I wanted to blog today about the meaning and practice of yoga from the perspective of hatha and raja yoga. Have some patience. The theory developed in the first part will pay off in a deeper understanding of the practical application in the second part.
Today's 'yoga' is almost always derived from hatha yoga. What is hatha?
Hatha is defined in several ways as 'forceful', 'willful', even 'violent'. This last definition seems to go against the first principle of the classical yamas as defined by Patanjali which is ahimsa or 'non-violence'. We have to be careful with that one.
The way that I take this definition is that Hatha involves a certain intensity of will. It is an attitude that is undertaken when we practice that involves sharpening our dedication to yoga in a way that cuts like a sharp sword through the obstacles that inhibit us.
One of the meanings of yoga is union. From that meaning, let us look at another definition of hatha as given by Brahmarandra in his commentary on the Hathapradipika:
"The word hatha is composed of the syllables ha and tha, meaning the sun and the moon, i.e. Prana and Apana. Their yoga or union, i.e. Pranayama, is called Hatha Yoga. In this stanza (which says the hathayoga is a 'stairway for those who wish to attain the lofty Raja Yoga) and throughout the work (the Hathapradipika), it is stated that Hatha Yoga is only a means to Raja Yoga. 'There can be no Raja Yoga without Hatha Yoga and vice versa.'"
Hmm. Lot to unpack there...
Rewording a little bit, we have:
'Hatha Yoga, also known by Pranayama, is the union of the Prana and Apana, the Sun and the Moon. Hatha Yoga is a means to attain Raja Yoga.'
Lets leave aside the meaning of Raja Yoga for a second and take a look at these concepts Prana and Apana.
There are many ways to discuss Prana and Apana. I am going to talk about these concepts from the perspective of direct experience as I find it easier that way.
Prana is that attractive force of life, centered in the core of the body (spine). Apana is that repellant force which removes that which is unwanted. It is centered outside of the body. Some of you may be saying at this point, "Well Yajnavalkya says the prana is in the chest and the apana is in the legs and lower regions..." Yes, yes, yes, these are just other ways of looking at very complex forces. Here I am following the teaching of Tantra and the Yoga Vasistha, which places Prana central and Apana peripherally. I'm going to go with that for now...
Hatha Yoga, according to Brahmarandra is nearly equivalent to the practice of pranayama. Here, pranayama is not simple breath exercises, but is rather the direct manipulation, or the 'forceful or willful' control of the life force essences. These forces exist prior to the physical breath. By gaining control over these forces and then ultimately uniting them, we have Hatha Yoga.
Before moving on, lets look again at the breakdown of hatha into its two parts. Ha and Tha. The Tha sound here by the way is made by pushing the tongue up to the top of the mouth. It doesn't sound like an actual th sound as in 'the' but rather more like a 'ta' but with the tongue curled back and up. Hatha sounds more like 'ha ta' with the tongue up. Anyway, ha can also be sun, tha can also be moon. We can interpret these as prana and apana but we can also use them as defining the primary polar channels of the nadis, which run alongside our central column and connect to the nostrils.
The word nadi means river. Many think of the nadis like Chinese acupuncture meridians. I don't have expertise in acupuncture but from my little understanding of it, I don't think this is the case at all. The classical nadis are actually described from a sensory perspective. This means that all of the nadis have their openings at one of the classical sense doors, the ears, skin, eyes, tongue (taste), and nose. These just described are called the jnanendriyas or jnana indriyas, the knowledge senses. However there are also nadis at the tongue (speech), hands, feet, genitals, and anus. These are called the karmendriyas or karma indriyas, the action senses.
Yajnavalkya tells us that the nadis have their terminus in the sense organs and their origin in the navel, a place called the kanda (described in the texts like an orphic egg). The upanishads tell us that the nadis have their origin in the heart. Other tests describe the origin in the sexual center. What does this tell us? That the texts are confused and that no one actually knows where the center of the nadis is? No. What this tells me is that the nadis have their connection to all of these places.
What is this central place that all of the nadis connect to? It is the central highway, the central river, the central column. What the texts call the susumna nadi. It can be thought of as the central river into which all the peripheral rivers merge. It can be thought of as the world tree, with many peripheral branches. It can be thought of as the central mountain, surrounded by the other hills. All of our main life centers or cakras exist along this column or river. Depending on what we are needing, the nadis may route differently during different times.
The main polar, peripheral nadis are the pingala and ida. The right and left channels which have exits at the nostrils. There is much to say about these. From our perspective here in the defining of hatha yoga, we are interested in these two channels as the channel of the sun and the moon respectively. These channels have different qualities as described in the Siva Svarodhya, an excellent text on the ancient science of Svara Yoga, the yoga of divination based on the current flows in the nostrils. The right nostril governs activity, exertion, sex, eating and other active expressions. The left nostril governs more passive activity, contemplation, rest, and retreat. The deranged expressions of these two nostrils, when unhealthy are manic activity and torpor or sloth.
The union of these two forces is like a calming of their excess, so that they are able to balance out. In this balancing, the twin nostrils come to equality in their flow and it is then said that the life force enters the central column. This is true in my direct experience. When this happens, the mind stops and there is a deep calm all throughout the body.
The Hathapradipika tells us when the mind and life energy centralize in the Susumna nadi then the mind becomes objectless. This gives us a clue for something which will be discussed later on.
I will talk more on the practical side of this later. Lets first come back to our definition which was extrapolated from Brahmarandra above. I'll repeat it again:
'Hatha Yoga, also known by Pranayama, is the union of the Prana and
Apana, the Sun and the Moon. Hatha Yoga is a means to attain Raja Yoga.'
So what is Raja Yoga?
Raja yoga is the 'royal yoga', a term oftentimes used to describe methods of mind control. The tradition of raja yoga is expressed beautifully in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Vyasa, one of the classical commentators of the Yoga Sutras, gives a wonderful explanation of Raja Yoga, broken down for us in a more practical way in his commentary on Yoga Sutra 1.1.
I will quote part of the commentary here and then we will look at it:
"Yoga means Samadhi (a highly concentrated state of mind). It is a feature of the mind in all its habitual states. Such states are five in number: kshipta (restless), mudha (torporous), vikshipta (distracted), ekagra (one-pointed), and niruddha (arrested)."
Ok, a lot to unpack again...
Lets start with the definition of Yoga here as samadhi. Yoga, depending on its conjugation as a word, means union or samadhi. These are not entirely unrelated as we shall see later. Here, Vyasa is choosing to define yoga as samadhi, a highly concentrated state of mind, wherein the mind is focused exclusively on one object or alternately with no objects of mind at all. These two states of highly focused concentration are called ekagra or niruddha respectively. The types of samadhi, Vyasa goes on to explain, that correspond to these two states of mind are called samprajnata and asamprajnata respectively.
Having only briefly discussed the two yogic states and samadhis, let us look first at what is not a concentrated mind.
The first state of mind talked about by Vyasa is kshipta, which means restless or agitated. It is a state akin to busyness, freneticness, distraction from too much thinking, and an over active mind. It can occur when we have too much air and/or fire, or what is termed in Indian philosophy, an imbalance of the Rajas guna. The gunas are three in number and compose the base elements of our psychic, physical, and emotional constitution. So when the guna corresponding to air and fire is out of balance, then we have the potential for a mind dominated by the restless or kshipta state. Going back to our discussion of the nadis, from a nadi perspective, this would mean that we have an imbalance in our right or solar nadi, which could either give us a lack of fire or too much of it. In this case we would have too much. This could be indicated by a lack of flow in the left nostril or too strong of a flow in the right. I am talking in very simple terms here and this is a very general diagnosis. The complexity can be far greater but this is a good first approximation.
The second state talked about is mudha, which means torporous or stupefied. It is a dull, blank, tired, distracted state. It is like frozen mud. Too much water and earth. It is an imbalance of what Indian philosophy would call the Tamas guna. From a simple nadi perspective, this could mean an overactive left nostril which might bring an almost immobile state, or a blocked right nostril.
The third state talked about is a mixed state, called vikshipta. It means distracted. It is a state that is mixed with the other two. The mind is more concentrated and balanced in this state than the first two but it still doesn't have the capacity for concentration and clarity that the yogic states do. Most likely the nostrils in this case will be fairly open but one of them dominant over the other in its flow.
In life, we alternate between these three states, only occasionally and usually accidentally, without purpose, finding ourselves in the yogic states.
I have discussed these two yogic states of ekagra and niruddha (through the processes of samprajnata and asamprajnata samadhi) before in several of my previous blogs:
In brief, the ekagra state is one in which the mind holds one thing. It is sattvic in nature which means it is almost pure sattva guna, or ethereal or space-like in nature.
In practice, one-pointedness can also be on many things (not just one thing) but those many things should all be the many things that the practitioner has chosen to focus the mind on. In other words, the mind is doing what we want it to and not just acting in a conditioned and unconscious way.
The niruddha state is one in which the mind itself is held in its ground state and is not allowed to arise. The sub-impulses which hold the mind in check are conditionings in themselves, called nirodha samskaras by Patanjali in sutra 1.18.
There is much more to say on this process and what it involves in theory but we may find the practical application of learning how to find these states more interesting, at least for now.
Lets try to bring it all together. How can Hatha Yoga bring about Raja Yoga?
If we examine the five states of mind in terms of relating them to the 3 gunas we come up with the following (easier to see this chart on a computer screen):
State Guna Nadi Functioning
kshipta (restless) rajas right dominant
mudha (torporous) tamas left dominant
vikshipta (distracted) mixed rajas, tamas, sattva one dominant but more even
ekagra (one-pointed) sattva even flow through both (centralized)
niruddha (resolved or held) all gunas resolved in source breath cuts out (deep central)
This is a very generalized chart but it gives us a good first approximation of the actuality of meditation that occurs due to yoga.
Just by the studying and examining of this chart, we have much of the understanding of what to look for in terms of finding the yogic states of ekagra and niruddha.
What do we need for ekagra? We have to find a balanced state, not too restless, not too tired. Our nostrils should be in even flow.
How does this relate in practice? Lets take a few postures from hatha yoga to discuss how techniques can help.
Seated meditation positions (padmasana, siddhasana, svastikasana, and others):
In the seated positions our main attention should be to our spine and its two "legs", the sit bones. The sit bones go down so the spine can lift up. Sitting on a cushion takes away the feeling of the contact force so ideally should be eliminated. There are techniques to work with this for stiff beginners. I almost prefer beginners to start sitting in a chair, a hard chair to really find this. Anyway, once the seat goes down and the spine goes up, we draw our attention into the spine. Sinking to the right or forward is going to increase the tamasic guna, inducing tiredness or the mudha state. Sinking to left or backward is going to increase rajas guna, making us more restless. Sitting upright needs to occur in order for the sattvic and thus one-pointed state to arise. Longchenpa, a famous Buddhist teacher from centuries ago, said in one of his meditation manuals that to sit correctly is 90 percent of meditation. Just sitting correctly alone can bring about the one-pointed state of mind. Once we are sitting correctly, we examine the nostril flows. If they are not even we can either correct that through breathwork or engage certain asanas like twisting postures or work with the groins or shoulders to release blockages and then bring the flows back to even, thus driving the life force more central. If there is major restlessness or torpor not fixed by this, we may need to look at our sleep or diet. The yamas and niyamas should be followed for maximum ability to overcome restlessness and torpor as really these are just symptoms which come to us from the conditionings of our life. The yamas and niyamas will help with this. Lastly, another way we can address the adjustment of flows is through the practice of mudra. Mudra, defined very simply, is a powerful practice within the hatha yoga toolkit that centralizes the life current and brings evenness to the peripheral channels and breath.
What is mudra? Very simply, mudra is a process of 'tuning'. It is like tuning a stringed instrument. We know we want to come to a centralized even flow. So we adjust. We employ one of two 'remedies'.
The first remedy is for the kshipta or restless or distracted state. To overcome restlessness, we need to relax. Our mind or body is contracting and we have to learn to feel that contraction to let it go. Thought itself can be felt, most often in the front brain, mid-brow region. We learn to feel that contraction and let it go. Focusing on the pause at the end of the in breath will help us here. This is the remedy of relaxing.
The second remedy is for the mudha or torporous state. We are too tired so we need to wake up. We rouse. We can make a crazy face, open the eyes, hold the breath in deep, focusing on the in-breath hold.
These two remedies can quickly adjust the state of body and mind. There are many more techniques which we can use to relax or rouse. This is just a brief introduction.
Let us look at one other position we encounter in Hatha Yoga.
pascimottanasana we start seated upright as in dandasana. Danda is a
staff. The staff is related to fire. The column of fire is our central
column. Thus, the Hathapradipika tells us "this most excellent of all
asanas, pascimottanasana, makes the breath flow through the Susumna (the
central nadi)..." In pascimottanasana we are not going to be able to
get central flow functioning if we just relax everything and flop
forward. Remember how I said before in the seated position that the
forward movement of the spine may induce the tamasic guna? This is why
we get tired when we fold forward in pascimottanasana. We can correct
this by the remedy of rousing, sharpening our consciousness and employing Shambhavi Mudra,
focusing our attention on the feeling in the mid-brow and spine. Doing
this will brighten our consciousness and reduce the tiredness. This will
further feed back into the centralization process and soon we will be
wide awake and alert and even one-pointed in the forward bend. All
forward bends can be employed like this.
Use your deductive powers to figure out what will be required in backward bendings and some of the other postures...
The important point in asana practice is to notice the present state and continuously
adjust it. Our attention is like the Buddha told us to have, "to live
like you were living in a room with poisonous snake." In other words, we
become very alert. The attention demanded here strengthens our resolve
and we start to understand why hatha is 'forceful or willful' here. It
is the same will and mental resolve that gets us to pass a semi-truck on
an icy highway at night. We don't go to sleep.
is the way we ideally practice throughout our asana practice. We first
adjust and then move. In other words, the feeling comes before the form.
Many of us try to find the feeling after imitating the form. But we can
imitate for a long time without ever discovering the feeling. This
would be akin to playing a stringed instrument incessantly and hoping
that somewhere along the way in our practice of it that it will somehow
tune itself. It won't. The tuning comes first. And it happens again
along the way.
So coming back to Hatha and Raja Yoga, let us once again look at our reworded definition given us by Brahmarandra:
'Hatha Yoga, also known by Pranayama, is the union of the Prana and
Apana, the Sun and the Moon. Hatha Yoga is a means to attain Raja Yoga.'
By adjusting the nadi flows through breath and asana, observing balance in sleep and diet, following yama and niyama, we begin to unite the flows, come into our center, and find the one-pointed state of mind.
This is Hatha Yoga.
Obviously there is much more to say. The subject matter is a lifetime of study and this discussion is very brief and only talks about the subject in a limited way.
I have not discussed here diet and the relationship of yama and niyama to centralizing the flows and calming the mind. There is more to say on the union of prana and apana. I have also neglected to discuss asamprajnata samadhi and the fifth state of niruddha. Another time.
In the meantime, here are a few of my other posts which go deeper into the study of mudra, which may help deepen the understanding of this discussion.
I wish you all blessings on your journey of yoga.
Additional Posts on Mudra