What is commonly considered Yoga in the West is in actuality just one of the many paths of Yoga, and is technically called Hatha Yoga. The oldest and most widely used ancient text on the physical practices of Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This book was composed in 15th century CE by Swami Swatamarama and is derived from older Sanskrit texts, the teachings from well-known teachers and from Swatamarama’s own yogic experiences. The main goal of this text is to illuminate the physical disciplines and practices of Hatha Yoga and integrate these with the higher spiritual goals of Raja Yoga (meditation).Swatamarama begins with explaining the relationship between Hatha Yoga and Raja yoga, informing us that Hatha is a preliminary practice for Raja Yoga. He tells us that obtaining self-control and self-discipline is much easier when we start with the physical and energetic body, verses trying to directly control the mind as in RAJA YOGA. Through the mastery of the prana, or energy of the body, we can then easily master the control of the mind and obtain success with Raja Yoga. In verse 1:41 he tells us that when the flow of prana is stabilized through the practices of Hatha Yoga, the breath stops spontaneously and a mindless state naturally arises.
Although Swatamarama’s instructions on how to practice this yoga are quite detailed and a bit dated, Westerners can still apply the most important and relevant points to their practice. Swatamarama tells us that the room where one practices yoga in should be clean, pleasant, comfortable and free from insects and animals. He also details the qualities that bring success in yoga, that cause failure, and also supplies ten rules of conduct and ten personal observances for the beginning yogi to follow. In brief, he tells us that to be successful in the practice of Hatha Yoga we must live a quiet, pure, honest and moderate lifestyle and avoid any excessive behaviors.
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The bulk of this text details the techniques of the main practices of Hatha Yoga: Asana (postures), Pranayama (breathing exercises), Shatkarma (internal cleansings), mudra (energy seal), and Bandha (energy locks). After some basic preliminary requirements, Swatamarama makes clear the first stage of Hatha Yoga is Asana, the physical postures that we are most familiar in the West. Asana creates firmness of the body and mind, and diseaselessness and flexibility of the body. It is here where we first learn to control and discipline the body. Swatamarama tells us that once a practice of Asana has been established then pranayama can be begun. The goal with these breathing exercises is to control the prana and the subtle energies of the body, which in turn can be used to control the mind. Swatamarama tells us that if there is excessive mucus in the body, this will need to be removed using the six purification techniques of Shatkarma. These purifying techniques as well as the pranayama help to purify the energy channels of the body and allow the prana to move more efficiently through these nadis. Utilizing Mudra and Bandha further activates the energy of the body, concentrates it and channels it into the main energy channel, the sushumna, that runs from the base of the spine to the top of the head and intersects all seven chakras. Mudras are complex movements of the whole body in a combination of asana, pranayama, bandha and visualization. Bandhas are engagements of specific groups of muscles at the base of the pelvis, the abdomen and the throat to “lock” the prana energy of the body inside the torso. Both of these techniques are challenging to master and should only be attempted after one is competent and skilled in both Asana and pranayama.
At one level, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika details a very similar yoga of what is practiced in the West, while a very different yoga is shown by the intent of the deeper practices described within. Traditionally, Hatha Yoga is uniquely focused on transforming the physical body through purification and the cultivation of the life force energy of prana. And all of the techniques of Hatha Yoga are seen as preliminary steps to achieving the deeper states of meditation and enlightenment found in the path of Raja Yoga. Considering this, we are only getting a small taste of what yoga can offer us here in the West. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika gives us a valuable map to these deeper practices of yoga, as well as providing the knowledge and tools to travel to these depths if we so choose.