Hatha Yoga the foundation of Tantra

Swami Satyananda Saraswati given at the Dublin Convention on Sept. 22nd 1979

Hatha yoga is a very important science. In ancient times it was practised for many years as a preparation for higher states of consciousness. Now, however, the real purpose of this great science is being forgotten altogether. The hatha yoga practices which were designed by the rishis and sages of old, for the evolution of mankind are now understood and utilised in a very limited sense. Often we hear people say: 'Oh, I don't practise meditation, I only practise physical yoga, hatha yoga.' But now the time has come to correct this viewpoint.

Ida and pingala

Hatha yoga concerns two important and vital systems in the physical body - the solar and lunar forces. In tantra and in hatha yoga these are known as ida and pingala. Ida represents the mental force, and pingala the pranic force. In the body these pranic and mental forces interact with each other, respectively controlling, guiding and directing the senses of action and of knowledge. Due to them we live, move, think and know.

Pranic and mental force are conducted through ida and pingala nadis within the framework of the spinal passage. From each chakra they branch off via the network of nadis into all the respective organs and parts of the body. The scriptures and tantric texts state that in this physical body there is a complex of 72,000 nadis. I believe this is a conservative estimate. Nadi does not mean nerve. It means a flow, just as electricity, a radio wave or a laser beam is a flow. There are 72,000 channels or flows that carry these two interacting energies of ida and pingala from pore to pore of the human body. There is not one point in this body where you do not have the interaction of these two forces.

In the practices of hatha yoga we are concerned with the balance of ida and pingala; these two interacting forces of prana and mind. When the pranic force predominates and the mental force becomes subservient, there are physical imbalances due, to excess prana in the system. On the other hand, if the mental force is predominant and pranic force subservient, there are diseases related to the mind. This is the definition of somo-psychic and psychosomatic diseases. Diseases do not originate only in the mind, they also originate in the body. Body is part of the mind, and mind is part of the body. Mind and body are not two separate realities. At different stages of manifestation, we know them as body and mind, but in essence they are one.

Science of purification

In order to purify the mind, it is necessary for the body as a whole to undergo a process of absolute purification. Hatha yoga is also known as the science of purification, not one type of purification, but six types. If you take an enema, this is one type of purification; shankhaprakshalana is another. Purification of the whole nervous system is also a part of hatha yoga. Besides purifying the physical body, we have to purify the nadis. The body has to be cleansed in six different ways for six different impurities. When you clear the body of these impurities, the nadis function and the energy blocks are released. Then the energies move like wave frequencies along the physical structure of the channel, and they go right up to the brain.

Therefore, we consider hatha yoga as the preliminary practice of tantra, kundalini yoga and kriya yoga. When the rishis discovered the science of hatha yoga, they did not have yoga therapy in mind. Although yoga has proved to be very effective in the treatment of many impossible and incurable diseases, I consider the therapeutic effect of yoga as a by product and incidental. The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the pranic and mental force. When this balance is created, the impulses generated give a call of awakening to sushumna nadi- the central force which is responsible for illumining the higher centres of human consciousness. So the real purpose of hatha yoga is not to build the body or improve the health, but to energise and awaken the higher centres responsible for the evolution of human consciousness. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose then its true objective is lost.

Basis of transformation

Solar energy represents the sun, prana. Lunar energy represents the moon, mind. These two forces maintain the rhythm of life and consciousness. This is one stage of evolution, but mankind has to evolve. If civilisation is not structured along evolutionary lines, then man has to face disaster, death and absolute extinction. You cannot deny evolution.

Everything in this universe is evolving, even the rocks. If there is metamorphosis in every part of creation, why shouldn't man's consciousness undergo this state of metamorphosis? Transformation is a scientific fact. It is not a philosophy, faith or creed. It is the path of evolution and it gives meaning to life. This physical body constantly undergoes various processes of transformation, which affect each and every molecule of its material substance.

Now people have begun to realise that matter in its ultimate form is energy. Therefore, we will have to reanalyse and redefine what the body is and how far this transformation can be effected. Can the body be turned into fight particles? Think about it in terms of science, not in terms of the faith or belief that you have had up until now.

If this body can undergo a state of metamorphosis, then what is the way? The answer is yoga. Through the processes of yoga, the body is rendered so subtle and pure, that it is transformed into a yogic body which is unaffected by old age and disease.

Hatha yoga is practised in order to initiate a process in this physical body, whereby the pranic molecules and the mental forces which interact with each other in the scheme of life and existence, may be transformed. Unless the physical molecules are transformed, it is no use to discuss compassion or unity.

A great challenge is open to us. If matter in its ultimate form is energy, then this physical body can be transformed into solid energy through systematic practice of the six cleansing techniques of hatha yoga: neti, dhauti, basti, nauli, kapalbhati, and trataka. After this, asana and pranayama should be practised.

Dimensions of prana

Hatha yoga is the preparation for pranayama. Most people think of pranayama only as breathing exercises but actually it is far more. In Sanskrit 'ayama' literally means dimension, not control. So pranayama is practised in order to extend the dimensions of prana.

Years ago I wanted to know about the dimensions of prana. Has prana many planes of existence? In which planes does prana flow? What happens if prana does not flow? Around that time, I had a dream in which I saw a beautiful city with large roads lined with electricity poles. I went into the buildings and found lights, telephones, televisions, everything, but there was no electricity; the whole city was in complete darkness.

Similarly, within us are planes of existence, areas of consciousness which are in absolute darkness. These planes are much more beautiful and creative than the ones we live on now. But how are we going to penetrate and illumine them? It is useless to talk about the different states of consciousness. You must be able to experience them, even as you experience the state of dream or sleep. When the pranic energy is aroused and awakened through the practice of pranayama, it is circulated to these dark areas of consciousness. Then the inner city is illumined and man is reborn into a new dimension of existence, a new area of experience.

The practical aspect

If you want to achieve this transcendental experience, the practices, of hatha yoga and pranayama should be perfected. Also the rules and recommendations should be observed. This does not mean giving up all the pleasures of life, but, as you well know, 'You can't have your cake and eat it too.' So, once you have decided to step into another dimension of consciousness, you must be ready to sacrifice some of those things which are definitely detrimental to the practice of pranayama and hatha yoga. This is an important point that has to be considered. Therefore, I remind you that the practices of hatha yoga, asanas, and pranayama are ultimately intended for developing the quality of human consciousness- not just the mind. With this knowledge, with this attitude, we can progress through the practices.

Neti is a simple practice in which warm saline water is poured in through one nostril and out the other. With practice, you will be able to take a tumbler of cold water straight in through both nostrils, and you will feel how cooling and refreshing this is, The practices of dhauti are mainly concerned with cleaning the digestive tract. There are several types of dhauti. Kunjal, the stomach wash, is done by drinking saline water and vomiting it out. Vastra dhauti cleans the mucus out of the oesophagus and stomach by swallowing a long thin strip of cloth and then pulling it out. Shankhaprakshalana gives the entire digestive tract a complete wash and overhaul. It involves drinking sixteen glasses of saline water and performing a series of five asanas in between every two glasses. This removes all the decomposed and foul smelling mucus from the intestines.

Basti is the yogic enema in which water or air is sucked up through the anus and then expelled.

Nauli, the abdominal roll, strengthens the abdomen and removes all kinds of abdominal ailments.

Kapalbhati, the frontal bellows pranayama, purifies the frontal region of the brain and prepares the mind for meditation.

Trataka is a concentration technique in which you control the mind by controlling the pupils. This is practised by fixing a point of concentration, for example, the flame of a candle or a black dot. Gaze at this point for a minute, then close your eyes and visualise the counterpoint at the eyebrow centre.

Hatha yoga and pranayama are the foundation of kundalini yoga and tantra. My tradition is Vedanta, but I realise that philosophy is intellectual and you can never reach the point of evolution through the intellect. Intellect becomes a barrier to spiritual awakening, and we have to find a powerful means of transcending it. I have tried many methods, and have found pranayama most effective.


Much has been written about the science of pranayama. Nadi shodhana pranayama is purification of the energy channels. First you breathe in through the left nostril (which stimulates the right side of the brain). Hold your breath. Then breathe out through the right nostril (which stimulates the left side of the brain). Again hold the breath. Breathing in and out is an automatic process. Kumbhaka, holding the breath, is the actual pranayama, and it takes years of practice to perfect. When you have made some progress in the practice of pranayama, and can hold the breath without any discomfort, you have to add moola bandha (contraction of the perineum), uddiyana bandha (abdominal contraction), and jalandhara bandha (chin lock). These control and balance the increased energy throughout the system.

If you practise pranayama, you do not have to worry about the mind; the wild mind does not exist for you. As you go on practising pranayama, you push the pranic force into the different dark areas of your consciousness, and the mind evaporates. There is no thought process. Thoughts are impressions. You are reading this; it is an impression. You become aware of impressions stage by stage, and so you think that they are moving. But thoughts don't move - they don't travel into the past, present and future - they are just there, that's all.

When you change the structure of the physical material, the mental substance automatically undergoes a change. Mind is a further manifestation of the body, and when you influence the mind you also influence the spirit. So, body, mind and spirit are not 'the trinity' - they are the unity, one. This is the understanding behind the practices of pranayama and hatha yoga.

In India the practice of bhoo samadhi (underground samadhi) is well known. The yogi is buried underground and stays there in a state of trance for days at a time, his breathing rate and metabolism slowing down remarkably.

Scientists have calculated that an ordinary man would die after two hours in such a situation. But some yogis can voluntarily reduce the rate of their physical processes, so that the need for oxygen is greatly reduced.

In 1977 Swami Satyamurti, who was 102 years old, was buried underground for nine days. After six days he was declared clinically dead. Machines that were recording his pulse rate indicated that his heart had stopped, which meant that his brain was being deprived of oxygen. On the ninth day he emerged from his 'grave' in perfect health, as testified to by the medical doctors and the scientists attending the demonstration.

This is a remarkable feat. It may not be a great spiritual feat, but it is certainly a scientific feat and guideline. Through the practice of pranayama, the involuntary processes of body, brain and mind can be mastered. Control over these processes enables you to direct the major course and destiny of your life, and also of your death.

Hatha yoga is a great science which everyone can practise according to his own capacity. Maybe not all, but at least a few techniques can be practised each day. Hatha yoga techniques, along with asanas and a few pranayamas, are sufficient for most people. I have the greatest respect for meditation, but I believe it is necessary to practise these three preparatory limbs first. Then you may go further if necessary. If the preparation is perfect, there will be no need to learn meditation from anyone. One fine morning while practising pranayama, your mind will be lifted into a new realm of consciousness.

Satsang on Hatha Yoga

Are asanas and pranayama included in hatha yoga?

Academically, no. Hatha yoga principally means neti, dhauti, basti, kapalbhati, nauli and trataka, which are termed the shatkarmas. But asana and pranayama are popularly regarded as part of hatha yoga. Asanas are in raja yoga and so is pranayama. I am telling you the academic difference, but actually there is no difference. Hatha yoga and raja yoga are all the same.

Kapalbhati is a shatkarma, but it is also a pranayama and a kriya. Whereas other pranayamas require a somewhat purified system, kapalbhati does not because it purifies, so it comes under the shatkarmas.

Which is the superior practice for an educated person, hatha yoga or gyana yoga?

If an educated man has a physical problem, he should certainly practise hatha yoga. If an uneducated man has philosophical problems, then he should do gyana yoga. It depends on the problem. If you are sick you will ask, 'To which doctor should I go - surgeon, ayurvedic, homeopathic, allopathic and so on?' If you have appendicitis, then you must go to a surgeon. Likewise, if a man has physical or mental disorders, if his nadis are not functioning in complete harmony, then he should first take to the practices of hatha yoga.

What is the actual difference in the practice of kapalbhati and bhastrika pranayama?

In both kapalbhati and bhastrika, the respiration is rapid, but in kapalbhati the emphasis is on exhalation, whereas in bhastrika the inhalation and exhalation are equalised. During bhastrika the practitioner is aware of the movement of the abdomen and gains progressive control over it, while in kapalbhati attention is focused on the frontal region of the brain.

Why are bandhas practised with pranayama?

One gains the maximum benefits from pranayama when the bandhas are practised with kumbhaka (breath retention). Pranayama stimulates the flow of prana, and the bandhas control the flow and direct it to the required areas. When you perform moola bandha (locking the perineum) and jalandhara bandha (chin lock), you are forcing apana (the vital energy in the lower part of the body below the navel), to flow upwards and unite with prana (the vital energy in the region of the body between the larynx and the base of the heart).

When prana and apana unite it is a fantastic experience which generates vitality and helps to awaken kundalini.

Is it true that the rishis and munis in the Himalayas practise pranayama to withstand the cold and ice and live for years without food etc.?

In raja yoga there are eight fundamental stages: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The first five stages are intended to gradually remove all external distractions and direct the mind inwards. The purpose of pranayama is to awaken the sushumna nadi, because we know that without awakening sushumna you cannot succeed in concentration (dharana). When sushumna wakes up the mind becomes one-pointed without any effort.

In the Himalayas, and other places of the world, there are many mahatmas, rishis and sannyasins who have a very austere life. They are able to maintain themselves by preserving and increasing the pranashakti, or life force, in their physical body. Through intense practice of raja yoga, hatha yoga and dhyana yoga, they are able to completely change the nature and chemical structure of the body so as to withstand these extreme conditions.

With the practice of pranayama, more oxygen may be inhaled but that is not the important point. If oxygen alone is the purpose, then deep breathing would be sufficient. In pranayama inhalation and exhalation must be practised in the ratio of 1:2, because this ratio is most beneficial for the heart. From the pulse you can observe that with inspiration the heart rate speeds up, whereas with expiration it slows down. Therefore, when the ratio of 1:2 is used, the overall effect is that of relaxation of the coronary muscles, but without a reduction of the supply of oxygen to the brain and body tissues. Whereas if you practise 1:4, for example, the effect of relaxation is cancelled because the brain accelerates the heart rate in reaction to a decreased supply of oxygen in the blood.

When kumbhaka is incorporated into pranayama, certain portions of the brain can be controlled. There are two systems in the body known as the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. You can move the hands, but not the hypothalamus. But through the practices of pranayama, the brain can be trained to act according to your demands. You can stop its functions or accelerate them. This is how many yogis have been able to stop the heart for a number of days and revive it again. The heart is not an independent organ; it is controlled by a higher centre in the hypothalamus of the brain. With control of the brain, you can automatically control your coronary behaviour, body temperature, and digestive system, etc. If there is something wrong in the brain, the heart will immediately stop. Medicine has been used to treat the heart but actually one should look for the cause of the problem in the brain, and rectify it there, because this is the centre of control.

What are the benefits of neti?

Neti purifies the nasal passages and aids in the cure of colds and sinusitis, as well as various diseases of the brain and is therefore beneficial for epilepsy, hysteria, migraine and depression. It gives a general feeling of lightness and freshness in the head and removes drowsiness. Spiritually, it aids in the awakening of ajna chakra. In jala neti water is used and in sutra neti a special waxed cotton thread or a thin rubber catheter is passed into the nostril and pulled through the mouth.

Tell us something about trataka.

The Sanskrit word 'trataka' means to steadily gaze. If someone is staring at you for a long time you call it trataka. There are many ways of practising trataka. Some people do trataka on a candle flame, on a black dot, a crystal, the moon, a picture or a symbol, on the reflections in water or their own image in a mirror.

Trataka is a very important practice and a direct method of influencing the brain. The eye is actually an extension of the brain and the optic nerve is one of the twelve cranial nerves that emerge from the brain, not the spinal cord, so therefore, when we engage the optic system we are influencing the brain. The yogis discovered that making the eyes steady by gazing at a point either at the eyebrow centre, the nose tip, or a point outside of the body, immediately and beneficially affects the brain, and this has a reciprocal effect on the eye movements, the retina and the whole visual apparatus.

If you watch a sleeping person you can know whether he is sleeping deeply or dreaming. You can immediately tell by his eye movements whether he is worried, frightened, anxious, dreaming, thinking, sleeping or in samadhi, in deep sleep the eyes may automatically assume shambhavi mudra. When a person is dreaming, there are fluctuations in the eyeballs which can be seen, felt and also measured by machines. In states of profound meditation the eyeballs are usually centred between the eyebrows or at the nose tip, and when a man dies his eyeballs generally go straight up, they never stay in the centre. An anxious person's eyes are unsteady and by stilling the eyes we can generally overcome the uncontrolled fluctuations of an anxious brain.

Do you recommend the practices of yama and niyama?

When we begin practising yoga and meditation we try our level best to stop the dissipation of energy. The yamas and niyamas are usually recommended for this, but of course everyone is not able to practise them. I think we have to express everything in our lives and let the yamas and niyamas occur naturally. If we try to develop them by restraint, we are likely to be suppressing and we may be causing more harm than good. Many people try to practise yamas and niyamas and they force themselves into a rather rigorous situation.

It is not bad to be truthful, it is not bad to be non-violent, but sometimes we are not able to handle the psycho-emotional situations arising in our life through the practice of those dharmas. Therefore, in order to handle this situation, we have to first purify the whole body and the whole group of nadis. That is why in hatha yoga we have the system of purification of ida and pingala. When we are able to create harmony and equilibrium between the mental and pranic forces in our system, then these great dharmas, these great observances in the raja yoga of Patanjali, become very natural and spontaneous.

The spade work which we have to do in order to make yama and niyama the natural expression of our being, is the practice of hatha yoga. Purification of the 72,000 nadis which carry the computerised impulses throughout the body, and the six hatha yoga body purification techniques create a psychobiological harmony, and this harmony ultimately creates spontaneity of the positive dharma in us.

I am peaceful within and without, not because I am forcing myself to be, but on account of the great transformation that has taken place in the structure of my psychobiological system. It has become my nature to be non-violent and full of love and understanding. In the same way I do not have to force myself to practise brahmacharya because my body has been purified. My psychological and emotional structure has been properly adjusted by balancing the impulses of ida and pingala. Therefore, I am able to retain the hormones in the higher centres. So brahmacharya has become a spontaneous and natural expression of my consciousness. I don't have to practise it, it is my nature. This is how a positive dharma has to be developed in the form of yama and niyama.

Why should one practise hatha yoga before tantra?

By the practices of hatha yoga you can harmonise the two great forces in man- prana and mind. They are known as ida and pingala and they emanate from mooladhara chakra and join each other in ajna chakra. Their union takes place in the void behind the eyebrow centre and in yoga this place is known as shoonya. In hatha yoga we call it sushumna. When ida and pingala unite, they activate sushumna and for the purpose of activating sushumna, we practise hatha yoga.

If you have practised hatha yoga and have arrived at shoonya, you must then practise raja yoga to experience the consciousness. So firstly union must take place, then an experience comes, and then you meditate on that point. This is raja yoga. When you meditate on that point what happens? The matter and the consciousness are separated, and you go in completely. That is tantra. So, hatha yoga comes first raja yoga next, and then tantra comes last.