Hatha Yoga, a stairway to Raja Yoga

(Written by Krishna Wiuker, based on the teachings of Swami Vishnudevananda and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika)
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Hatha Yoga is a path of intense self-discipline, in order to control the Prana or cosmic energy, with the purpose to control the mind and bring it to the experience of perfect meditation or stillness.
Nowadays many people have heard the term Hatha Yoga, and many people say that they practice it, but in fact there is in general very little understanding about it, its real purpose and techniques, and very few practice it in its original or classical way.
Hatha yoga is often wrongly called “physical yoga” and it is popularly believed to consist in the mere practice of asanas alone and even the asanas are wrongly considered by some to be just a form of physical exercise alone, the contraction or relaxation of certain muscles, but in fact this is not what hatha yoga, by its own definition is.
It is true that hatha yoga has some very important practices that involve the use and training of the physical body, and the proper use of certain muscles and breathing and it has many physical benefits, like, improving strength and flexibility, removal of toxins, and it has gotten more and more well known for its excellent benefits in overall health, reduction of the daily stress and improvement of the body functions, strength and wellbeing in general.
But that is only a small part of what hatha yoga sadhana really is.
In the classical scripture “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” of Swatmarama Yogi, its purpose is clearly stated:
Ch 1-Verse 1
“I salute the first lord Siva, who taught to Parvati the Hatha Vidya (science or knowledge) that is a step to the attainment of the most excellent Raja Yoga”
Ch 1-Verse 2
“Swatmarama Yogi, having saluted his own Guru, gives out the Hatha Vidya solely for the attainment of Raja Yoga”
So from the very beginning the author states very clearly and emphatically, not only once, but twice as trying to really make a point, that the goal and purpose of Hatha yoga is the attainment of Raja yoga.
Now, what is then Raja yoga?
Going to the Raja Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Yoga (Raja Yoga) is described in the following way:
1- Now yoga is explained
2- “Yogas chitta Vritti Nirodaha” translated as: “Yoga is the restraining (or inhibition) of the activities of the mind” (stilling the thought waves)
3- At that time, (when the thought waves are stilled) the perceiver rests in his own nature


Why do we want to restrain and still the activities of the mind?
This is something very important to understand.
Everybody is looking for some happiness in this life. But where do most people look for that happiness?
Mostly through the senses, experiencing pleasant objects, sensations or situations. We like to see, hear, touch, taste, smell beautiful and pleasant objects, and avoid the opposite, unpleasant ones. Or we look for psychological pleasures like: power, prestige, high position, success in work, praise from others, being with the people we like or experiencing exciting emotions.
Then we perform all kind of actions and efforts to acquire those pleasant objects and if we succeed to get them, then we do all kind of efforts to keep them.
But there is a fundamental problem with all that: all these pleasant objects or situations are temporary, they have a beginning and an end, they don’t survive the factor if time, they pass, sooner or later.
And the more our happiness depends on these objects, the more unhappiness or pain we experience when they are gone.
And even if you can hold to a pleasant object for some time, the pleasure and momentary happiness you get from them does not last.
Everything that we can perceive and experience through our senses and mind is changing. Everything that goes up must go down at certain time. Everything that is born will undoubtedly die.
Everything that is pleasant at one time will turn unpleasant or painful, later on.

So the philosophy of Yoga explains that the happiness that everyone is looking for, does exists, but it is not to be found in any object or acquired through any action, but it is the very inherent nature of the Self, called the Purusha or the Atma.
We cannot get or possess that happiness because we ARE that happiness, we are made of it, it is the essence of our own innermost Self. Any action or effort to look for it elsewhere will only bring us away from it and to the inevitable experience of pain.
After experiencing that pain long enough, a distaste for this experience dawns in the mind (vairagya) and the intelligence awakes to the proper recognition of the situation (viveka)
But while the mind remains in the state of ignorance (Avidya) the mind is looking for happiness outwards, in the world of objects, trough the senses and the mind itself.
Even the momentary happiness that we experience from the objects in the form of pleasure is nothing but a momentary reflection of the Self in them, like the reflection of the Sun in many different water paddles after it rains. But the water evaporates quickly and soon that apparent temporary Sun disappears.
But when the mind it brought to the state of quietness, stillness, silence; the illusion created by it ceases and what remains is the pure consciousness or Purusha, who is ever blissful.
Therefore at that time, the sutra says, “The perceiver dwells in its own nature”, and at that time the true happiness and satisfaction is experienced.

So Raja Yoga is that discipline to train the mind to undo that outward tendency in search for an illusory happiness, and bring it inwards and keep it still, silent, motionless, so the True Self is experienced.

What is then Hatha yoga and how does it relate to Raja yoga?
The mind is very difficult to control. Its outward, scattered and veiling tendency has been going on for innumerable life times and has created a very powerful momentum or Samskara and just trying to stop it takes a gigantic effort, training and discipline.
But here Hatha yoga comes to help and explains that the mind is kept scattered because of the motion of the Prana, the energy or life force.
In the same way if we look at the leaves of a tree and we see them moving, it is because there is a wind that moves them. We don’t see the wind, but we see its effect in the leaves.
When we see the flame of a candle moving, it is because there are wind currents in the room. If we stop these currents, by closing the windows, doors, etcetera, then the flame will remain quiet.
So Hatha Yoga is the discipline to control the prana, in order to control and still the mind

Through hatha yoga, the oscillating and unsteady flow of prana, which creates the vrittis in the mind, is disciplined and regulated. The prana is brought into the Sushumna Nadi or central channel and, if it is kept there long enough, that will automatically bring the mind into the state of stillness or Nirudha.
When the prana is brought and kept in the sushumna, it is like taking out the oxygen from a fire. The fire will be extinguished!
When the prana is kept in the sushumna there is no more up and down, right or left, good or bad, day or night, small or big, in and out, past or future, this or that. Without that duality, the mind ceases to oscillate, it stops, there are no more vrittis. That the state called “”Raja Yoga”
When the prana flows in the other nadis, ida and pingala, there is an oscillation, a dualistic experience in the mind, the mind cannot remain quiet. All kind of vrittis are then created in the mind stuff, according to the way the prana vibrates and oscillates. Each kind of thought or vritti has a corresponding breathing pattern.
By changing the breath patterns, the Vrittis are changed and eventually stopped.
Even before we get to the level of suspending the vrittis completely, the training of the breath will create new kind of vrittis, of a Sattvic nature, that will substitute the rajasic and tamasic ones.

The mind and the prana always go together.
If you can control the mind, you will control the prana.
• If you can control the Prana, the mind will be controlled.

Before we progress with that concept, the meaning of the word Prana has to be explained a bit more.

PRANA
Prana is the universal energy in the form of life force. All kinds of forces in the universe, like electricity, magnetism, nuclear energy, chemical reactions, are nothing but different manifestations of the universal force, the Divine power or Shakti.
That Universal Shakti is the Prana, or we can say more specifically that when this cosmic Shakti manifests as the life force it is called Prana.
Everything that is alive has prana. A living organism has Prana. A copse has no prana.

We are connected to the universal source of energy or Prana mainly through our breath.
The physical body lives only because of the flow of Prana on it.
It we take an analogy of an electric light bulb, the bulb emits light and heat because of the electric current that flows through it. If we cut the electricity, the light gets off. We don’t see the electrivity with our eyes, but we know it is there because of its effects in the light bulb, light and heat.
In the same way the functions of the body, like blood circulation, heartbeat, digestion, elimination, absorption, motion of the body, muscle activity, neurological activity, all this can happen only as far as there is prana flowing through the body.
The physical body is permeated by another body called the Subtle body (shukshma sharira) also called the Astral body.
This astral body has in itself different layers of subtlety, where the Prana, mind sensory organs, action organs, intelligence and the ego function. There is another body called the causal body (Karana sharira) who is the cause of the other two (the astral and physical), where the seeds of karma and ignorance that manifest the astral and physical body reside.
It is the connection between the physical body with the astral body that keeps the physical alive.
At the time of death, the astral and causal body disassociate from the physical body, leaving it behind. They disconnect from each other. The body then, having no prana becomes just a corpse and not even being able to keep its constituents together it dissolves back into the elements of the nature, where it came from through the food we ate.

NADIS
In that Astral or subtle body there is a network of channels where the Prana flows. Those channels are called NADIS. They are also called “astral nerves” or “astral tubes”.
They are like rivers or prana, or like the numerous branches of a tree where the sap flows.
According to the yogic scriptures there are 72.000 nadis in the astral body.
Among those, 10 are more important, and among them, 3 are the most important of all of them. If we learn to control the flow of the prana in these 3 nadis, we can control all the rest 72.000.
These 3 are called: Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.
The nadis, even though they are in the subtle astral body, they have a correspondence with a physical counterpart in the physical body. Those are the main nerves and spinal cord.
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Ida:
Ida is also called Chandra or Moon nadi and it flows in the left side of the body, it has its root on the mooladhara chakra at the base of the spine, and it goes up spiraling and ends at the left nostril.

Pingala:
Pingala is also called Surya or Sun Nadi and it flows in the right side of the body, from the mooladhara to the right nostril.

Sushumna:
Sushumna nadi also originates in the mooladhara chakra and it flows along the spinal cord, ending at the crown of the head or sahasrara chakra.

The word hatha comes from Ha which means Sun, and Tha, which means Moon.
Yoga here means union. Hatha yoga is the discipline by which we can unite the Sun and Moon energy.
The Sun energy flows through Pingala nadi.
The Moon energy flows through Ida nadi
When the union of Sun and Moon happens, this united energy flows through the sushumna nadi.

In the great majority of people sushumna nadi is closed, obstructed and quite inactive.
All the prana flows through either ida or pingala nadi.
When we breathe through the left nostril, Ida or the moon energy is activated.
When we breathe through the right nostril, Pingala or the Sun energy is activated.
If we observe the flow of the breath in the nostrils during the day, we will notice that one of the two is more open than the other for some time, and then it shifts for some time and so on during day and night.
That cycle is of about 1,5 hours average in a healthy person. It means that for 1,5 hours the right nostril is more opened than the left, then for 1,5 hours the left is more open, then the right again and so on. That time can vary from individual to individual and according to different activities being performed, but this is an average time.
That alternation of the nostrils keeps the two poles of the energy, sun and moon, within a healthy range of balance, similar to a thermostat of an electric heating device.
When the Sun energy is active (right nostril open), the body becomes heated up, is more ready for physical action and the mind is more extroverted and focused in practical rational kind of thinking. But if opened for too long, then the body and mind overheat, then the shift happens and the Moon Nadi becomes active.
When the Moon energy is active (left nostril open) the body cools down, is more ready for rest and recoup, the mind becomes more active in abstract and creative thinking.
The alternation of the nostrils has a natural balancing effect in the whole physical and mental functions keeping with in the healthy levels by keeping the homeostasis and factors like temperature, blood pressure, heartbeat, concrete or abstract thinking, introversion and extroversion of the personality, the two brain hemispheres and in the sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system in a state of balance as many modern medical scientific studies have demonstrated.
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    • SUN

      MOON
      Pingala Nadi Ida Nadi
      Right nostril Left Nostril
      Yamuna river Ganges river
      Hot Cold
      Pitta Kapha (or Vata if waning or new)
      Tejas
      Ojas
      Masculine Feminine
      External Internal
      Dynamic Passive
      Activates the sympathetic nerv. system Activates the Parasympathetic nerv, system
      Increases blood pressure Decreases blood pressure
      Increases blood sugar level Decreases blood sugar level
      Make the muscles tense and ready for action (fight or flight response) Relaxes the main muscles
      Increases heart beat rate Decreases heart beat rate
      Physical (Activates the body) Mental (Activates the mind)
      Activates left brain hemisphere Activates right brain hemisphere
      Stimulates more logical “practical” thinking Stimulates more abstract, intuitive or creative thinking (“artistic” mind)

    But this healthy balance of the nadis can be disturbed by several causes, like:
    improper diet, ingest of toxins like alcohol, tobacco, chemicals, drugs and by emotional disturbances like fear, anger, depression, over activity and stress factors.

    ASANAS AND PRANAYAMA
    The different practices of hatha yoga, like asanas and pranayama, have an amazing efficiency in bringing these nadis and functions back to balance, which quickly reflects in physical and psychological healing and wellbeing.
    Especially the practice of asanas and pranayama, done in the proper way, are very effective means to bring the balance. But a wrong kind of practice could actually increase the imbalance.
    During the asanas and pranayama, the proper balance between the effort and the relaxation is important. If the asanas are performed in a too strenuous manner, too dynamic, with an agitated breath, with tension, too much effort and with too much focus on the physical performance and a spirit of competition it will increase too much the sun energy. Many modern schools of yoga have this propensity.
    On the other hand, asanas done with laziness, too easy, too slow will increase too much the Moon energy and make the body cold, the metabolism too slow and the mind too sleepy. Neither extreme is desirable. So the asanas practice should combine both, stimulating, activating and energizing exercises with periods of relaxation, release of tensions and an introspective and meditative mood at the same time.
    The practitioner should gradually increase the period or retention of the asana, reaching a point where the asana becomes comfortable, firm and steady and can be held for long time.

    The 3 gunas
    In the beginning of the practice, asanas and exercises that are more dynamic, stimulating and awakening are practiced, like the sun Salutation and different variations of asanas. This helps to move out from the state of Tamas or lethargy, laziness, to the state of Rajas or activity. Then the rajas or activity has to be transformed into Sattva. This happens when the asana is held for a longer time, quiet and relaxed at the same time.
    When you hold a posture quietly, the body and mind have to be awake and strong, but at the same time the mind has to be focused and quiet to be able to hold it. This brings the Satvic state, or state of equilibrium.
    The breathing during the postures is also very important. The breath should be flowing, deeply, rhythmically and slowly, and never agitated, panting, blocked or unsteady.

  • THE IMPORTANCE OF DIET
    The proper yogic diet also pays a very important role in the achieving of sattva and is a very important part of yoga.
    Foods like meat, fish, alcohol, tobacco and other intoxicants are the worst since they block the nadis, harm the astral body and drain the prana and bring Tamas.
    Foods that are too spicy, pungent, salty, sour or bitter disturb the prana and nadis and create rajas or restlessness. Drinks like coffee, tea and others which have caffeine also create disturbances and agitation in the prana, nadis and mind. Onion, Garlic and asafetida are also disturbing and not suitable for yoga sadhana.
    The recommended foods for success in yoga are those that increase sattva and Ojas, like for example, milk, ghee, grains, nuts, almonds, honey, some vegetables and sweet fruits

  • Only when sattva predominates over rajas and Tamas, the further practices of pranayama, bandhas and mudras can be effective. Pranayama, especially the advanced forms, should not be attempted until the satva guna dominates over rajas and tamas.

    After the asanas are practiced and a required level of sattva and balance is acquired, a further deeper level of balance is achieved by the alternate nostril breathing or anuloma-viloma pranayama.

    But the intention and benefits of hatha yoga don’t end on the physical and healing level, they are intended to bring other deeper or spiritual effects as we will analyze.
    In a more advanced state of practice, when trough the different practices of hatha yoga, the Sun and moon energy are brought to a perfect balance, both the right and left nostrils will be open at the same time. If this balance is kept long enough, then the Sun and moon energy can be united, merged together.
    When the ida and pingala are perfectly opened and balanced and the nadis have been purified by proper practices, the Sushumna nadi becomes pure and active and the united Sun/Moon energy enters into it.
    The prana then leaves ida and pingala and enters into the sushumna.
    Ida and Pingala become temporary “dead” like a wire without electricity.
    In that state, the vrittis don’t get any prana and, like a fire without oxygen, they cease.
    According to how long the practitioner is able to hold the prana in the sushumna, he moves from the stage of Pranayama to the state of Pratyahara, then to Dharana, then Dhyana and finally Samadhi, the superconscious or enlightened state.
    When the prana enters the sushumna, it withdraws from the other nadis, which connect to the nerves and senses. The mind is brought inwards together with the prana.
    “Where the prana goes, the mind goes”
    So if the prana is kept in the sushumna, it doesn’t flow to the other nadis, then the mind also doesn’t go to the sense objects, but dwells in the internal experiences. This is the state of Pratyahara.
    Then, keeping the prana in the sushumna for a longer period of time without disruption, brings the mind into the state of deep concentration or Dharana. When it is held for a longer time with a constant flow without interruption it is called Dhyana or meditation and if it is kept there long enough it creates a powerful new samskara or impression in the mind stuff, which destroys all other samskaras and the yogi attains Samadhi, which in hatha yoga is called the “Unmani Avasta” state. Unmani Avasta means a “no-mind” state, no vrittis.

    KUNDALINI www.yoga-elsilencio.com www.9graha.com

    During this process of bringing and keeping the prana in the sushumna, the Kundalini Shakti is awakened and enters into it. When the nadis and sushumna have been purified enough, the Kundalini Shakti is awakened by the yogi by certain pranayamas, bandhas and mudras, or by the use of mantras or by the influence of the Guru who has it already awakened.
    Kundalini Shakti is the Divine power that creates, sustains and dissolves the whole universe. That same Divine power which creates the universe can bring the universe back to its original source, Ishwara or God.
    When this dissolution happens in the whole universe or “Macrocosm”, it is called Cosmic Pralaya.
    But when this process happens within the individual world or “Microcosm” the world as we experience it in our individual mind gets dissolved and only pure consciousness and bliss remain, this is called the awakening of the Kundalini and its return or union with Siva.
    The cosmic Shakti, after having created the universes, resides, like resting, in the mooladhara chakra. Siva or the pure consciousness resides in the highest chakra or sahasrara.
    When the kundalini enters the Sushumna it is gradually brought upwards as the yogi increases his level of prana and keeps it for longer time in the sushumna and practicing the right technique as taught by his guru.
    The longer time the yogi can keep the prana in the sushumna, the highest is can go, until eventually it reaches and remains in the sahasrara and unites with Siva, bringing the highest blissful experience of union.
    This is comparable to connecting a high voltage battery (the Kundalini in the mooladhara) to a high power light bulb (the sahasrara), through a high capacity wire (the sushumna). Then a tremendous light is turned ON.
    This, of course can happen only after long time of constant sadhana and complete purification of body, nadis and the mind. www.yoga-elsilencio.com www.9graha.com
    No matter how much one practices, if there is no purification, the prana cannot be held in a high state for long time, the old negative or impure samskaras will pull it back down to its old low energy state.
    Only after perfection in Yamas and Niyamas, which include complete devotion and surrender to the Lord and trough karma yoga and renunciation to all selfless actions the complete success can be achieved.

    The importance of the teacher or Guru
    If we understand what hatha yoga really is, we can understand why the scriptures and Masters have emphatically insisted that the guidance of a qualified teacher is utmost essential in this form of yoga.
    Prana is a subtle force and it cannot be explained properly by words. The same with the meditative states. Its understanding is transmitted mostly in a non-verbal way from the teacher to the student.
    Since we are manipulating the energies that sustain the body and mind, any mistake done in this practice can have serious consequences in the physical or mental health.
    Some very basic practices of asana and basic simple breathing exercises can be taught and practice by everyone, but when we go to the more advanced practices like pranaymas, bandhas and mudras, which have the capacity to awake the Kundalini power, then the guidance of a Guru, a teacher who has proper training and personal experience with this energy is essential.
    The hatha yoga techniques cannot be learned from books or improvised in an experimental way.
    A child can play with a small torch battery, but to manipulate a high voltage wire you need the guide of an expert electrician. Otherwise you could end up electrocuted.
    The advanced practices should only be practiced in a very gradual manner and with the personal direct guidance of the teacher. A teacher may teach different exercises or different levels or practice to different students according to their capacity and his knowledge and experience.
    The student should be very patient and not trying to hurry too much. Purification takes time.
    The most important point is the regularity in the practice and respecting the rules laid by the teacher.
    Many kinds of astral body experiences may happen during the practice, but the sign that the practice is working well is only if the practitioner feels completely peaceful in his mind and heart and with his environment.

    The main practices of hatha yoga are:
    Yamas and Niyamas. They are the foundation of all other practices. Before sowing the good seeds in a field, the bad herbs have to be removed. The negative habits and behaviors have to be purified; otherwise the karma won’t allow any progress.
    Proper diet. A proper diet helps to bring the sattva and peaceful mind, keeps the body healthy, promotes quick and easy digestion and nourishes the dhatus or systems of the body, the nerves and mind.
    Kriyas. The kriyas will help to eliminate toxins from the system and allow the prana to flow properly.
    Asanas. They bring health and strength, flexibility and stability to the body removing the main physical obstacles to the other practices. They strech and press the Nadis making the prana flow and removing stagnation in the nadis, and start to balance sun and moon energy. The asanas done in the proper wat bring the predominance of Sattva Guna in the bidy and mind.
    They prepare the body to be able to acquire a proper meditative erect posture, needed for the pranayama and meditation.
    Pranayama. Purifies the nadis, increases the level of prana which brings health and mental strength. It balances Sun and moon energy and brings the mind to a state of peace.
    Bandhas and Mudras. They lock and seal the prana, allowing it to move on certain paths and preventing it to move to other ones. They help unite prana and apana, sun and moon and bring it into the sushumna, they awake the Kundalini Shakti , hold the prana still and induce the meditative state.
    They should only be practiced after long purification of the nadis and only under guidance of the Guru.
    Meditation/Samadhi. In that stage, hatha yoga becomes Raja Yoga.
    In hatha yoga the main meditation technique is the practice of kevala kumbaka or keeping a state or restraint of the breath where there is neither inhalation nor exhalation. This is not a forceful retention but it becomes spontaneous when the nadis are completely purified. That keeps the prana in the sushumna. The longer it is held, the highest the prana and Kundalini is raised until it reaches its highest abode.
    Another important meditation is on listening and becoming absorbed in the anahata or inner sounds and in the inner light. The mind becomes dissolved in its source.

    4-108 “The yogi in Samadhi is not swallowed up by the process of time (death) He is not influenced by good or bad karma, nor is he affected by anything done against him.

    4-109 “The yogi in Samadhi experiences neither smell, touch, sound, shape nor color. He is not aware of himself or the others.”

    4-112“In the waking state, when a yogi stays, as if asleep, in a steady state devoid of inhalation and exhalation, then indeed he is liberated”

  • Krishna Wiuker is a direct disciple of Swami Vishnudevananda and has been a yoga and meditation teacher for over 25 years. He is the main Hatha Yoga instructor in many Sivananda Yoga Teachers Training Courses (TTC), advanced yoga teachers training courses (ATTC) and advanced sadhana retreats at various of the Sivananda Ashrams worldwide.
    He is also the director of the Sivananda Sadhana kutir - El Silencio, a retreat center in Uruguay.


  • Om Namah Sivaya!

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