hatha, tantra, raja yoga – the body in the body

June 28, 2012 in buddhism, dharma, meditation, yoga

This month in Sweat+Study, we’re reading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century text by the Indian sage Svatmarama. It is a manual for yoga practice that starts, like Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, with ethical practices (yama), observances (niyama), physical postures (asana), and breath control (pranayama), but then instead of simply offering a sequence of concentration-based meditation practices as Patañjali does (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi), Svatmarama launches into a long series of physical purifications (shatkarma) and energetic practices (bandha, mudra), culminating in the Tantric goal of arousing Kundalini and channeling it (or “her”) upward through sushumna nadi, the central energetic column of the body. Hatha Yoga developed out of Tantra, and bears many of its marks, most importantly a focus on, and respect for, the body as a vehicle for spiritual practice and site of realization.

Most early Indian yogas, Upanishadic, Jaina, and Buddhist alike, shared an attitude toward the body that it was to be reflected on as impure, impermanent, and in some ways tangential to liberation practices, which were seen as primarily mental/energetic. This of course makes it way too black and white! Early Buddhist texts, for instance, state that everything a seeker needed to learn could be found “within this fathom-long body”, and taught a mindfulness of the body that leads to a very physical bliss/rapture and happiness (piti and sukha). The body in the early texts is reflected on as something not to be grasped onto, but that warning persists into the Tantras, even as both Buddhist and Hindu Tantra celebrated the body in ways that the Brahmanic traditions did not. What Hatha Yoga did formalize, though, was a path of practice (sadhana) that uses physical movement and intentional energetic arousal as central to the process. And the ripples of this practice have found their way to us, here on a far distant shore.

Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra, which we read in February, became the most respected text on yoga for centuries, including for the Tantric schools, even though they would also refute some of its ideas and offer critiques of its method. Thus, while Svatmarama is not teaching us how to do dhyana in any way that Patañjali (or the Buddha) would recognize, he states both at the beginning (1.2) and end (4.77) of the Pradipika that the goal of Hatha Yoga is Raja Yoga, the name given to Patañjali’s strictly meditative path. The Tantras paid homage to Patañjali even as they derided his practice for being too passive, and too stuck on the distinction between consciousness and matter. [The dispute still rages - at parties and in classes all over the Bay Area - about who is "dual" and who "non-dual", based on medieval distinctions between schools of yogic thought. The same thing happened between Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and "Hinayana" (Small Vehicle - a pejorative invented by Mahayanas) Buddhist schools. Save me, Hanuman, from such parties!]

As modern yogis not bound by medieval Indian sectarian disputes, we get the best of both worlds. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika lays out the foundations of the physical practices we adore, asana and pranayama, strongly emphasizing energetic practices that for many of us form only a small part of our yoga (mudra and bandha), but are indispensable for the goal of channeled Kundalini that Svatmarama equates with fruition in Raja Yoga. Patañjali and the Buddha [and I say them together often because their practices are so similar and historically related] offer clear paths of meditation and concentration, described with technical precision where the Pradipika uses more imagistic and metaphoric language.

Whether your yoga practice is primarily in asana or meditation, Raja, Tantra, or Buddhist yoga, the Pradipika is a wonderful manual for the more esoteric and subtle practices at the heart of traditional Hatha Yoga. The discussion in the Pradipika about the subtle body and the maps of inner experience – channels, centers, knots, elements (nadi, chakra, granthi, tattwa) – is relevant for all kinds of energetic practice, and can be an extraordinary way of interpreting and charting inner experience. The awareness that our body does not stop at the skin and is not defined only by our material form has been part of Indian yoga since the early Upanishads. The Buddha recommends mindfulness of “the body in the body”, a beautiful inscrutable instruction that can point us toward subtler and subtler experience of our human form in ways that the Hatha Yogis would pick up and run with.

“When the maha shakti is aroused by the various asanas, pranayamas, and mudras, the prana dissolves into shunya.” (HYP 4.10)

Just as all schools and philosophies, all Dharmas, have what the Buddha called “One Taste”, Hatha, Raja, and all the yogas point toward one end: liberation from suffering and stress in this life. Svatmarama describes it in this verse as an energetic dissolution into shunya, emptiness. In this naming, he is in resonance with the Buddhist understanding of the emptiness of all conditioned things, seeing in this case that all energy and matter (which are not different), when unblocked and seen clearly, “returns” to its source. Of course, that source is No Place – called sometimes The Pregnant Void, emphasizing its fullness and feminine life-giving action. This liberation can come by many paths, and is flavored by the path it came by, so while Tantra and Hatha may lead to the cultivation of energetic power (siddhi), Raja Yoga to isolation of consciousness (kaivalya) through apprehension of Pure Awareness, and Buddhist yoga to the cessation (nirvana) of the causes of all stress, all lead where we want to go. To freedom from stress, and the deepest happiness here and now.

Many blessings on your path. May we all find our way.