The Sacred Symbols of Tantra: Yantra
In most yoga studios today, it is not uncommon to find colorful chakra banners, prints of famous yoga ‘saints’ and ‘gurus,’ shelves with relevant reads and merchandise (malas), wall mandalas, or stencils of elegant mudras on the windows. Though this can often be random –a simple means for the studio to create a certain yoga-infused atmosphere– there is power in symbolic representation.
Through the use of representational aids like these, studios conjure a certain image and concept for themselves, tie themselves to a particular branch of yoga or specific tradition, and communicate often complex information in one single ‘shot.’ But of the varied representational repertoire inherent in yoga, perhaps the most complex and yet simple sacred symbol of them all is the symbol of the tantric Yantra.
In today's entry, we hover over this ancient symbol and vehicle to bring some depth of insight on the uses and main reasons explaining Yantra, a topic rarely covered in yoga classes today.
Yantra, a visual Mantra
A Yantra is a geometrical symbol, a sort of mystical diagram or mathematical hieroglyph, meant to comprise multifaceted spiritual meaning through the use of elementary (concentric) shapes –triangles, circles, rectangles, squares, lotus petals, and other combinations of these. It is predominantly utilized within the tantric yogic tradition.
Often used as a visual aid during meditation, contemplation, prayer, or even simply as decoration, Yantra are believed to possess quasi-magic spiritual power. With a clearly defined center point (or Bindu) from which the subtle power of the Yantra truly emanates, each of the concentric geometrical shapes conforming a Yantra functions as a cue into a particular inner psychological state. In a way, Yantra are roadmaps in and out of the labyrinth of both creation and human consciousness, a how-to map outlining the interplay of evolution and involution in (wo)man and in nature.
They can be defined as the visual materialization of their sound counterpart, the Mantra (or universal seed sounds). They are, simply put, the geometrical representation of the inherent sounds of the universe, the visible crystallization of otherwise invisible vibration. Indeed, Yantra are part of nature’s essential forms, patterns naturally found in creation, formed out of the intersection of different electromagnetic energies and fields. Not entirely unlike the Buddhist Mandala which draw their significance from the personal world of the individual (and so, each person can draw her/his own Mandala), Yantra have a more general, universal role. They exist ‘beyond’ the world of the individual and can affect a variety of humans in the same way.
From observation to experience, from contemplation to feeling
Their geometry follows the laws of Mathematics, inasmuch as their lines and forms can be measured, respond to proportion and replication, and mimic in geometry the sinuous movement produced by sound waves. It is, in fact, this particular quality that is tightly connected to the ancestral yogic science of numerology, where the likelihood of certain comportments and forces has been predicted for centuries by calculating specific numbers for individuals, being also often laid out daily and monthly within 9-year calendar cycles.
Indeed, one of the keys to the representational value of Yantra has to do with their ability to influence consciousness; for Yantra derive their ultimate spiritual power from their capacity to affect the individual observing it, so that her/his consciousness may open up to receive the latent geometrical pulsing energy, the so-called cosmic message, that the Yantra is a vehicle for. Thus, contemplation of Yantra prior to meditation over a period of time is supposed to enable the experienced yogi to tune into the energies and overall ‘mood’ of the Yantra to attain a certain quality of concentration and, through it, particular transcendental states and realizations.
Overall, Yantra do function like Mantra, requiring the practitioner to tune in or resonate with this sacred symbol long enough to access the message inherent beyond it. Because Yantra, like asana as well, are eventually an instrument, a container for cosmic vibration and universal energy to transform the individual through sustained committed practice.
A great part of the power behind Yantra symbols is tightly connected to the particular schools, or lineages, transporting the message and essence of the symbols from generation to generation; thus, that particular yoga schools tend to focus more on practicing contemplation of a certain Yantra over another. But generally speaking, asana, the part of yoga most widely popularized globally today, is, in fact, a form or facet of Yantra. Because, what are yoga's asanas if not symmetrically-determined geometrical body positions meant to function as vehicles for energy –aka, vibration– to flow in and through our bodies and thus bring our physical and spiritual Selves into alignment?
So, now you know! Next time you are in class performing breath-based asana practice and folding your body every which way, beware that you are, in fact, performing Yantra –your body being now the vehicle for sacred geometry to unfold! But perhaps this is an aspect to tackle in a longer and more detailed future entry on the ACEBE blog.
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