Hatha Yoga as it is described in many commentaries, originates from the post-classical period – around the 6th century (Common Era), which was influenced by the growth of Buddhism in India and which continued from 500 – 1400 CE (Fuerstein, 2008). During this period, Tantra yoga as a philosophy and practice arose. Out of this yogis such as Goraknath and Matsyendranath, among others, established a system of yoga that viewed the body as the vehicle for self-realisation and liberation and as a result sought to encourage the purification of the body to enable progression to expanded consciousness and self-realisation. This was a significant development because during the previous classical and pre-classical periods, the body was viewed as the “enemy of the spirit” and a source of “spiritual confusion and defilement” (Keller, 2007). While there have been many commentaries and treatises arising from this period, the most dominant and well respected is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written by Swatmarama in around C13th to C15th, and it is described as one of the most authoritative, complete and accessible texts on Hatha Yoga. “Hatha Yoga” is described as the union (yoga) between “sun” (ha) and the moon (tha) – the joining of the two dynamic principles of body and mind (Feurstein, 2008). More esoterically, it has been described as the management of the life force (prana), where prana is integrated to facilitate the ecstatic state of self-realisation and liberation (Feurstein, 2008). In the tantric tradition, this is supported through the practices described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, where the energy flows in the two channels of Ida (carrier of the lunar energy) and Pingala (carrier of the solar energy) and where they are integrated into the central channel of sushumna. The term “hatha” also refers to this process.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) can be regarded as a practical manual to enable the practitioner to achieve liberation or “moksha”, which is the realisation of the transcendental self. It is very focused on practices using the body rather than the mind, as working with the mind was regarded as a more challenging discipline. Starting with the body, offers the yogi a more tangible, measurable and practical approach. The philosophical considerations and practices of the earlier traditions embodied by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and observances such as the yamas and niyamas were viewed as challenging for aspirants, while practices focused on ‘body work’ were considered less open to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Intellect can be a barrier to spiritual awakening: because of this, the practices of hatha yoga can help bypass the conditioning of the brain which presents barriers to practice and self-realisation (Muktibodhananda, 1998).
In the HYP we start with the premise that we must first purify the body, rather than worry about mental self-control and self-discipline (Keller, 2007). Swatmarama indicates that first we should purify the whole body, and hence the book focuses on shatkarmas or purification techniques such as neti, dhauti, basti, kapalbhati, trataka and nauli adopting these as practices relative to one’s physical condition (Swatmarama, verse 21, chapter 2, and referenced in Keller, 2007). Not everyone has physical ‘impurities’ – each of us have differing states of our doshas or psycho-spiritual forces, and not everyone has to start with specific cleansing practices. For many the practice of asana is enough (Keller, 2007).
Following the shatkarmas, the Hatha Yoga practitioner can practice asana. This reinforces the point that self-control and self-discipline start with the body, rather than the mind, because the body is tangible and easier to ‘work on’. Swatmarama says that he will only describe “some of the asana” (Swatmarama, verse 18, chapter 1). This suggests that there are many more asanas. Considering the 840,000 asanas alluded to in the HYP, helps us see that there is no end to asanas and the possibilities are unlimited when one considers variations and modifications (Stephens, M, 2012).
Swatmarama suggests that pranayama is practiced once a practitioner is established in asana, has control of the body and is consuming a balanced diet (Swatmarama, verse 1, chapter 2). Pranayama is not merely ‘breath control’ but a technique through which the quantity of prana in the body is activated to a higher frequency allowing a greater sense of energy and open-ness to self-realisation (Muktibodhananda, 1998). As with asana, Swatmarama describes a range of pranayama practices, of which the deeper practices are collectively known as khumbhaka. The benefit of khumbhaka is described by Swatmarama as “when prana is without movement, chitta is without movement. By this the yogi attains steadiness and should thus restrain the vayu (air)” (Swatmarama, verse 2, chapter 2). While Patanjali describes yoga as stilling the turning mind (Yogash citta vritti nirodhah), Swatmarama specifically describes a practical bodily way to achieve this; which is translated as breath retention and the HYP explores this in some detail. Eight kumbhakas are described: sahita, suryabheda, ujjayi, sitali, bhastrika, bhramari, murccha, and kevali.
Once purification is achieved through asana, pranayama and cleansing practices, Swatmarama indicates that the final practices of mudra and bandha can be used. Mudra are specific body postures which channel the energy produced by asana and pranayama into various centres and arouse particular states of mind (Muktibodhananda, 1998). Ten mudras are described, and consist of Maha mudra, maha bandha, maha veha, khechari, uddiyana, moola bandha, jalandhara bandha, vipareeta karani mudra, vajroli and shakti chalana. These are described in some detail.
Mudras are a specific body configuration designed to coax the energy accumulated during asana and “pranayama” (breathing techniques) into the various psychic centers. This action provokes particular states of mind and can trigger specific emotions as well. With sufficient practice, the external senses turn inward and the pranic level (life force) is increased, resulting in spontaneous occurrences of mudras in a yogi’s body, with the hands, feet, eyes, arms and legs moving into specific positions. Bandhas are more typically described as “seals” or “energy locks,” where a specific physical location and action is performed in order to prevent prana from escaping. These locks are “moola bandha” (perineum or cervix retraction lock), “uddiyana bandha” (abdominal retraction lock), and “jalandhara bandha” (throat lock).
The bandhas are locks that help us in our journey to self-realisation. Swatmarama tells us that the bandhas are locks or ‘bind’ or contract the body with the aim of accumulating Shakti in a particular area of the body. Muktibodhananda describes Shakti’s movement as being like a bird, which requires effort to tie it to its perch. If the Shakti of Ida and Pingala are brought together and released through sushumna, it will ascend and be freed in sahasrara chakra, the highest liberation and the goal of the practice of yoga.
The HYP is divided into four chapters: the first one covering asana, the second, shatkarmas and pranayama, chapter three covers mudra and bandha, with the fourth chapter focusing on the potential outcome of the practices – Samadhi.
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