The True Spirit of Hatha Yoga

Swami Satyananda Saraswati

In yogic literature, we have a few reliable texts on hatha yoga. One is by yogi Gorakhnath which is known as the Gorakhsha Samhita. Another text is Gheranda Samhita by the great sage Gheranda. Besides these two, there is another very well known text on hatha yoga which is Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Yogi Swatmarama. There is a fourth text on hatha yoga known as Hatha Yoga Ratnavali. All of these texts were supposed to have been written from 6th - 9th century A.D.

There are also minor references to hatha yoga in the ancient Upanishads. The Upanishads date back further than the Buddhist period, which was around the 6th century B.C. The references to hatha yoga made in the Upanishads prove that the science was known much before this period. There is another very important text known as Srimat Bhagavatam, the story of Sri Krishna. In that voluminous book, there are several chapters containing references to hatha yoga.

This is just to give you a glimpse of the historical aspect of hatha yoga. For centuries these books have guided the spiritual aspirants. Many sects were also formed in India, Nepal and Tibet on the basis of hatha yoga. What is the subject matter of these books? Is it just to maintain a youthful body, or to obtain siddhis (psychic powers) or is it to develop the capacity to awaken the kundalini and attain samadhi? If we analyse these texts carefully, the purpose becomes very clear.

Defining hatha yoga

In order to make the subject clear, it was termed as ha-tha yoga. Hatha is a combination of two letters ha and tha. Ha represents the moon and tha the sun. Sun and moon should not be understood as the external sun and moon. It has been explained in hatha yoga that sun represents prana, the life force, and moon represents the mind, the mental energy. So, hatha yoga means the union of pranic and mental forces. When union between the pranic and mental forces takes place, then a great event occurs in man. This is the awakening of higher consciousness.

An important point, which has been left out by the commentators, is that hatha yoga is not only the union of prana and mind. In fact, it means the union of prana and mind with the Self. Now, let us make this a little more clear. In the spine, there are three nadis known as ida, pingala and sushumna. Nadi here does not mean nerve; it is not a physical channel. Nadi means flow, like the flow of electricity within a cable. One wire carries the negative force, and another carries the positive force of electricity. So, in hatha yoga, ida nadi represents the negative force, the flow of consciousness; pingala nadi represents the positive force, the flow of vital energy, and sushumna nadi represents the neutral force, the flow of spiritual energy.

The union, the connection between these three flows, occurs in ajna chakra. Therefore, let us revise the literal meaning of hatha yoga. Commentators have said union between ida and pingala is hatha yoga. But I am obliged to say that union of ida and pingala with sushumna is hatha yoga.

When this union takes place there is an automatic awakening in mooladhara chakra at the base of the spine. This is the seat of primal energy or kundalini shakti. The awakening of kundalini is the subject matter of hatha yoga. Through the practices that are taught in hatha yoga, union is brought about. As a result of that union, the awakening of kundalini takes place. When awakening occurs, then kundalini ascends to the higher realms of consciousness, and finally it is established in sahasrara chakra.

When kundalini is established in sahasrara chakra, that is called yoga, not hatha yoga. This is the difference between yoga and hatha yoga. By yoga I mean the union between Shakti and Shiva. Shakti is kundalini energy; Shiva is the supreme consciousness seated in sahasrara chakra. When awakening takes place in mooladhara chakra, then kundalini starts ascending.

She ascends through sushumna, not through ida and pingala. Sushumna is the highway for kundalini. It passes through various chakras, sometimes all of a sudden and sometimes very slowly. When it unites with ida and pingala in ajna chakra, that is called hatha yoga. Then, after this first union, it forges ahead to sahasrara chakra. There it unites with supreme consciousness, Shiva. That is called yoga, which means ultimate union. Therefore, the ultimate object of hatha yoga is to experience yoga.

Emphasis on shatkarma

Now, coming to the practical side. In the raja yoga of Patanjali, you have eight steps: yama and niyama are the first two, asana and pranayama make it four, pratyahara and dharana six and dhyana and samadhi make it eight. The contention of Patanjali is that you have to perfect yama and niyama first. Without the perfection of yama and niyama, asana and pranayama etc. will not give the desired results. What is yama and niyama? Yama means self-control, rules and observances: truth, non-violence, celibacy, non-stealing, non-aggrandisement External and internal purity, contentment, etc. are niyama.

Patanjali was a contemporary to Buddha and therefore, I think, his system of yoga was influenced by the Buddhist philosophy of yama and niyama. But the authors of hatha yoga are very clear about it. They do not say that yama and niyama form the basis of this system. The order here is different - first comes shatkarma. Neti, dhauti, basti, kapalbhati, trataka and nauli constitute shatkarma, and with these, hatha yoga begins. But shatkarma alone does not constitute the whole of hatha yoga. After shatkarma comes asana, pranayama, mudra and bandha. Then comes pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.

The authors of the hatha yoga texts were very much aware of the practical difficulties of every man in relation to yama and niyama. Moreover, yama and niyama have more to do with religion than with man's spiritual life.

That is the reason why the texts on hatha yoga do not lay emphasis on yama and niyama. They straight away begin with shatkarma, and say that you should first purify the whole body- the stomach, intestines, nervous system and other systems. Then you should start asana and pranayama. After this, you should go on to practise kriyas like vajroli, sahajoli, khechari and shambhavi. Then you should practise mudras like vipareeta karani, yoga mudra and others. In this way, it will be possible to get into deep meditation.

Controlling the mind by controlling the prana

There is another difference between Patanjali's system of raja yoga and the traditional system of hatha yoga. The authors of the hatha yoga texts were very much aware of the difficulty of controlling the fluctuations of the mind. In fact, it is not possible to control the fluctuations of the mind. You may do it for some time, but still you will not be able to succeed all of the time.

So they designed another method. The hatha yoga texts say very clearly that by controlling the pranas, the mind is automatically controlled. It seems that prana and mind exert an influence on each other. When the pranas are restless, they affect the mind and vice versa. Some people do find it easier to control the mind than to control the prana. But I have given a lot of thought to this. Perhaps a few people may succeed, but most people cannot control the mind by the mind. The more they try, the more the split grows.

There is another important point to be noted. Sometimes you are inspired; you feel very well, very one-pointed. But every day it does not happen. Therefore, the authors of hatha yoga struck another theme. 'Don't worry about the mind, ignore it. Practise pranayama.'

By practising pranayama correctly, the mind is automatically conquered. But the effects of pranayama are not that simple to manage. It creates extra heat in the body, it awakens some of the centres in the brain, it can stop the production of sperm and testosterone. It may also bring down the temperature of the inner body. It may even bring down the rate of the respiration. It may change the waves of the brain. When these changes take place, you may not be able to handle it. Therefore, hatha yoga says that shatkarma must be practised first.

The purpose of emphasising shatkarma is then to prepare a base for the higher practices of pranayama. Shatkarma purifies the whole system and removes blockages on the paths of ida and pingala. When there are no blockages on these paths, the breath in both the nostrils flows systematically. When the left nostril flows, it means ida is active. When the right nostril flows, it means pingala is active. Again, when the left nostril flows, it means the mind is dominant. When the right nostril flows, it means the pranas are dominant. The flow of breath in the alternate nostrils indicates the position of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.

Now, if ida is flowing and you are practising meditation, you will go to sleep and your brain will produce delta waves. If the right nostril is flowing and you are trying to meditate, your brain will produce beta waves and you will be thinking so many thoughts at the same time. When both nostrils flow equally, that means sushumna is flowing. When sushumna flows, you can meditate without any difficulty. Awakening sushumna, making sushumna nadi flow, is the most important thing in yoga.

The basis of pranayama

Pranayama is a very difficult practice. There are many varieties of pranayama, such as nadi shodhana, brahmari, kapalbhati, bhastrika, ujjayi, etc. These are not actually pranayama, they are varieties of the practice. In the hatha yoga texts, it is clearly indicated that retention of the breath is pranayama. The gap between inhalation and exhalation is pranayama. When you inhale and exhale, in between there is a gap. That gap may be for one second, ten seconds or one minute. This is called breath retention - kumbhaka. That is pranayama.

When I use the word pranayama I do not mean nadi shodhana, bhastrika, brahmari. I am talking about just the retention. In the practice of pranayama, you should be able to retain the breath, but it is not that easy. Therefore, unless you have prepared the base, yama and niyama are not that important. Of course, people are religious, so they believe they must follow the dogma. Every religion has its own moral code, but you know how difficult it is to put this into practice. We have to be honest with ourselves, don't we?

So, in order to practise pranayama with a proper base, you must be able to perform the bandhas. Pranayama without bandha has no meaning. First, you should know what the bandhas are. Pranayama should be practised with bandhas, in the proper sitting posture and in the appropriate mudra. Either shambhavi mudra (focusing the gaze on the eyebrow centre), or nasikagra mudra (focusing on the nose tip) should be used.

The combination of mudra, bandha, pranayama and asana will help you to conquer the mind. He who can conquer the prana, can conquer the mind. And according to hatha yoga, it is easier to conquer the prana first and then the mind.

Unity behind the diversity

So, this is how hatha yoga is introduced. The guru instructs his disciple on hatha yoga, and he tells him about the universal shakti, of which the individual shakti is an aspect. At a certain moment of experience, one breaks the barriers of the limited mind. When the barriers are broken, then the individual shakti merges with the universal shakti.

The lower mind, which is not truth, becomes one with the cosmic mind. After all, the shakti is one. On account of our ignorance, we have perceived ourselves as different, and that erroneous perception has to be broken. I am not I, and you are not you. We are one. Even our bodies are not different. It is all one, but we are trying to realise this from a limited standpoint. That experience must dawn whereby we realise that the diversity is not true, only the unity is real.

The real purpose of hatha yoga

In the last forty to fifty years, hatha yoga has been accepted as a therapeutic science all over the world and many scientific studies have been conducted in this field. Today, we teach hatha yoga to the people because it is very necessary. Man has become sick, and medical science is not able to meet the challenge. Hatha yoga, however, has been helping everybody. So, we do not want to discourage this aspect, but at the same time we should not forget what hatha yoga really stands for.

Behind every sick man, there is a spiritual man. Behind a diabetic, there is a yogi. Behind a man suffering from depression, there is an aspirant. When a patient comes for help, teach him yoga and make him better. Treat his sickness, but please, do not stop there. Take him further into the spiritual domain of life.

This is the mistake that most yoga teachers have been making, particularly in the west. They just take a patient for arthritis, rheumatism or insomnia, teach him a few exercises and that is it. Hatha yoga has not been used to treat the total personality. This is why the teachers are not able to raise the level of their pupils. Just to improve the physical health is not enough. The mental health must also improve. Nature must change. Personality must change. The psychological and the psychic framework also has to change., You should not merely feel freedom from disease, but freedom from bondage, and from the vagaries of the mind. Now, the time has come that the teachers in every part of the world must understand and transmit the true spirit of hatha yoga.