Hatha Yoga or The Physical Dimension of Meditation

Hatha Yoga is the physical dimension of yoga, its two main disciplines being posture and breath work. But Hatha Yoga is not – or at least historically was not – a style of yoga that reduced it to the physical aspect. In the beginning there was only the one yoga, sometimes referred to as Maha Yoga, the great yoga. Before the one greater yoga broke apart into small factions, Hatha Yoga was the physical school through which all yogis had to pass. No yogi, however, remained at the level of Hatha Yoga or even reduced yoga to this level. Hatha Yoga was thus the ‘primary school’ of the yogic education system. In a similar fashion Raja Yoga was the meditation school of Maha Yoga, which all yogis attended during some part of their journey. We could liken it to today’s high school level of education. In the ancient days you did not start this level of yoga without the primary education. Similarly we can look at Bhakti Yoga, the devotional discipline of yoga, as the tertiary education level. It was attended after proficiency in Raja Yoga had been gained: you would never go there straight from primary school or without any prior education. It is only in modern history that the link of these disciplines has been fractured and people practise one or the other exclusively.

The medieval yoga text Hatha Ratnavali states that, without success in Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga cannot be obtained (Hatha Ratnavali by Shrinivasayogi I.17). This statement means that spiritual realization has a physical dimension without which it is nothing more than self-hypnosis. Such self-hypnosis or belief can easily collapse in the next crisis. Yogis are not satisfied with belief; they want to know. For, if you believe, how do you know that your belief is not wrong?

Deep knowledge, or vijnana as yogis call it, holds even in moments of crisis. Such knowledge has to hold even if it is tested in the difficult moments of life. For this reason, to attain the total transformation of the human being it is not enough just to change your mind by sitting down and meditating. This will not lead to lasting change. The body and the breath have to be included in the change as well. The higher yoga of meditation is a seed that can sprout into the blossom of spiritual freedom, but for that to occur the seed has to be sown into ground that has undergone preparation through Hatha Yoga.

While today on the one hand we face the problem of meditators who do not adequately prepare the body for meditation, on the other hand we have Hatha yogis who get stuck in the meaningless drudgery of mere physical yoga. If the yogi does not go beyond the practice of posture and breath work, and does not graduate to and include formal meditation, then Hatha Yoga is not what it purports to be. It is then mere body-building, body-beautifying and gymnastics. There is nothing wrong with those, as long as the label clearly states that we are doing only that. The problem with today’s physical yoga is that it pretends to be more. And it is so only if it merges into the mental and spiritual disciplines of yoga.

The great Shankaracharya declares in his text Aparokhsanubhuti that Raja Yoga (i.e. the yoga of meditation) can lead to freedom, but only fot those whose minds are completely purified (Aparokhsanubhuti of Shankaracharya stanza 144). But he also says that, for those who have not reached that stage, Raja Yoga needs to be combined with Hatha Yoga (Aparokhsanubhuti of Shankaracharya stanza 143). It is important that we do not prematurely nurture thoughts of attainment, as this will prevent true attainment. To counteract such tendencies, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that, as long as prana has not entered the Sushumna (central energy channel), all talk of knowledge is nothing but the rambling of fools (Hatha Yoga Pradipika IV.113). Yoga has always held that true knowledge is not something that just takes place in one’s mind, but that true knowledge has a physical, a biochemical or bioelectrical, component (although one should neve reduce it to that component alone). In yoga this component is called siddhi (power of attainment). Yogis believe that it is not enough just to talk about jnana (knowledge). Siddhi means that attainment of true knowledge must also involve transformation of the body and breathing pattern. Otherwise knowledge is relegated to the sphere of belief or just consists of bold statements.

Hatha Yoga is the discipline that deals with the physical and respiratory component of true knowledge. It is the foundation of all yoga, and it prepares the yogi for the practice of the higher limbs.

Hatha Yoga also guarantees that we always remain firmly grounded and safe. The yogic idea of personality disorders such as schizophrenia and megalomania is that certain higher energy centres (chakras) have been opened before some of the lower ones. This may result in a person accessing knowledge that he/she cannot properly integrate. The result may be mental disorders. Hatha Yoga guarantees that the body and the breathing patterns are prepared to conduct the large amounts of energy that spiritual insight brings. It makes sure that one does not get ahead of oneself in a very literal sense.

The following chapters introduce six laws that determine how physical practices power and support meditation. Some of the concepts described here are simple to understand while some are more complex. Do not expect to understand and achieve everything after a few days, weeks or months. Many, but not all, themes discussed in these first six chapters are abridged condensations of material in my earlier books. But here you will find for the first time a systematized account of how these concepts function in the context of meditation.

© Gregor Maehle 2012

An excerpt from my fourth book ‘Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom’.

About Gregor Maehle

Gregor Maehle started his yogic practices over 38 years ago. For almost two decades he yearly travelled to India where he studied with various yogic and tantric masters. Gregor spent 14 months in Mysore, India, and in 1997 was authorized to teach Ashtanga Yoga by K. Pattabhi Jois. Since then he has branched out into research of the anatomical alignment of postures and the higher limbs of Yoga. He obtained his anatomical knowledge through a Health Practitioner degree and has also studied History, Philosophy and Comparative Religion.

Gregor lived many years as a recluse, studying Sanskrit, yogic scripture and practising yogic techniques. He has published a series of textbooks on all major aspects of yoga. His mission is to re-integrate ashtanga vinyasa practice into the larger framework of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga in the spirit of T. Krishnamacharya. He offers trainings, retreats and workshops worldwide.

Posted in Asana, Ashtanga Yoga.

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