HATHA YOGA — More for the Body than the Mind
Hatha yoga selects the body and the vital functionings as its instruments of perfection and realization; its concern is with the gross body.
Yoga is a quest for self-perfection. Self-perfection may be looked at from various angles: physical, emotional or intellectual. The school of yoga that concentrates on physical perfection is hatha yoga. The classical texts of hatha yoga are Hathayogapradipika and Gheranda Samhita. The principal techniques used by hatha yoga are asanas (postures) and pranayamas (breathing disciplines). Since people turn to yoga primarily to stay physically fit or to get rid of physical ailments, hatha yoga is extremely popular. However, perfection in any area is a full-time job. Mastering hatha yoga takes all the time one has, and the process can go on for ever. Proficiency in hatha yoga not only confers physical strength, prolonged youth and longevity, but can also give the ability to perform physical feats bordering on the miraculous, such as walking on fire, living on very little food or air, etc. Association with such performances is what has given yoga the dubious reputation of being a trick or a type of acrobatic performance. The average person is not interested in performing such feats; and for him the question arises what use it is to spend 24 hours a day to acquire a healthy body if it leaves no time to use the healthy body for ordinary activities. Therefore, what suits the average person is a judiciously selected sequence of fifteen to twenty postures and three or four pranayamas, which can be done in about an hour, and would keep her reasonably fit.
Explaining the process of hatha yoga, Sri Aurobindo says that the immobility during the asanas helps get rid of the restlessness of the body. Holding the pranic energy (life-force) instead of dissipating and squandering it enables the individual to become conscious of the life-force and to direct it to any part of the body. The process is supplemented by pranayamas, because breath is the key to the life-force. That is why the advanced practitioner of asanas and pranayamas is aware of the inner operations of the body and can control them. In Sri Aurobindo’s synthesis of different schools of yoga, known as integral yoga, the central principle of hatha yoga has been incorporated. Body is the material base of the individual and the gross envelope for the subtle parts of the being. Without the material base, even the mind cannot function, because consciousness needs an instrument to manifest itself, and the instrument is the brain, which is a part of the body. Thus, the body is the primary component of the body-mind complex, which is our instrument for action in the world. Moreover, the body is also a manifestation of the divine. Therefore, the body should not be neglected, but transformed so that it can be a worthy instrument of the Divine that it manifests. The body has been given to us with a purpose. We need it to fulfill the purpose of life through right action. The Divine gives us the body, and the Divine gives us unique abilities to do certain types of work, and the Divine also gives us the conditions and circumstances for doing the work through which we can address the purpose of life. The least we can do is to take good care of the body so that it can keep working for a long time. If a manager has to take care of a factory, the least he can do is to clean, oil and service the machinery so that it keeps working for a long time. We are the managers of the body that its owner, the Divine, has entrusted to us to manage and use. Hence, in yoga, looking after the body is a sacred duty. We cannot take the stand, “my body is my business; if I want to smoke and drink because I enjoy it, and I do not mind dying early, what is wrong with it?”
The classical texts of hatha yoga neither concentrate on miraculous feats, nor do they restrict their concern to the body. They link the physical aspects of yoga with the mental and the spiritual, which is inevitable because the body and the mind are closely related, and both are the instruments of the divine essence of the individual. But in the currently popular versions of hatha yoga, the focus is almost entirely on the body. Further, the asanas are often modified to make them look more like aerobics, in order to appeal to the speed-loving modern mind. Yoga does not prohibit innovation, but immobility of the body is essential for curing restlessness. How can yoga cure restlessness if the practice of yoga itself becomes restless? Thus, although yoga is very popular now, the expansion has been at a price. What is taught in the name of yoga is often a grossly truncated, highly watered-down, and rather distorted version of this great holistic discipline.