Hatha Yoga is a system of purifying the body
Hatha Yoga is a system of purifying the body. It is written about extensively in one of the most circulated texts on yoga ever published, called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It was written in 1200 AD by a guru called Swami Swatmarama. Swami Swatmarama followed the Natha Tradition of Yoga. His teachers included Gurus such as Gorakshanath, and Matsyendranath. It is taught that Svatmarama was part of a long unbroken line of sages or rishis, descended from Brahma, by whom Hatha Vidya was passed down through the ages.
Hatha Yoga follows the same teachings of Raja Yoga outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Like other yogic traditions, the early sages who practiced Hatha Yoga lived in caves in or near the Himalayas, often renouncing material life to adopt instead, the life of a sannyasin, or one who gives up all worldly pleasures to seek wisdom through meditation and contemplation.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika discusses tools aside from meditation to help the aspirant who doesn’t live in a cave find spiritual bliss. It describes a systematic series of techniques including asana, pranayama, cleansing techniques, mudras (mental attitudes or gestures), bandhas (physical energy locks), and nada or sound in addition to meditation. In a foreward for a translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Hans-Ulrich Rieker, B.K.S. Iyengar says, “The Hatha yoga pradipika of Svatmarama is one of the most important yoga texts, and translation and commentary have long been valuable to yoga students as a complement to their practice and study.”
Meaning of Hatha Yoga
Hatha comes from two Sanskrit words, ‘Ha’ and ‘Tha’. The first refers to the Pingala Nadi, or right nostril, which is associated to the sun or masculine principal. ‘Tha’ refers to the Ida Nadi, or left nostril which is also associated with more feminine energy or the moon principal.
It is thought that balancing the energy between these two Nadis (from the Sanskrit meaning pipe or tube, and a reference to a point through which energy of the subtle body flows) also balances the feminine and masculine aspects of our Self. Often the Ida Nadi is compared to the Parasympathetic Nervous System and Pingala Nadi is compared to the Sympathetic Nervous System. When both passages are open, energy is said to rise up sushumna (the spinal chakras) to arrive at the eyebrow center, or Ajna Chakra. As psychic union between these two energies happens, the mind is purified, and we begin the first stages of enlightenment.
The pineal gland is an important endocrinal gland in the process of awakening. This tiny organ is about pea-sized and is shaped like a tiny pinecone, thus its name. It is located at the back of the skull almost on the mid-line of the brain. Just like an eye, the pineal gland has what appear to be rods and cones, which are sensitive to light. It seems odd that such an organ would lie buried deep in the skull where no light can seemingly penetrate.
There are scientists conducting experiments now on the great claims yogis and sages have made about the pineal gland’s contribution to spiritual awakening. German scientist, Ebherhardt Dodt, for example, has shown that the pineal gland within a frog’s brain is a wavelength discriminator. It actually converts light energy of certain wavelengths into effects on the nervous system. This, in turn affects hormonal release in the body.
Aaron Lerner, an American scientist, discovered melatonin in the pineal gland in the 1950s. Melatonin is derived from Seratonin, which is an important hormone for creating states of happiness. Seratonin uptake problems in the brain account for all sorts of ailments including depression, Attention Deficit Disorder, and possibly Alzheimer’s Disease. Seratonin is found in great amounts in the pineal gland, but it does not only exist in the human brain. It has been found in the salivary glands of the octopus and in bananas, as well as in the bodi tree under which the Buddha was said to have obtained enlightenment.
It is also described in yogic literature, that this hormonal release is responsible for more than just sexual awakening, as the pineal gland is primarily responsible for much of our experience of sexual maturation. Modern scientists are still stumped by the photoreceptor cells within the pineal gland though. David Klein, head of Neuroendocrinology at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), suggests that primitive retinas had exercised the dual function of both capturing the image and producing melatonin. He believes that over time this latter function had migrated to the pineal gland, an emancipated organ, while the degeneration of the retina as a product of melatonin in mammals continues without coherent explanation.
Dr.Sérgio Filipe de Oliveira; however, describes a different purpose for the pineal gland more in line wit the teachings of yoga. He is a psychiatrist as well as a researcher in the field of psychobiology, and the neurosciences. He believes that the pineal gland opens the mind to experiences, literally, in other worlds. Dr. Filipe describes multiple endogenous functions of the pineal gland (control of the hypothalamus and biological rhythms, and protection from free radicals) but also tells us that it is in charge of emitting N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is often called the ‘spirit molecule.’
The discharge of this molecule is considered to be one of the most potent hallucinogenic neurotransmitters known to man. It increases during certain meditative practices, naturally during sleep, during near-death experiences, and with the ingestion of hallucinogenic plants.
DMT is biosynthesized directly from tryptophan, a basic amino acid that we acquire from food, so it is not an under-utilized hormone. It does, however, bring into question, the experiences of many people who have lived through near-death or experimented with plants like Ayuhauasca, a native South American plant utilized by American Indians for hundreds of years for spiritual and healing purposes. It is thought that Ayahuasca increases the ‘twilight state’ between sleep and awake, the so called hypnagogic state. This is a similar state to that which yogis describe after having meditated for many years in the mountains.
When this state is arrived at, you are able to access your own unconscious without interference from the analytical mind and its critical voice (the ego, the shadow, the small self) which is pacified for the moment. Great spiritual growth can occur from this vantage point. In regard to the Witnessing Self, Osho told us, “The witnessing soul is like the sky. The birds fly in the sky but they don’t leave any footprints…[The] man who is awakened lives in such a way that he leaves no footprints… He never looks ahead, he never looks back, he lives in the moment.”
For most of us the pineal gland only opens in stages. It usually lies dormant and atrophied until the subtle body begins to become awakened, and the gland ‘knows’ it is now needed. In order to allow the pineal gland to gradually open to be able to receive more “light” or, as in the case of Dodt’s frog, to discriminate wavelengths, Hatha Yoga prescribes certain practices:
Cleansing the Body or Shatkarma (both physical and subtle)
The first important step is to follow certain cleansing practices that allow the subtle body to remove energetic blockages. Just as the physical body can become toxic and clogged, so can the subtle body. Disease is actually considered to be the cause of energetic stagnation in yogic science. The body is meant to be strong and healthy prior to even beginning asana practice. Once the nadis or subtle energy is flowing through the body, one can continue to the next step of Hatha Yoga.
To even further cleanse the subtle body, asanas are prescribed as a means to charge up and balance the nadis even further. It is thought that even proclivities toward disease, genetic problems, for example, can be eradicated or lessened through asana practice. This also makes the body strong and supple to continue to the next practice of Hatha Yoga.
After purifiying the nadis, we learn to build and expand our energy through them with pranayama. Pranayama is a series of breathing practices utilized to increase life force in the body. Once the nadis are open, flowing freely we can send life force through them unimpeded. That is the primary purpose of pranayama, this and to calm the mind. Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us, “When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”
Pranayama is often considered the short cut to awakening Kundalini Shakti energy, and to help it rise up sushumna; however, if the passage ways through which kundalini needs to flow are not cleared prior to its awakening, there can be some unpleasant side effects for the practitioner as the energy has to find alternate routes to flow, and this is not ideal.
Bandhas and Mudras
Finally, bandhas or energy locks are utilized to help direct energy flow as are mudras (gestures or mental states). There are three main bandhas utilized in pranayama practice. They are the Jalandhar Bandha or Chin lock, Moolabandha or anus lock (it is actually a very specific point between the anus and perineum) and the third is called Uddiyana Bandha or the abdominal lock. It is important to use these bandhas when retaining the breath in pranayama practice, so as not to affect the digestion, nervous system and brain adversely.
Many yoga classes taught in the west neglect to explain the point of the techniques described in the Hatha Yoga Padipika. Many aspirants wonder why, after years of yoga practice, all they really experience is a healthier body. There is no doubt that the practice, if carried out systematically, will also begin to awaken the kundalini energy and to purify the nadis, but “Hatha” yoga in the west is often taught as simply a series of Hatha asana only.
There is so much more to the practice. In addition, some people are not dedicated to their practice and still wonder why they do not achieve results. Hatha Yoga Pradipika has this advice for them: “Anyone who practices can obtain success in yoga but not one who is lazy. Constant practice alone is the secret of success.” I suspect this line is referring to the more subtle practices of pranayama, mudra, etc. The pineal gland takes time to become activated, and it is often crusted over from non-use.
B.K.S. Iyengar also talks about underlying concepts within Hatha Yoga practice that are often missed by the novice student. He says, “ We can clarify our understanding of hatha yoga by first examining five important underlying concepts: mind, knowledge, aims of life, health and afflictions.”
Iyengar says that man is graced with this special sense [mind] so that he can enjoy the pleasures of the world, or seek emancipation and freedom(moksa) from worldly objects. When describing knowledge, he refers to laukilfa jnana, which concerns matters of the world, and vaidika jnana, which is knowledge of the Self. Our aims in life are akin to the right use of our wealth and talents, or duty or our dharma.
Health is a reference to the health of not just the physical but also the mental and emotional state, so that we might persue an awakened consciousness and finally, our afflictions are physical, mental and spiritual (adhyatmika, adhidaivika and adhibhautika).
The teaching of these mental concepts are important to any practice of Hatha Yoga. It is to be accomplished systematically and patiently. Since scientists are just beginning to uncover the keys of the pineal gland, we have to balance our practice with an open mind, and use our personal experience as a guide. The ‘Ha’ and ‘Tha’ of our seemingly divided selves only comes into balance with an awareness in our practice, a cleansing of impurities from the subtle body, and a generation of pure energy which can then run through the body unimpeded. Hatha Yoga provides the tools, we must simply dedicate ourselves to the practice.