Updated: Feb 9, 2021
‘Salutations to Shiva, who taught the science of Hatha Yoga. It is the aspirants stairway that shines forth unto the lofty heights of Raja Yoga’
Yoga, like any spiritual practise happens inside the individual, it is invisible. I am of course not talking about yoga postures but the philosophy, energies, and the State of Yoga itself; think of concepts like Kundalini, Chakras, Meditation, Love, Faith, God and Samadhi. All are unseen and perfectly doubtable! This is the difficulty of any spirituality discipline, you can’t read or hear about it and believe or feel it for it can only be known through individual experience.
‘ The mind cannot grasp him above, or below, or in the space in between… Far beyond the range of vision he cannot be seen by mortal eyes; but he can be known by the heart and the mind, and those who know him attain immortality’
Before the practise of Hatha Yoga (which means physical yoga done in the body) how did people come to experience Yoga? Some of the earliest yogic teachings are The Upanisads which tackled this great problem of trying to describe the formless in the case of Brahman and Atman. For these cannot be known by mortal senses, are said to be beyond thought and words, and yet are everywhere and in everything. The way the text attempts to make them real is through words; words that depict nature, everyday objects and scenarios, riddles, metaphors, similes, the words are beautiful yet relentless in their goal to make the reader understand the truth and enormity of what must surely be known! Brahman is compared to light, space, energy and love, all things that cannot be measured, touched or held in your hand, yet there is no doubt that they are indeed 100% real. The Self they tell us is in everything, just as is the oil in the oil fruit, cream in the milk, water in the springs, the tree that seems to grow from a tiny seed, these things that are undoubtedly there, known by all and yet hidden and so is the Self in everything. As you see without a physical practise one must rely on scriptures, meditation and a whole lot of FAITH.
Also these ancient yogis, without our modern day scientific knowledge of the body mapped an energetic system onto the body based on their understanding of health and the natural phenomena of the world. The system of nadis, meaning energy rivers or channels and vayus, meaning energy winds or currents, the greatest of which is the Susumna nadi and the Kundalini energy.
‘As when a ruler commands his officials and appoints them cities to be ruled, in his name, even so Prana , the power of life, rules the other living powers of the body’
This energetic nadi system was later richly elaborated through Laya and Tantra traditions which relied heavily upon visualisations and meditation and developed into Kundalini Yoga. This is where the chakra concept we still see today in the modern yoga scene comes from. Onto the energetic body they grafted well known forms from everyday life and nature, they likened the body to the plants, mountain and oceans, to smells, colours and elements and even to animals, sounds and deities in attempt to shape the formless into something that could be grasped by the imagination and mind.
‘This Lotus, lustrous and whiter than the full Moon, has its head turned downward. It charms. It's clustered filaments are tinged with the colour of the young Sun. Its body is luminous with the letters beginning with A, and it is absolute bliss’
-Sat-Cakra-Nirupuna, translated by Sir John Woodroffe in his book The Serpent Power
And then we have the more recent Hatha Yoga, the most popular form of yoga today which uses our own tangible and perfectly undoubtable physical body to show us the formless concepts of Yoga.
‘As one opens a door with a key, so the yogi forces opens the door of liberation with Kundalini’
-Hathapradipika 1.1 & 3.105
I am not saying that as you do Trikonasana you do yoga, but if you know where to look you will notice that hidden within that asana are the key elements to guide you on your inward journey to yoga…. bodily control, calm mind, stillness, inward gaze, steadfastness, alertness, meditation... and how about contentment, devotion, faith, courage, truth, non- attachment do we see those too?!
‘He is in his own Being, pure, never changing, never- moving, unpollutable; and in peace beyond desires he watches the drama of the Universe’
There are two very special elements to the practise that seem formless but in fact when used in the body give form. Breath and bandha (internal lock/ catches) are far more important than the postures itself, combined with the inward focus they draw us inwards and seem to bridge both the physical and energetic bodies. They could be claimed to be visible or invisible, esoteric or tangible, subtle or muscular; this is entirely dependent on our knowledge and skill when it comes to activating and experiencing them. It is said that Mula Bandha is the master key but how about the breath itself being the master key and Mula Bandha being the secret doorway?
‘As fire, though one, takes new forms in all things that burn…As the wind, though one, takes new forms in whatever it enters…’
I finally understand what David Garrigues was talking about all those years ago when he spoke of the stonemason chipping away at his fears, angers, joys and hopes! We must start with a tangible and gross material that we can touch to truly learn. David Swenson also explains this when he tells his story of the men and the fire where each has to touch it for themselves to learn it burns, being told or warned does not suffice! In a restaurant when you are told to be careful because your plate is hot, don’t you touch it????! And so here we are with our own personal experiment in our own bodies, minds and experiences to find this formless beauty of yoga, we can doubt words, pictures and stories but we cannot doubt a personal experience.
‘The idea that practice is about truth making clarifies that the process is fully hands-on. What you do on your mat each day is no different than a stonemason or artist who works with stone. You begin with raw, unshaped material that consists of your fears, anger, joys, hopes, visions, and all manner of physical and psychic turnings. You endeavor to make, craft, chisel, hew, carve, will, kick, express, fashion, and draw forth form from the formlessness and chaos that exists within you.’
Here is a riddle for you, in yoga we love a riddle… What about if actually Yoga is the stonemason and we are the lump of stone?!
In days of old meditation, renunciation, selfless service and devotion was enough for some but these days the world is fast and demanding making this self- enquiry work challenging as we spend all of our minds out there, it is no surprise that the physicality of Hatha Yoga has enraptured us, I am glad that it has! Over time it reigns us in slows us down and breaks down the self- importance we are so proud of which must back down for Yoga to occur,
‘When a man is bound by the three powers of nature, he works for selfish reward and in time he has his reward. His soul then becomes the many forms of the three powers, strays along the three paths, and wanders on through life and death’
‘The soul is thus whirled along the rushing stream of muddy waters of the three conditions of nature, and becomes unsteady and wavering, filled with confusion and full of desires, lacking in concentration and disturbed with pride. Whenever the soul has thoughts of ‘I’ and ‘me’ it binds itself with its lower self, as a bird with the net of a snare’
Without the techniques of Hatha Yoga we risk getting stuck in our own nets! In our everyday life we may feel many many changing emotions but instead of simply feeling them we become these states, they rule us. The physical practise shows this up for us in the form of our reactions and behaviour as we face our postures etc....
Without this process of observing and becoming steady through sensations and bodily experiences in postures, movements, physical forms... it is most likely that we would perish once more as we attempt the formlessness of meditation.
In the Ashtanga Vinyasa system we are given the added tools of the vinyasa count and repetition, both vital to relax the mind. The count is crucial too as it prevents us from getting stuck, for getting stuck creates mental activity; doubt, confusion, greed, worry, fear, elation etc which are the opposite of surrender and non - attachment that lead us to joy and liberation. In our practise we think ‘I have this thing I have to do and I'm going to keep moving forwards!’ The invisible acts of surrender and devotion are difficult to accept , yet through this physical practise we learn that we advance in our postures too as we surrender our own ideals. Through this process of working gently and in a heartfelt way we clear the obstacles in the mind that are represented by our physical challenges and trials on the mat.
And so we should be very grateful indeed to have this beautiful Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practise because if not, we might perhaps feel like a stone mason WITHOUT stone! This is what the practise is: visible, physical, real and three- dimensional. As we do it, see it and feel it without knowing we start to grasp the tail end of Raja Yoga. We grasp the postures, then the breath, then the focus and so forth until before we realise it we are journeying inside ourselves to the invisible and intangible, to meditation, samadhi, the Self and God. We could summarise by saying that we grasp yoga physically, then mentally, then emotionally and finally heartwardly.
‘The soul is the wood below that can burn and be fire, and OM is the whirling friction rod above. Prayer is the power that makes OM turn around and then the mystery of God comes to light’
This verse ties us nicely to others we have looked upon. Here Om is the whirling friction rod that leads to God, before we read that Hatha was the shining stairway to Raja Yoga and Kundalini the key to force open the door to that stairway. Hathat is the sanskrit verb to force, and I think you will agree that the dynamism of breath and bandhas do indeed kindle the fire in the body awakening the formidable yet formless Kundalini. Think of Hatha of the physical fire that lights the invisible wisdom of Raja Yoga, the body as the vessel is the form.
And so be warned, just as Yoga cannot be experienced purely from reading scriptures or hearing about it, nor can it be learnt solely by mechanical practise! What is the point of entering Samadhi if you do not know how or why you got there or even what it is that you have attained! And so just as you cannot cook without a flame and a flame cannot burn without fuel, the two must be practised hand in hand. Hatha and Raja Yoga must be interwoven. And so I finish with a warning yogis!
‘I consider those practitioners who only do Hatha, without knowing Raja Yoga, to be labouring fruitlessly’
Thank you for reading!