• Andrew Kelly



staff pose

daṇḍa + āsana ( a + ā = ā )

The seated position where the legs are extended straight out in front so that the body forms a right angle.

It may, like the standing mountain pose/tāḍāsana, slip into being little more little than a gateway to more substantial poses, but for instance in the 19th century paintings of āsana at the Mahamandir in Jodpur we have daṇḍāsana as a base for alternate nostril breathing, where it would presumably be held for protracted lengths of time:

daṇḍa rod, staff, trunk, stem; punishment

A staff is for beating someone with or to help one walk, for going on the road.

In ordinary usage daṇḍa was a metonymy for controlling violence, like rod in Spare the rod, spoil the child. Rājās carried them as an emblem of their power: like sceptre from Greek skēptron leaner, staff, or the rods in the fasces carried before Roman consuls (which also included an axe i.e. decapitate or just beat).

Around any culture of practice there is the rest of the world: most of the ‘spiritual’ vocabulary of yoga was also in mundane use:

daṇḍa-karma ‘rod action’: infliction of punishment

prāṇa-daṇḍa ‘life rod’: capital punishment, death penalty

(we too use ‘life’ as the name of a penalty).

On the other hand, the staff is also a symbol of the roaming ascetic who has set out away from home and settled existence. We may be familiar with the Buddha as a prince who turned away from power and wealth, but most haṭha-yogins were peasants for whom rejecting the ‘world’ was an escape from landed exploitation. Despite non-violence/ahiṁsa, such haṭha-yogins were not necessarily detached quietists: in Bengal they went to war with the East India Company.

daṇḍa-grāhana ‘rod taking’: taking up the itinerant/ascetic life

And also

yoga-daṇḍa ‘yoga stick’, the name for the short stick for propping under the arm for long-haul seated practice.

So curiously the staff is a symbol both of violence and control (carried not only by kings but magistrates, police, doormen) and of meditation and rejection of that society.

Note on pronunciation

The dot under the consonants and indicate that they are ‘retroflected’ — the tongue hits the roof of the mouth well back from the teeth. The Sanskrit grammatical tradition called these types of sounds mūrdhanya ‘head, in the head’ and they do have a resonant quality that may feel like they are filling the head space. This term was translated into English as cerebral, an older name for the consonant type. Not at all necessary to try and represent theses in ordinary use of Sanskrit words in English; but further information below for anyone interested.

The stop consonants in the Indic scripts are arranged in order from the back of the mouth to the teeth: ka cha ṭa ta pa (Compare in the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita: “Lo-lee-ta, the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth” — except here it’s five steps). That ta, a dantya = dental consonant, is further foreward against the teeth than a standard English t. A curious result of this is that while we may find these sounds characteristically south Asian, when for Hindi speakers a standard English t sounds retroflected and so they write e.g. the English word tip as ṭip.

These retroflex sounds are rarely found in non-south-Asian Indo-european languages, at least not phonemically — that is, they don’t occur in meaningful opposition to other sounds. They were absorbed into Sanskrit from other languages in South Asia. They are also common, perhaps not co-incidentally, in Australian indigenous languages.

In the academic transcription all the underdot sounds engage with the same zone of the roof of the mouth: ṛ ṣ ṇ ḍ. The same applies theough to r: is r-as-vowel and r is r-as-consonant. Both of these pull nearby consonants into retroflection: so pra + ana results in prāṇa.