As the world goes about celebrating ‘The International Yoga Day’ primarily via postural demonstrations it’s time to review what Yoga truly is. On this Yoga Day, let us resolve to look at Yoga not as a pose but as a process, not as a class but as a commitment. Below is a simplified elaboration on the complex body of understanding that Yoga is – if you feel it is beneficial, please share. I wish you all a very Happy International Yoga Day.
Q: What is Yoga?
A: Yoga is a wisdom tradition of philosophies and practices spanning over thousands of years, emerging from South Asian region, primarily India, aimed at generating lasting inner peace and Self-understanding (Atmajnana).
Q: Is Yoga as set of physical exercises?
A: No, Yoga is not a set of physical exercises. The aspect of physical exercise falls under the category of Asana and Pranayama practices that emerge predominantly from the Tantra-Hatha orientation of Yoga. Asana per se constitutes a minor aspect of ancient Yogic tradition and was not insisted upon or mandatory for Yogic pursuit.
Q: What are Yoga styles?
A: In modern usage, the term ‘Yoga style’ has come to mean the way in which one practices physical postures – Asana. So, the term ‘Yoga style’ actually means ‘Asana style’, if you will, because Yoga is much more than physical posturing. As far as ‘styles’ of Yoga or ‘types’ of Yoga are concerned, they can be spoken of as various philosophical and practical orientations that brings about clarity of Self-understanding. They are called ‘Marga’ – path. Some of these Yogic orientations are Karma Marga (path of Karma), Bhakti Marga (path of Bhakti) and so on.
Q: Do I have to be physically flexible to practice Yoga?
A: This question comes from wrongly interpreting Asana (physical posture practice) as the whole of Yoga. You don’t have to be flexible to practice either Yoga or even Asana. Yoga and Asana, both are a process of self-development and one can steadily experience the benefits with regular practice.
Q: So do I need to do physical postures to be a Yogi?
A: Your need of doing physical postures depend on your sense of well-being and self-connection – it is personal. As I have mentioned earlier, physical posture practice was a minor part of one of the many orientations of Yoga (i.e Tantric-Hatha orientation). Yogic tradition per se does not insist on physical posture practice. But, I deeply believe that modern humans can truly benefit from a right physical posture practice (Asana) and correct breathing techniques (Pranayama). A steady, patient and sincere practice of Asana and Pranayama will only bring about an improved sense of well-being and a calmer mind to the stressed, busy and chair bound contemporary Yoga practitioner.
Q: Then what do I need to practice Yoga?
A: You need a general sense of wellbeing (Svasthya), faith in Yoga (Shraddha), sincerity towards your practice (Sadhana), dedication towards the spiritual guide (Samarpan) and a keen sense of discerned detachment (Vairagya).
Q: What is the goal of Yoga?
A: The goal of Yogic practices is to first bring about a steady state of regulated, peaceful mind which then leads to realisation of the True-Self within (Atmajnana). The end goal of Yoga is Atmajnana, realizational understanding of the True-Self within.
So, what does it take to be a Yoga Teacher ?
– Knowledge of anatomy ?
– Expertise at headstand ?
– Hyper-flexibility ?
– Yoga Alliance accredition ?
– Repeated visits to India ?
What if I said none of the above ?
Yes, the points in the list are optional but not core to becoming a Yoga Teacher. They are the feathers in a cap, but the cap per se is made of something completely different.
To become a Yoga Teacher one must know how to be a Yoga Student. The Yoga Student has to have some essential qualities, which have nothing to do with the list above. A true Yoga Student is,
– Sincerely Disciplined & Committed to Sadhana.
– Never doubts the process of Yoga.
– Is humble, considerate and energetic.
– Understands Yoga as a pursuit of Self mastery and not Asana.
– Honours the culture and living tradition of Yoga.
Only when the Yoga Student has a well rounded approach to the process and practice of Yoga he/she can be an efficient channel of transmission and inspiration. .
A Yoga Teacher then is nothing but a living inspiration, a reflection of what the practice and faith has become.
Do You, as a Yoga Teacher see yourself as a Yoga Student ?
When a student, who had heard of the foundational history of Hatha Yoga from me, was told in a Teacher Training course that Hatha Yoga was created by smoking sadhus who stand on their heads, I felt it was time to write this blog. Perhaps the modern Yogis could dedicated a little more time to Faith instead of Fascia, Humility instead of Handstand, Bhakti instead of Backbends ?
When a student, who had heard of the foundational history of Hatha Yoga from me, was told in a Teacher Training course that Hatha Yoga was created by smoking sadhus who stand on their heads, I felt it was time to write this blog.
Over the years I have seen some creatively flamboyant “free for alls” written under the topic of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga is a gentle “class” for beginners. Hatha Yoga is a “soft practice” for physically challenged. Hatha Yoga is a “style” of easy physical postures. A system of physical postures founded by Sage Patanjali et al, are just some of the baseless arguments I have heard and seen in the Yoga world over the last decade.
This blog, though not exhaustive, is a short write up to clarify a few things about traditional Hatha Yoga, its origins and its founders.
To start with, Hatha Yoga is NOT just a system of physical manipulations (exercises) but is a extensive spiritual philosophy (which includes practices) based in the quintessential fundamental of spiritual liberation. It is a moksha shastra itself, the science of fundamental liberation.
Hatha Yoga as a spiritual path came to the forefront around the 9th Cent. A.D. Note: I have mentioned “came to the fore front” and have not used the word “originated,” or “founded”. (I will give the reasons for this in another blog)
The word “Hatha” has been ambiguously translated in modern English translations as “forceful”. Even though the word Hatha (pronounced as Huth) in English is translated as “forceful” it should not be viewed as effortful and compelled. In fact none of the traditional Hatha Yoga scriptures have even a single line in them that suggests that the Hatha yoga path is forceful. The word “Hatha” is never used in Hatha Yoga texts to refer to violent means or forceful effort. In fact, Hatha Pradipika warns the Yogic practitioner against being impatient and forceful. The word actually means and conveys strong determination, directed will and intense self effort in order to facilitate the mergence (samarasa) of Individual and Universal consciousness. Even today, in many local Indian languages, when a child throws a tantrum he is said to be doing “Hatha/Huth“. Thus, it does not convey pain but signifies intense longing. Hatha also has another meaning, a metaphysical one. Hatha is the result of the union of two syllables “Ha” which signifies the solar energy and “Tha” which signifies the lunar energy. The Sun is known by the syllable “Ha” and the moon by the syllable “Tha”, the active and passive energies of our Being.
Owing to the union of the sun and moon, Hathayoga is named thus. – Yoga Bija
The meaning of Ha-Tha is the union of two spiritual energetic forces which are the constituents of our materialized Being. The name itself makes one aware of the goal of Hatha Yoga. The ordinary human appears to be imprisoned in the complex of psycho spiritual embodiment, limited by the dualities of life. The goal of Hatha Yoga is to see (experience) the unity in diversity, the essential One-ness in the duality and to manifest the union of Jiva and Shiva. Thus, Hatha Yoga is neither a “class,” a “style,” nor a “sequence” of asanas, it is an extensive science of spiritual liberation.
The founder of this system is Mahayogi Matsyendranath who received the doctrine of Hatha Yoga from Lord Shiva himself. Matsyendranath passed on the doctrine to his disciple Mahayogi Gorakhnath (Gorakshanath). Gorakhnath is instrumental in propagation of Hatha Yoga science in the recent times. Just as Ramakrishna had Vivekananda, Yukteshwar had Yogananada in the same fashion Matsyendra found in Gorakh the spirit, motivation, devotion and faith to bring Hatha Yoga to the masses. Lord Shiva is considered to be the source of both, Hatha Vidya (Wisdom of Hatha) and Natha lineage. He is invoked as Adinatha (Primordial Lord). Guru Dattatreya is considered as the facilitator who blessed Matsyendra and Gorakh as they went about awakening the masses with this venerable psycho-spiritual science.
The founders of Hatha Yoga science through the lineage of Adinath (Shiva), Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath are known as Nathas. The word Natha has two primary meanings. First, Natha means Na+Atha, the one which is beginning-less, unborn and primal. In this sense Natha means the immortal principle of Shiva consciousness. It is the lineage and teaching inspired by the One who is the beginning less. So in this sense, the teachings of Hatha Yoga too are beginning less and immortal. Secondly, Natha also means the protector, nurturer and care taker. Shiva is called Adinath the Primal Lord and his followers who spread the wisdom of Hatha Yoga are called the Natha Yogis. Since Natha means protector or nurturer, the path of Hatha Yoga propagated by the Nathas also assures protection and nurturing of those who can offer dedication, surrender and devotion to the path. This is why Yogi Svatmarama mentions in Hatha Pradipika “Hatha is the monastery for those who are afflicted by unlimited suffering and for those who are engaged in different Yogas, Hatha is a supporting tortoise”- HYP 1:10.
Traditionally, the lineage of Hatha Yoga propagators is called Natha Sampradaya. Amongst all the Nathas there are 9 who are considered primary inspirations. They are popularly known as Nav-Nathas (nine Nathas). Their names are, Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath, Jaladarinath, Kanifnath, Charpatanath, Nagnath, Bhartrharinath, Revannath and Gahininath. (In some regions of India, depending on the inspirations, few names are interchanged)
The Yoga Siddhas of Natha Tradition are [Note: I have not used the word were] adepts who have reached the heights of spiritual evolution. They have verily become the Absolute Truth and shine forth in the union of Divine purity. They have and they do inspire us by their own spiritual grandeur and love. The main contribution of Natha Siddhas towards humanity is their very presence in the world, among the people beyond class, creed and gender. The main message and purpose of the Nathas is to guide humanity to revolt against the limitedness of mind-body complex. As one scripture says, “Yogis in diverse guises, intent on welfare of humanity, walk on the earth, unrecognized by others” – Kularnava Tantra – 9:66.
Humanity lurks in bondage and thrives in the notion that life is suffering, the Nathas toiled hard to awaken us to work against this mindset. Saint Dnyaneshwarnath in his beautiful contribution Dnyaneshwari says “Pinde Pindacha Grasu, to ha Natha sanketicha Danshu” means “Using the body itself to devour the ego of the body is the main principle and teaching of Natha Yogis”.
Nathas have been inspirational in bringing social change over the millennia across India and the world. The Natha Siddhas themselves are at a transcendental stage which is beyond the limited understanding of our human mind. But through Bhakti (devotion), dedication and Sadhana (practice) one can access them by being the message itself. Because of their compassion for all, they manifest again and again amongst us. It is because of such selfless liberated souls and their inspiring work that the fabric of human society is maintained. When the Indian society was suffocating under the dominance of caste-ism, foreign oppressions and social evils it was the Nathas that went from village to village resurrecting the masses to awaken to their true freedom. The purpose of Hatha Yoga is to awaken ourselves and awaken others. The work of the Nathas is for the greater good of all.
Every human, somewhere deep within, feels the urge of transcending bondage and suffering. But by the axe of societal concepts, cultural presuppositions and peer pressure this urge is prematurely killed. The Nathas tapped into this inner urge of the masses by preaching the equation Jiva = Shivain the local language of the villagers through songs, poetry and many a times even by awakening a spirit of awe and motivation by using their spiritual powers (siddhis) to convince the people that everyone is capable of tapping into the heights of their own spiritual potential. Since the purpose of Natha Siddhas was raising the masses they did not get involved in academic controversies, philosophical debates and metaphysical duels (as was popular during that time) to establish their rationale amongst the people. They were not interested in establishing any particular dogma, in fact their work was to release the people from accepted dogmas which were eating the society from within. Their work was to raise faith in the One all mighty which is beyond religion and dogma. In traditional Hatha Yoga and the teachings of Nathas there are no limitations based on caste, creed or gender. Everyone is considered to have the same universal potential within and everyone is inspired to reach it and this is why I deeply feel Hatha Yoga is the path for today’s day and age.
I feel modern yoga world should seek to understand the expansive perspective of traditional Hatha Yoga and approach it with humility and surrender. Somewhere I feel the physical bit has been passed on to the west but the heart of Hatha Yoga is still missing to be conveyed. Perhaps the modern Yogis could dedicated a little more time to Faith instead of Fascia, Humility instead of Handstand, Bhakti instead of Backbends ? The Heart of traditional yoga is in humility, surrender, dedication and selfless service. Perhaps its time to step back from the “asanification” of Hatha Yoga and move towards the Heart of this brilliant spiritual science. Adesh!
This is the way Kundalini rises and our perception of our self and the world becomes broader, broader to such an extent that everything and everyone is experienced not as separation but consolidation.
Our inherent infinite potential (Kundalini) takes the opportunity to manifest its completeness through the body-mind complex by evolving over life times. In fact, this is the very reason why we have a body and a life. In this context, every material body is a vehicle of pure potential and every life is an opportunity to manifest its fullness. The evolution of this potential happens over stages. The stages through which the Being evolves to its full potential are called Chakras.
The chakras are zones of psycho-spiritual energy which our Being is made up of. The word Chakra is translated as “wheel”, but such a translation misleads us into thinking of chakras as “wheel like structures”. Chakras are not wheel like structures rather the word chakra in Sanskrit literally means “something that whirls” and everything that whirls is not a wheel. It is so named because it is supposed to convey a whirling movement of the psycho-spiritual energy. It also conveys a radiating force field, a region (kshetra) and not just a point in our subtle body.
Hatha Yoga says that the stability and/or instability of the energetic field in our subtle body along the chakras consequently manifests in the gross body. The chakras have an influence on energetic as well as physical body because the chakras are essential subtle structures functioning to collect, use, transform and pass on Prana energy. Our material bodies could not exist without them for they serve as gateways for the flow of energy and life into our physical bodies. This is how the subtle energies of our chakras in the subtle body influence the physiology in our material body. In fact, the physical body can be called as manifestation of the psycho-vital body which includes prana flow and chakras. Every chakra corresponds to a specific aspect of human nature, behavior and development. The chakras vibrate at different levels relative to the awareness (consciousness) of the individual and their ability to integrate with life and this is why the “spin” of chakras differ from person to person. In simple terms the chakras can be defined as “the stages through which perception and experience of one’s own self and others evolve”.
Let’s understand the concept of chakras with one simple analogy. Imagine a couple have a baby boy. Just like all parents, the parents of our little boy too want him to grow up and be a healthy and happy adult who can create a life full of possibilities by harnessing his potential. For this purpose the parents facilitate proper education, diverse experiences, safe upbringing and stable support with love and care in the life of the child. This example, which perhaps exists in every household, is a microscopic representation of how Shiva and Shakti as our parents facilitate our growth and evolution towards our full potential. To evolve towards our True Potential is our swadharma, one’s own duty towards oneself in this life.
The little boy starts his journey through life. Schooling and education form an integral part of his life as he grows up. The little child goes to a kindergarten, primary school, high school, college, university and so on to gain the required knowledge and experience to become what he wants (or his parents want!?!). The boy’s growth over many years through his educational life could be likened to our growth as spiritual beings (jivatma) moving through chakra stages. In every stage of the boy’s education he goes through innumerable experiences and experiments with life to gain happiness. In the same way, we as spiritually beings (jivatma) evolve over life time to experience and manifest the full extent of our potential. Some experiences are bitter, some are sweet, but experiences come and they shape our life and existence. There is no doubt that consciously or unconsciously transformation does happen. Just like the boy, we, as spiritual students are admitted to the school of life the moment we are born because our potential (Kundalini) as spiritual beings is limited and not yet fully harnessed. The education of our boy through the six stages of schooling namely, early, primary, secondary, higher, master’s level and doctorate studies could be likened to the evolution of human beings through six stages of chakras in the school of life.
We go through life weaving the warp and weft of mistakes and success to shape our life into a fabric of pure love, permanent freedom and unending bliss. This love, freedom and bliss is the full expanse of our True Potential (Param Shiva). This experience is not a step but the stage from where the Being radiates without the hindrance of any limitation. It is here when the Hatha Yogis say the “Kundalini has united with her Shiva”, meaning, the spiritual being has reached its ultimate pure, true potential. When one starts exploring the bigger dimension of their being by starting to explore the inherent potential (Kundalini), the Kundalini awakens and starts moving through the various levels (chakra). This is called evolution of the Kundalini along the chakras. This is the way Kundalini rises and our perception of our self and the world becomes broader, broader to such an extent that everything and everyone is experienced not as separation but consolidation.
Our life might feel inconsequential but as Beings of light we have the potential to create magnificence. Kundalini is a part of us, rather She is very much us. It is time we stopped looking at Kundalini as some supra natural esoteric force. She is a Goddess, our mother and the potential within us that is programmed to find the way towards its full expression.
The Hatha yogis of past understood the human existence in a deeper way as compared to modern understanding. They understood humans not as mere bag of bones and muscles with some oxygen thrown in but as a much subtler and complex creation. Hatha Yoga understands human beings as consciousness based psycho- spiritual entities in human domain of manifestation. It believes that infinite divine consciousness is constantly and gradually evolving through 840,000 psycho-spiritual domains (yoni). Every domain (life form), from an insect to an elephant is permeated by the same divine consciousness. Human domain is the last stage towards reaching the full bloom of consciousness through a physical body. The human body-mind complex as a domain is most capable of manifesting the divine consciousness, it’s the most conducive vehicle so to say
When we see a tiny little match stick it seems lifeless and impotent. When the same match stick is struck against the right surface a tiny spark emerges that can start a forest fire. Similar is the case with us humans. Our life and existence might sometimes feel inconsequential but as Beings of conscious light in human form we have the potential to create magnificence. The potential to manifest a spark that is inherent in the matchstick is also inherent in humans. Humans too have this very potential of radiance because we are divine light (prakasha), a spark of the divine fire. This potential inherent within us is traditionally called Kundalini or Kundali or Kula Kundali in Hatha Yoga.
Kundalini in Sanskritmeans “coiled”. Kundalini can be defined as the psycho-spiritual potential inherent within us all. It is because of Kundalini that we are conscious. It is this very force that breathes life into material body and it is this force that leaves the matter lifeless when it exits. As the seminal Hatha Yoga scripture, Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati says “There is no doubt that the creation and dissolution of the universe results from the proliferation and contraction of the supreme Shakti on account of which she is called the Mulam (the root cause).”
Kundalini is the potential within us that is programmed to find the way towards its full expression resulting in innumerable possibilities. This is why Kundalini is regarded as Shakti, the power within. This inner potential and power is not seen as a lifeless electrical energy current running through the body but a conscious, powerful feminine creative force (chitshakti). It’s a creative force because of its inherent potentiality and it’s this creative nature that gives it its feminine essence. This is why in Hatha Yoga the Kundalini is regarded and respected as a Goddess and not just as energy or force. Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, describes Kundalini as follows, “As Kundalini is the material cause of all beings, She is considered to be supreme”. – SSP 4:15
The base of the spine or the root chakras is the entry of Kundalini in the human domain of consciousness. In some Hatha Yoga scriptures the origin of Kundalini is said to be a part in the subtle body called as Kanda. From the Muladhara along the spinal highway She starts her journey to cross the domain of limited human tendencies in order to realize her infinite divine spontaneity by merging with Shiva (universal consciousness). Gheranda Samhita very eloquently states, “Muladhare Kundalini bhujagakararupini, tatra tishtahi jeevatma pradipkakalikakriti.” In the Muladhara the Kundalini lies in form of a coiled serpent. The innate self dwells there like the flame of a lamp – Gheranda Samhita 5:16
Kundalini is visualized as a three and half coiled dormant snake coiled around the Svayambhu-linga (representation of Shiva) at the base of the spine with the tip of its tail in its mouth. The coils are symbolic of potentiality as in the snake springing up when disturbed. The number three is a representation of three states of awareness and the half is symbolic of transcending those three states, similar to the diagrammatic representation in OM.
Every human has Kundalini, She is the very force of universal potential within the body-mind complex. It may happen that life times may pass without a person even acknowledging the existence of this pure potential within. This is called being “asleep” to your true nature. This is why in Hatha Yoga the Kundalini is represented as a dormant spiritual force (sleeping snake) which the yogi (spiritual aspirant) awakens by his determination and will. The yogi awakens the Kundalini in order to make her unite with Shiva, her consort, where the union signifies full bloom of potentiality. This is also the representation of individual potential merging with the universal potential. Note: The snake is not dead, it is alive but asleep. If it were dead we would be unconscious, inert, jada.
Human domain of consciousness does not mean only one life time in human body. The Being that is present within the human body is here for a purpose. This purpose is to manifest its true potential which is nothing but pure consciousness beyond the limitations of psycho-somatic conditioning. To evolve from the human domain of consciousness and stabilize in the divine may take thousands of life times. Just because we have a body, mind and life does not mean we will automatically transcend to the divine state. It takes firm determination, commitment, trust and surrender to go through the trials and tribulations of limiting tendencies. Hatha yoga is the path of working on the Kundalini in a disciplined, dedicated and devoted manner.
Every individual is infinite potential and innumerable possibilities, in this sense we all are Shiva and Shakti in our true nature. This potential is inherent in us all and lies dormant because of our lack of knowledge and acceptance of our true potential. The Shakti is limited by various factors over lifetimes. Self doubt, mistrust in the bigger scheme of things, nurturing limiting tendencies, disregarding the importance of body and mind are just some factors that halt our experience of full potential. When a seeker acknowledges the existence of the infinite potential within and starts the journey of Self search it is then that the Kundalini awakens and proceeds on her journey to manifest her fullness.
Kundalini is a part of us, rather She is very much us. It is time we stopped looking at Kundalini as some supra natural esoteric force. She is a Goddess, our mother and Hatha Yoga has always described her as a loving nurturing caretaker, protector and guide. Let us hold the hands of our mother and allow her to walk us home.