Hatha Yoga

THE practice of hatha-yoga is composed chiefly of prānāyāma, which is regulation of breath, āsanā, the practice of various postures, and a set of six bandhas or body-purifications. Although the writer of these words holds to the opinion that these physical practices cannot develop the mind at all, or contribute to its yogic or occult experience, he agrees that when the hatha-yoga exercises are properly done they are very beneficial to the body. As long as people have bodies they should treat them if possible as prize animals, but if that is too much to ask they should at least give them good exercise as well as good rest and good food. In this sense only one should understand the well-known maxim: “No rāja without hatha; no hatha without rāja.”

The āsanās or postures have some advantages over ordinary physical exercises intended for muscular development. Although these latter do also stimulate good breathing and benefit the nervous system to some extent, especially if used in conjunction with proper relaxation at suitable times, the hatha-yoga postures do in addition provide suppleness and slenderness, and give massage to the internal organs. Besides this, when allied to suitable and not excessive breathing exercises, the entire body benefits. None of the yoga schools aims at abnormal strength—a reasonable standard such as is suitable for the ordinary purposes of life is regarded as sufficient, and more than that may often be just a matter of personal satisfaction or pride, not the spiritual attainment which the hatha-yogīs, rāja-yogīs and all other yogīs are aiming at, which contains no self-satisfaction. Incidentally, one must remark, great mental muscularity—to use a metaphor—is also not sought by any of them. If there are mental giants among them, this must be put down to some work of supererogation in that line in their previous lives.

In an earlier chapter we have spoken of hatha as the “sun” and “moon” breaths. It comes in, say some works, with the sound of ha and goes out with the sound of tha. Another explanation is that the “sun” and “moon” correspond to the breaths travelling through the right and left nostrils. Still a third view is that as the whole word hatha ordinarily means forcefulness, the system of hatha-yoga is one which, at least as compared with other yogas, requires considerable energy. It has already been stated that in those yogas the thinkings and meditations are intended to be done without allowing any tension in the body.

We may introduce the picture of a typical form of hatha-yoga breathing by quoting from the Shiva Sanhitā:

“The wise man, having closed the right nostril with the thumb of the right hand, and having drawn air in through the left nostril, should hold his breath as long as he can, and then let it out through the right nostril slowly and gently. Next, having breathed in through the right nostril, he should retain the air as long as possible, and then breathe it out gently and very slowly through the left nostril.

“Let him thus practice regularly, with twenty retentions, at sunrise, midday, sunset and midnight, every day, keeping a peaceful mind, and in three months the channels of the body will have become purified. This is the first of four stages of prānāyāma (regulation of breath), and the signs of it are that the body becomes healthy and likeable and emits a pleasant odor, and there will be good appetite and digestion, cheerfulness, a good figure, courage, enthusiasm and strength. “There are, however, certain things which the swarasādhaka (breath-practiser) must avoid: foods which are acid, astringent, pungent, salty, mustardy and bitter, and those fried in oil, and various activities of body and mind, bathing before sunrise, stealing, harmfulness, enmity, egotism, cunning, fasting, untruth, cruelty to animals, sexual attachments, fire, much conversation and much eating.

On the contrary, he should use and enjoy ghÄ« (butter clarified by simmering), milk, sweet food, betel without lime, camphor, a good meditation-chamber with only a small entrance, contentment, willingness to learn, the doing of household duties with vairāgya, singing of the names of Vishnu, hearing sweet music, firmness, patience, effort, purity, modesty, confidence and helping the teacher. If there is hunger, a little milk and butter may be taken before practice, but there should be no practice for some time after meals. It is better to eat a small amount of food frequently (with at least three hours’ intervals) than much at once. If the body perspires it should be well rubbed (with the hands). When the practice has become well established, these rules need not be so strictly observed.” (Shiva Sanhitā iii 22-40; abridged translation.)

One does not wish to put any of these hatha-yoga practices into print, to be read by various kinds of people, without sounding a warning. Many people have brought upon themselves incurable illness and even madness by practising them without providing the proper conditions of body and mind. The old yoga books are full of such warnings, and they tell the would-be practicer to go to a teacher who really knows all about these things, to receive personal inspection and instruction.

For example, the Gheranda Sanhitā announces that if one begins the practices in hot, cold or rainy weather, disease will be contracted, and also if there is not moderation in diet, for only one half the stomach must ever be filled with solid food. When the present writer tried, as a boy of fourteen or fifteen, the long alternate breathing for three quarters of an hour, he found when he stood up that he had lost his sense of touch and weight. He handled things without feeling them, and walked without any sense of touching the ground. The sense returned only after ten or fifteen minutes.

The Hatha Yoga PradÄ«pikā states that control of breath must be brought about very gradually, “as lions, elephants and tigers are tamed,” or else “the experimenter will be killed,” and by any mistake there arises cough, asthma, head, eye and ear pains, and many other diseases. The Shāndilya Upanishad gives the same warning. On the other hand, right practice may be undertaken by anybody, even the young and the old, the sick and the weak, and will result in slenderness and rightness of body.

The theory behind these breathing exercises is that between the mind and the body comes prāna. This word is translated “principle of life”—referring to life in the body. Five vital airs are mentioned extensively in the Sanskrit literature which touches on the physiology of the human body. Prāna is always referred to as the chief of these vital airs. The word comes from a verbal root “an” meaning “to breathe,” and thus “to live.” Patanjali in his aphorism on Prānāyāma calls it regulation of the manner of movement of shwāsa and prashwāsa, that is, breathing. (See Practical Yoga: Ancient and Modern, by Ernest Wood; Ch. 8, Aphorism ii 49.)

The late Dr. Vaman R. Kokatnur, noted scientist and Sanskrit scholar, in a paper read at the American Chemical Society’s meeting in Detroit in September 1927, quoted a text which says that what is inhaled is prāna and what is exhaled is apāna. On various grounds he made out a good case for these being oxygen and carbon dioxide, a third “air,” udāna, being hydrogen. Of the other two of the five, samāna is generally spoken of as essential to digestion and vyāna “pervades the whole body.”

Many speak of these five airs as being something else, fine or “etheric,” but all agree that various ways of breathing affect them all. Many of the teachers recommend the traditional proportions of one unit of time for inbreathing (pÅ«raka), four units for holding the breath within (Kumbhaka), and two units for out-breathing (rechaka). The Shiva Sanhitā speaks of the units being gradually lengthened, as seen in verse iii 57: “When the yogÄ« is able to practice holding the breath for an hour and a half, various siddhis (faculties and powers) arise, including prophecy, travelling at will, sight and hearing at a distance, vision of the invisible worlds, entering others’ bodies, turning various metals into gold, invisibility at will, and moving in the air.”

Various teachers and books offer more elaborate, as well as some simpler, breathing exercises. The following eight are often mentioned: (1) Practice kumbhaka (holding the breath) until the pressure of air is felt from head to foot, then breathe out through the right nostril; (2) breathe in deeply and noisily, hold as before, and exhale through the left nostril; (3) putting the tongue between the lips breathe in with a hissing sound; exhale through both nostrils; (4) breathe out as fully as possible, then in with a hissing sound, and go on very rapidly like bellows, until tired; then exhale by the right, or (5) the left nostril; (6) breathe in with the sound of a female bee; (7) after breathing in, contract the throat, place the chin on the chest; breathe out very slowly; (8) simply hold the breath, without inbreathing or out-breathing, as long as you like.

While issuing warnings about these exercises, I would like to add that many have found benefit from the following simple practice. Breathe in fairly fully while saying mentally to yourself “pÅ«raka;” hold the breath in without any muscular effort while saying “kumbhaka, kumbhaka, kumbhaka, kumbhaka;” breathe out quite fully while saying “rechaka, rechaka.” This may be done at odd times as a pick-me-up, with generally about ten repetitions. The best slowness or quickness of the words should be found by the student for himself, but all the words should be of the same length. A tendency to lengthen them a little may gradually and rightly appear.

Some teachers maintain that all the impurities of the body may be removed merely by control of breath, but others hold that it is necessary to practice also certain cleansings, especially in the case of persons who are flabby and phlegmatic.

The six principal purifications are: (1) slowly (under the direction of a teacher) learn to swallow a clean, slightly warm, thin cloth, four fingers broad and fifteen spans long; hold on to the end of it, and gradually draw it out again; (2) take an enema sitting in water and using a small bamboo tube; shake well and dispel; (3) draw a fine thread, twelve fingers long, in at one nostril and out at the mouth; (4) look at something without winking, until tears come; (5) with the head bent down, slowly massage the intestines, round and round both ways, and (6) breathe rapidly, like the bellows of a blacksmith. These acts are said to remove corpulence and many other diseases.

The Gheranda Sanhitā has a much bigger collection—about twenty-four purifications—which includes swallowing air with the lips formed “like the beak of a crow,” and expelling it from below; doing the same with water; gently pressing the intestines towards the spine one hundred times, massaging the depression at the bridge of the nose (especially after waking and after meals); vomiting by tickling the throat; gargling; drawing air softly in at one nostril, and sending it out softly at the other, alternately; drinking water in at the nostrils and letting it out at the mouth.

Closely connected with the elaborate practices of prānāyāma are the postures (āsanās). Quite often eighty-four of these are enumerated, but the Shiva Sanhitā contents itself with recommending four, which are called “The Adept Seat,” “The Lotus Seat,” “The Powerful Seat,” and “The Swastika Seat.” These are briefly as follows: (1) body straight, legs crossed, one heel at the anus, the other at the front, gaze between the eyebrows, chin on breast; (2) legs folded with feet, soles upwards, on opposite thighs, arms crossed, hands on thighs, tongue pressed against teeth, chin on breast or held up, gaze on tip of nose (or straight in front); or arms may be crossed behind, hands holding great toes; (3) legs stretched out, apart, head held in hands and placed on knees; (4) feet between calves and thighs, body straight. The Hatha Yoga PradÄ«pikā also advocates four āsanās especially, two being the same and two different.

An excellent modern book on prānāyāma, āsanās etc., is Yoga Asanās by SwāmÄ« Shivānanda, of Rishikesh, in the Himālayas. In this the SwāmÄ« explains with illustrations a large number of postures, including the Sukhāsana, or “pleasant posture” described and recommended for the West in my Practical Yoga: Ancient and Modern. He also gives very useful simple breathing exercises as well as the more elaborate ones.