There is an accessible sacred yoga site near Dharamsala, Himachel Pradesh, India. Natha Yogis, direct spiritual descendents of Gorakshanath, the founder of modern hatha yoga, guard Jwalamukhi Temple, one of fifty-two Shakti Peethas. Gorakshanath’s teachings were collected as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Yogi Svatmarama in the 1400s.
The story of the Shakti Peethas goes like this: Sati and Shiva were in love and asked Sati’s father, Daksha, if he would consent to the wedding. Daksha refused because Shiva was a wildly unconventional yogi, a ganja smoker, and his friends were weird. Daksha laughed called them ghouls and goblins. Sati defied her father and married Shiva anyway, and from all accounts, they had a tender loving relationship.
But Daksha hated Shiva and would not reconcile with his daughter. When Daksha hosted a sacrifice attended by family, friends, and allies, Sati and her husband were conspicuously not invited. Daksha went so far as to set up a statue of Shiva at the entrance to the festival that he would mock and abuse as the moods struck him. He also encouraged the other guests to insult Shiva. Sati assumed that she was invited to the party and showed up. When she saw the way Shiva was being humiliated the emotional trauma hit her so hard she leapt into the sacrificial fire and died.
Shiva, overwhelmed with grief, carried the body his beloved Sati around India. Parts of her body fell in fifty-two places. Each of those Shakti Peethas is a place of Goddess worship. Sati’s tongue fell to earth in the foothills near Dharmshala, and appears today as nine eternally burning flames of what is probably natural gas. The first temple there was built around 4300 BCE. Jwalamukhi is of extreme antiquity.
A marble staircase leads to a golden dome over the flames. On the hillside behind the temple is a pink building where the Natha Yogis eat and sleep.
The role of Gorakshanath in promoting a vegetarian diet was solidified during his visit to the shrine around 850 CE, when goats were being sacrificed as an offering at the temple. The Goddess Jwalamukhi Deva wanted to prepare a meal for the great yogi. Gorakshanath declined, saying that he had been hungry to meet the Goddess and now, having seen her, he was satisfied.
The Goddess, knowing she was beautiful to see, answered, “Hunger for sight is satisfied by sight and hunger for food is satisfied by food.”
Gorakshanath explained, “The most important thing for a yogi is to maintain physical and spiritual purity. If I accept your food, I will no longer be pure. I urge you to stop accepting animal sacrifice.”
The Goddess agreed, and Gorakshanath offered to prepare rice and dal. Jwalamukhi Deva put some water on to boil while Gorakshanath went out to beg a little rice. But as of today, Goraksha has yet to return and the water boils without getting hot.
I join a packed line of pilgrims entering Jwalamukhi with clouds of incense, ringing bells, chanting “Jai Mati.” Through silver doors is a soot-darkened vault with a marble walkway around a pit where three priests stand waist deep, blessing the offerings pilgrims bring. Inside the pit, two eight-inch flames pour from fissures in the stone. In the rock wall above the priests, at chest height, is a two-foot square gap framed with gold. The man ahead of me bent towards the opening while dropping flower petals and a five-rupee note. As my turn came, I curved down so my head dropped into the opening. I impulsively prayed aloud, “May my yoga practice be strong. May I be a good teacher.” Instantly my brain boomed and the bones of the skull opened outward. I looked up and saw, at the back of the narrow chamber holding my head, a firm white flame rising from a crack in the stone.
I stepped back thinking, “What was that?”
“Do you want tikka?” I spun and bowed as a priest in a white dhoti put a red tipped finger at my third eye. The line shuffled through a tight stone passageway into a dimly lit room toward a giant Goddess carved from stone and dressed in a green and gold sari. To her right sat a Natha Yogi in an orange turban. Circular ivory earrings pierced the deep cartilage of his ears. Ahead pilgrims were bowing. I wanted to follow suit but wasn’t sure if they were bowing to the deity or the yogi, who sat with sharp eyes and a feather fan on a wooden pole. As I bent down he thumped me on the shoulder with the fan and my forehead hit a brass railing that had escaped my attention. I was on my knees now and the Natha fiercely pointed to the floor where a short yellow flame danced. That was the focus of the bowing. I repeated the prayer, “May my yoga practice be strong. May I be a good teacher.” Several quick whacks from the fan and I was up and giving the pilgrims behind me space.
I am a certified hatha yoga instructor (RYS 200) and author of two books on fasting and cleansing (Simple Cleanse — from Healthy Living Publications, and Total Cleansing — from Books Alive). I have worked for years with a relief and development organization, Plenty International. Currently finishing up a book detailing some of the history of Yoga.