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Introdcution to Hatha Yoga

"Hatha Yoga is a flexible combination of specific techniques that help develop every aspect of the individual: physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It is a scientific system that integrates the various branches of yoga and brings about a harmonious development of the individual. Regular practice of yoga helps achieve: a body of optimum health and strength, senses under control, a mind well disciplined, clear and calm, an intellect as sharp as a razor, a strong will, a heart full of unconditional love and compassion, an ego as pure as a crystal, and a life filled with supreme peace and joy."

- Swami Satchidananda

Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, has emphasized the importance of concentration and meditation in order to achieve a calm and peaceful mind. The need to maintain a steady and comfortable seated posture for meditation for long periods of time necessitates a body that is healthy and free of disease and a mind that is free of worry and fear. The art and science of hatha yoga was developed to achieve such a body. Several great yogis, including such names as Yogi Matsyendranath and Yogi Gorakhanath, are considered to be the 'forefathers' of hatha yoga. However, it is Yogi Swatmarama who compiled the wisdom of Hatha Yoga in his Hatha Yoga Pradeepika (HYP) which expounds the techniques such as asana, pranayama and shatkarma (the six-fold cleansing techniques). Through regular practice of these techniques, the body is purified of all the toxins, the nadis (channels of subtle energy) are opened for free flow of prana (vital energy), and kundalini shakti (the dormant serpent power) gets awakened. Through control of prana, the mind is automatically controlled. The HYP is divided into the following four chapters:

  1. Asana:Several physical postures, including seated postures for meditation are described. Guidelines for diet are also provided in this section. A few general recommendations regarding a yogic diet are given here.
  2. Shatkarma and Pranayama
    • Shatkarma: Six cleansing techniques are described:
      1. Dhauti: digestive tract and intestinal cleansing with a long, wet cloth. In 'Gherand Samhita' several other dhauti techniques are also given.
      2. Basti: yogic enema for internal cleansing. Helps cure digestive problems, removes constipation and strengthens the solar plexus.
      3. Neti: nasal cleansing through 'sutra neti' (cleansing with thread) and 'jala neti' (cleansing with warm, saline water using a neti pot). Highly recommended for allergies, common cold and cough as well as providing resistance to various diseases of ear, nose and throat.
      4. Trataka (concentrated gazing): usually done with concentrated gazing on the tip of the flame of a candle. It helps remove diseases of the eye as well as develops one-pointedness which helps in meditation.
      5. Nauli (abdominal massaging): nauli is performed by the practice of contracting and isolating the rectus abdominii muscles. Nauli helps in igniting the digestive fire, removing indigestion and balancing the endocrine system.
      6. Kapalabhati: rapid, forced exhalations, accompanied by pulling the abdominal muscles in; inhalation is passive and automatic. Kapalabhati helps destroy all mucus disorders. For more information on Kapalabhati, visit my blog.
    • Pranayama (breath control): Pranayama literally means expansion or stretching of the prana, the vital life force. Breath is the grossest manifestation of this prana. It is through control of the breath that one can control and regulate the prana in the system. Prana is intimately linked with the Kundalini (the serpent shakti) and through various pranayama practices, one can raise the kundalini from its dormant state at the base of the spine, thus raising the level of consciousness. Several pranayama techniques, including nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing), surya bhedan (vitality stimulating breath), ujjayi (psychic breath), bhastrika (bellows breath) etc. are mentioned in HYP. It is worth noting that Kapalabhati mentioned above as one of the shatkarma techniques is also considered and taught as a pranayama technique.
  3. Mudra and Bandha: As described in HYP, mudras (which include the four bandhas - uddiyana, moola, jalandhara, and mahabandha in addition to mudras like mahamudra, khechari, vipareetakarani etc) can help raise the level of the kundalini and prepare the spiritual aspirant for practicing Raja Yoga.
  4. Samadhi: As a result of the practices described in the previous three chapters, the prana begins to flow through the sushumna nadi and the mind becomes calm and peaceful. As a result the yogi can get into the state of samadhi (total absorption).