Hatha Yoga: A Much Misunderstood Spiritual Discipline

April 21, 2012 at 3:14 pm (Alok Kumar, Essay)

Some people consider a particular form of physical exercise as Hatha Yoga. It is a grave error to consider Hot Yoga, Power Yoga or any of such fads present around the world as belonging to any tradition of Hatha Yoga. They can be gymnastics, aerobics or anaerobics but  not  yoga. In Hatha Yoga, Asana is meant for Sthairya (steadiness) and Mudra is meant for Dridhata (Sturdiness). A body exercise qualifies as Hatha Yogic exercise only if three conditions are met:  the posture should be maintained for  a long period of time ; Prana should be regulated during the practice and the mind should focused on certain important points in the body.

Hatha Yoga is not about building a strong and supple body. It is about developing the highest level of control over the body, senses, Prana and mind in order to transcend them at will. Hatha Yoga is vitally important because the Veda declares, “नायमात्मा बलहीनेन लभ्यः”. No spiritual path is for the weak. Brahmcharya and abstinence from sensual pleasures are the non-negotiable pre-requisites of Hatha Yoga. Only self-deluded people can take up these practices to increase their bodily pleasures! Basic practices of Hatha Yoga cure diseases, dispel flab and make the body both strong and supple. If people remain stuck at this level  without going beyond, it is their choice. However, such people must know that they are not practising Yoga if they fail to grow spiritually. They are not practising Yoga if their practices do not develop any yearning for the Divine. They are not practising Yoga if all forms of attchments do not leave them one by one over a period of time. The first symptom of correct practice of any Yoga Asana or Pranayama is the unmistakable experience of peace and purity. Such peace and purity becomes our nature with long practice and sustains us in whatever path we take, Jnana, Bhakti, Karma, Mantra, Laya or Raja.

Yoga and Vedanta are two separate systems of Indian thought. Different systems of Indian thought differ from each-other in theory; however, they all consider Yoga as the practical way to realize their stated aims. For Advait Vedanta, Yoga is to dispel ignorance (Avidya) to realize the essential oneness of reality. The ultimate objective of practising Yoga  is to unite the soul with the Divine – to make two distinct realities like iron and fire one common entity. A piece of iron and fire appear to be one when in contact; however, the iron manifests its properties the moment it is removed from the fire. Thus the distinction is eternal. Vedanta doesn’t focus much on body, whereas, Yoga uses body as an instrument for its stated end. Therefore, when some people  get confused wondering whether it is right to follow the popupar form  of Yoga while the likes of Swami Vivekananda emphasized only the spirit. The confusion arises because of equating the two distinct schools of thought: Vedanta and Yoga (as philosophy).

Hatha Yoga is propounded by Bhagavan Shiva himself as Adinath. It is meant for overcoming Tamas by Rajas and then both by Sattwa. Those who would like to persist with Hatha Yoga itsself they can  be assured  to have found one way to enlightenment. Those who would like to take different practices under the influence of Sattva can take up Raja Yoga and Vedanta. Raman Maharshi, the famous Jnani of Arunachal, used to do Tratak, a prominent Hatha Kriya. This tradition has produced the greatest of Yogis such as Matsendranath, Gorakhnath, Jalandharnath, Baba Balaknath, Bhartrihari (who gave us ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’), Gopichand (of Bengal), Gambhirnath and many modern great names such as Trailang Swami (whom Ramakrishna describes as ‘Sakshat Vishwanath’), Loknath Brahmchari, B. K. S. Iyenger, Swami Shivanada of Rishikesh, Swami Satyanadna of Munger (from Vedantic tradition). This system pertains to the Tantrik School of Yoga.

Hatha Yoga is often glorified in the popular media for what it can do for the body. Nothing can be more misleading! Hatha Yoga emphasizes on Prana (as its name suggests) and not body. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the classic text of Hatha Yoga declares that Hatha Yoga is like the ladder to climb the heights of Raja Yoga. It has devised various methods that leverage physical body to manipulate Prana. Thus mudra and Pranayama is the most critical part of Hatha Yoga, not Asanas. Asanas are there to awaken the body to make manipulation of Prana easy. This point is time and again emphasized in one of the most important Vedantic scriptures, the Yoga Vashistha, where Vashishtha preaches Rama that it is not necessary for the mind to obey the intellect that Vedanta leverages unless it is highly purified. However, like a falcon tied by rope, mind is bound to be pulled by Prana that ties it like rope. Therefore, even Vedanta has some place for Hatha Yoga.

Sri Ramakrishna himself practiced Hatha Yoga to a very advanced level. Acharya Govindpad taught Adi Shankaracharya Hatha Yoga first and then Raja Yoga and Vedanta. Sri Hanuman is an epitome of the Hatha Yoga. Sant Jnaneshwar of Maharastra was an adept in Hatha Yoga. In the Kriya Yoga tradition also, Hatha Yoga forms the base. Sufism draws heavily from Hatha Yoga. In fact most existing spiritual traditions in India take Hatha Yogic practices as preparatory. Even Bhakti traditions prescribe methods such as Tratak on the Ishta Deva to develop concentration and devotion.

Contrary to the popular misconception, Hatha Yoga doesn’t consider difficult Asanas requiring incredible flexibility as its greatest forms. The greatest Asanas in Hatha Yoga are  sitting postures such as Siddhasana and Padmasana.  All Hindu deities are shown using these postures. Seekers in all Indian spiritual traditions, whether they are theists or atheists, have adopted these postures. Musical and martial arts traditions also use several of such postures.Stable Asanas are considered as a prerequisite for meditation in Raja Yoga (“Sthiram SukhamasanamPaatanjal Yoga Sutra) and Atma Vichar in Vedanta (“Aaseenah Sambhavat”, Brahmsutra).  No true follower of Yoga will oppose Hatha Yoga; however, depending on his or her tradition, he or she may continue with it or leave it after a certain stage in Sadhana.

– Kumar Alok

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