Graduation: Learning to Draw Inspiration from The Ancient Khmer Empire

February 9, 2017

The Story of John's Life Mission - Part 6
The wonders of Khmer Empire of the 12th to 13th centuries are still a mystery to historians and scientists. The ability of Cambodians to build the world’s largest stone temple and the world’s largest city in the shortest period of time has puzzled people till this day. 

Moreover, their knowledge and understanding of engineering, astrology, religious iconography, sculpture, architecture, and dance are also beyond comprehension. 


Photo 1 of Aerial view of 12th century Angkor Wat - the world's largest and tallest stone temple. From “Angkor – Splendors of the Khmer Civilization” page. 201, by Marilia Albanese. 


My long and careful study of the art and architecture of Cambodia make me believe the answer to ancient Cambodia's awesome achievements lies in the fact that Cambodians practiced yoga. Although humans, these Kings believed themselves to be Gods with unlimited powers. To fulfill this believe they set their minds and bodies to achieve it. 

From the records of inscriptions carved on the walls of the ancient stone temples we learn that during reigns of different Kings, such as Jayavarman V (AD968-1001), yoga was practiced. 


One of Jayavarman V's Brahman priests, Yajnavaraha, is recorded to have taught yoga scriptures of Patanjali, which emphasize that yoga is the cessation or end of the fluctuations of the mind.

With no distractions, extraordinary and concentrated focus is achieved and goals manifest. No wonder that Yajnavaraha was able to create and complete one of the most intricate and beautiful temples of Cambodia - Banteay Srei! 



Photos 2 and 3 Beautifuly and intricately carved pink standstone building Banteay Srei built by 10th century Yogi Yajnavaraha. 

The relief carvings on the stone walls of the temples also tell of yoga related stories. For example, the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata, which demonstrates a war within a family, but actually represents a war  within oneself, between what one WANTS to do in life and what one HAS to do in life; or Churning of the Ocean of Milk also from the Mahabarata, which demonstrates a yogi's life journey from chaos, to discipline, to rejuvenation and liberation. 


Photo 4.  Explaining the yoga story of the Battle of Kurukshetra to yoga students at a teacher training program. 


Photo 5.  Detail of stone carving showing crucial point in story of the Battle of Krukshetra. 

Photo 6.  Explaining the three stages of a yogi's life as seen in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. 

Photo 7.  Detail of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. 


All of the above prove that ancient Kings of Cambodia practiced yoga. Although it has not been proven that yoga actually raised the powers of these Kings, they certainly had these extraordinary and unbelievable accomplishments. 
But what else could have given them these amazing abilities? 


Without electricity or modern technology to help, I believe yoga must have been the only way that was utilized to achieve these feats! When I told my students of the incredible accomplishment of piling up stones to build a five-story high tower and then carving four faces on each side with identical smiles on them, they were very impressed. 


But when I brought the students to visit the Bayon Temple, and they saw there were actually 54 towers, and each of them had four faces possessing the same smile, they were flabbergasted. 


Additionally, as I explained, these smiles are not simple smiles. They are smiles of a God King. They are not playful smiles but visually charged with a sense of wisdom and compassion suitable of a ruler who was suppose to represent a God.  Such smiles were  just incredibly difficult to depict in two dimensional painting let alone three dimensional  stone carving. 



Photos 8 and 9 Towers of Bayon Temple, each with the amazing four heads of the God-King with identical enigmatic smiles of wisdom and compassion. 


In yoga class, students showed the same amazement when their teachers demonstrated difficult yoga postures. Five years ago, the students would never believe they could do these challenging poses such as handstands, backbends or even splits. But now, after four years of instruction and graduation, they not only are able to do these difficult yoga poses, but also are hungry to learn more. Moreover, they also are able to teach these yoga poses to other young Cambodians! Among these students who graduated with teacher training certificates, two received scholarships to “Yoga Thailand” in Koh Samui and graduated with 300 hours teacher training certificates from Yoga Alliance in U.S.A. 


Photos 10, 11, 12 & 13 Krama Yoga junior teachers doing difficult yoga poses. Physical powers, however, were just a fraction of the abilities of the ancient Cambodian Kings. 


Besides the wars they fought and won, what they created in the 12th and 13th centuries showed high intelligence, discipline, tall moral standards, management skills, administrative knowledge and much more.  I believe, the practice of yoga exercises helped the Kings of the past raise their energy only to a certain level. But what really helped them to have the powers to develop these large scale cities and temple complexes could only have been the yogic practice of meditation. 


At the temples and museums we can see  numerous bronze and sandstone sculptures of Cambodian ascetics and Buddhas in meditation poses. The most popular are the images of Buddha with a 7-headed cobra providing shelter iver the Buddha's head. Thousands of them still exist. 


The students learn from these images the importance of meditation as they can see the Kings used it to help calm their minds. With more objective minds the right decisions were made at the right time; a million goals were managed and achieved not just at the same time but also in a short time. 


After their cooking and flower arranging classes these students have learned first to focus on one activity. Later they learned to focus on their breath and finally to empty their minds and prepare themselves for meditation. 



 Photos 14 and 15. Photos of meditating yogis interestingly often found carved at the bases of many pillars of Cambodian temples, as though to demonstrate that meditation was the foundation of the building. 


Photo 16. Photos of many meditation Buddhas in the National Museum in Siem Reap 


Photos 17 Photos of yoga students learning how to meditate In the beginning, it was difficult to show my Khmer students this connection.


It was also not easy to show why they were so lucky to be Cambodians with such a wonderful heritage to use as an inspiration. Eventually, however, most of them understood. After a number of classes and finally graduation, they were not only able to share the knowledge with their own students, but also practice it. Now, my students have been channeling this new found energy received from yoga into amazing work for their community. 


These Cambodian yoga students have grown from traumatized and helpless kids into young adults with a goal and purpose in life. Besides taking regular yoga classes and special workshops given by overseas yoga instructors, they also teach or assist at  yoga asana classes at NataRaj Yoga School on a full time basis. 



Photos 18 and 19. Graduated junior teachers of Krama yoga giving special workshops to people of their community. 


After their graduation, to become certified yoga teachers from the intensive teacher training program that Isabelle and I developed, these students together with a board of directors in 2010 formed their own NGO named Krama Yoga.


They continued ongoing programs teaching yoga at other NGOs in their community. These NGOs are their former Transitions Global that helps girls who used to be victims of human trafficking, the orphanage Azahar Foundation and Kien Khleang Orphanage Center, the street kids of Indochina Starfish Foundation, Aziza School, Village Earth and Riverkids Foundation. 

In addition to these out reach programs, these new yoga teachers created their own yoga apprenticeship program where children of the NGOs who opted to become yoga teachers could take intensive courses with them, but under the supervision of senior teachers.





Photos 20 and 21.  Graduated Krama Yoga junior teachers teaching children from other NGOs. 


Furthermore, newly opened gymnasiums and private individuals have begun inviting these new yoga teachers to give group yoga classes or private classes. 


Now some of these  junior teachers jave gone on to open their own yoga studios.  They find are realizing that running their yoga school with its numerous projects and challenges is almost like managing the Lhmer kings managing their empire. Eventually they will become even stronger and finally sustainable and financially independent contributing to their country in many positive ways. 

This story shows how we can learn from our culture and its achievements and use the knowledge as an inspiration. I believe, without Angkor Wat and the other amazing temples, it would take the Cambodians much longer to recover from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge as well as from the poverty that the war brought upon them. 


For example, when problems in the yoga school arise, these students look back at what their Kings achieved through yoga. 
And from this, a surge of new energy and inspiration arises and they diligently forge on with positive attitudes.

Without yoga, which was an important part of a lifestyle of ancient Cambodian Kings, the amazing new life the young yoga teachers are experiencing would not have happened! 


Next week The Story of John's Life Mission - 

Part 7 - Yoga Connecting Dance, Architecture and Other Arts in Ancient Cambodia. 

John Ang

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Samyama Co., Ltd.

Tel: +60 (0)10 897 7205   Email:     ​

  • White Google Places Icon
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon