Introducing Hatha Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Hatha yoga is considered to be the first yoga, and the original work on it is Shiva Samhita. It is the first book written on hatha yoga and it contains the teachings given by Shiva, the originator of yogas. He gave these teachings to Parvati, his wife and disciple.

The story goes that before beginning his discourse, Shiva told Parvati to keep acknowledging that she had understood what she was hearing, to let him know whether she was following the satsang or not. Just as I say to you that if you have understood, say ‘Yes’.

Then Shiva closed his eyes and started to speak on yoga, and Parvati was listening. Now you know the human nature, if you focus too hard the mind becomes introverted, there is drowsiness and sometimes you fall asleep. Parvati went to sleep. However, Shiva continued, as he kept hearing, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.” At the end when he opened his eyes, he saw Parvati in yoga nidra, snoring away. He wondered who then was acknowledging his teaching all through, so he looked around and saw a tiny fish.

When gods speak, they speak in all languages. You can understand God in English, I can understand God in Hindi or Sanskrit, somebody else can understand God in their own language. Therefore when Shiva was speaking, even the fish was able to understand him.

As the fish had listened to all the instructions on yoga, Shiva gave it a boon: “Become the first propagator of yoga in human society.” The fish became Matsyendranath, the first hatha yogi who propagated yoga. Credit goes to Matsyendranath for bringing the teachings of hatha yoga to our level. He was the first human visionary, the first human disciple who understood what hatha yoga was.

The tradition which Matsyendranath started, the Natha sampradaya, still carries on today. The Nathas are considered to be adept hatha yogis. They don’t have many ashrams, yet they number in thousands. They don’t stay in any one place; they are constantly travelling, and diligently practising their hatha yoga. They are masters in hatha yoga.

Development of different schools

From the first tradition of hatha yoga evolved different branches and teachers, who in different ages focused on the prevalent need of human society and propagated the subject accordingly. When Swatmarama was propagating hatha yoga, he was teaching in villages and towns, to people in active social life, so his approach was different.

Gheranda, on the other hand, was teaching not in society but to students who came to his ashram and had a spiritual bent of mind. Therefore, his focus was more on using hatha yoga for spiritual gain, whereas Swatmarama’s purpose lay in helping people manage their difficulties.

There is also a third school of hatha yoga, propagated by Sage Dattatreya, and that is a very tough school. There are other schools not as commonly known as Swatmarama’s or Gheranda’s. For example, there is another major treatise on hatha yoga, Hatharatnavali, which gives a detailed exposition on the subject.

When we look at this whole picture, it becomes clear that hatha yoga is not a subject dealing only with the physical aspect of the body. It is a complete subject in itself with progressive levels.

Progressive levels

The term ‘progressive’ indicates a specific yogic sequence. From the yogic perspective, within this physical body there are four other bodies; we are the owners of five bodies. Just as when you open up a Russian doll, inside there is another doll; you open that up and inside there is another doll, and so on. The first one is big and the rest are each smaller. Our body is like that.

The outer body is known as annamaya kosha, the body made up of matter. Kosha means dimension and maya means filled with; therefore, ‘annamaya’ kosha means dimension filled with anna or matter. The inner body is known as manomaya kosha, the body of mind, the mental dimension. Then there is pranamaya kosha, the energy dimension; vijnanamaya kosha, the consciousness dimension – vijnana means specific knowledge of the self or consciousness; and anandamaya kosha, the bliss dimension – ananda or bliss arising out of spiritual realization. These are the five bodies, koshas, all contained within each other.

When all the koshas work at their optimum positive level that is perfection of hatha yoga. When your body is functioning optimally, there is good health and the senses are all fired-up and active, there is a sense of physical vitality, lightness, euphoria and dynamism. When the mind is happy, there is a feeling of buoyancy, contentment, positivity, optimism; nothing appears dark, everything is seen as light and bright. This optimum condition of body and mind is the perfection of hatha yoga.

Blocks in koshas

Blocks are formed at the five levels of koshas naturally and unconsciously due to lifestyle and circumstances. For example, when you are under stress, certain areas of the body become affected, three regions in particular. One, the neck region, where the neck and the shoulders become tight; two, the abdominal region, where the muscles of the abdomen become tight, when you pull the abdomen in, in the ‘fight or fight mechanism’; three, the perineum where you pull in the perineum whenever there is stress.

A normal experience of stress can unconsciously create muscular stiffness and blocks that reduce circulation of blood and prana. Your natural pattern of sleep and hunger can become disturbed. Sometimes when you are mentally and emotionally burnt-out you cannot sleep; the stress affects the relaxation pattern. The hunger is also affected, some people cannot eat and some people overeat under stress.

Just as there are blocks of the body, there are blocks of prana, which are also three. The pranic block is perceived in the granthis or knots that are created in the pranic body unconsciously and naturally. These blocks have to be cleared for the prana to flow. Once the prana begins to flow, the behaviour of the mind changes and there is a sense of euphoria and happiness. Thus in yoga we work through the five bodies to attain an optimum state of being.

Clearing the koshas

Hatha yoga takes you from annamaya to pranamaya to manomaya. Raja yoga will take you from manomaya to vijnanamaya, and kriya yoga will take you from vijnanamaya to anandamaya. Therefore, Sri Swamiji has given us these three yogas as the progression in yogic life.

You start with hatha yoga and rectify all the imbalances and blocks of annamaya kosha or the body, pranamaya kosha or the energy, manomaya kosha or the dissipated mind. Then you move into raja yoga and work with manomaya kosha. The dissipated mind is now focused, channelled and guided. You move into dharana and dhyana, leading to a balance in the manomaya and vijnanamaya experience. Then in kriya yoga dhyana is intensified, leading to the experience of anandamaya, the spiritual dimension. In this way, these three yogas indicate Sri Swami Satyananda’s progressive teaching in yoga.

—24 September 2016, Ganga Darshan, Munger, Hatha Yoga Training – Module 1 (Extract)