktananda accomplished was abruptly halted by an outburst of aberrant sexual behaviour in his late-life. In the 1980s, when he was in his seventies and in failing health, a sex scandal broke in his organisation. After months of rumours and whispers of illicit behaviour on the supposedly celibate Muktananda’s part, it was revealed that he had been entering into his student’s bedrooms at night to have sex — particularly the rooms of young women. Many of these women reported being seriously hurt in these un-mutual and hidden affairs.

When his actions came to light, Muktananda’s community was sent into crisis. Many students left the organisation. Some sought out other teachers. And others turned away from spiritual community altogether. Students who had responded to his profound Heart-transmission became conflicted by his abusive behaviour. They were unable to resolve how he could have behaved in such a way whilst having been such an overt force of love and spiritual empowerment in their lives.

When the story broke in the public sphere, the world reacted with legitimate confusion and anger. Muktananda’s image along was splashed across the front pages of the world’s newspapers along with headlines of abuse. Almost overnight, his global platform of public esteem fell apart. In a state of disgrace, he returned to Mumbai and died a few years later in 1982.

What happened to Muktananda, his students, and his organisation is clearly a tragedy. Muktananda’s life represented the intervention of grace — of Reality Realization — into the world on a scale that is extremely rare in the course of history. For his life to resolve into abuse is deeply sad — both for those individuals who suffered harm and for the public’s loss of faith in the Siddha tradition that followed; the loss of faith in the necessity and beauty of the guru-shirsya relationship and the function of shaktipat.

In order to make sense of what happened for ourselves, it is necessary to consider the context in which Muktananda’s realisation took place.

Muktananda’s love-realisation occurred within the context of a conservative Hinduism in which celibacy was glamourised as a spiritual ideal. He was raised within a religious tradition in which the body, women, sex, and the ordinary, tangible conditions of life were perceived as “lower” objects, or even obstacles, to spiritual realization. He had thus spent his entire life in a culture that was religious rather than yogic; that had no understanding of the role of yogic intimacy in a devotional life; that deeply repressed the natural, human movement towards Sex.

Life is a perfect system of utter surrender between the male and female aspects of our embodiment. So within so without, in same-sex or opposite sex intimacy, in any gender identification, or none | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

For twenty years however, Muktananda had also absorbed the force of Shakti from Nityananda — the very power of the Cosmos itself; the force which beats our heart and moves our breath and Sex. Under the influence of Nityananda, he became a lover of the Feminine; a devotee of the Goddess Kundalini Shakti; a man who’s own realisation powerfully attracted him to a life of intimate connection and sexuality.

The Shakti force that he had absorbed from Nityananda needed to be conducted within his body through a natural life of Yoga and Yogic sexuality. Intimate connection — including sex — is the anciently given method of channeling the force of Shakti in a human life.

Caught between a religious psychology of celibacy and the natural movement toward intimacy, Muktananda was in a psychological conflict In the months leading up to the abuse, he had a series of strokes. The resulting brain damage seemed to cause this latent psychological tension to erupt in him. As his mental faculties failed, his behaviour became erratic and odd, and his long-repressed Sex came out in an uncontrolled outburst of abuse.

We know that when Sex is repressed it inevitably comes out as an illness. We need only take a brief look at the histories of world-religions and spiritual cults to see that the denial of Sex leads to abuse; the Catholic Church being the most obvious, but by no means isolated example. Sex is a vital function. It is the most powerful force on Mother Earth; and Her perfect means of ensuring the continuity and evolution of the species. Just like trying to hold your breath causes it come out as a gasp, so too trying to repress Sex causes it to come out in aberrant and harmful ways.

The Yogas of Participation are the necessary response to inspiration from a Reality Realizer like Nityananda, Ramana, UG, Amma, Shirdi Sai Baba, or Christ. It democratises spiritual life by giving each person the practical means to participate in the Truth of what is recognised in meetings with such people | Mark Whitwell

“Man’s idea of Heaven has created a Hell out of this abundant paradise,” my teacher U.G. Krishnamurti observed.

Without excusing his behaviour, it is clear that the problems of Muktananda are the problems of the world. His actions, and the total confusion around sexuality that was present in his organisation, is so endemic in our culture that it points to a fault-line running through the foundations of civilisation itself.

It is extremely rare to find a spiritual community (or a secular community) where there is true sexual wisdom; where real Yoga is given as the union of opposites within that makes possible the union of opposites without; where people are equipped to collaborate and empower one another as intimate mutual partners; and where Sex is rightly understood as the Heart’s activity: whole-body participation in the Divine, not a seeking or manipulation of the body-mind.

*Join Mark and friends in the heart of yoga online studio. There are free weekly classes, as well as by-donation gatherings and conversation where you can learn a simple daily practice that is right for you.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) devoted his life to bringing actual Yoga into mainstream spiritual life. He saw that Yoga was the “mother’s milk” of devotional life | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

And yet, human religious and spiritual culture has not always been dysfunctional. Rather, across all geographies of Mother Earth, there have existed wisdom cultures in which intimate connection has been understood as the first principle of devotional life. The Tantric period in India and Tibet — a 1000-year-long span of history, lasting from the 5th to the 14th century A.D., was one such culture.

The Tantric period, in certain areas, saw an exquisite refinement of the non-dual realisation that the manifold world is but a seamless continuity of the Divine Totality; the recognition that all Seen conditions are an indivisible overflow of Source Reality into form; that not one object — which includes each and every person — is or can ever be separate, to any degree, from God. The manifold world is the Shakti, the Goddess, Lalita Devi, the Mother, Prakriti, and the Feminine. The Absolute is Shiva, Divine Consciousness, Purusha, Source Reality, God. The intrinsically One, Eternal Union of Shiva and Shakti, Source and Seen, was (is) understood to be the nature of Reality Itself.

*Read here a succinct summary of the Yogas of Participation relative to spiritual life: The Hridaya Yoga Sutra.

Nityananda in his middle age. His whole body effulgent with Shakti | Mark Whitwell

Within the non-dual cosmology of tantra, spiritual and religious life was centred on Goddess Worship: the besotted, bodily embrace of all ordinary conditions. For if every ‘thing’ was the Goddess then intimate connection to any ‘thing’ was God-Realizing activity. “You do not get to Vishnu without going through Lakshmi,” my teacher Krishnamacharya was fond of saying, meaning love of form (including actual others) was love of God. Relationship was the way of this culture. Worship of God, Goddess, Deity, Guru, Spouse, and the Body formed a seamless whole where the embrace of one was the embrace of All.

Asana is the union of opposites-inhale/exhale, above/below, left/right,male-female-that reveals the source of all opposites: the hridaya heart. It is the source of the body-mind, the portal from which unseen Source is arising as you and me | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
Asana is the union of opposites-inhale/exhale, above/below, left/right,male-female-that reveals the source of all opposites: the hridaya heart. It is the source of the body-mind, the portal from which unseen Source is arising as you and me | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

The most fundamental method of Reality Embrace was Yoga Sadhana — the ‘mother’s milk’ of spiritual life. Yoga was inherently understood and revered as the practical means of intimate connection to Reality that is already given and arising as every person. Yogic participation in one’s own body and breath (the Goddess) was the foundation from which all other intimacies were made possible: sensitivity to one’s own form naturally gives us sensitivity to the All. Yoga — that is, asana, pranayama, mantra and visualisation — was thus given as the principle activity of a person’s devotional life.

When an individual became turned to the Goddess through coming into relationship with a Realizer like Muktananda or Nityananda or Christ, it was inherently understood that they must have a Yoga sadhana (the union of opposites within) and they must be supported in finding intimate partnership (the union of opposites without). Yoga Sadhana and a life of actual intimate connection to everything was there in the culture as practical response to Shaktipat, or “Spirit-Baptism.”

Participation in the union of opposites — principally the union of the inhale and the exhale — was the means to smoothly conduct the energy, the kundalinishakti, that flows from Realizer to Student in such meetings. And Yoga is each person’s effortless participation in the Heart’s flow: the Nurturing Force of God that spirals like a flower from the Heart to form the whole body. Once this recognition had been given to the student, they could take up a Yoga Sadhana as their direct participation in the Heart; thus allowing them to abide steadily in that recognition for the rest of their lives.

Nityananda’s gift to others was his sheer presence as the unobstructed force of Mother Nature’s nurturing | Mark Whitwell

It is our sincere intention to continue the work that Krishnamacharya got started and bring a real Yoga education and guidance on honest sexuality into the world. It is time now for a real Yoga education; for perfect participation in the body’s Natural State; for non-hierarchical community to form in which the Prior Unity of all Life is the starting point of the human mind; for practical empowerment in matters of sexuality and living a life of mutual collaboration with a beloved partner; for “searchless” participation in the wonder, harmony, beauty and intelligence that is already given.

May we get the job done together.

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.