Hatha Yoga – Beyond the Body

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

There are seven bhumikas, conditions or platforms, defined by hatha yoga. The first is shodhanam, which means purification or detoxification. Whatever practice you do, even if it is pawanmuktasana, the first outcome is detoxification and purification. Whether it is asana practice or shatkarma, it will first lead to purification of the body systems and balance of the three humours: pitta, kapha and vata, bile, mucus and gas.

After purification and balance comes the second condition: sthairyam, stillness. The Yoga Sutras present sthairyam as sthiram sukham asanam. Stillness of the body indicates that you are able to manage the movement and activity of the senses. Mastery over sensory activities leads to stillness. As long as the sensory activities are hyper, stillness will not be experienced. Even if you close your eyes, your eyeballs can be moving rapidly, making you agitated, disturbed and definitely not focused. Any activity of the sense organs will break the state of stillness and balance which is both physical and psychological.

The third condition is drirhata, fixity. We did the practice in which you visualized yourself sitting on a triangle and then encasing the body in a pyramid. At that time, you became fixed There was stillness and fixity of the body. Not a single part of the body was moving, and there was comfort in that state. Fixity means an unchanging condition of comfort: absolute and total comfort, no distraction or disturbance of any kind.

The fourth condition is dhairyam, patience. From fixity comes patience. Here you move from body to mind, for patience is a quality of the mind whereas fixity is a quality of the senses. When the mind is still, there is patience. When the mind is agitated, there is impatience. Patience is a state or condition of mind where nothing is disturbing it and you are able to remain in that state quite comfortably.

It is hard for people to tolerate peace and quiet of mind. Although everyone seeks peace, no one can manage it. Patience is a condition that sets into the mind when there is no distraction from sensory activities, from the karmendriyas and jnanendriyas. That condition affects the mind and it becomes still and peaceful. Once the senses and the mind become still and quiet, the fifth stage of laghavam, or lightness of body, is experienced.

In ancient times, monks would walk on rice paper to test their level of concentration and control over the senses. If they could walk without leaving any imprint, they were considered to have mastered the senses and attained lightness of body. This is one of the tests in Shaolin martial arts, as control of prana lightens the body. The more you focus, the lighter your body becomes.

Laghavam or lightness of body is considered to be a natural outcome of harmony between the senses and mental behaviour. The activity of the senses represents pranic activity and patience represents mental activity; therefore when mental activity and pranic activity are balanced, lightness is experienced.

From lightness emerges pratyaksham; it is a state where you are able to identify with what you are experiencing. In the morning class you were asked to identify how aware you were in each of the five components of the asana practice. If you apply your awareness one hundred percent in each component, that will be pratyaksham: complete absorption and identification with what you are doing and experiencing. You become one with the movement, you become one with the experience of prana, you become one with the breath, you become one with visualization, you become one with the chakra, you become one with the mantra. That sound resonates in you; it is not just a mental repetition; it becomes a living experience. Visualization, breath, prana, they all become living experiences. It can happen and will happen, given time. Thus, pratyaksham is to live an experience.

Pratyaksham leads to the seventh condition, nirlipta, a state of mental non-involvement. You are not involved, you are simply the witness, drashta. You are not the bhokta, the enjoyer or the experiencer. Once you are able to witness your own experiences, you become nirlipta. You cultivate the ability to see, to become the observer.

These seven conditions have to develop with the practice of physical yoga. Once these have been mastered, then you move into the mental yoga. Whether it is shatkarma, asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha or any other physical practice, it will lead you through these seven conditions, indicating the progress in your sadhana. They represent the outcome of the physical practices. If you do the shatkarma, shodhanam will be attained; if you practise asana and pranayama, sthairyam and dhairyam will be attained; if you perfect pranayama, laghavam will be attained. In this manner, whatever practice you do will take you to a condition, a platform, as that is the objective or aim of the practice.

Yama and niyama

While you do the physical practice, there is another aspect that you have to take into account: the mental awareness, attitude or condition that you create to facilitate the progress of your sadhana. The practice is physical and the attitude is mental. This attitude has been identified as yama and niyama.

Yama and niyama have been translated into English as ethics, morality and disciplines of yoga. This does not convey their right meaning. Yama means to hold, to hold something that you have become. When you become something and you are holding that state, you are experiencing a yama. It is an indication that you have passed through something, which is the negative, and have become something, which is the positive. Therefore, yama is to hold the positive in sight, to become the experience of the positive in life.

There are two fields in which you run. One is the field of positivity, hope and happiness. The other is the field of negativity, despair and suffering. It is your choice in which field you wish to run. The inherent tendency in life is to go towards the negative, while you hope and aspire for the positive. While you hope and aspire for the positive, all the responses and reactions of your daily life are coloured by the negative. Your aggression, anger, frustration, greed, ego is coloured by the negative. That is what you are living, and it indicates that the natural gravitation in life is towards the darker field.

Your direction has to change. You have to connect with the lighter, luminous and positive field. That is where attitude comes in. With the help of awareness, you can transform the negatives of your attitude into positives and create another attitude. That is the pratipaksha bhavana which Swami Sivananda propagated. Pratipaksha bhavana is nothing but cultivation of different yamas, or positive qualities, in life. Yamas are not only the ones mentioned in the Yoga Sutras; yamas are all those qualities which bring out the creative and positive you. Swami Sivananda indicated this when he said, “Always change the negative into the positive, a bad thought into a positive thought.” However, that is difficult. The mind always gravitates towards the negative and the detrimental; it does not look for the positive and the optimistic. That is the biggest challenge in yoga: dealing with the mind.

Raja yoga sounds very nice, but has it worked for you? You have been meditating for so long, has any improvement been seen in your life? You have to see what has happened to you, what you have gained from your practice.

In the physical dimension of yoga, there are twenty yamas and twenty niyamas. They are thought patterns that change the response of the mind from worse to better. If you follow one idea to the end, it will change the nature of the mind. When you put a dirty cloth and soap in the washing machine, after some time the cloth comes out clean. In the same manner, when the positive soap scrubs the mind all the negative grime is gradually washed away, and the luminous mind emerges. That is the outcome of yama and niyama. Yamas are an awareness of how you respond, and whether you respond positively, constructively and creatively or not. It is fine-tuning of the mind by cultivating thoughts, samskaras and ideas which are positive and uplifting.

Niyamas are conditions that regulate the lifestyle and bring in some order, system, sequence and progression in your routine. Thus, fine-tuning of the daily routine through practice will lead to attainment of the seven conditions and fine-tuning of the attitude will improve the human nature.

Published in Progressive Yoga Vidya Training, Series 5, Understanding Yoga Vidya