Balinese Yoga and Tantra: A Very Brief Introduction

Bali is one of the most popular destinations for yogis and yoginis from across the globe. But, it’s just (a modern form of) yoga being held in Bali, not Balinese yoga. Yoga practiced today in Bali is what scholars called Modern Postural Yoga, while the real Balinese yogic teachings remain unknown by the majority of people.

Introduction

Yoga is an ancient spiritual legacy that has become a global phenomenon and consumption. However, only a few aspects of yoga are popular in the modern era, i.e. the asana aspect. In addition, many misconceptions seem to have gone viral regarding yoga. For example, saying that the asanas in yoga are 5000 years old, and asana is all that yoga is.

Yoga is not just an asana. The various practices of so-called yoga-poses that exist today only began to grow in the Colonial Era, while its seeds were planted as far as 14th CE.[1] Some yoga poses are even new creations. The popular understanding that “yoga = asana and the claims that follow are a product of modern capitalism. Unfortunately, this misconception is even starting to become a reality in the East, the birthplace of yoga itself.

Misconceptions also occur with regard to Tantra. In modern views, Tantra is only about sexuality and erotic things. There are numerous books and training on “Tantric Sex.” you can find on Amazon; from Gay Tantra, Lesbian Tantra, to Tantra Massage. Other than a stage to express erotic fantasy, Tantra is often framed as black magic, witchcraft, and some other dark things.

Other confusion also arises from the notion that tantra is a single cohesive tenet; assuming Tantra as an “-ism”. In the scholarly views, the term “tantra” refers to a textual classification, a genre of books, not a single teaching. [2] From these books called Tantras, many ideas are presented, which sometimes contradict one another. As a genre of books, the term tantra is often parallel with other words, such as; āgamasaṃhita, and sūtra. In Bali, the term Tantra is rarely used to name texts. The more popular terms are āgama and śāstra.

Broadly speaking, the tantric text is divided into two streams, namely the texts derived from atīmārga which are more commonly called Śaiva-siddhānta or Siddhānta-tantra; and the texts of the mantramārga stream, which generally correspond to the characteristics of tantra as it is known today. While in the Siddhānta-tantra the teachings are normative, it is in the mantramārga texts that many antinomian teachings are found.

Tantras of Bali

Scholars have concluded that spiritual teachings in Bali have the character of Śaiva-siddhānta. There are a lot of surviving Śaiva texts in Bali, from the 9th CE to the colonial era. It’s safe to say that Bali is the Land of Śaiva Tantra

One of the text categories in Bali is called Tattwa/Tutur Text. In these texts, we can find many philosophical discourses and practical guidelines for yoga. These texts are what I later call “tantra in Bali.” And what I refer to as “Balinese tantric teachings” is teachings expound in these texts.

Broadly speaking, Balinese tantras consisted of two main themes; first, regarding: the layers of existences (also called tattva); and second, how to transform each layer through yoga. That is pretty much what is Tattva Texts is about, despite slight differences in the details.

Regarding layers of realities, the main hypothesis is that we are in essence Paramaśiva (The Ultimate Consciousness). But we forget our highest reality (as Paramaśiva) because of identification with lower realities. Thus the very purpose of spiritual practices is to remember, to be awakened to the totality of the realities, not just clinging to what our mind-body perceived and conceived as real. In relation to yogic practices, Tattva Texts teach yoga of six ancillaries (ṣaḍāngga-yoga), while the popular yoga of eight ancillaries (aṣṭāngga-yoga) by Patanjali is also known. 

It’s worth noting that there are no exact numbers of what is called Tattva Texts, nor consensus regarding the exact dating of each text. Regarding the dates, the texts range from the 9th-century era to the colonial era. Yoga of six ancillaries is also a popular discourse on Indian and Tibetan Tantric texts, practiced by Śaivas and Bauddhas.

Apart from Śaiva, there is also Buddhist Tantric (Vajrayana) literature passed down in Bali. And there is literature that teaches syncretic views of Saiva and Bauddha teachings. Religion in Bali is often referred to as Śaiva -Buddha because of the strong syncretism between Shaivism and Buddhism. In some literature, you will find parallels between Paramaśiwa (Supreme Reality in the Śaiva Tantra) and Paramaśūnya (Highest Reality in Bauddha Tantra) — as well as other syncretic views. Indonesia’s national motto, bhineka tunggal ika (“unity in diversity”) is originally used to refer to Śiva and Buddha by its author, Mpu Tantular, a poet from 14th CE.

Apart from Tattwa/Tutur texts, both Śaiva and Bauddha, there are also various shamanic texts in Bali. For example, the Pangiwa-Panĕngĕn text which is full of meditation practices such as Deity Yoga/ Deva Yoga. The role of mantras and Non-Vedic rituals is also very significant in carrying out these teachings. While Tattwa/Tutur texts can be classified as “Right-handed Tantra,” then these texts are “Left-handed Tantra.”

From ritual perspectives, elements of (Left-Handed) Tantra also can be found in Bali. For example, rituals involving the use of animal sacrifices, blood, flesh, and alcohol. Of course, although all these elements have become trademarks of Tantra, in the Vedic Religion the same elements have been used at its time.

Yoga in Bali and Balinese Yoga

Bali is one of the most popular destinations for yoga retreats. Ranging from beginners to teacher-level training. Certification from many different modern yoga schools is held in various villas, resorts, and other luxury places. Usually, this event is held by visitors and for visitors (mostly Westerners). Needless to say, the type of yoga practiced focuses on yoga-asanas (poses).

Yoga is also popular among local Balinese people. Many yoga communities began to exist. Schools and universities also accommodate yoga activities to their curriculum. Various yoga festivals are also often held. Unfortunately, yoga in modern Balinese society also follows the Modern Postural Yoga approach.

Meanwhile, for rural communities, this type of yoga tends to be alien and even unknown. Furthermore, there is no textual record of Asana-oriented Yoga in Bali. So it is safe to say that yoga in Bali today is not Balinese yoga.

Traditionally, as can be traced in various surviving pre-modern texts, Balinese yoga is a meditative practice, not postural training. The aim is not limited to mental and physical wellness but ranges from achieving spiritual enlightenment to mastery of supernatural power.

As a meditative practice, yoga is not just about “sitting, closing your eyes, cultivating your breath, and focusing the mind.” Balinese yoga practices integrate into every aspect of daily life. Therefore, there is yoga for farmers, yoga for artists, yoga for priests, and so on. All of these types of yoga also have their own textbook — all have their own guidelines. In this context, yoga becomes a way of life, a mode of being.

Yoga is also incorporated into rituals. For example, offerings (bantĕn) in Bali are not just means of worship. Banten is Yantra (tantric tools), thus it is a means of doing tantric yoga. I explain extensively this topic in one of my ebooks.

Conclusion

Bali has a rich tradition of Tantra (as literature) and Yoga (as a meditative practice). However, this wealth has not been explored much, both by Balinese and visitors. Of course, there is a long history of why these esoteric teachings are being marginalized (for example the “Hinduization process” at the pan-colonial era).

In addition, it can be noted that both the Tantric texts and the practice of Yoga in Bali include a “way of life” not just a scheduled postural practice. This gives us space to grasp the meanings and values contained in these practices, and how to use them in modern life.

Understanding Balinese yoga cannot be done by looking at modern yoga. It is also not possible to understand Balinese Tantra by seeing how Tantra is viewed by its sexualized frames. Balinese yoga the context of meditative practice is neatly recorded in various Tantric texts that were handed down in Bali. 

Modern yoga is proven to be beneficial. Many studies show the psychological and physical benefits of yoga (-asanas). Not to mention the economic benefits. Yoga-asana is also a type of yoga that is suitable for modern society because of its resemblance to exercise. The absence of religious views in modern yoga also makes it appealing for everybody regardless of their religious views. But this should not make us narrow the meaning of yoga and prevent us from seeing the totality of yoga.

  [1] Please refer to Mark Singleton’s book, Yoga Body for a depth explanation of modern yoga history.

[2] A brief and concise introduction to Hindu Tantric traditions is Andre Padoux’s book, The Hindu Tantric World: An Overview, and Christopher Wallis’s Tantra Illuminated.

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