There are many different paths of yoga. In fact, in the ashram library there is one Hindi book listing well over a hundred different types. However, most of these separate paths are only slight variations of a few basic forms of yoga practices. These numerous variations arise from modifications designed to suit the temperaments and beliefs of everyone, and in a sense we can say that there is a different path of yoga for each individual, for each person has a unique personality. However, our personalities are more notable for their similarities than differences, as we are all composed of a few basic characteristics such as emotion, tendency to activity, etc. Because of these common aspects, yoga can be separated into a few paths which cater for each of these facets of personality. It is these fundamental paths that we want to briefly discuss in this topic.
Hie various paths of yoga lead to the same point or source. They are often compared to different rivers which flow into the sea. At first they are completely separate and are known by different names. However, as the rivers progress, they begin to merge with each other until eventually they are totally absorbed in the ocean. The rivers completely lose their individuality. It is the same with the various yogic paths. At first they have specific characteristics and sometimes even appear to contradict each other, but as one progresses along any one or number of these paths, their separateness disappears. All the paths of yoga incorporate the same aim: physical health, mental peace and higher awareness.
The following is a list of the main branches of yoga: mantra yoga, kundalini yoga, laya yoga, hatha yoga, raja yoga, Patanjali yoga, bhakti yoga, dhyana yoga, swara yoga, karma yoga, kriya yoga, j apa yoga, jnana yoga. The are many more, and we will try to briefly define these different paths in the following pages.
The many variations of yoga can be broadly classified into five basic groups. These cater for the most prominent aspects of our personality:
• Karma yoga: the path of activity.
• Bhakti yoga: the path of devotion.
• Raja yoga: the path of introspection.
• Hatha yoga: the path of balancing the mental, physical and subtle (pranic or bio-plasmic) forces of the body.
Any other forms of yoga can be placed under these live headings.
All of us have a tendency to be introspective and to enquire about the nature of life and other topics that vitally influence us. Simultaneously, everyone has emotional tendencies by nature and are continually performing actions in one form or another. Lastly, everyone has a mind and physical body as well as a bioplasmic body, though few of us realize the latter aspect of our being. It is the way that these aspects of our consciousness relate to each other that determines our personality. In other words, some of us are more emotional or devotional than others. For these people the path of bhakti yoga is recommended. Other people can never keep still; they must always be acting and expressing themselves in the outside world. Karma yoga is the main path for these people. Others are much quieter and more introspective in nature; they tend to watch their mental reactions to life's situations. Here the way of raja yoga is recommended. Still other persons have a strong tendency to enquire about the nature of life; in a sense they are stubborn for they refuse to accept any answer unless it is based on personal experience. They should practise jnana yoga. Then there are those who, perhaps being a bit more down to earth, can relate to tuning up the forces of their mind and body (physical and subtle) to the best possible condition. In other words, to attain health and calmness of mind. These people should practise hatha yoga.
Actually, it is best to practise all the five main paths of yoga to a certain extent, with an emphasis on the path that is in keeping with the predominant aspect of your personality. It is this path that should be followed with the most zeal, for it will be in accordance with your nature. Swami Sivananda was a firm believer in what he called 'integral yoga', in which all aspects of the personality are channelled through performing a combination of these different paths. He said that one should: "Serve - Love - Meditate - Realize". This encompasses the five different aspects of being: action, devotion, introspection, enquiry and body (the latter being included with meditation). Let us discuss these five categories of yoga in turn.
We will deal with this path first because it generally precedes the other forms. In other words, to tread any path of yoga, physical, psychic and mental health is essential and these are the basic aims of hatha yoga. In fact, it is often regarded as the first part of raja yoga, for without the preliminary practice of hatha yoga, raja yoga becomes very difficult, if not impossible.
The Hindi word hatha means 'obstinate'. But the meaning of hatha yoga is not 'obstinate yoga', though some people might regard it as being so. The word hatha is composed of two syllables, namely ha and tha. Ha means the 'sun' and tha means the 'moon'. Yoga means communion. Thus hatha yoga means the harmony between the sun and moon aspects of our being. The right nostril is connected with the sun aspect; the left is associated with the moon aspect. The moon rules over the mental functions, while the sun controls the vital and physical functions. This applies to everyone and is a basic tenet of yoga. The two nostrils have a deeper association with the llow of prana within our being. It is this flow of prana that ultimately influences the mental and physical functions. If the moon flow is predominant, then one tends to think too much. If the sun flow is predominant there is a tendency towards extroversion and physical activity. Throughout the day we tend to operate either more mentally or more physically. This is a natural process. However, for perfect mental and physical balance the sun flow should predominate for a total of about twelve hours and the moon flow for the other twelve hours in each day. This ensures a balanced personality - neither too much introversion nor too much extroversion. The balance of these two is essential and is the basic aim of hatha yoga. Not only this, but balance leads to perfect physical and mental health. Further, it is the period when the flow in both nadis is exactly the same (manifested by equal flow in both nostrils) that spontaneous states of meditation can arise.
In the ancient classical text, the Gherand Samhita, hatha yoga is referred to as 'ghatastha yoga'. Ghata means a 'pot' or a 'vessel', representing the physical body. The word stha means 'contents'. Therefore, ghatastha is an analogy for the contents of the physical body, meaning the yoga of that which is contained within the physical body. The text continues: "The physical body is like an unbaked pitcher which dissolves itself if filled with water. When the pitcher is fired, then it becomes strong enough to contain water. In the same way the body becomes strong when it is fired or hardened by the fire of yoga (hatha or ghatastha)." (1:8) This is a perfect description of the basic aim and philosophy of hatha yoga.
We have already introduced you to some of the basic practices of hatha yoga, which can be roughly divided into different groups, as follows:
Shatkarmas are in the main concerned with cleansing the body. Many diseases are caused by the build-up of toxins within the body. These practices are the first step in eliminating these waste products, and thereby regaining perfect health1.
Asanas are the physical postures of yoga. We have already introduced you to many of them, their rules and a few practices, so we will not go into any detail here2. We will mention, however, that there is much controversy between the different schools of yoga as to whether asanas are actually a part of hatha yoga, raja yoga, tantra yoga or of all three.
Pranayama has also been fully discussed and a few practices have already been given3.
Mudras and bandhas are often classified with hatha yoga. Mudras are special physical positions of the body or parts of the boch which induce deeper physiological, psychic and mental changes in one's being. Bandhas are physical locks which perform the same function.
These are very basic definitions. The practices will be fully discussed later in the book4.
Health is the fundamental aim of hatha yoga. What is health? It is difficult to define. Some people think that good health is epitomized by rippling muscles, but this is not necessarily true, for many fitness fanatics suffer from chronic physical problems, are easily susceptible to infection and disease and are also weighed down with many mental problems. Often skinny looking people are far healthier than the Tarzan types. In a general sense, health can be defined as a combination of the following: resistance to infection, absence of disease, both mental and physical endurance, flexibility of mind and body, mental peace, perfect coordination and condition of all organs, muscles and nerves in the body and their control by the brain and spinal nerve centres, together with a perfectly functioning pranic body. Hatha yoga aims to bring about this state of health.
Hatha yoga is particularly popular with many people, for they can see tangible benefits from its practice. It is very easy to see improvement in physical health and to feel emotionally and mentally more calm than usual, and hatha yoga leads to these benefits in a reasonably short period of regular practice. However, at the same time it is important to understand or at least appreciate that health of the body and mind is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is a method to master the mind and attain higher states of consciousness. To this end hatha yoga and other paths of yoga can be utilized. The basic aim of hatha yoga is to build a firm, strong, healthy body, because without this asset, one's activities and aspirations are sev erely curtailed.
Hatha yoga also ensures that there is free flow of prana within the psychic channels of the body. This is of prime importance for perfect physical and mental health as well as experiencing higher states of awareness5. Remember that although prana is not visible it does not mean that it is non-existent or a mere concept. For the sake of comprehension, equate prana with electricity. Electricity cannot be seen and scientists have never explained its nature, yet at the same time it is agreed that some form of energy exists which we label electricity, and can be seen when we flick a switch and electrical gadgets work. Without the electrical supply there is no reaction. Similarly without prana our body would cease to function.
Hatha yoga aims at harmonizing prana in the body so that in turn the physical body will automatically become healthy and receptive to higher vibrations. The mind and prana are intimately linked together and so if the pranic body is tuned up, then the mind is automatically relaxed and harmonized; at least to a degree, for it is the mind that controls prana, not prana the mind. However, prana and mind are part and parcel of the same thing; the division between them is only arbitrary. Certainly we can say that a balanced pranic body implies vitality of both body and mind, for all these aspects are directly related to each other.
Hatha yoga treats the body as an instrument to be kept in the best possible condition. This is one of the reasons most other spiritual and religious systems fall down. They seem to ignore this important aspect of our being. If a musician wants to play a beautiful musical composition, it is essential that his instrument is in perfect condition. He would not dream of playing his masterpiece on a broken, battered violin. It is the same with the path to higher awareness. The essential prerequisite is a well-tuned body and mind.
At the same time, as we have already mentioned, one should not assume that hatha yoga is only to bring about mental and physical health. Hatha yoga involves awareness in many of its practices and as such is a means to meditation in itself. This does not imply that people who are sceptical of the concept of higher awareness should not practise batha yoga for health reasons - far from it. But at the same time they should bear in mind the higher ideals of hatha yoga, which are clearly stated in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the classical textbook on this subject: "Those people who practise only physical exercises (in hatha yoga) without mental and spiritual aspiration will fail to achieve the best results."
In a sense yoga has a different aim to other methods or systems that concern themselves mainly with the body. These other physical systems aim to develop the body in one way or another so that it can be exhibited, or can perform certain sports with a greater degree of perfection etc. They make the practitioner more concerned with his or her body. Hatha yoga, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. It attempts to harmonize the body so that it can be forgotten or transcended. In this way one is less hampered by the body and associated ailments, and more able to dedicate oneself to mental and spiritual pursuits.
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