In general, we observe ourselves in two states. The first state is of action and the second is of relaxation. This is something which we can experience in our own body, in our own feelings and in our own mind. The body becomes active, and then after the state of activity, it relaxes. The mind too becomes active and then relaxes. So, the experiences of the body and the mind constantly fluctuate between a condition of activity and relaxation. This is the general tendency which we have always experienced in our life. However, there is another aspect to our life which we have not yet experienced but which we try to feel when we come to Yoga.
We utilise these two tendencies of action and relaxation whenever we are confronted by any of the Yoga practices. Take an asana, for example, bhujangasana, the cobra posture. By lying on our stomach and then moving into the Cobra pose, the whole body, from the top of the head to the tip of the toes is brought into a state of awareness where action is experienced. Then we come down from the pose and rest, and a feeling of relaxation is experienced within the whole body.
When pranayama is practiced with yogic breathing, we fill up the lungs completely. We inhale, first filling the lower half and then the upper half of the lungs. Breathing out, we expel air from the tipper half and then the lower half of the lungs. In this practice of yogic breathing although the effort is directed to filling our lungs in all directions, the effect of this action is felt throughout the body. During inhalation, the body experiences a state of tension, tightness and fullness. The diaphragm and other muscles are moving and pressing against the internal organs and all sides of the body. At the time of exhalation, there is a tendency for the entire body to relax. This, then, is the physical aspect.
In the mental field the same thing happens. The general concept is that in order to relax the mind, we have to let our awareness, perceptions, and experiences wander freely. However, if we take the example of Yoga Nidra, this is not the case, rather it is the reverse. Usually we are not aware of mental activity, but in Yoga Nidra we are directing it so that consciously there it a state of mental tension. We are not loosening the grip from the mind because we are directing awareness to different parts of the body, whether that he the right hand thumb or the right big toe. We are also directing attention towards the sensory experiences e.g., how we are feeling physically, awareness of the environment etc. So, again we are creating a state of activity in our conscious awareness. Then there comes a time when suddenly this activity ceases and we are able to experience mental relaxation. This does not often happen in a class situation but comes later on. Therefore, even in a state of physical relaxation there is mental activity.
When we begin to meditate, initially awareness is directed outwards towards the experiences of the body and of memory before being drawn back inside. After the attention has been fully directed outside, we begin to go inside ourselves. It is this 'going in' process that is the third aspect of Yoga. We try to experience this internal awareness even when we are involved with a physical posture, a pranayama practice or relaxation technique.
Developing this particular tendency of mind is probably the whole objective of Yoga, we are constantly involved in a state of action and relaxation, but when we begin to direct our attention inwards then even a physical action becomes a meditative action. Then mental action becomes a meditative action. Behaviour becomes a meditative action. Even the mental conflict that we may have in our mind - anxiety, anger, frustration, depression - that may also become a meditative experience and this is the main objective of Yoga.
So, from action we bring our body, mind and emotions to a state of rest. From this state of rest we then take our body, mind, emotions and intellect to the state of meditation. These are the three stages of Yoga - action, relaxation, meditation - which are experienced at all levels of the personality.
Traditionally, Yoga has always been seen as a technique or method which can lead to internal awareness. This internal awareness is known by different names. Sometimes it is called Self-realisation or God-realisation, and sometimes it is referred to as moksha or as nirvana. Then different definitions are given to these names which have no meaning when it comes down to the experiences of an individual. Our main aim is to accomplish this meditative process. Usually, we can understand that the mind can reach this meditative Mate but we are unable to understand how the body can also reach this state.
The body can meditate. The big toe can meditate. The hair on the head can meditate. It may seem extraordinary but it is true. Every part of the body has the ability to experience meditative stairs. Here we are not just dealing with vague terms like consciousness and energy, but those people who believe that consciousness and energy are in every part of the body are one step closer to understanding this. Even those people who do not believe this, and just view the body as matter and the mind as mind, ran be made to understand that matter, the body, can achieve a meditative state. This happens only through experience although I may be able to give a few hints about it.
Traditionally, Hatha Yoga is known as the Yoga of awakening within us of the solar and lunar energies - the active and passive forces. Most Yoga practitioners are aware that within our body there is a pranic field. This energy field can be controlled and activated, awakened, by certain switches which are located in different parts of the body. Many people know of them as chakras. They are one method of taking the body from a state of action to a state of meditation. There are other aspects I wish to introduce. These are the powerful shatkarmas associated with Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga has been traditionally connected with six practices, and these practices, or shatkarmas, are intended to purify the body and to awaken the chitta shakti and prana situated in every part of the body. When we talk of vital pranic energy and of passive mental (chitta) energy, we tend to differentiate by saying that prana is the energy that controls the body and chitta is the energy that controls the mind. However, we cannot differentiate between prana and chitta in this way. Prana is intimately connected with the pranic force, while the awareness and harmony which chitta represents is experienced in each and every part of the body.
One of the main thrusts of Yoga has been to develop the aspect or quality of awareness. Not just awareness of the head or of the superficial body, but awareness of the internal body. The concept of an internal body is something with which we are quite familiar. We know about the gross body or sthula sharira, the subtle body or shukshma sharira and the causal body or karana sharira. In the gross body prana is active, in the subtle body chitta is active and in the causal body both are active.
The purpose of Hatha Yoga lies with the practices of purification, which are neti, nasal cleansing; dhauti, cleansing of the upper tract; kunjal, cleansing of the stomach and upper tract; basti, cleansing of the intestines; nauli, stomach churning; kapalbhati, a breathing practice to clear the head; and tratak, concentrated gazing. These are the only traditional practices of Hatha Yoga.
Cleaning the body internally is as important as cleaning the body externally. How would you feel if you did not clean your mouth or brush your teeth for one week? If you do not know then try it. Or how would you feel if you did not go to the toilet for a week? If you do not know then try it. So, the cleaning of the body is necessary in order to experience harmony and balance inside. Cleansing the body will directly affect how we experience the mind. If our internal body is unclean then we will also feel a certain disharmony in the mind. It is by recognising this particular tendency that Hatha Yoga eventually developed these shatkarma practices, but for a certain purpose.
There are very few times in our life when our whole system is brought into a state of total sensitivity, receptivity and balance, because we have never really cleaned out our stomach. In order to clean the digestive system, the naturopaths say: "Oh, have plenty of green vegetables, raw vegetables, salads, which will clean the intestines and everything else." But what about the food particles that get stuck and rot in the folds of the skin in the intestines? Maybe it is possible that the first panicle of food you took as a baby is still tucked away in some corner of the intestines.
Many people tend to have unusual experiences after the practice of shankhaprakshalana. The reason for this is because the whole body becomes internally clean like that of a new born baby, totally clean and purified with all toxins eliminated. All the junk is out whether it is from the stomach, upper tract or intestines. This state of physical purification leads to a feeling of floating, lightness, vitality, strength, dynamism, and this experience will last for many days. When that type of purification is achieved, than automatically all physical disturbances, imbalances and distraction! stop immediately and the body becomes receptive to the process of meditation.
The body then responds to the experience of meditation because internally there is no imbalance and this state of purity brings about very deep concentration. You will find that a lot of mental conflicts and problems simply disappear alter the practice of Hatha Yoga.
In order to intensify the state of concentration and to activate the prana in your system, the last two practices of Hatha Yoga are employed. These are kapalbhati pranayama and trataka. Both practices focus the mind.
So, in the gross body the pranas are activated and focused. Activity also occurs in the subtle body at, the same lime because with a state of harmony, mental tranquillity and one-pointedness, the chitta or mental force is liberated. Then, because of this harmony and co-ordination between body and mind, the energies inherent in the causal body where the chakras are situated, are also activated.
The chakras are not situated in the mental body, nor are they situated in the physical body, although they are represented in them. They are actually situated in the causal body. The awakening of the chakras takes place on ail levels; body, mind and causal level. Just through the practices of the Hatha Yoga shatkarmas, it is possible to awaken all the chakras without the need of practising asanas or any form of pranayama. It is also possible to awaken kundalini through these practices alone. Therefore, I have used Hatha Yoga as an example body to develop awareness and energy within the body which can lead into a meditative state.
Raja Yoga, on the other hand, is very well defined. It uses a different approach. With the practice of asanas we can internalise the awareness into the body, so that the movements are not just unconscious physical movements but are performed with awareness and experience of the inner structure of the body. Pranayamas do not necessarily remain breathing exercises but act as a catalyst for the awakening of the subtle pranas.
The practices of pratyahara do not inevitably remain as practices of relaxation and sensory withdrawal but serve as techniques to bring about a transformation of the state of mental perception. This transformation in the state of mental perception, in the state of mental receptivity, is becoming aware of the external influences on the internal experience.
How does the environment affect our insight and internal well being? How do other people and our relationships affect our internal well being? How do the sensory experiences of pain and pleasure, heat and cold, heaviness and lightness, pressure find relaxation affect our internal well being? We have to consider Yoga in this context, not just as a practice for feeling good for some of the time, not just as a method of achieving relaxation, or as a practice of meditation which leads us to total dissociation with the body or environment. We should consider Yoga as a method which can make us more aware of our external and internal experiences and our ability to communicate.
We are constantly communicating, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether the body is at rest, in action, or in a state of meditation. Behaviour in action, rest and meditation, this is the process, the swing of consciousness, which we have to observe when we practise Yoga to derive the maximum benefit, whether physical or psychological.