Many people might consider whether a text written in the 15th century by a yogic sage living in the Eastern world is relevant to those practicing yoga in a modern day Westernised culture. My aim is to highlight the importance of Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP) if we are to understand the roots of yoga as a practice that goes beyond developing and maintaining physical health to a practice that aims to awaken the vital energies that exist within each and every one of us.
HYP’s introduction from Swamiji on Hatha Yoga clarifies the differences between hatha yoga and the eight limbed approach of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Where Patanjali was influenced by Buddhism and developed an eight step path to liberation focussing first on yama (self restraints) and niyama (observations) present in the mind, Swatmarama is in contrast influenced by Yogi Goraknath of the Nath sect and seeks to purify the body through self control and self discipline before purifying the mind. For me, this clarifies a sometimes cloudy area within other texts on the subject. Swatmarama states that he “offers light on hatha yoga” in order to make it easier for the “average person” to reach “raja yoga”, explaining that hatha yoga is always practiced as a precursor to other forms of yoga such as raja or kriya yoga (V3, p.29).
Once we are introduced to the aims of hatha yoga, the book is split into four chapters that outline the practices of purification that need to take place to awaken the vital energies made up of prana, chakras and kundalini shakti. The four chapters cover the following: asana; shatkarma and pranayama; mudra and bandha; samadhi – the end product of hatha and raja yoga. The first three, asana, shatkarma and pranayama are all performed to awaken sushumna nadi, (the central and only nadi of out of three by which kundalini can ascend – ida and pingala being the other two nadis). They clear any blockages that might occur in the chakras and ensure a clear pathway for kundalini to ascend. The mudras and bandhas are practiced to awaken kundalini once sushumna is clear, allowing kundalini clear passage to samadhi, the step beyond hatha yoga.
In V.17 p.67 Swatmarama reinforces that the starting point of hatha yoga is with asana. Asanas enable the yogi to open up the energy channels within the body so that it is open for purification to take place. The idea is that once the body can be controlled, so too can the mind. Of 84 different asanas, Swatmarama has chosen four ‘essential’ asanas for achieving “a correct meditative posture”, (V.34, p.10), required if prana is to flow freely throughout the body and if ascent of kundalini is to be achieved. Siddhasana is singled out as the most effective asana in purifying the nadis and balancing the flow of ida and pingala.
Recommendations that the “hatha yogi should live alone in a hermitage”, (p.40), remind us of when this text was written but the help of the English analogies we understand that by cultivating the right conditions in which we practice, we can improve the effectiveness of hatha yoga.
Chapter Two gives a fascinating insight into shatkarma that yogis can perform to purify their bodies in order for prana to flow freely. It is an example of the self discipline required if we are to succeed in achieving yoga. Despite some shatkarma being extreme by today’s measures, it is important to appreciate the dedication of those who laid the foundations of the yoga that we know today. This chapter also highlights the effects of the different practices of pranayama. Whether we want to achieve a balancing, vitalising or calming effect, we can influence the levels of prana or Shakti within our bodies by controlling and retaining the breath which in turn stills the mind. Prana is closely linked with mental activity, as discussed in V.2,p150, “When prana moves, chitta moves. When prana is without movement, chitta is without movement.”
Chapter Three focuses on awakening kundalini, the cosmic energy within each of us, “Indeed, by the guru’s grace this sleeping kundalini is awakened, then all the lotuses (chakras) and knots (granthis) are opened.” (V.2 p.280). The text then guides us through ten mudra or gestures that should be used to channel this cosmic energy within us, which according to the HYP can, “destroy old age and death”, (V7 p.287). Mudras such as “khechari mudra” are not for the faint hearted, however, it is important to know their affects on opening the chakras and their ability to arouse a higher sense of consciousness. We are told kechari mudra is the ultimate mudra in connecting and controlling bindu, the seed of creation that leads to the realisation of Shiva and samadhi, (V54 p.330).
Uddiyana, Mula and Jalandhara bandha are highlighted as the three most important bandhas of Hatha yoga owed to their ability to control prana and apana in the body and to minimise nectar falling from the bindu. It is now Swatmarama confirms the power of the physical combination of asana, pranayama, mudra and bandha, saying it can induce a state of “spontaneous dhyana”, (V.76 p.360).
Swatmarama concludes HYP by explaining the stages of samadhi, described as a “timeless state beyond birth, death, beginning, end”, (p.467). In V.80 p.577 we learn that shambavi mudra awakens the inner awareness and allows us to absorb the mind in one point of concentration. At this point, we are working on a mental level and can tune into nada through mantra in order to hear the inner vibrations created by the union of Shiva and Shakti and thus reach laya yoga or samadhi. As Swatmarama concludes in V.114, in order to experience samadhi, we must be practice under and be guided by the experiences of a guru in the belief that we too will one day experience what they have already experienced.
For me, HYP was a thought provoking and challenging read. As hatha yoga provides a foundation to raja yoga, HYP seeks to add to the foundation of knowledge for yoga practitioners. The book demonstrates the power of physical practice over the mind and is a reminder that, “the sleeping kundalini must be patiently aroused by devotion to daily yogic sadhana” (p.438). Thus regardless of where we come to yoga, true union cannot be achieved without a loving commitment to daily practice.