This article is a chapter from the book “Yoga”.
Hatha yoga has been widely advertised as a perfectly scientific way to health, relaxation and peace of mind, and by many people it is considered as a system of mainly physical exercise. Hatha yoga certainly gives you a healthy body and a healthy mind, but its goal is different and much higher.
The physical postures and the breathing exercises of hatha yoga calm the nerves and ease the tensions in our body and mind, and are vitally important, but we should not stop with them. We should go deeper and obtain the precious pearl we have within ourselves–self-realisation.
These apparently simple postures and regulation of the breathing help in a wonderful way in our meditation and concentration. They who regularly follow up the yoga asanas and pranayama with a period of concentration and meditation–and they alone–can understand this.
The Gheranda Samhita lists the following seven as the aims of hatha yoga: (1) purification through the six practices, (2) firmness through the practice of the yoga postures, (3) steadiness through the practice of mudra, (4) courage and patience through the practice of introversion of the mind and the senses, (5) lightness through the regulation of the life force, (6) self-realisation through meditation and (7) freedom from bondage through the direct experience of cosmic consciousness, or samadhi.
In the scriptures there are declarations that the practitioner will conquer old age and death. This conquest is not to be confused with the physical immortality, nor is it a promise of perennial youth. It is the discovery of that which is untouched by old age and death.
Hatha yoga enables you to discover health which is wholeness and holiness. It is a state of inner being in which there is no division at all, but only perfect balance and harmony. This wholeness or harmony concerns not only oneself but one’s relation with the all, with the totality of existence.
Health (as also peace, bliss, love and god) is impossible to describe: the description is not ‘health’. It has to be discovered and experienced. Even so, peace has to be discovered; love and bliss and god have to be discovered. Hatha yoga is a method and a technique for this discovery.
Hatha yoga manifests on two levels at the same time–the physical body and the subtle body. The physical body is material, the subtle body is the combination of the energy and intelligence that indwell the physical body and animate it. The ‘discovery’ on the level of the physical body happens when the toxins that cover the cells of the body are eliminated. The ‘discovery’ on the subtle level reveals the mysterious and mighty intelligence that uses the life force to animate the body and to perform the numerous functions on the physical level.
Even the simplest movement of the body, like lifting one foot up while standing, is not the work of the muscles alone. When this simple movement is performed with great inward attention, you immediately see the wondrous function of the intelligence that is inherent in every cell of your body, which springs into action to restore the balance. You cannot imitate this action with both your feet on the ground. Hence, it is clear that that intelligence is beyond the ‘me’ (the ego-sense) and that it responds only to real need, not to imaginary situations. The discovery of this intelligence and the direct realisation of its incredible power and efficiency is the conquest of old age and death, worry and anxiety. That intelligence knows what to do and how to do it.
Even the physical aspect of hatha yoga is so designed as to work on the internal vital organs rather than the superficial muscles. The health of the body depends to a great extent on the health of the nervous system and of the endocrine system of ductless glands. This is done by ensuring that the life force or prana flows through these organs without being blocked or rushed. If the pranic pressure is even and harmonious, then the body and the mind function well.
Prana is life. It is the power in the life-breath. It bears the same relation to the nerves and the body as the electrical current bears to the electric wire. You do not see the current; you cannot see the prana either–but you see the function of electricity in the lights, fans, radio, television; you see the function of the prana in the countless faculties and functions you enjoy in your life.
Prana flows through nadis which are like light-waves or sound-waves. If the prana flows freely you are full of life, cheerful, happy, peaceful, optimistic and zealous; you look forward to facing the challenge of life with hope and enthusiasm.
The yoga system of physical culture waters the roots of inner health, so that the yogi’s powers of resistance and endurance are much higher than those of others. He enjoys an inner sense of well-being. This system enables you to prevent illness in youth and in old age to rise above such illness.
As well as concentrating on the glands, hatha yoga also strengthen the nerves by working on the brain and spinal column from which the nerves branch off. Glands, brain and spinal column are therefore our primary concern, though we do pay some attention to several important internal viscera, especially those connected with digestion.
However, a serious student would insist that he has nothing whatsoever to do with glands, nerves and the digestive system and that he is not interested in strengthening them. His attention is focused on the nadis and the chakras (which the layman associates with the nerves and glands) and the solar plexus or gastric fire. His aim is to purify these nadis. In their pure state they are strong, powerful, efficient and radiant.