Updated: Feb 9
Yogananda once said that us Westerners send our attention in too many directions, that we were scattered and lacked focus and this was the source of our unhappiness. That was us over one hundred years ago, look at what we have become now! This is also true of Yoga in the West isn't it? Right now Yoga and Mindfulness is everywhere, some would call it a revolution, not only do we have more people practising than ever before, but it seems to be a fashion trend too! Yoga has become cool! With such a huge Yoga market the Yoga has diversified time and time again, we have somehow efficiently simmered down and organised the vast teachings of Yoga into categories or attractive wrappings in order to make it accessible and appeal to all.
I write this whilst reading a book written by T.K.V. Desikachar about his father, the great guru Sri. Krishnamacharya. The book focuses on the healing power of Yoga, mostly when applied one to one and it makes me wonder if we really know what we are doing when we practise Yoga? And Why? Krishnamacharya firmly believed that Yoga was India’s greatest gift to humanity, and Pattabhi Jois played a huge role in spreading Yoga across the globe.
Let’s discuss what we have done with this valuable tool in the West focussing on Raja Yoga. I’ll start by looking at what Yoga is traditionally and in the modern day and then explore questions like Why we do it? Has it changed too much? Was this inevitable in the modern day scenario? What is the modern day scenario? Can the teaching of Yoga be so generic? Are we practising safely? Is Yoga still useful in modern day?
To put this blog into context I am writing this blog from my bedroom in North London during the peak of the isolation period of the Covid- 19 outbreak. I witness the suffering and negative effect it is having on many people’s physical and mental health. Amongst those who are suffering are many who can not find comfort and peace within their own beings; they are play to their own minds. I'm sure we have all heard the saying the mind can be either a cruel master or a faithful servant. Yoga is keeping me sane. I believe that if you are established in Yoga you can find peace and inner strength anywhere and always as it is within you, and within a personal practise you will always have a home.
Let us come back to what Yoga actually is, when I use the term Yoga, or Real Yoga I am talking about Raja Yoga, The Royal Path of Yoga as described in the original teachings and texts. Raja also means King so we can think of Raja Yoga as ' the king of all Yoga' .
'Beyond the senses is the mind, beyond the mind is reason, beyond reason is the spirit of man, beyond is the spirit of the Universe, Purusha,
When the five senses and mind are still, and reason itself rests in silence, then begins the path supreme, this calm steadiness of the senses is called Yoga,
One should be watchful for Yoga comes and goes'
'Chitta vritti Nirodah'
-Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The word 'Yoga' itself is widely interpreted to mean to yoke or union. This is often simmered down to mean a balance between breath and body or body or soul etc… but the true union is much more profound. In Yoga we are consistently taught how to become aware of our mind and senses, control them, and turn them inwards to one point, ultimately towards the Self. According to to the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, the meaning of Yoga is the union of the atman the individual Self, with Brahman the eternal and limitless Self. The path of Yoga is to go beyond the mind to the Self, and the State of Yoga is realising that this is an undivided part of a greater eternal all- encompassing Self, we attain a state that is beyond both mind and intellect, a state of pure consciousness. You could also see this as the union or absorption of a lower self into a higher self if that resonates to your understanding. In Tantric Yoga the desired union is between Shiva and Shakti the powers of consciousness and manifestation.
Note that as we begin to discuss the idea Self there are other words that suggest the same ie; Ishvara, Brahman/ Atman, Soul, God, Divine, consciousness, spirit, life-force, power, energy etc..
We are not just told what to do, but why...
'When you move amidst the world of senses, free from attachment and aversion alike, there comes a peace in which all sorrows end'
We are also told what the alternatives are and the consequences. We are given explanations and scenarios through texts, recitations, illustrations and even stories to back up what we experience individually. The message is that peace, happiness and health can only come from within, we must to go inwards not outwards. This is what Yogananada was referring to, the ability to contain our energy and focus it inwards. Mooji put it nicely in a recent Satsang and the words have stayed with me ever since, here are a few of them ,
‘It is not original to our nature to be afraid, love is our nature, peace, joy and an appreciation of what is good. These qualities of the perfume of our true nature… your true nature is not lost, it is not somewhere else in a Divine vault away from you, it is right here in the core of your heart… Mostly our energies go outward, and they have to go heartward, you will fall in love with what you discover, it is the most fundamental discovery in the human kingdom. ‘
'The Self abides in the inner chamber of the heart always at peace, whatever forces of prakriti may storm outside'
Yoga is not a simple thing, it is both the process and the goal , a path and a state. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna receives the teachings of Yoga from a great discussion with his advisor and chariot driver, Krishna, aka God, in a moment of great difficulty, doubt and fear.
In the ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ we are provided with instructions for the Yoga path, this is called Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. The Eight limbs to the path are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (not to be confused with the modern day Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga method) These translate to guidelines for morals and behaviour, breath work, posture ( or stillness some would say) sense control, focus, meditation and absorption (union to the higher Self). Note that asana, or posture(s) is only one eighth of the whole system!
'The effort at stillness is the process of Yoga, the non effort at stillness is Yoga'
-Patanjali Yoga Sutras
This may all seem far fetched if you are new to the concept of the Self and may not make any sense in your first Yoga class, or indeed for while! So we can safely presume that most of us do not come to Yoga spiritually minded.
There are many different Yoga paths such as Bhakti, Karma, Jnana, Tantra, Mantra etc.. but they all should lead to Raja Yoga, the one true path. Amongst these paths lies Hatha Yoga, the Yoga we are most familiar with in modern day, and what I will focus on in this blog, this is the physical practise. Hatha Yoga uses the body as the main tool to practise Yoga, meaning it is tangible, ready available and easily accessible; no surprise that nowadays it is most people’s way into the deep world of Yoga! In the text the 'Hathapradipika' the author tells us that Hatha Yoga will indeed lead the way to the supreme Raja Yoga and is not a rival Yoga with different goals; he evokes an image of Hatha Yoga as a stairway that shines forth to the lofty peaks of Raja Yoga. In another text, the 'Hatharatnavali' it states how the two are even dependent on one another for success.
''Without Hatha Yoga Raja Yoga cannot be accomplished; So also without Raja Yoga as an objective, Hatha Yoga cannot be perfected. Therefore Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are interdependent'
Hatha translates to mean violence, force or firm- resolve. Hatha broken into two syllables Ha and tha means Sun and Moon. Classical Hatha Yoga consisted of Kriyas, Pranayamas, Asanas and Mudras and was intended to purify and balance the body on an energetic, pranic level as well as a physical level. Metaphysically Hatha Yoga aims to wake and ascend the dormant energy in the base of the spine, the Kundalini and to preserve the immortal nectar or amrta that drips downwards from the crown of the head and is lost. The union in Hatha Yoga could be described as converging of prana and apana, the two main energies of the body. Lubonin Ondracka sums it up really nicely in her paper 'Hatha Yoga' where she says 'Hatha Yoga is a system of physical practise aimed at attaining final liberation from the cycle of rebirth and achieving supernatural powers.' She goes on to ask ' Who today would believe that Yoga practise should result in liberating Samadhi, physical immortality, yogic suicide or supernatural powers?'
'Now he is in pranayama. He has withdrawn the sense (pratyahara) The mind is in a state of control (nirodha) He has controlled the mind in this good position and is sunk in meditation. He sees nothing any longer and has come to Samadhi. He is seeing the tattvas now and has reached a state of bliss'
- Maisuru Maisiri
'The yogi who is completely released of allstates and free of thoughts remains as if dead. he is liberated. Here there is no doubt'
'One should press the heel firmly against the perineum and place the other foot over the genital. He should remain straight and steady, control the sense, and keep the gaze fixed between the eyebrows. This is Siddhasana, which opens the door to liberation (moksha)'
'One made powerful by Kevalakumbhaka, from holding the breath as desired, obtains even the state of Raja Yoga, of this there is no doubt'
-Hatha Yoga Pradipika
This doesn't seem true of the modern day yoga practise or the reasons for which our modern students practise Hatha Yoga does it? Let me explain, first came Raja Yoga, then Hatha yoga developed and claimed that it was indeed a path to Raja Yoga still; then hundreds of years later the classical Hatha yoga was revolutionised by Krishnamacharya into the Hatha Yoga of today. This has been continually developed and changed by our modern teachers until we end up with all of the modern day Vinyasa styles that are popular today like Power, Dharma, Rocket, Jivamukti and so on. So Vinyasa Flow is Hatha is Raja or is it? If it was a family tree we could say yes, but I think it is pretty clear that today's Vinyasa Yoga often has little to do with classical Hatha meaning that Raja Yoga is pushed to the edges of the Yoga map when it should be the crowning glory! It is all to easy to look at the global spread and popularity of Vinyasa Flow today and be mistaken into thinking that Vinyasa Flow is king of the yogas. (More about the Vinyasa craze in a later chapter)
'It is the body which is the instrument through which spiritual aims are achieved. This is Hatha Yoga... very different from the practitioners of Hatha Yoga today who treat the asanas as a symbolic magic complex under a pseudo- scientific garb... It seems that the concept of asanas as a medium of exploration if the conscious and unconscious mind has been lost sight of'
Legend speaks of 84000 asanas, Krishnamcharya was taught 7000, The Sritattvanidhi has 122, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika has 15, Caurasi Asana 84, Illustrated Joga Pradipyka 84, Patanjali has none... each document seems to insists on a different number, making the study of the evolution of asana very interesting study indeed! Seated meditation postures like Siddhasana, Padmasana and Virasana are incredibly important for the work of Hatha Yoga and have survived the evolutionary process, yet they seem to be given less significance in today's movement driven Yoga classes where we don't seem to have enough time or will power to sit, be still and focus inwards. Again we seem to be going outwards, creating more and more asanas with more and more imagination and challenge, but for what? Do we really need so much tapas to burn our modern egos? Or are we actually making our egos even bigger by impressing and pushing ourselves to our limits?
'Yoga perishes by these six: overeating, overexertion, talking too much, performing needless austerities, socializing and restlessness'
Our modern day Yoga has become a bit wishy- washy when it comes to these classical Hatha Yoga elements, it seems that this was always going to be a problem; the author of the Hathpradipika tells us that he writes it to shed light on the darkness of the teachings of Yoga. I suspect that the teaching was unclear because the scholars who wrote the books were not practising, and the gurus were not writing, in the 'Shritattvanidhi' I suspect that the illustrator of the asanas didn't understand the practise well as many images appear to make no sense in terms of physics and sometimes bear little relation to the description given.
'For those ignorant of Raja Yoga, wandering in the darkness of too many opinions, compassionate Svatmarama gives the light of Hatha Yoga'
-Hatha Yoga Pradipika
I believe that the difficulty in transmitting the teachings of Hatha Yoga is that it is experienced, or felt by the individual alone, hit is an inner work, unseen from the outside mostly. It simply cannot be copied and practised like yoga postures could be to a certain extent. You certainly can't learnt this in a generic group class or from a book; trust me I have tried to read and practise pranayamas at the same time! And as for bandha, yes I can assure you it takes a lot of time to even find Mula Bandha let alone master it! Many never do, and to be honest most classes these days are doable without bandhas, a practitioner might only consider bandhas worth investigating when they want to learn inversions or lifting.
As an Ashtanga practitioner I can safely say that the elements of bandha and ujjayi breath are consistently with us as we practise, we are seeking in every moment to work with the inner energetic body. Many these days generally would consider Hatha to be a slow gentle style as this Instagram post suggests ‘...often referred to as basic yoga... slow paced style...ideal for beginners... the focus of hatha yoga is physical and mental strength to stimulate mind body connection’ Does this really say anything at all about Hatha Yoga?
'The downward action of apana should be directed upward by the contraction of the perineum...Moola bandha brings about the union of prana and apana… the apana moves upwards and when it reaches the circle of fire (manipura chakra) the flame lengthens and reaches anahata chakra… Due to this kindling of fire, apana and prana, the sleeping kundalini is awakened; it becomes straight like a snake beaten by a stick… The kundalini enters the brahma nadi in the same way a snake enters a hole'
Have we got so stuck in our idea of the Physical practise of Yoga that we forgot about it’s true destination Raja Yoga? The Yoga pond has become quite murky in the West and it seems that a lot of people are not aware that 1) Hatha Yoga is ANY Yoga that you do with your physical body! And 2) Yoga’s true purpose is Raja Yoga, not Hatha Yoga, and certainly not just doing poses. I know I sound cruel but it’s just a case of ignorance, we can only judge based on what we know, and we only know what we know. N.E Sjoman, who was an avid practitioner as well as scholar who has researched the history of asanas goes as far as to suggest that modern practitioners have even refused the support of the ancient teachings in order to lend authenticity to their own practises... he writes in his book The Yoga Tradition of The Mysore Palace 'The modern tradition is strong on asanas, are the asanas really part of the Yoga system or are they created and enlarged upon with the very recent past in response to modern emphasis on movement?' Or as my friend said in class the other day 'Why is the Yoga industry treating the students like children? Why do we need Unicorn Yoga? Hippy Yoga? We need REAL YOGA MAN!' (Thanks Mike!)
Thank you for reading! I hope I have got you thinking and asking questions too! Obviously this is a huge topic and this has just skimmed the surface, there are many great scholars out there working to unearth and decode the mystery of the Raja and Hatha history and relationship to each other through the ages. I will come back to the subject of the modern day class and Vinyasa Flow later, but in Part 2 I want to talk about the Current Scenario here now in the West. I will discuss the fast material image and tech obsessed world and the trap of Samsara, true colours vs true nature aka Purusha vs Prakriti and all of this amongst Covid -19.