Sunday, October 3, 2010



Hatha Yoga: An Appreciation of the Body as the Means
Where Vedanta and Tantra represented a revolution and reformation in
philosophical thinking
after Patanjali, Hatha Yoga represented a revolution and reformation
in practice.
During a decline in Buddhist as well as ‘Classical’ yogic thought and
practice, and an increase
in the use of a wide variety of tantric practices, the founders of
hatha yoga undertook a reassessment
and reformation of the practice of yoga.
— The hatha yogis began with a recognition that most seekers are not prepared
for the kind of meditation that Patanjali described. They were far
more aware of the obstacles to meditation not addressed by the classical
school, and of the need for preparation of the body for higher states of
— The hatha yogis held the body in much higher regard than the classical
yogis, and even believed in the possibility of transforming the physical
body into a ‘divine’ body – the Siddha
The school of hatha yogis that arose in North India were known as the
Natha Siddhas. Matsyendra
& Goraksha were the principle founders
— The Natha Siddhas held that it is possible to enjoy both bhukti (worldly
enjoyment) and mukti (liberation) while in the body
— The Natha Siddhas became great healers, with a close connection to
Ayurveda. They treated the body as part of a larger whole: physical wellbeing
depends upon spiritual health, both as individuals and as part of a
community and world
The Hatha Yogis Revised Patanjali’s Eightfold Path of the ‘Limbs’ of Yoga’
— Principle Change introduced into Patanjali’s Eightfold Path: they eliminated
the role of the yamas and niyamas that were primary for the Buddhist,
Jain and Patanjali’s system. Qualities of ethical purity will come
naturally as the body and mind are purified through the practices. If
ethical standards are put first, they create mental conflict when the body
is undisciplined.
— Purify the body first, bringing it to a more sattvic state: then the mind will
be in a more sattvic and receptive state, happy with the practice of yoga
rather than defiant.
— Their emphasis shifted from the classical focus on directly stilling the mind
toward a more dynamic stillness (the balance of Shiva and Shakti, stillness
and movement) through directing the processes of the prana/breath. This
means direct involvement in the movement of the breath energy, using
mudra and bandha, and awareness of the role of the chakras and the
‘awakened’ kundalini.
The Seven ‘Limbs’ in the Gheranda Samhita:
1. Purification is accomplished by the six acts [cleansing techniques
or shat-karman]
2. Strength through postures (asana)
3. Stability through the seals (mudra)
4. Calmness through sense-withdrawal (pratyahara)
5. Lightness from breath control (pranayama)
6. Perception of the Self from meditation (dhyana)
7. The Untainted [state] from ecstasy (samadhi); liberation
Nondualism: Body and Soul / Spirit and World
Basic principle: the body is of the same energy (Shakti) as the Self
(Shiva); not utterly different like Prakrti
and Purusha
— While the body is a grosser form of Shakti, it can be transformed
into subtler form,
until that energy reunites with its source, Shiva
— So we are not disassociating from the body, but rather transforming
it — through
an ‘involution’ of the evolutionary energy of the Prana throught the
processes of the
Obstacles in Our Path: the Granthis
The Granthis or ‘Knots’: 3-forms-of-stuckness
1. Brahma Granthi – the feeling of separateness, attachment to one’s
own desires and ego,
without regard for others — centered in the physical body (and
Muladhara Chakra),
the ‘covering’ of the Annandamaya Kosha
— A person at this level sees only diversity, causing the obstacles of restless,
desire and fear.
2. Vishnu Granthi – attachment to doing good — centered in the body of
prana (and
Anahata Chakra, the heart), the ‘covering’ of the Pranamaya Kosha
— A person at this level sees the unity in diversity, seeing the good in others,
but gets caught up in diversity — attachment to the cosmic good and the
desire to help humanity, attachment to traditions and idealism
3. Rudra Granthi – attachment to knowing — centered in the mental
bodies of knowledge
or jnana (and Ajna Chakra), the ‘coverings’ of the Monomaya and Vijnanamaya
— A person at this level goes beyond diversity to perceive unity; but the
obstacle is attachment to I-consciousness; keeping one’s awareness of
self as a drop, holding back from the ocean
When the three knots are untied with the help of the Kundalini, the
yogi perceives reality as pervaded by
divine energy, and becomes established in the Body of Bliss
(Anandamaya Kosha), and is able to move even
beyond that. This happens as Kundalini pierces the Chakras.
The Chakras:
— These are energy distribution centers at the level of the subtle
(pranic) body —
formed by criss-crossing of ida and pingala. They are the outward manifestation
of the energy of each of the ‘elements’ out of which the body was
created through
the ‘descent’ of the Shakti, the power of creation
— Each chakra distributes prana ‘outward’ to the physical body through
the nadis,
and according to its element, carries certain vrittis or types of
mental fluctuation
— By the process of ‘piercing’ the chakras, the awakened Kundalini reabsorbs the
outwardly-directed energy of the chakras, turning that energy inward upon itself
(‘involution’) and transforms one’s awareness in the direction of
as the Kundalini rises through the chakras, ‘burning up’ impressions of duality
and ‘cutting’ the fundamental knots or ‘granthis.’
— The Kundalini does descend once again, restoring normal consciousness and the
functioning of the chakras, but the ‘vrittis’ of duality are
attenuated or gone, so
one experiences the stillness of seeing unity in diversity. This state
is ‘jivanmukti,’
the state of liberation while living in the body, and the fulfillment
of Patanjali’s
definition of yoga as the ‘stilling of the thought-waves (vrittis) of the mind.’
Hatha Yoga Practice:
— Pranayama is essential to hatha yoga. It balances the energies of
ida and pingala,
so they merge at base of spine and enter sushumna as a single energy, the
Kundalini, which was otherwise ‘dormant’ — i.e. supporting ordinary functions
as we live in duality-consciousness.
— Hatha Yoga completes its role when Kundalini reaches the Ajna Chakra, where
Kundalini reunites with ida and pingala, completing the circuit: this
is the ‘passport
station;’ a transition point that requires grace far more than effort to move
— Yoga takes us beyond the practices of Hatha Yoga: it completes our path when
Kundalini reaches the Sahasrara, where Shakti reunites with her source, Shiva.
This is the path of Laya Yoga, a path of grace.

Hatha Yoga and The Technology of Tantra
From Vedanta we turn to hatha yoga in the larger context of ‘Tantra.’
In one respect, ‘Tantra’ is an ancient
term, dealing with specific practices and techniques for human
spiritual evolution, and includes many
ancient systems of thought and practice. In another respect, ‘Tantra’
represents a shift in thinking that is
so radical as to be considered something very new. Likewise, hatha
yoga can be considered at least to draw
on ‘something old,’ and yet in its attitude and approach is indeed
something very ‘new.’
First, the term ‘tantra.’ We can set forth two general aspects or
characterizations of what the term tantra
1. Particularly in the context of hatha yoga, ‘tantra’ involves
specific practices and techniques.
Hatha yoga as a tantric practice encompasses practices by which to awaken
the psychic centers or ‘chakras’ that exist within each individual.
The basic method
in kundalini yoga of awakening these centers is deep concentration on
the centers
and willing their arousal and the ascent of the kundalini energy. All
of the practices of
yoga — asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha and mantra repetition — are consciously
directed toward the awakening of the chakras.
2. As a way of thought or ‘world view,’ Tantra represents a revolution
in thought and
philosophical understanding rooted in an appreciation and reverence
for the ‘Shakti.’
This revolution found its highest expression in the relatively recent
philosophy of
Kashmir Shaivism. This philosophical system is distinct from the
approach and understanding
from the schools of practice usually associated with ‘tantra’ or
tantric practice,
particularly hatha yoga. But as schools of tantra, they are mutually
supportive. We’ll
be turning to Kashmir Shaivism after completing our discussion of hatha yoga.
Hatha Yoga and Tantric Practice
Hatha yoga as a tantric practice is based on the principle that one
can attain higher states of consciousness
associated with the various chakras by manipulating the various forces
and systems within the physical and
(via the prana) subtle body.
On the physical level (and by way of a rather simplistic explanation)
contemporary teachers often explain
this in terms of achieving a balance between the sympathetic and
parasympathetic nervous systems, both
through the effects of the various asanas and through pranayama –
asserting there is a connection between
the dominance of the two nostrils in breathing and the predominance of
one or the other aspects of the
nervous system.
On a subtler level, traditional practitioners emphasize the
stimulation of the two pranic pathways of the
ida and pingala nadis which run from the base of the spine (muladhara
chakra) to the space between the
eyebrows (ajna chakra). Between these two subtle pathways for the
prana – which crisscross along the central
axis of the body, forming and penetrating other intermediate chakras –
is a third passageway, the sushumna
nadi. When the energies of the breath are balanced between ida and
pingala, they merge and enter this
passageway at the base of the spine and rise as the kundalini,
penetrating and awakening the chakras while
raising the yogi to higher states of awareness.

Hatha yoga as a tantric practice involving both asana and pranayama is
directly concerned with the two
nadis – ida and pingala – and aims at balancing the flow of prana in
each nadi so as to activate the kundalini.
As the kundalini rises, the chakras are stimulated, and progressively
higher states of meditation take
place spontaneously.
Many hatha yoga practices also attempt to stimulate the chakras
directly, understanding that the chakras are
the intermediaries between the various subtle states of awareness –
and that the lower chakras are associated
with the states of various physical organs of the body. The various
physical practices of hatha yoga – and of
asana in particular – work to stimulate, cleanse and improve the
health of these organs so that the chakras
can more easily awaken, and the pranic pathways are strengthened,
cleansed and ‘opened’ for the balancing
of the pranas and the rise of the kundalini.
Some contemporary teachers of hatha yoga have tried to argue that in
one way or another the practice of
asana in hatha yoga is complete in itself – a practice that is itself
meditation, which fully and sufficiently
includes all aspects of yoga, concentration and devotion. There is
nothing in the tradition of the sages and
texts of yoga to support this. Instead, it’s clear from the tradition
that hatha yoga does not by itself necessarily
lead to or usher one into high states of meditation; rather, hatha
yoga is traditionally understood to
be used to prepare one – in body, breath, mind and heart – for higher
stages of meditation attained through
further and more refined practices. If it comes to pass in our time
that hatha yoga does finally produce
fully realized sages, then there will be reason to change this view.
But on the authority of sages no less than
Jnaneshwar and Vasishtha, we have little reason to expect this to come
to happen, and they do not mince
words when calling the idea that hatha yoga can by itself grant
enlightenment a delusion.
In summary, Tantra is an ancient system and ‘technology’ of practice
that is closely affiliated with yoga,
and there is a strong case to be made that ‘yoga’ as it emerged in the
Upanishads was initially an offshoot of
tantra. Forms of yogic practices such as asana, pranayama, trataka
(concentration), yoga nidra (yogic ‘sleep’
or deep absorption) and kriya yoga (cleansing techniques) can be found
in ancient tantras that predate the
Upanishads and Yoga Sutras by many centuries. On that basis, it’s fair
to say that the sages of hatha yoga –
Goraknath and Matsyendranath in the period to which we now turn –
simply integrated the monistic philosophy
of the Upanishads with the practices of the tantras to create the
system we now know as yoga.7
Yet ‘yoga’ has many shades of meaning and ways of approach even within
the purview of Tantra, from the
emphasis on techniques of direct manipulation through practices and
concentration under the umbrella
of ‘tantric yoga’ to the highly refined path of enlightenment and
wisdom known as Kashmir Shaivism.
These two are by no means exclusive: rather, Kashmir Shaivism can be
understood as the highest and most
inclusive system, one that provides the full context for understanding
the practices urged in tantric yoga as
well as incorporating the best insights of the entire tradition of
yogic philosophy. It’s very helpful, however,
to be aware of the distinction.
7 Meditations from the Tantras, Swami Satyananda Saraswati

The Hatha Yogis
The Body: An Appreciation
Hatha yoga as we know it flourished in the Postclassical Period,
thanks in large part to a change in the
climate of thought of the times. One of the distinctive elements of
the Postclassical Period is that the sages
set forth a new and increasingly dynamic view of the universe, and
because of the new attitude toward the
human body that came with this view, hatha yoga burst forth at the
forefront of this period.
In the Classical as well as the Preclassical Periods the body had been
roundly reviled as an enemy of the
spirit, a source of spiritual confusion and defilement. A good example
of this attitude comes from a passage
in the Maitrayaniya-Upanishad:
“In this ill-smelling, unsubstantial body, a conglomerate of bone,
skin, sinew, muscle,
marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind,
bile, and phlegm –
what good is the enjoyment of desires? In this body, which is
afflicted with desire, anger,
greed, delusion, fear, despondency, envy, separation from the
desirable, union with the
undesirable, hunger, thirst, senility, death, disease, sorrow and the
like – what good is the
enjoyment of desires?”8
In sharp contrast to this, with the Postclassical Period came the
realization that the human body is unique
and indispensable to the spiritual quest. The Kularnava Tantra responds:
Without the body, how can the [highest] human goal be realized?
Therefore, having acquired
a bodily abode, one should perform meritorious (punya) actions. (1.18)
Among the 840,000 types of embodied beings, the knowledge of Reality
cannot be acquired
except through a human body. (1.14)9
Another Tantrika named Bhogar, a seventeenth century adept, wrote the following:
Time was when I despised the body;
But then I saw the God within.
The body, I realized, is the Lord’s temple;
And so I began preserving it with care infinite.10
Notice that these sages did not dismiss the pitfalls of desire, nor
did they deny the weaknesses and inescapable
foulness of the fleshy and emission-prone body. Rather they emphasized
the more important positive value
of the body as the means of realization. The sages of Hatha Yoga went
so far as to hold forth the possibility
of transforming – even transubstantiating – the body into one which
they called “adamantine” (vajra) and
“divine” (daiva), a body that was not made of frail flesh and bone,
but of immortal Light.
These masters honored the embodied state, but in their own experience
did not think of the body as merely
the mortal physical organism through which they lived and spoke for a
time. Their experience of the body
– like their experience of the Self – was much greater. Just as
through yoga the individual spirit transcends
the limited sense of self to recognize its true nature as the Self,
this realization also transforms the body, since
the body is nothing other than the expression of Spirit. As he
experiences it, the realized Master’s body is
really the Body of All, and so he is free to assume any form at all,
and to influence the processes of nature
according to his will as easily as he moves his own body.
Because they saw no radical dichotomy between Self and Body, their
understanding of the body was as
organic as their view of Spirit. We are all within this one divine
reality, this divine body – not as separate,
divided, dismembered and discrete beings (as in the original legend of
Prajapati), but as organic members
or interpenetrating cells of a single cosmic body more deeply
interfused with Spirit. The universe, which
is nothing but the Lord, is not a fragmented and disjointed collection
of objects, but a genuine uni-verse,
a One that is Many, a single network of life or ‘body’ in which each
member participates in the life of the
With this view came an expanded and very profoundly effective view of
healing that matured into the
science of Ayurveda. The sages known as the Nathas were famous
healers, attuned to curing the whole
person in their approach to disease. They understood that an illness
cannot be cured as a separate entity,
it must be treated in a larger framework, as part of a complete being.
Part of the revolution specific to the
Natha Masters was the appreciation of how profoundly our physical well
being depends on our spiritual
health – both as individuals and as a community and a World. Thus we
find a greater stress on the kula or
community in the quest for enlightenment, rather than on realization
as a solitary quest, a departure from
community and company.
The Tantric Masters who pursued the ideal of the adamantine body, or
transfigured body of Light, came to
be known as the Siddhas – the “accomplished” or “perfected” Masters.
They flourished between the eighth
and twelfth centuries, and played a pivotal role in synthesizing the
teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and
Jainism. The ‘Siddhas’ figure as prominently in the Tibetan Buddhism
of the Far East as in the Hindu
schools of India, and so the movement spanned cultures and religious beliefs.
The Natha Siddhas of Hatha Yoga
The most important schools of the Siddha movement were those of the
Nathas (who had their home in the
north of India, particularly Bengal) and the Maheshvaras (from the
South). The Hatha Yoga tradition is
credited to the Natha Siddhas of the north – Goraksha Natha and his
teacher Matsyendra Natha, both of
whom were born in Bengal. ‘Natha’ means ‘lord’ or ‘master,’ and refers
to one who enjoys both liberation
(mukti) and worldly enjoyments (bhukti – albeit transformed through
their yogic discipline and understanding),
as well as paranormal powers or siddhis. Hence ‘Natha’ or ‘nath’ is
often added to the name of
sages affiliated with this movement.
Matsyendra was a chief representative of the Nathas, and quite
possibly the originator of Nathism. He
is specifically associated with the Kaula sect of the Siddha movement,
and, while he is also said to have
founded other tantric clans, is largely regarded as a reformer who
transformed the older (more cultish) Kula
tradition into a ‘reformed’ Kaulism. Matsyendra described himself as
an adherent of the sectarian Siddha
Kaula, the founder of the Yogini Kaula and revealer of the original
hatha-yogic doctrine of ‘Matsyodara.’
His work was a watershed for the tantric and Siddha traditions, and
was the precursor of the hatha yoga of
later Natha Siddhas who claimed Matsyendra as their founder and
inspiration. The great sage Abhinavagupta
singles out Matsyendra for praise in the opening lines of his
Tantraloka, and incorporates the practices of
Matsyendra’s Yogini Kaula into the practices of the Kula System of his
Trika philosophy.11
Matsyendra’s school of Nathas shared a central emphasis on the kula,
which in its greatest sense is the emphasis
upon reverence for the dynamic or feminine aspect of Reality or the
Shakti. This concerned specifically

and especially Shakti in the form of the Kundalini Shakti, the
transformative aspect of the divine creative
power – the power of grace that is at the heart of their discipline.
Kula also meant “home” or “family,” which
suggests that the initiates into this order enjoyed a special and
protected status set apart from everyone else.
More expansive interpretations of kula – as we have seen – are
possible and even merited, but kula in the
context of the Natha yogis did carry this more exclusive (and rather
‘clubby’) meaning.
Matsyendra’s chief disciple was Goraksha, who lived in the late tenth
and early eleventh century, and is
remembered as a miracle worker second to none. Though he apparently
came from a lower – if not the lowest
– caste, he was a charismatic teacher who wielded a great deal of
social influence as he traveled throughout
India, and his fame far exceeded that of his teacher Matsyendra. The
poet-saint Kabir, who generally had
little good to say of the yogis of his day, praised Goraksha as well
as his later successors Bhartrihari and
Gopicandra as masters who had found union with the Divine. He also
acknowledged his debt to them for
their teachings on the chakras and the Yoga of sound, having to do with mantra.
Goraksha is often given sole credit for the invention of hatha yoga,
though many of the teachings and practices
had been in existence from long before his time. Goraksha founded the
Kanphata (‘Split-ear’) order
of the Nathas, whose members are also known as ‘jogis.’ They are to
this day recognized by their practice
of splitting their earlobes to insert large rings for purposes related
to their practices.12
The Texts of Hatha Yoga
In yogic literature there are a number of reliable texts on hatha
yoga. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Yogi
Swatmarama is the first that is always cited. Gorakhnath himself is
credited with the Goraksha Samhita. A
third text is Gheranda Samhita by the sage Gherand. Besides these
there is a fourth major text known as
Hatharatnavali which was written later by Srinivasabhatta
Mahayogindra. All these texts are considered to
have been written between the 6th and 15th centuries A.D.
As we noted earlier, the ‘tantric’ practices of hatha yoga do go
further back than these texts; there are minor
references to hatha yoga in the ancient Upanishads and Puranas, as
well as references to the practices in
tantric texts that predate those Upanishads. However, the systematic
form of hatha yoga began to emerge
in India some time in the 6th century A.D.
The Influence of Buddhism, and the Hatha Yogis’ Response
The Buddha was born in India in the 6th century B.C., as well as
Mahavir, the founder of the Jain sect.
Both of them performed severe austerities and both also preached
non‑violence. The Buddha formulated his
teachings in the form of the ‘Four Noble Truths’. The Buddha laid a
basic foundation for practice called the
‘Eightfold Path’, which was a system of ethics more or less like the
yama and niyama of raja yoga. Two systems
of Buddhism followed, one of which is known as vipassana and the other
is anapanasati, ‘contemplation’.
As a result of Buddha’s popularity, meditation became the main form of
spiritual practice on the entire
subcontinent. At the same time, preparatory practices relating to the
body were ignored, and ethics and
morality were emphasized – and to the minds of some, very much
overemphasized. Over time the sages
of India began to reassess Buddha’s system, agreeing that meditation
is indeed the highest path, but questioning
the idea that one can start meditation immediately. Instead they came
to believe that a good deal
of preparation is involved – and the practices of yoga were just such
a preparation.
Five hundred years after Buddha, and one hundred years before Christ,
in India, at Nalanda in Bihar, a
university was established in the Buddhist tradition, devoted to the
Hinayana system. Hinayana means the ‘narrow path’, i.e. the orthodox
Buddhist system. Many thousands of students from all over the known
world came to study there.
However, there was another group amongst the Buddhists
who did not agree with the orthodox interpretation
of the teachings, arguing that it was not what Buddha himself had
preached. So they established
another university called Vikram Shila in Bihar, which became the
teaching center of the Mahayana tradition.
Mahayana means ‘great path’. They were not orthodox Buddhists, but
more ‘liberal’ Buddhists. In
that Mahayana tradition they also began to include tantra. This was
not something that the Buddha had
explicitly taught, so the orthodox Buddhists did not believe in it. It
didn’t help matters that from the Vikram
Shila a sect arose known as Sahajayana, the ‘spontaneous way’, and
Vajrayana, which includes the sexual
practices between men and women.
After about five hundred years or so, the popularity and influence of
Buddhism declined and so did these
tantric sects and their practices. Then in the 4th, 5th and 6th
centuries A.D., after the period of Buddhist
decadence in India, some yogis set out to reform the tantric system
and restore it to its original purity.
Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath and a few other yogis in the tradition
found that certain crucial practices
in the tradition were being ignored by some and wrongly taught by
others. So they separated the ‘hatha
yoga’ and the ‘raja yoga’ practices of tantra from the rest and left
out the rituals of tantra altogether, not
even mentioning them.
When they culled the practices, they picked up the useful, practical
and noble practices of yoga from the
tantric system. It was at this time that Matsyendranath founded the
‘Nath’ cult, which held the belief that,
before taking to the practices of meditation, you must purify the body
and its elements. This became the
overall theme of hatha yoga.
Of the many authorities on hatha yoga, one outstanding personality is
Swatmarama who compiled the
Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The term Pradipika means ‘self‑illuminating’ or
‘that which illumines’. It is a text
that illumines a number of physical, mental and spiritual problems
confronting aspirants.
Gorakhnath, the chief disciple of Matsyendranath, had earlier written
books, poems and prose on the hatha
yoga system in the local dialect, but Swatmarama compiled the entire
wisdom of hatha yoga in Sanskrit. In
common with the other texts, he has expounded techniques such as
asana, pranayama and shatkarma.
The Primacy of Ethics Reconsidered
What is most striking about the texts of the hatha yogis is that, in
the process of revisiting the practices of
yoga, Swatmarama completely eliminated the yama (moral codes) and
niyama (self‑restraints) which were
the starting points in the Buddhist and Jain systems, as well as in
Patanjali’s yoga!
The similarities between Patanjali’s eightfold path or ashtanga yoga
and the Buddhist’s teachings have long
been noted, and it is entirely reasonable to think that Patanjali was
deeply influenced by the Buddhists.
Indian thought during the period of Classical Yoga as a whole was very
much in dialogue with and response
to the Buddhists. Particularly the analytical slant that Samkhya Yoga
took on so strongly in the Classical
Period is widely recognized as a response to the intellectual
challenge posed by Buddhist dialectics.
Patanjali was a contemporary of Buddha and it’s fair to say that his
system of yoga was influenced by the
Buddhist philosophy of yama and niyama. Patanjali’s contention is that
you have to first perfect yama and
niyama, otherwise asana and pranayama may fail to lead us to samadhi,
the goal of yoga as he saw it. This
is entirely in keeping with Buddhist thought, which saw the path to
spirituality as beginning necessarily
with high ethical ideals.In the Postclassical Period, the sages of
Hatha Yoga began to seriously reconsider this view. They saw that
the attempt to practice self-control and discipline according to the
high ideals and strict rule of the yamas
and niyamas can create a inner conflict and disharmony within one’s
own personality.
In short, a system that begins with ideals of spiritual perfection
sets up a duality from the start, because
these ideals set forth a goal that divides us against ourselves. For
instance, there are yoga teachers who,
on this model, argue that you cannot consistently or genuinely
practice yoga or ‘be’ a yogi without being
nonviolent, which they interpret to mean that one must be a
vegetarian.13 For many who practice yoga,
this presents a conflict from the start that leads them either to seek
a compromise that they can live with,
or ignore the point with a sense of guilt.
Overall, yoga is often full of people ‘trying’ to be spiritual – and
the trying indicates a dualism and conflict
that one may never quite overcome. As long as we are trying to be
spiritual, we are painfully aware that we
are not spiritual – the goal is always just beyond our reach. This is
not to suggest that we just give up on
morality because it is just too hard; rather, the very dualistic
nature of a philosophy that begins with strict
and often unreachable moral ideals can only lead to disharmony and
inner conflicts of conscience rather
than wholeness.
The Tantrikas, on the other hand, would rather we begin with the
understanding that we are inherently
spiritual, and we have but to fully unfold the Spirit that we are;
there are no pre-requisites for being what
we already are. In this way they began from a more nondualistic
standpoint in setting aside ideal precepts
that define precisely what we are not, and instead beginning with
purification at its most fundamental, in
order to allow what we are to shine forth.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika the first thing we see is that Swatmarama
does not worry about self‑control
and self‑discipline in the form of yama and niyama. He orders the
approach to practice very differently,
beginning by saying that you should first purify the whole body ‑ the
stomach, intestines, nervous system
and other systems. Thus, shatkarma comes first, i.e. neti, dhauti,
basti, kapalbhati, trataka and nauli – with
the recognition that the use of these practices is relative to one’s
physical condition. Not everyone is equally
‘impure’ physically, and so not everyone has to start with the
cleansing practices of swallowing a cloth and
so on. For many, the practice of the asanas is enough.
After shatkarma comes asana and pranayama. Again, the point is
eminently practical: self‑control and
self‑discipline start with the body, largely because that is much
easier. To remain steady in an asana or in
a pranayama practice is a great self‑discipline, and we can imagine
Swatmarama wondering aloud why we
would start our yoga by fighting with the mind first – the most
difficult of battles, and largely misguided,
since it only leads to antagonism and animosity towards oneself.
So the masters of hatha yoga began with the discipline of the body,
and explained what they meant by
the body. Far beyond just the physical body of muscle and bone, the
subtle elements (tattwas) the energy
channels (nadis) are to be purified through the practices of asana and
pranayama, so that the behavior of
the prana or vital force, the entire nervous system and the organic or
chemical balance in the body could be
properly maintained and harmonized. After this there followed the
practices of mudra that made it possible
to deepen meditation through inducing pratyahara, which leads into
dharana, dhyana and samadhi.

The ‘Limbs’ of Yoga Revisited

And so in the Gheranda Samhita as well, we find that Gheranda treats
hatha yoga as having seven rather
than eight limbs:
Purification, strengthening, stabilizing, calmness, lightness,
perception [of the Self ], and
the untainted [i.e. liberation] are the seven means of [the Yoga of ]
the pot [i.e. the body].
1. Purification is accomplished by the six acts [cleansing techniques
or shat-karman];
2. Strength through postures (asana);
3. Stability through the seals (mudra);
4. Calmness through sense-withdrawal (pratyahara);
5. Lightness from breath control (pranayama);
6. Perception of the Self from meditation (dhyana);
7. The Untainted [state] from ecstasy (samadhi); [this last state is]
liberation. 1.10-1114
The purificatory practices cleanse the digestive system as well as the
passages for the breath for the very
practical reason that one cannot engage in breathing practices or
concentrate effectively if either of these
systems is out of order. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2.21) suggests that
only those who are flabby and phlegmatic
need to resort to these practices.
Overall the sages recognized that if the mind is to be purified, it is
necessary for the body as a whole to
undergo a process of purification – and hatha yoga identifies six
types of purification. When you clear the
body of these impurities, the nadis function and the energy blocks are
released, and one is in a position to
meditate with clarity and without so much inner conflict. This is not
to say that ethical ideals or principles
are irrelevant to the path of spiritual growth; instead, this
expresses a faith that as the most fundamental
and restrictive impurities are gradually removed, these qualities
naturally unfold and shine forth as natural
expressions of our own unfolding awareness.15
Thus in these seven ‘limbs’ Gheranda echoes Patanjali, while at the
same time setting aside ethical codes for
mental purification as the initial focus. His central emphasis shifts
towards physical purification as well as
specific techniques of mudra (‘seal’) and bandha (‘lock’) as they are
related to asana and pranayama. These
are specific actions are ultimately designed to direct the life force
within the body, stimulating it and directing
it in ways that bring us into higher states of awareness as the prana
enters the sushumna.
Dhyana or meditation is characteristically treated in the tantras as
visualization. The Gheranda Samhita speaks
of three kinds of dhyana: 1) visualization with a ‘coarse’ object,
such as a visualized deity; 2) visualization
with a ‘subtle’ object – which in Tantra is described as the bindu or
transcendental point of light that is the
origin of the universe, and 3) contemplation of the Absolute as light.
Throughout this process, attention is
turned inward upon the inner Self, which the sage Gheranda describes
in terms of the awakened kundalini.
The end of this process is the abiding state of samadhi or ecstatic unity.
The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of
the interacting and intertwined energies
of our being. When this balance is created, the impulses generated
awaken a spiritual potential that was
previously dormant under the weight of one’s preoccupations with mind and body.
The ‘Force’ and Esoteric Teachings of Hatha Yoga
Despite the more practical and accessible beginnings of the practice
laid out by the hatha yogis, it would
be a mistake to think that hatha yoga, as it was classically
practiced, was easy-going. To the contrary, it was
a hard discipline, but one directed toward the body rather than the
impossible whirlwind of the mind.
Hatha yoga was known as the “method of violent exertion;” one of the
meanings of hatha is force, and it
was a forceful practice, though perhaps unnecessarily so.
Moreover, the practices as they evolved were highly esoteric,
operating according to ideas that are quite
unfamiliar to us, and until only recently have been kept in strictest
secrecy. Hatha Yoga had as its centerpiece
the system of the six chakras or ‘wheels of transformation,’ and
transformation was the essence of the
discipline involving the chakras. The Siddhas were spiritual
alchemists concerned with literal transmutation
of the body-mind into pure ‘gold,’ the immortal spiritual essence of
the embodied self.
The means for this alchemy took different forms: the Natha Siddhas had
as their counterparts the Rasa
Siddhas, who worked alchemically with physical substances such as mica
and sulfur for the same end, and
their work is at the root of the medical science of Ayurveda.
The Natha Siddhas worked directly with the body, believing in essence
that the siddhis or paranormal
powers, and ultimately jivanmukti or liberation, result from the
internal combination and transformation
of energies that take the physical form of sexual fluids. These are
combined into amrita, the divine nectar
of immortality, through hatha yogic processes involving the chakras
and the breath. In this concern for
imbibing the inner nectar of amrita, the Natha Siddhas hearken back to
the earliest notions of sacrifice
and reintegration, but now on a very practical rather than mythical
level. The body itself is the offering,
and the heat or tapas of the practice of yoga is the sacrificial fire
that reintegrates what has been broken
through physical existence.
This vision also brings the original explorations of yoga back to the
most concrete, addressing our mental/
spiritual energy in terms of the energy behind our most fundamental
drives. The mundane experience of the
body, the Nathas would agree, is of dispersion and dissolution of life
into the whirlwind of worldly concerns.
This dissipation through extroversion – pravritti – is paralleled by
the dispersion of our sexual energy. The
spiritual path is concerned with retrieving our essential nature, with
reintegration of the very energy of our
self-awareness or consciousness that is normally dispersed in mundane
existence and is tangibly expressed
as sexual energy as well as related drives. This reintegration of our
outward-going energies amounts to the
introversion – nivritti – of our awareness. This vision does not hate
Māyā or the cycle of worldly existence,
but recognizes that Life has its own very strong currents, and one has
the freedom to live wisely and to
honor the wealth of life by economizing on how it is spent, all for
the sake of a higher experience of Life.
The most obvious manifestation of the dissipation of Life that comes
with the dissipation of our energies
is the process of aging and death, which is entirely in keeping with
the natural course of things. The cool,
moonlike nectar of youth is progressively burnt up in the hot, solar
fire of extroverted life. Yoga, and especially
hatha yoga, involved forcefully controlling and even reversing the
body’s natural tendency toward
aging through the combined techniques of breath control, asana and
meditation. The methods for doing
this are variously called ulata sadhana (regressive practice), kaya
kalpa (bodily reintegration), and pravritti
(retroversion). In essence, our life energy (which they express in
terms of the sexual fluids of the body) –
the refined manifestation of the ‘lunar’ energy of life – is
progressively consolidated through practice and
redirected upward through the central channel of the body, until it
fills and replenishes the ‘moon’ in the head. As it rises, it is
gradually transformed into amrita, the nectar of immortality.
While this talk of sexual fluids and energies can be somewhat
off-putting, the essence of the energies they
are describing lies in their treatment of the Prana, which is the
truest and subtlest manifestation of these
energies. The driving force of the practice of hatha yoga is the
breath or prana, and without an understanding
of this, much of the point of hatha yoga as a practice is lost.
Hatha Yoga in its original conception is the forceful channeling and
control of the vital breaths (pranas) and
of the heat (tapas or fire of yoga) of the subtle body. Yogic
transformation begins when the yogi concentrates
all of his vital breaths at the opening to the medial channel or
sushumna at the base of the spine through
practice of the mudras (seals) and bandhas (locks) in the course of
asana and pranayama. It is through this
forceful direction and concentration of the energies of the breath
that the ‘mouth’ of the medial channel is
opened (whereas previously it had remained closed). With the opening
of the sushumna to the ascent of
one’s vital energy, the process of yogic reversal begins. Through
heroic efforts of mental concentration and
physical effort, the yogi begins a controlled raising of his vital
lunar energy (‘seed’), the solar heat of his
yogic fire, and his breath or prana, the vehicle of his awareness. The
form that this unified energy takes is
known as the kundalini Shakti, the energy of the Prana in the form of
the power or Shakti of Kundalini.
The Obstacles in Our Path: the Granthis or ‘Knots’
The ‘Granthis’ are psychic ‘knots’ that limit our thinking and
experience. They represent three forms of
‘stuckness’ or obstacles presented by our way of thinking and seeing.
Each is associated with one or more of
the ‘Koshas’ or ‘coverings,’ which are levels of the subtler
experiences of being ‘in’ the body, from the gross
or physical, to the subtler experience of the breath, to the even
subtler realms of the mind and consciousness,
and ultimately to the level of bliss that transcends both mental and
physical experience.
As we move deeper in meditation and spiritual awareness, there are key
points or forms of awareness at
which we can get ‘stuck’ through identification with those forms of
awareness. These are directly related to
the vrittis or impressions vibrating within key chakras along the way.
1. Brahma Granthi – the feeling of separateness, which is centered in
the experience of the
physical body, the ‘covering’ of the Annamaya Kosha, the ‘body [made] of food.’
— This knot is located in the Muladhara Chakra, and the obstacle it
presents is our
concern for our own security. A person at this level sees only
diversity and is restless
with desire and fear.
— The basis of this ‘knot’ is our perception of this physical world as
the one true reality.
As a result, the Kundalini — the foundation of our awareness, both spiritual and
mundane — is stuck supporting that awareness, and our potential for
nondual awareness
is ‘dormant’ or ‘asleep,’ while our mental energy is involved entirely
in desire and
ambition. As long as energy is knotted in this way, it is hard to
meditate well because
of our restlessness, fear and inability to become one-pointed.
— The appropriate practice for overcoming these obstacles:
purification through the
physical practice, bringing health and security to the body,
steadiness to the mind, and
control and greater control and discipline over the senses and emotions.
2. Vishnu Granthi – attachment to doing good, which comes when
awareness is centered
in the heart — the body of prana or Pranamaya Kosha. Here we are centered in the
experience of faith, love & compassion, which brings with it an
attachment to the cosmic
good and the desire to help humanity, attachment to traditions and idealism.
— This knot is located in the Anahata Chakra (heart), the seat of the
prana, which
controls the mind and emotions
— The heart chakra is the seat of faith, love & compassion, which can
present obstacles
so far as compassion forms attachments – not to desires or sense
objects, but to the
good, and to a desire to help humanity. One adopts the vow of the bodhisattva to
relieve the world from suffering; but by doing so the bodhisattva gets
caught up in the
sense of doership and actually impedes his progress.
— A person at this level sees the unity in diversity, but gets caught
up in diversity;
though disciplined and one-pointed, he is still restless with the
desire to do something.
— The practice at this level is pranayama – for loosening the sense of
doership through
surrender to the breath.
3. Rudra Granthi – attachment to knowing, which comes when awareness is centered
in the mental bodies of knowledge or jnana: Monomaya (mind) and Vijnanamaya
(intellect) Kosha: these forms of knowing, while ‘pure’ in their
perception of unity,
still retain attachment to I-consciousness or ego
— This knot is located in the Ajna Chakra (between the eyebrows), the
seat of knowledge
and the ‘passport station’ for passage to higher forms of awareness.
— The obstacle is attachment to I-consciousness; keeping one’s
awareness of self as a
drop, holding back from the ocean
— This is a high level of achievement, going beyond diversity to
perceive unity; but
with that comes powers and attainments, which can reinforce a still
egoistic sense that
‘I’ have attained this. The fear of death also remains as a strong obstacle.
When the three knots are untied with the help of the Kundalini, the
yogi perceives reality as pervaded by
divine energy, and becomes established in the Body of Bliss
(Anandamaya Kosha), and is able to move
even beyond that.
This happens as Kundalini pierces the chakras. But these are two key
terms that require some unpacking
if we are to make any real sense out of the hatha yoga system. It all
begins with a closer look at the central
player in the Postclassical systems: the Shakti.
The Meaning of ‘Shakti’ — the Key to the Meaning of Tantra
To understand the emerging role of the Kundalini in the hatha yoga
system, we have to take a step back
and look at the foundation of tantric systems in general, which is
their emphasis upon and veneration of
the feminine aspect of Divine Consciousness: ‘Shakti.’
The meaning of ‘Shakti’ is at the heart of our understanding of
tantra. What is striking is the elusive nature
of the definition of both ‘Shakti’ and of ‘Tantra’ as terms and as
ideas. Both have a wide variety of meanings,
and both terms actually have a presence in Vedic literature and the
Upanishads, and onward through the
history of yoga. ‘Shakti’ is used in a variety of ways “ranging from
its use as a way of expressing the ultimate
creative power of Being itself, all the way to its use as a way of
expressing the capacity of words to convey
meaning. (artha)”16 The range of meanings of Shakti is broad, with
many senses in between.
The fundamental meaning derives from its original root: the verb
‘Shak,’ which means ‘to be able.’ The
word Shakti basically suggests “the power to produce an effect,
capability, efficiency or potency.”17 Yet this
hardly does the word justice as far as how the word is later used. In
its highest philosophical form, Shakti
is essentially the power that makes the world manifest or appear and
evolve. This is the case even in Shankaracharya’s
Advaita Vedanta (indeed, when you look at the role of Shakti, Vedanta
and Tantra are really
not so far apart). ‘Shiva’ is the ‘Shaktiman,’ the ‘holder’ of the
power of Shakti; Shakti is the actualization
of what Shiva holds in potential — they are not actually ‘two,’ though
the genders of the words may lead
us to think so. ‘Shiva’ and ‘Shakti’ are essential to expressing the
nondual philosophies of the Postclassical
era, even while the notions themselves seem dualistic.
However varied the meaning and use given to Shakti, in the end we find
that She is the common denominator,
the shared basis of practice and belief, between the Tantra of
Hinduism, Buddhism and even
Jainism. And true to her sublime feminine nature, She retains
something of Her own independence even
from Tantra. Tantrism and Shaktism are not identical: rather, they are
“two intersecting but not coinciding
circles.”18 That power and freedom of Shakti to reveal and conceal the
manifest universe is one half of the
question; the meaning of Tantra as a philosophy and vast (and mixed)
set of practices is the other, which
always hinges upon the meaning of ‘Shakti.’
The Origin and Meaning of Tantra
The very meaning of the word ‘tantra’ — what it signifies in terms of
actual schools, practices or ways of
thinking — is actually much harder to pin down than I may have led you
to believe so far. The word, like
the word ‘Shakti,’ covers a lot of ground, and it is only somewhere
around the era of the emergence of hatha
yoga as well as the mature philosophical systems including Kashmir
Shaivism that we can even begin to
sort out what ‘tantra’ at least comes to mean.
What is Tantra? Even today there is a good deal of murkiness and
confusion surrounding the word, and for
good reason. When the word was first introduced to western thinking at
the turn of the 20th century, it had
shocking connotations. ‘Tantra’ was believed to be “a conglomeration
of bizarre and unconventional religious
disciplines consisting of sorcery, exorcism and orgiastic
practices.”19 This was not without solid historical and
linguistic foundation. In contemporary Indian languages — Hindi,
Tamil, Marathi and Bengali, to name
a few — ‘Tantra’ connotes “black magic, spiritual or religious
practices involving sex, and manipulation of psychic powers or evil
spirits to seduce women, defeat or injure opponents, or mesmerize
This was the initial ‘picture’ of Tantra in scholarship at the
beginning of the 20th century. But it was not a
complete picture. The truth was more complex, and further study
through the last century has shown that
‘Tantra’ is not confined so such a marginal group of people associated
with eroticism, alchemy and magic.
It is actually a common element in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — as
we likewise noted is true of
This is where the history of yogic thought can itself get confusing,
since so far we have suggested that it can
be neatly divided into ‘eras,’ in which ‘tantra’ is distinctive of
‘Postclassical’ thought that follows after the
‘Classical’ era. But the truth about tantra is more complicated. In
one form or another, it is a consistent
undercurrent in the history of yoga philosophy. The Postclassical era
is when it truly comes into its own.
The problem becomes clear as soon as we turn to what should be a very
simple question: how do we determine
which texts are ‘Tantric,’ and by what definition of Tantra?
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait points out that “we have no standard criteria
for defining exactly which texts can
be called purely Tantric and which [are] non-Tantric within a given
division or subdivision of Hinduism.
Tantric ideas are scattered throughout non-Tantric sources. For
example, traces of the philosophical ideas and
ritual practices found in Saiva Tantric texts can be seen in the
Vedas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads...
at least for the past millennia, there have been authors and
practitioners who claimed that their works or
practices are Tantric, although in most cases without making a sharp
distinction between themselves and
their non-Tantric counterparts...[Yet] in spite of these ambiguities,
there still seems to be a general, though
unspoken, consensus regarding what constitutes Tantra.”21 The
consensus is implicit, not explicit. If there
is indeed a clear basis for distinction, ‘they’ certainly don’t let us in on it!
One would think that we might solve the question of the identifying
characteristics of ‘Tantra’ by looking
to its historical origins. But as might be expected, there is no
agreement here either. Andre Padoux sums it
up by saying “all definite assertions must be avoided...Tantric
Hinduism would have emerged progressively
through a process of ongoing evolution over an extended period of
time, granted...that we do not know
how and when it started.”22
We have something of a Catch-22 situation at work, since in order to
establish the historical beginnings
of Tantra on the basis of when texts first appeared, we would have to
have a clear basis for deciding which
texts are tantric based on a definition of tantra — which as we saw,
is not so easy to do, without a clear
sense of when in history tantric texts began to appear!
While the question of the earliest origins of tantra may be
unanswerable, we can at least trace tantric literature
back to the 5th century AD based on a couple of key texts,23 which is
the same time that Buddhist
tantric texts began to appear, but this still does not give a
sufficient chronology or a clear conceptual basis
for defining Tantra. We just know it started to surface then, and at
best we can say that Hindu, Jaina and
Buddhist Tantrism could not have developed separately. The progress of
Tantra in these religions strongly
suggests that all of these had some common source from which they
derived and adapted the tantric elements
that fit their religious orientation.
But what was that source, and when did it first appear? We don’t really know.
We do know that things started to get clearer around the time of the
rise of the hatha yogis. Douglas Brooks
comments that Tantric texts gained their independent status around the
9th century AD, though their
concepts and practices “had their antecedents in ancient wisdom
traditions, shamanism, yoga, alchemy
and other folk practices, whose adherents may have involved themselves
in religious rituals containing elements
of asceticism, eroticism, and goddess worship.”24 The ‘founders’ of
hatha yoga, as we saw earlier, set
themselves to sorting out which of these practices they wanted to
retain as part of their system, and which
they wanted to discard, or at least wanted to set at a distance from themselves.
By the 11th century, Tantric practices and concepts had gone
mainstream in Hinduism, judging from how
frequently the concepts and practices of Tantric Yoga appear in the
writings of non-Tantric authors -- plus
the fact that people from all levels of society were involved in a
broad range of Tantric practices. The goals
of these practices in general still ranged from “the acquisition of
supernatural powers, sexual prowess, material
goods, and physical immortality to the attainment of liberation while
still in the physical body and
an experiential realization of God.”25 In one form or another, these
goals were typical of the hatha yogis,
though the practices may have been reformed.
Some Conclusions
Historically speaking, Tantrism was not itself considered to be a
religion, nor is it specifically and/or exclusively
allied with any of the prevalent religions, nor was it thought to
compromise adherence to any particular
religious beliefs. Sanjukta Gupta points out that “adherents of
Tantrism neither claim to follow Tantrism
as an independent religion, nor renounce the religion in which they
were born and raised.”26 Elements of
ritual worship (puja) and meditation (yoga) — largely considered
‘Standard Tantric Sadhana’ — appear in
all of the existing religions in India today.
We do have to be clear that Tantra and Tantric literature is not a
homogenous body of literature or teachings.
While Tantric texts often emphasize practices, such as those related
to yantras, mandalas and mantras, they
also include contemplation on a range of topics from the nature of
absolute reality; the process of evolutionmaintenance-
dissolution of the universe; the evolution of sound or word at the
four levels of speech; the
different centers of consciousness in the human body known as chakras;
methods for awakening spiritual
self-awareness in the form of the Kundalini Shakti. This latter
philosophical aspect of Tantra provides the
ground of commonality by which we might come to grips with the
essential meaning of Tantra.
Thus if we are to make any sense of what we mean when we talk about
‘tantra,’ we have to talk about it in
the context of these latter philosophical ideas and especially the
meaning and role of the Kundalini Shakti.
Without a clear sense of Her role in the cosmic scheme of things, any
talk of ‘tantra’ or ‘tantric philosophy’
is completely vague and amorphous. Thus our definition of ‘tantra’ has
to turn upon the emerging role of
the Shakti, and especially the Kundalini Shakti.

‘Who’ Is the Kundalini?

Kundalini is another word for Cit or Consciousness, who is, as we
suggested earlier, the creative aspect of
the Divine as Power – Shakti.
Shakti is the actively unfolding power of Absolute Consciousness to
create the universe. She Herself takes the
form of the world by Her own power or ability, ‘out of ’ nothing other
than Herself. ‘Shakti’ is the power by
which the world is brought into being, both by ‘veiling’ (Avarana) the
One (the unity of Divine Consciousness)
and projecting (Viksepa) the Many (the multiplicity of ‘I’
consciousnesses we call individuals).
This is how She ‘creates:’ She veils Her own unlimited, perfect
Consciousness out of Her own free will and
produces the limited, imperfect consciousness of individuals. She as
Consciousness casts a veil over — or
limits — Her own awareness of Herself in order to experience a world,
like an actor taking on a part.
In the process of this Self-limitation, She Herself as the Creative
Shakti comes finally to rest within the
individual’s body as the Kundalini. She has not only taken the form of
the world by Her self-veiling; She
has also become you, the very being and foundation of your own
consciousness as an individual.
How – in what way – does She exist in us?
She is the steady support of all our activity, whether inward-looking
or outward-looking. In becoming the
individual, She came finally to rest in the Muladhara Chakra in a
state of ‘sleep.’ She is ‘asleep’ so far as
She is the steady support of all activity looking outward
(Bahirmukhi), and we are aware of ourselves only
as individuals, not as universal creative Consciousness. Because of
her, we can perform all outer actions in
the world, and are engrossed in the world through the senses, which
She empowers. But we are unaware of
Her presence and power, dwelling within us, as us, for us. Such is our
own ‘unawakened’ state of ordinary
Thus, when we think the world to be different from ourselves and from
God or Brahman, it is through the
influence of the Kundalini. Her ‘sleep’ is the bondage of the
ignorant; when She is asleep, we are ‘awake’
only to our own individuality.
But when She awakens, we fall ‘asleep’ to our ordinary experience as
individuals. What does Her ‘awakening’
mean? When She ‘awakes’ and reveals the Truth, She wakes us up to our
true nature as Shiva – i.e. returns
us to the experience of Oneness which She Herself had veiled. Her
‘awakening’ is the withdrawal of Her
own activity that produced the world. She absorbs into Herself all of
the Tattvas or levels of Being that
she created, and returning individual consciousness to universal
consciousness. And when She returns us
to ‘ordinary’ consciousness, She then recreates the world within the
individual with this new ‘enlightened’
The paradox of the language is that She is never truly ‘asleep.’ When
She is ‘asleep’ in one respect, She is
yet ‘awake’ in another. A truly ‘awakened’ or realized being is
‘awake’ in both respects. The process of this
awakening is expressed through the teachings on the chakras.
What Are the Chakras?
The ‘chakras’ or ‘wheels of energy’ that actively
distribute the flow of prana through the ‘nadis.’
The passageways by which the prana moves
through the body, empowering its physical
and mental functions, are known as ‘nadis’ or
‘rivers.’ These are analogous to the physical
nerves, but operate on a subtler energetic level
and even extend beyond the physical boundaries
of the body. There are said to be 72,000
nadis, of which three are ultimately the most
Two of these nadis, the ida and pingala, are associated
directly with a corresponding nostril
(left and right, respectively) and its energy, and
they crisscross along the central core of the body
from the space between the eyebrows to the base of the spine. The
place where these two ‘rivers’ meet at
the base of the spine is also the entryway to the third and most
important nadi, the Sushumna nadi. This
central passageway extends beyond the joining of the ida and pingala
at the space between the eyebrows,
and extends to the crown of the head and beyond. The ultimate goal of
pranayama practice is to direct the
flow of prana into this central passageway, where the true work of yoga is done.
The two principle nadis which surround the Sushumna, the ida and
pingala nadis, are like positive and
negative currents of pranic energy that, by their intertwining,
generate the energy of the swirling chakras
or ‘wheels’ of energy. These chakras are energy distribution centers,
sending out prana to the body at all
levels from gross (physical flesh and bones) to subtle (the realms of
thought). Each level of distribution
corresponds to the energy of each of the five elements (earth, water,
fire, air and the akasha or space). Each
chakra likewise harbors certain typical vrittis or types of mental
fluctuation according to its governing element.
Thus the way we as individuals think and react tends to reflect the
vrittis of the chakra(s) from which
we are most accustomed to functioning in our interactions with the world.
The ordinary functioning of the chakras depends upon and is affected
by the balance of the flow of breath in
the two nostrils, and thus the flow of prana in the ida and pingala
nadis. The relative dominance and flow of
the breath in the two nostrils — which regularly changes during the
day — directly influences the nervous
and subtler pranic system, and thus strongly influences our inner and
outer experience through the mind
and senses. The yogis learned how to master and regulate the flow of
these currents in order to function at
their peak mentally and physically. This art by itself offers a host
of very practical applications.
Their mastery also included bringing the two currents into balance,
which brought about the desired
spiritual effect of ‘awakening’ the prana as the Kundalini in the
third channel, the Sushumna. When prana
flows in both ida and pingala equally, with neither dominant, then the
pure, unified stream of prana can be
directed through intention, bandha and mudra into the Sushumna nadi,
and one is drawn into a deep state
of meditation as the rising prana, the Kundalini, ‘pierces’ and the
chakras. With this ‘piercing,’ the chakra
turns in upon itself, gathering its otherwise outward and downward
flowing energy and directing it inward
and upward ultimately lifting one into higher and higher states of
meditation. As this takes place, the ‘seeds’of latent impressions or
samskaras are ‘burnt up,’ reducing the vrittis that otherwise govern
our minds.
Thus, while the body/mind of the individual is the end result of the
emanation and ‘evolution’ of the
Prana from the subtle to the gross, the process of this manifestation
can be reversed through the rise of the
Kundalini within the Sushumna. In this way, we follow the conscious
energy of our own being back to
its source. This process of ‘involution’ transforms one’s ordinary
ego-centered awareness into greater and
more expansive unity consciousness as the Kundalini rises through the
chakras, ‘burning up’ impressions
of duality and ‘cutting’ the fundamental knots or ‘granthis’ which are
the evolutionary basis for duality
This is not a one-time event. The Kundalini does repeatedly descend
again and again, restoring normal consciousness
and the functioning of the chakras. But with each descent and
‘recreation’ of our ego-awareness,
the ‘vrittis’ of duality fade, so one experiences the stillness of
seeing unity in diversity. As this state becomes
firmly established through the repetition of practice, it is described
as ‘jivanmukti,’ the state of liberation
while living in the body. This is the tantric fulfillment of
Patanjali’s definition of yoga as the ‘stilling of the
thought-waves (vrittis) of the mind’ — through the processes of the
Prana as it does its work in the form
of the Kundalini.

Stages in the Ascent of the Kundalini

There are extensive descriptions of this process as it takes place in
stages. David Gordon White describes
quite succinctly, albeit clinically, the essence of this process:
The prodigious heat generated with the piercing of each chakra,
coupled with the fact that upward movement
is here equated with absorption, allows for a homologization of each
circle of transformation (chakra) with
a cremation ground, the place of final sacrifice, and a pralaya, a
cosmic dissolution. This heat, concentrated
within the infinitesimal space of the medial channel, effects the
gradual transformation of “raw” semen into
“cooked” and even perfected nectar, amrita; it is this nectar that
gradually fills out the moon in the cranial
vault such that, at the conclusion of this process, the lunar orb,
(is) now brimming with nectar…The brimming
downturned moon in the cranial vault is also identified as a
thousand-petaled lotus: this is the so-called
“seventh” chakra, the sahasrara. This transformation of semen into
nectar wholly transforms the body, rendering
it immortal.27
This, in rather technical and physiological terms, is the essential
intent of the process. Jnaneshwar Maharaj
gave a much more experiential description, putting it more in the
descriptive language of the Kundalini
used by the Natha Siddhas, the tradition to which he himself belonged.
The following is a very abridged
version of his more lengthy account:
The heat produced by the practice of posture awakens the force called
Kundalini…So lies the Kundalini, very
small and coiled three and a half times, like a female serpent with
her head turned downwards. It is like a ring
of lightning, folds of flaming fire, or a bar of pure gold…when
compressed by the vajra posture, it is awakened.
Then, like a star shooting through space, or like a point of light
bursting forth like a sprouting seed, it breaks
its bonds, grips the body, and appears in the region of the navel…The
fire arising from it spreads upward and
downward and begins to consume the flesh.
…Slowly from above, the lake of moon-nectar turns downward on one side
and pours into the mouth of
Kundalini. The nectar fills the nadis, circulates throughout the whole
body, and is absorbed into it along with
the prana. Just as when molten metal is poured into a heated mold, the
melted wax pours out and only metal
remains, taking the form of the mold, similarly, beauty incarnates in
the form of the body, covered by a veil
of skin…As if the lovely hues of the evening sky were transferred to
the body, or as if an image were fashioned from an inner radiance of
the spirit…It seems to be the very incarnation of peace…This is how
the yogi’s
body appears when Kundalini has drunk of the nectar. Old age vanishes,
the knot of youth is loosened, and
the lost bloom of childhood reappears.
…Listen! Although the body has the appearance of gold, it has the
lightness of air, for no particles of earth or
water remain in it. The yogi can see beyond all oceans, hear the
thoughts of the heavens, and read the mind
of the ant. He rides the horses of the winds and walks on the surface
of water, though his feet do not touch
it. In such a way he acquires many superhuman powers.
Grasping the prana by the hand, ascending the stairway of the ether,
Kundalini enters the heart by the steps
of the sushumna nadi…There exists here another great space in the form
of a lotus, where Consciousness
appears. In the innermost cavity of the heart, the divine Kundalini
lays out before Consciousness the feast of
Her own luster…Her brilliance then vanishes and is transformed into
the prana…Upon entering the cave of
the heart, it loses its separateness and is merged into the power
dwelling within it.
…”One body devours another.” This is the secret teaching of the Natha sect.28
One important difference is worth noting between these two accounts.
The first account by David Gordon
White more closely reflects the more specific and technical language
of most of the hatha yoga texts, as well
as the practical and almost mechanical processes involved in working
with this energy. Jnaneshwar’s account
is far more devotional, recognizing the divine power of grace at play
at the heart of the yogi’s efforts. In the
more physically oriented approach to hatha yoga, the ‘force’ at play
in hatha yoga appears more to be the
yogi’s will, by which he swims upstream against the course of nature.
In Jnaneshwar’s devotional account,
the ‘force’ is clearly the Kundalini Shakti who, though ‘awakened’
through the efforts and spiritual yearning
of the yogi, clearly transcends the will and desire of the yogi – and
thus can bring about a complete
There is of course far more to be said about the whole tradition and
experience of the Kundalini — and
hatha yoga is the yoga of the Kundalini (though this is not to be
confused with the contemporary style
named ‘Kundalini Yoga,’ which is but one expression of this). And
there are many warnings as to the dangers
of forcefully trying to direct the Kundalini through physical
practices. This was in fact the central pitfall
of hatha yoga: its forceful and physicalistic approach. Jnaneshwar was
in fact offering his own account as
a corrective for that.
Pitfalls of Hatha Yoga
Jnaneshwar is quite concerned to remind us of what might otherwise be
lost in the focus on the techniques
of hatha yoga. Jnaneshwar Maharaj or ‘Jnanadeva’ – is both a stellar
representative and a sharp critic of the
hatha yogis of his time; for Jnaneshwar had his thumb on the challenge
that remains at the heart of the
practice of hatha yoga to this day.
Jnaneshwar was initiated into the Natha order of the hatha yogins by
his elder brother Nivritti Natha,
who was said to have been a disciple of Goraksha Natha himself who, as
we saw, along with his teacher
Matsyendra Natha, are heralded as the creators of hatha yoga.30 Thus
Jnaneshwar speaks with a great deal of authority.
In his masterpiece, the Jnaneshwari, Jnaneshwar faults the hatha yogis
for their preoccupation with their
practices and accomplishments and lack of the kind of devotion that
would spare them a downfall through
“By the path of yogic postures, you may rise from the lower levels of
sense restraint and
climb upwards by the steep ascent of pranayama. Then you can reach the
cliff of pratyahara
(withdrawal of the senses), which is slippery even for the feet of
reason, and from which
hatha yogis, in spite of their boasting, are hurled down.”31
Throughout his work, Jnaneshwar speaks quite clearly from his own
experience of the stages of enlightenment,
and – though critical – his comments are not really a repudiation of
the path of the hatha yogis. Instead,
he intends to set the hatha yogis (and all seekers) on firmer ground.
His Jnaneshwari is a profound effort
to unite the teachings of the hatha yogis and of the philosophies of
the yoga tradition with the way of the
heart taught by Krishna from the time of the Bhagavad-Gita. It’s a
compelling and singularly successful in
presenting a unified yogic vision that addresses every practical
challenge and subtlety of the spiritual path.
His work was, in a word, a return to the heart, filled with wisdom and
The problem is essentially this: the hatha yogis had presented a
technology of practice so complete and engrossing,
so keenly oriented toward forcefully mastery, that it becomes almost
inevitable that a practitioner
might lose the original spirit of self-transcendence that is the
essence of yoga. Jnaneshwar wished to redress
the balance between practice and devotion, between effort and grace,
between mastery and surrender.
This is not to say that the original tradition lacked an appreciation
of devotion. The Natha Siddhas were
contemptuous of the mechanical spirituality of religious ritual;
instead, the Natha Siddhas themselves
emphasized devotion. But this often got lost along the way. Over time
their refinement of technique and
the wealth of achievements available to the determined yogi apparently
led many to fall short of the goal.
Hatha yoga was often, as it is often now, quite physicalistic in its
expression, and the process of awakening
and directing the Kundalini was often described in almost mechanical terms.
The Contribution of the Hatha Yogis
The end of the process of unfolding of the Kundalini is the abiding
state of samadhi or ecstatic unity. Their
description of the state of samadhi itself is not essentially
different from its description through the course
of Indian philosophy. Thus the end result seems to be the same. Yet
tantric yoga includes a new feature: a
dynamic process, the unfolding of the potential dormant within the
body – the Kundalini – as the medium
of spirit. And so in the tantric view, realization is ultimately not
treated as an event that is outside of life in
the physical world, but rather includes and incorporates the processes
of life even as we ‘transcend’ it.
In this respect, ‘tantric’ realization is more complete than the
classic notion, because it includes the body
in the processes of realization. In fact, the difference between the
body and the divine Shakti disappears,
leading to an abiding respect for the divinity of the body and the
physical world. As Sir John Woodroffe,
the original Western pioneer of Tantric studies put it,
The yogi who reaches this realization has transcended his body and ego
without denying either. Instead,
respect, love and responsibility govern his attitudes and actions as
he sees nothing but the divine Shakti
both within himself and all around, and he acts with greater skill,
wisdom and insight in the world than
the ordinary human is capable of. All of this is thanks to the
complete unfolding of the Shakti in the form
of the kundalini energy, the inner form of our own individual
spiritual potential.
The Unique Ambitions of the Natha Siddhas
The Natha yogis shared this Tantric vision of realization in its
reverence for the manifest world as ‘Shakti’
or the creative energy of Consciousness. At the same time, the Natha
yogis were rather unique in their
emphasis on the forcefulness of the practice, and the degree of will
involved, even while they recognized the
need for guidance and initiation into the practice by a teacher. But
more than anything else, they placed a
value and emphasis on the body that went far beyond any of the other
sages in the yoga tradition.
The hatha yoga of the Natha yogis has an ineradicable ‘do-it-yourself
’ attitude that tends toward what
amounts to willful manipulation of the Kundalini (and so, given the
true power of the Kundalini as the
force behind the universe, rightly has a reputation for being
difficult and even dangerous), as well as what
can only strike one as an excessive obsession with physical longevity,
if not immortality.
This Siddha cult is a very old religious cult with its main emphasis
on a psychochemical process of yoga, known
as the kaya-sadhana or the culture of the body with a view to making
it perfect and immutable and thereby
attaining immortal spiritual life. To escape death ... was the central
point round which grew the details of
the Siddha cult, and the Siddhas in general hold “that death may
either be put off ab libitum by a special
course of restrengthening and revitalizing the body so as to put it
permanently en rapport with the world of
sense, or to be ended definitively by dematerializing and
spiritualizing the body, according to prescription,
so that it disappears in time in a celestial form from the world of
sense, and finds its permanent abode in the
transcendental glory of God.” This Siddha school seems to be closely
associated with the Indian school of
Rasayana and it is sometimes held that the Siddha school was
originally based on the theories and practices
of the Rasayana school.
The aim of the Natha Siddhas was certainly to achieve the condition
known its jivanmukti, or liberation while
still alive. This condition of freedom then led to the further goal of
paramukti, in which the liberated one: is
‘immortalized’ in a perfected body that, in some respects, makes him
an embodied Shiva. Here, union with
Siva comes to mean truly embodying Shiva, with full possession of all
of his powers and abilities. The goal is
not a resolution or release of a finite soul into an ultimate source
or essence. Rather, what is sought is much
more daring and ambitious. The siddha wishes to stem the current that
usually leads to death, by means of
the regressive process. Says Dasgupta:
“The yoga practices of the Nath Siddhas is Ultā or regressive, firstly
in the sense that it involves yogic processes
which give a regressive or upward motion to the whole biological as
well as psychological systems which in
their ordinary nature possess a downward tendency; and in the sense
that such yogic practices lead the Siddha The rather strange
obsession with preserving and ‘raising’ the sexual fluid — the ‘bindu’
— that is so evident
in texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika has everything to do with
this ambition toward some form of
physical immortality or ‘perfection of the body.’
The Meaning And Significance Of ‘Semen’ or ‘Sexual Fluid’
The emphasis upon “raising” the sexual fluid, found especially and the
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, as well as in
other principal hatha yoga texts, does bear some explanation,
especially since the word “semen” suggests
that only men are capable of this. The process really has to do with
the progressive control of Mind (Manas),
Vitality (Prana), and Power (Virya — as in ‘Virility’ — here most
often interpreted as “ semen”). To
control the mind or ‘Manas’ it is to control all three — Prana (Vayu)
and Virya. By the same token, to
control Prana is to control both Manas and Virya.
Now, what if Virya is controlled? The effect of control over Virya in
the form of sexual desire will be exercised
upon the substance out of which sexual fluid is made. What we are
really talking about is the subtler
elemental substance described by Ayurveda, Sukra, which is refined
from our food. Its essential nature is
‘Ojas,’ the aspect or power of Prana which is the ‘glue’ that holds
body and soul together. When Virya is
controlled, as Sir John Woodroffe explains it, this substance (Sukra),
which otherwise develops into the gross
seed or sexual fluid is made to flow upwards.34 The result is the
control of both Manas and Prana. This
control of Virya is largely achieved through Pranayama. With
Pranayama, the product of Sukra, namely the
sexual fluid, ‘dries up.’ That elemental force instead ascends and
becomes the nectar of union (Amrita).
“According to Hindu ideas semen (Sukra) exists in a subtle form
throughout the whole body.
Under the influence of the sexual will it is withdrawn and elaborated
into a gross formed in
the sexual organs. To be urdhvaretas is not merely to prevent the
emissions of gross semen
already formed but to prevent its formation as gross seed, and its
absorption in the general
system. The body of a man who is truly urdhvaretas has the scent of a
lotus. But chaste man
where gross semen has formed may, on the other hand, smell like a buck goat.”35
To my mind, nothing precludes this from being true of women no less
than of men. In both cases, the
meaning of “sexual fluid” as Sukra, the essential form of Ojas, is
essentially the same.
The Question of Immortality
Sir John Woodroffe adds to this a note about the significance of
Pranayama specifically in the Hatha Yoga
“Pranayama it is recognized as one of the “limbs” of all the forms
(Ashtanga) of yoga. But
whereas it is used in Mantra, Laya and Raja Yoga as an auxiliary, the
Hatha Yogi as such
regards this regulation and Yoga of the breath as the chief means
productive of that result
(Moksa), which is the common end of all schools of Yoga.
Yet because of its historical association with the alchemical
tradition, there is a consistent reference in the
hatha yoga texts to “immortality” as the state of the Siddha. This
kind of emphasis sets the hatha yoga tradition
strangely apart from the other yoga traditions. This kind of
accomplishment — the immortal and
semi-divine state of the Siddha — is not so clearly related to the
kind of spiritual realization that the sages
of the other traditions were interested in, and so you don’t hear so
much about this outside of the Natha
Siddha tradition. Nor is this practice necessarily the same thing as
raising the Kundalini.
Thus we hatha yogis of today who do not equate spiritual realization
with the kind of immortalized body
sought after by many of the Natha Siddhas may be relieved to know that
we do not have to concern ourselves
with these matters, which have more to do with physical
self-preservation, and turn instead toward
grace and devotion, and realization of one’s genuine spiritual Self.37
An example of one such Siddha who followed the tradition of hatha yoga
with regard to these practices, is
Changdev. This Natha Yogi came to be one of Jnaneshwar’s most famous
disciples, once Jnaneshwar freed
Changdev from his pride in this kind of Siddhahood. Changdev had
famously demonstrated supernatural
powers derived from his yoga, and was even reputed to have cheated
death for hundreds of years. Changdev
was immensely proud of his achievements and of his multitude of
followers. At the same time, he was
painfully aware that he was spiritually dry. In truth, he knew he was
merely extending his life by virtue of
these practices until he could find a Teacher who could bring him to
full realization.
For us, Changdev represents many sages of the Natha tradition who had
perfected their yogic technique
but were still wandering, not having completed the journey. When he
finally he met his teacher in Jnaneshwar,
Changdev nevertheless had some difficulty with the idea of
surrendering to him, particularly because
Jnaneshwar was so young (as yet only 13 years old or so). In his
embarrassment at not knowing how to
address Jnaneshwar, Changdev ended up sending only a blank sheet of
paper as his ‘introduction.’ To this,
Jnaneshwar wrote a response, and his poem is preserved for us as the
Changdev Pasashti,38 which initiates
Changdev into the Tantric spiritual vision of nonduality. Changdev was
humbled by the letter as well as by
a number of experiences of Jnaneshwar that followed, all of which
showed the true value of Jnaneshwar’s
spiritual accomplishment. Once Changdev let go of his infatuation with
his own Siddhahood, he became
Jnaneshwar’s greatest disciple and a truly realized being in his own right.
Jnaneshwar, by the way, took samadhi (died) at age 26 of his own free
will, showing little concern for physical
immortality or for extending his life for hundreds of years.
In this letter as well as in his monumental work, the Jnaneshwari,
Jnaneshwar is at pains to bring us to a
deeper appreciation of and reverence for the power of grace and of the
heart that will take us beyond the
self-will of the ‘forceful’ hatha yogins (not to mention the
jnana-yogis with their emphasis on knowledge).
Jnaneshwar was very much a part of the Natha tradition, and yet his
works are full of admonishments to
‘hatha yogis’ that they not lose their way because of their pride of body.
The Natha Yogis and Kashmir Shaivism
In this regard, Jnaneshwar is closer to the Trika philosophy of
Abhinavagupta, to which we will turn next.
The Trika system of Kashmir Shaivism does not reject the insights of
the Natha Yogis into the system of
the chakras and the unfolding of the prana as Kundalini, but rather
completely re-envisions the approach
of yoga toward the spiritual evolution.
Philosophically the Natha yogis are very much ‘part of the family’ in
the Tantric philosophy of the Trika
System, but as we have seen, they have their own agenda as well,
particularly their emphasis on forging an
immortal body in the crucible of practice. Apart from their
‘alchemical’ concerns with this end, what the
hatha yogis share with the other Tantrikas of the Trika system is an
emphasis upon arousing the Kundalini
energy, the form of prana concealed within us that is the latent
potential for our spiritual evolution.
The difference between the tantric yoga of the hatha yogis from the
tantra of Kashmir Shaivism lies in
the means used. The Tantrikas of Kashmir Shaivism did not place their
central emphasis on the chakras
themselves; nor is yoga meant to carry the attitude of a ‘forceful’ or
‘violent’ practice. Spiritual evolution
takes place through ‘stepping into the natural flow’ of the Shakti and
fully participating in (rather than
trying to precipitate) the unfolding of grace. Spiritual evolution
takes place through the meeting of the
yearning of the yogi with the graceful will of the Shakti, which is
something that can be encouraged but
never (safely) forced.
In this context, they had little use for the hatha yogis’ emphasis on
sustained self-effort centered upon the
practice of the bandhas and mudra, the strong exertion of forceful
will‑power, the sudden arresting of the
breath, or the preservation and raising of the ‘bindu.’ The Kashmiri
Shaivas exercised a different kind of
will — one that seeks to align itself with the Divine will, through
whose grace the Kundalini Shakti unfolds
as we attend to our ordinary experience. Their emphasis was upon
recognizing and being carried by Her
power as it flashes forth, both within and all around us.

aadesh aadesh aadesh

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