|An Energy Approach to Hatha Yoga Asana Practice|
Hatha Yoga is the foundation of all Yoga systems. Hatha Yoga is the preparation for higher Yogas. Ha means "sun" and tha means "moon." Thus, Hatha Yoga refers to positive (sun) and to negative (moon) currents in the system. These currents are to be balanced and mastered so that vital force, prana, can be regulated, the mind cleared and super-conscious states experienced.
The ideal way to practice the Hatha Yoga poses (asanas) is to approach the practice session in a calm, meditative mood. Sit quietly for a few moments, then begin the series, slowly, with control and grace, being inwardly aware as the body performs the various poses selected for the practice session. Do not overdo the asanas or try to compete with others. Take it easy and enjoy.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the most authoritative scripture of hatha yoga, opens by telling us that for those who cannot practice yoga (means raja yoga and implies those who cannot meditate successfully and therefore cannot control their mind) should practice hatha yoga.
The "raison d'etre" for this practice is to enable the practitioner to control his mind through techniques aimed at controlling the physical body and the prana or vital force.
It is noteworthy that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other hatha yoga scriptures go to great lengths to enumerate the health benefits of the different practices. This indicates the therapeutic nature of this system as well.
Hatha yoga can therefore been practiced as a wholistic spiritual lifestyle as well as a specific healing method. Of the two we believe that the former is more important but the best is to combine both approaches.
The Asanas are yoga postures. Traditionally asanas are positions which are held still for a certain amount of time - from a few seconds to a few hours! Usually the asanas will be held for an average of two to three minutes.
Besides being held steadily they should also be held comfortably. No pain should be experienced while holding the posture or in the hours or days that follow.
The scriptures recognize three types of asanas:
Postures are ordinarily used for the practice of meditation and pranayama. Relaxation is paramount. The yogi aims at holding the meditative asana for long periods of time (up to several hours) to allow prolonged sessions of pranayama and meditation in perfect stillness and comfort. Eventually the yogi transcends the asana, not feeling his body, and focusing on the inner, subtle aspects of the practices.
These are cross-legged sitting postures which allow you to sit upright and relaxed for a longer time. They provide a stable seat for meditation. The aim is to train your body so you can sit a long time without moving any part of your body. This is important if you are practicing meditation or pranayama and want to come to a deep concentration.
You should choose the posture that is most comfortable for you and start practicing it for 15 minutes. You can increase the length gradually.
In the raja yoga sutras the asana is defined as a steady, firm, and comfortable posture.
There are five main meditative postures:
The cultural postures are practiced with more intensity. While doing asanas the hatha yogi is aware that there are three groups of muscles in the body. For each asana, some muscles are relaxing, some are stretching and some are contracting. The art consists in relaxing deeply the first two groups while contracting forcefully the last group. During the practice, the stretched muscles should be lengthened to the limit. The limit is the pain and one should stop the stretching just before feeling any pain. One should feel a good, intense stretch. During the practice the breath should always be kept under control.
There are three important phases in the practice of cultural asanas — each of them equally important and should be paid equal attention:
This group contains by far the largest amount of asanas. It is said that there are 84 lakhs (8.4 million) yoga postures. Of these, 84 are more important and 12 of them constitute the structure of the Rishikesh sequence sometimes called Sivananda series or Yoga Vidya series.
The cultural asanas can be divided in seven groups:
Every yoga sequence should at least contain one out of every of the groups listed above. If you take one asana of every group, you will move your spine in every direction and use all the muscles of your body. Depending on the order in which you practice them you influence the flow of the prana in your body.
The asanas for relaxation are designed in a way that there is no need to contract any muscle. It is important to practice them exactly so your body can come to a deep relaxation and is not just lying on the floor.
There are three main relaxation postures:
The first asana of this type, savasana, is also used for yoga nidra, the powerful system of deep relaxation, visualization and self transformation.
Gems Of Yoga Nirvana Shatkum by Shankracharya
It is joyous,
it has its own enthusiasm,
it is unforced,
it is empowering and self effulgent,
and it is of light - prakash.
It is thus not forceful. It is not based on individual will, intellect, or the other qualities of manas (the dualistic lower functions of the mind), nor does it feed duality, ego, pride, comparative self worth, the idea of self accomplishment, ambition, competition, or the other more common pitfalls which lead to the opposite of yoga (union) and light (prakash).
Thus one distinguishes between the two extreme approaches to hatha yoga asana practice; i.e., willful and forced on one hand, and on the other hand, a joyous embrace of an effulgent inner directed self activated communion/engagement which through its inherent self existing great intelligence is allowed to synchronize the ha (sun) with the tha (moon) energies. Most modern practices may exist somewhere in-between, but it may help some people to utilize this model to better see how they may create more enthusiasm in their own personal practice.
The concept of holding the pose for long durations is often part of the forceful goal oriented belief system, when it is the result of will power and inner strife (a symptom of striving for control or "more"). Such is common in a culture which has produced modern day "control freaks" and a habitual state of scarcity, lack, and absence of the sacred. As such many people have become conditioned to not trust their bodies, instinct, intuition, inner wisdom, or nature in general. Those who adjoin to this belief, often advocate "disciplining the body" as if the bodymind were two, at war, at odds, or the body inferior and the mind superior. Such a belief reinforces the body/mind split as well as the spirit/nature disconnect, but functional hatha yoga attempts to deprogram that fixation by integrating the bodymind inherent synergistic oneness. In the mechanical will power oriented belief system, the longer one holds a pose, the better is the control and sense of ego/prideful achievement.
This aberration can be easily observed in many modern yoga classes which appeal to the error of separate self, lack, scarcity, possessiveness -- in short the false identification with the limited self (ego). Chronically such people seek comparative advantage or otherwise suffer from lack of self worth, low self esteem, and other diseases which result from their disconnect from wholeness. The question is thus raised, rather in attempting to reach these people does the so called yoga teacher reinforce "the reality" of this split from union, or on the other hand does the yoga teacher functionally attempt to heal its rend amplifying the non-dual truth of yoga? Catering to manas (the ordinary fragmented and dualistic mind made up of will power, intellect, and ego) is a very different approach from amplifying wisdom, light, and union which comes from the transpersonal innate wisdom (prajna or vijnana) or the higher/larger Mind.
In mechanical approaches people may experience the impulse to move out of a pose out of unconsciousness (tamas), boredom, deadness, disinterest, or discomfort. Then in this mechanical willful framework, the teacher may advocate “work harder” or “use more force” but that approach can lead to injury and a thus produce an even greater association with the pain body (versus the light body). All of which are simply indicators that the entire practice lacks bhava, loving intention, or wisdom.
Boredom and mechanical approaches are evidence of a disconnect—a closing off of the nadis (psychic channels). An obstruction of the natural healthy flow of prana, the intensity, the union, and the positive flow of that yoga is supposed to effect. If one does exercises mechanically or in boredom it isn't yoga as described in the yoga tradition. To eliminate this, one must become more sensitive to the life energy calling out for affirmation/acknowledgement -- to be. Our practice must be to honor and respect it.
Even the term "hold" augments a dualistic framework and adds to the idea of rigidity. I suggest that the duration of the pose not be governed only when the prana or the breath starts to run out, or when the juices dry up, but rather as a passionate search for prana, shakti, as a bhakti practice where one is actively seeking, communing, and integrating consciously with the greater whole. In that sense it is more of a release of rigidity, of striving, and of a goal oriented future object; and hence a let go, an acceptance of the innate pre-prescient eternal NOW, a surrender, isvara pranidhana, and a delirious ecstatic dance that occurs in sacred presence.
Thus a functional hatha yoga teacher emphasizes the love, devotion (bhakti), energy, and joy of the practice as the foremost vector that teaches. When it is brought into our practice, then it teaches by itself as it has awesome powerful innate intelligence.
People in that situation often have difficulty in creating their own personal practice. One reason is because they are not used to residing inside their own innate authority/empowerment, but rather have become dependent upon an external system (of intellect and willpower of which is owned by the teacher or the teacher’s tradition or some other outside external authoritarian system). The second reason why personal practice fails is related to this first reason. What is called boredom is really a disconnect from direct meaning, a blockage of the nadis. It is a statement of the deadness or absence of divine passion and energy.
In mechanical object oriented (read future/goal oriented) practices the Sacred Eternal NOW is sacrificed, and along with it one abandons the feeling of being well, wholeness, presence, and connectedness. This is where a functional yoga practice can help us re-establish these deep, primal, and innate connections between the mind and body, between crown and root, between spirit and nature, pingala and ida, or siva/shakti which is the non-dual and transpersonal synergistic synchronicity and unity which functional hatha yoga bequeaths.
Here one does not simply relinquish strife, holding, forcing, or individual will power, but rather affirms harmony, strength, peace, and a deepening sense of well being. Here one does not only simply hold the pose until the strength, energy, breath, or ability runs out or becomes fatigued, but rather HERE one abides in communion with the pose as the sacred vehicle synchronized as the inner mandala – as a yantra in synch with all of Reality – aligned with the entire cosmos. Here one does not attempt to overcome or transcend their feelings but rather become more in touch with them. HERE one becomes accustomed through functional hatha yoga practice to be present, not by doing, but by listening, by being attentive to the transpersonal and intelligent evolutionary life energy present within our own body as it is in all of nature – as All our Relations. This way a gradual deprogramming (of the conditioned pain body) is achieved simply by creating “space” for that inner dance to unfold – and by trusting that innate wisdom – that great intelligence to lead us.
So very simply at first one can utilize the breath as an indicator of the prana and energy body. Consistent practice will create inner awareness and with that will reveal the workings of the energy body and the wisdom body. So at first the movements depend on listening more than “doing”. Listening and feeling what the breath tells me and then moving in harmony with that. The breath is an indicator of the energy. The receptivity is an essential element in awareness or consciousness. So then eventually this movement directed by the breath awareness, turns into movement directed by energy awareness. We are learning an energy dance.
In Sanskrit this is called utilizing the cit-prana or cit-shakti where cit is consciousness and prana or shakti is the energy or activity that is married to consciousness. Here we see that the entire body is conscious. Intelligent, and made up of energy. Here also we will find that disease is where the consciousness and energy is blocked, deadened or distorted (out of balance). The poses move us into these areas of the body and reveal to us where the energy and consciousness is blocked/diseased and thus we are consciously able to move the energy, re-align, reintegrate, and make positive change. Simply put the asana session is a search and destroy mission, searching out the pain, disease, blocked energy, obstructions, deadness, darkness poisons, and pain and releasing it. Thus yoga creates lightness (prakash). Simply we go inside and listen to the breath – to the energy and use that as the rudder that moves in synch with that greater whole – as an activity of active wholeness – as an act of kriya shakti.— an activity of kundalini shakti, the evolutionary energy inherent in all life.
This is thus a very conscious practice, but at the same time it is not willful. As we become more receptive and listen more we sometimes move into a dead/blocked area. When cit-prana is allowed to irrigate that area, the stress, tension, dis-ease, and pain in that area is released. The blockage in the nadis decrease, and the overall energy flow increases. Gradually over time our nadis become more accustomed to holding a greater love/wisdom and healing energy charge. We thus act as light channels for this love energy increasingly in daily life as we become more capable of holding this energy charge or rather knowing how to align a, connect up, and recharge.
Sometimes when we move into a pre-existing blockage, dead, and/or painful spot, we will feel resistance. It may be experienced as fear or feel uncomfortable emotionally like an old scar, wound, embarrassment, shame, guilt, trauma and feelings of disgust, sadness, anger, resentment, hatred, jealousy, shame, lust, or such might arise. This is actually good as it is an indicator that an old samskara (past trauma which has become imprinted on a cellular level as well neurologically is being woken up/activated and asking to be recognized and released. This discovery of a pre-existing armoring, contraction, or deadness should be distinguished from creating new stress, pain or harm. Here attention, and focus to this resistance is called for. It often is the result of a pre-existing unresolved trauma where one was overwhelmed and became numb. Here one releases the numbness, withdrawal, and dissociation with the painful imprint or memory which has become transferred into and is reflected by this visceral/neurological reflex component in a physical area filling it with consciousness and prana (cit-prana) with life. Here one could use any one of many breathing techniques that breathe a white light and consciousness into the area creating space for the surrounding area to dance, sing, and reconnect. One could visualize the light coming in from the crown chakra with the breath and focus it into any such area or feeling flushing it of any pain or deadness.
Likewise these energy techniques utilizing awareness and the cit-prana may be useful in any other circumstances where stubborn area is stuck, where the vibrations and energy of the area is slowed down or dense, where there is tension, contraction, tightness, armoring, stress, disease, confusion, or strife.
As the energy body expands and become activated the outward gross corrupting propensities no longer are fed and as such authentic and natural hatha yoga when combined with authentic meditation practices yields positive results.
In relationship to the three kayas and the Five Sheaths (koshas) this relationship can be broken down into:
Through authentic hatha yoga practice with the physical body (sthula sharira) , the energy or subtle body (sukshma sharira) is discovered. Through more hatha yoga practice this subtle body is energized more fully integrating the energetic patterns of the body, the mind and emotions (manas), and eventually producing light and wisdom (vijnana).
By utilizing this increased energy body awareness, both the physical body, mental, and emotional bodies are re-aligned and healed. By fully understanding the energy body all veils existing within the subtle realm of form itself can be dissolved and hence the wisdom body or body of clear light which is formless is realized (the vijnanamaya kosha is purified).
Here one breaks through anandamaya kosha (kosha means sheath) where the causal body (non-dual transpersonal universal soul resides (the karana sharira). This universal soul body which contains all and nothing can be said to have two aspects formless and with form. The formless eternal aspect is reached via the hiranyagarbha kosha (the Golden seed body). It is the tathagatagarbha; the womb of all Buddhas and the seed potential of our innate buddha nature; it is the param purusha; isvara; mahesvara (siva as pure consciousness), pure spirit.
It’s form nature is the All and Everything, shakti, sacred world of tantra, the divine creatrix, or mother nature. In the Integrity of Reality these two form and formlessness, spirit and nature is permeated with pure consciousness and energy everywhere. Here siva and shakti are one. Only where this integrity is obscured denied, can we say that God or love doesn't’t exist.
The point here is that hatha yoga practice discloses these innate inter-relationships (call them by other names if one wishes). It opens up and reveals the conscious energetic pathways between all of nature, the physical body, the breath, the vital energy, the mind, emotions, instinct, intuition, nervous system, wisdom, divine intelligence, and beginningless Source. Hatha yoga is not an end in itself, but rather a practice that leads to the end of striving in the end.
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I began my study of yoga in 1965 via studying the Yoga Sutras, Eastern philosophy, and other mostly philosophical pursuits at the University level at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In 1966 I met Haridas Chaudhuri, a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, who introduced me to Aurobindo’s works and much more. I pursued study (jnana yoga) alongside a rather inconsistent meditation practice until I found hatha yoga in 1971. In that same year I met Swami Satchidananda, Dr. Mishra (Sri Brahmananda, Lama Tarthang Tulku, Hari Das Baba, and Lama Kunga Thartse Tulku. Asana practice was a great turning point for me as it awakens the inner teacher and restored my faith in nature and life. Since then my practice has accelerated greatly and has been consistent and “Self” motivated. I started teaching hatha yoga in 1972 both in Nepal and in the US.
The natural spontaneous type of hatha yoga was called by Swami Kripaluananda, sahaj yoga. I studied with Yogeshwar Muni, a student of Swami Kripaluananda, and taught at his Berkeley centers. There the poses were taught by Babuji or rather by shakti herself, where I was simply the hands and feet of Shakti -- to be moved by her Grace; where the very idea of a dualistic practitioner governing the motion of the physical body was antithetical to the teaching (if not reinforcing a dangerous delusion of separate self or ego).
Amrit Desai tried to teach a similar spontaneous flow method (it is not easy to teach he found) at the Kripalu Centers on the East Coast. At that time he eventually decided that most people were not ready for it, so then the hatha yoga practice at Kripalu became so “modified”. Just another "way" to God perhaps? Many ways exist.
Shakti is found inside all living beings. It is self existent and always present, so why not get it directly or at least use your time and energy wisely in a practice that moves us to more directly connect, commune, integrate and participate as love in creation – creating love! In this sense practice is less than effortless – it is uplifting, empowering, healing, and pure joy!