Chapter 5 -The Hatha and Laya Yogas

Great Systems of Yoga

by Ernest Wood

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

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

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

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

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

"Let him thus practice regularly, with twenty retentions, at sunrise, midday, sunset and midnight, every day, keeping a peaceful mind, and in three months the channels of the body will have become purified. This is the first of four stages of prānāyāma (regulation of breath), and the signs of it are that the body becomes healthy and likeable and emits a pleasant odor, and there will be good appetite and digestion, cheerfulness, a good figure, courage, enthusiasm and strength.

"There are, however, certain things which the swarasādhaka (breath-practiser) must avoid: foods which are acid, astringent, pungent, salty, mustardy and bitter, and those fried in oil, and various activities of body and mind, bathing before sunrise, stealing, harmfulness, enmity, egotism, cunning, fasting, untruth, cruelty to animals, sexual attachments, fire, much conversation and much eating. On the contrary, he should use and enjoy ghī (butter clarified by simmering), milk, sweet food, betel without lime, camphor, a good meditation-chamber with only a small entrance, contentment, willingness to learn, the doing of household duties with vairāgya, singing of the names of Vishnu, hearing sweet music, firmness, patience, effort, purity, modesty, confidence and helping the teacher. If there is hunger, a little milk and butter may be taken before practice, but there should be no practice for some time after meals. It is better to eat a small amount of food frequently (with at least three hours’ intervals) than much at once. If the body perspires it should be well rubbed (with the hands). When the practice has become well established, these rules need not be so strictly observed." 1

One does not wish to put any of these hatha-yoga practices into print, to be read by various kinds of people, without sounding a warning. Many people have brought upon themselves incurable illness and even madness by practising them without providing the proper conditions of body and mind. The old yoga books are full of such warnings, and they tell the would-be practicer to go to a teacher who really knows all about these things, to receive personal inspection and instruction. For example, the Gheranda Sanhitā announces that if one begins the practices in hot, cold or rainy weather, disease will be contracted, and also if there is not moderation in diet, for only one half the stomach must ever be filled with solid food. 2 When the present writer tried, as a boy of fourteen or fifteen, the long alternate breathing for three quarters of an hour, he found when he stood up that he had lost his sense of touch and weight. He handled things without feeling them, and walked without any sense of touching the ground. The sense returned only after ten or fifteen minutes.

The Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā states that control of breath must be brought about very gradually, "as lions, elephants and tigers are tamed," or else "the experimenter will be killed," and by any mistake there arises cough, asthma, head, eye and ear pains, and many other diseases. 3 The Shāndilya Upanishad gives the same warning. On the other hand, right practice may be undertaken by anybody, even the young and the old, the sick and the weak, and will result in slenderness and rightness of body. 4

The theory behind these breathing exercises is that between the mind and the body comes prāna. This word is translated "principle of life"—referring to life in the body. Five vital airs are mentioned extensively in the Sanskrit literature which touches on the physiology of the human body. Prāna is always referred to as the chief of these vital airs. The word comes from a verbal root "an" meaning "to breathe," and thus "to live." Patanjali in his aphorism on Prānāyāma calls it regulation of the manner of movement of shwāsa and prashwāsa, that is, breathing. 5 The late Dr. Vaman R. Kokatnur, noted scientist and Sanskrit scholar, in a paper read at the American Chemical Society's meeting in Detroit in September 1927, quoted a text which says that what is inhaled is prāna and what is exhaled is apāna. On various grounds he made out a good case for these being oxygen and carbon dioxide, a third "air," udāna, being hydrogen. Of the other two of the five, samāna is generally spoken of as essential to digestion and vyāna "pervades the whole body." Many speak of these five airs as being something else, fine or "etheric," but all agree that various ways of breathing affect them all. Many of the teachers recommend the traditional proportions of one unit of time for inbreathing (pūraka), four units for holding the breath within (Kumbhaka), and two units for out-breathing (rechaka). The Shiva Sanhitā speaks of the units being gradually lengthened, as seen in verse iii 57: "When the yogī is able to practice holding the breath for an hour and a half, various siddhis (faculties and powers) arise, including prophecy, travelling at will, sight and hearing at a distance, vision of the invisible worlds, entering others’ bodies, turning various metals into gold, invisibility at will, and moving in the air."

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

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

Some teachers maintain that all the impurities of the body may be removed merely by control of breath, but others hold that it is necessary to practice also certain cleansings, especially in the case of persons who are flabby and phlegmatic. 6

The six principal purifications are: (1) slowly (under the direction of a teacher) learn to swallow a clean, slightly warm, thin cloth, four fingers broad and fifteen spans long; hold on to the end of it, and gradually draw it out again; (2) take an enema sitting in water and using a small bamboo tube; shake well and dispel; (3) draw a fine thread, twelve fingers long, in at one nostril and out at the mouth; (4) look at something without winking, until tears come; (5) with the head bent down, slowly massage the intestines, round and round both ways, and (6) breathe rapidly, like the bellows of a blacksmith. 7 These acts are said to remove corpulence and many other diseases.

The Gheranda Sanhitā has a much bigger collection—about twenty-four purifications—which includes swallowing air with the lips formed "like the beak of a crow," and expelling it from below; doing the same with water; gently pressing the intestines towards the spine one hundred times, massaging the depression at the bridge of the nose (especially after waking and after meals); vomiting by tickling the throat; gargling; drawing air softly in at one nostril, and sending it out softly at the other, alternately; drinking water in at the nostrils and letting it out at the mouth. 8

Closely connected with the elaborate practices of prānāyāma are the postures (āsanās). Quite often eighty-four of these are enumerated, but the Shiva Sanhitā contents itself with recommending four, which are called "The Adept Seat," "The Lotus Seat," "The Powerful Seat," and "The Swastika Seat." These are briefly as follows: (1) body straight, legs crossed, one heel at the anus, the other at the front, gaze between the eyebrows, chin on breast; 9 (2) legs folded with feet, soles upwards, on opposite thighs, arms crossed, hands on thighs, tongue pressed against teeth, chin on breast or held up, gaze on tip of nose (or straight in front); or arms may be crossed behind, hands holding great toes; 10 (3) legs stretched out, apart, head held in hands and placed on knees; 11 (4) feet between calves and thighs, body straight. 12 The Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā also advocates four āsanās especially, two being the same and two different.

An excellent modern book on prānāyāma, āsanās etc., is Yoga Asanās by Swāmī Shivānanda, of Rishikesh, in the Himālayas. 13 In this the Swāmī explains with illustrations a large number of postures, including the Sukhāsana, or "pleasant posture" described and recommended for the West in my Practical Yoga: Ancient and Modern. He also gives very useful simple breathing exercises as well as the more elaborate ones.

We come now to another school of yoga called the laya yoga. Laya means "latent" or "in suspense." The especial features of this yoga are its study and practice of kundalinī and the chakras. Kundalinī is described as a force lying in three and a half coils like a sleeping serpent, in a cavity near the base of the spine. This is regarded as a goddess or power, "luminous as lightning," who, even though sleeping, maintains all living creatures. She lies there with her head blocking a fine channel which goes straight up the spine and is known as the sushumnā. Some, to link this up with modern thought, have called it the fount of bodily electricity.

The purpose of the laya-yoga practice is to awaken the kundalinī (or "coiled one"), who will start up hissing, and can then be carried through the series of six chakras (literally, "wheels"), which are threaded upon that channel at various points in the body, which are situated at the level of the base of the spine, the root of the penis, the navel, the heart, the throat and the eyebrows. These chakras are depicted somewhat as flowers rather than wheels, and have petals respectively numbering four, six, eight, twelve, sixteen, and two.

The works describing these chakras, and the effects of meditation upon them or in them, are altogether too numerous even to mention. 14 They are depicted with very much symbology. For example, the anāhata chakra (at the heart) has a yantra or design showing twelve petals, each one bearing a certain letter of the alphabet. In the center circle there is a pair of interlaced triangles, having written in the middle of them the syllable "yam" (which is a mantra or sound which can produce some effect when properly repeated). This yam is pictured as riding on a black antelope, and, in its final sound m, which is written as a dot, a figure representing the male divinity is placed. He is styled Isha, has three eyes, and holds out his hands with gestures of dispelling fear and granting boons. Near by, in the pericarp of the lotus (for the chakras are also called lotuses) is the female divinity Kākinī, seated on a red lotus, having golden color, dressed in yellow clothes, wearing all kinds of jewels and a garland of bones. She has four arms, two hands bearing a noose and a skull, and the other two showing signs of dispelling fear and granting boons. In the center, above the interlaced triangles, is an inverted triangle as bright as lightning, and in that a symbol of Shiva of a golden color with a crescent moon surmounted by a dot upon its head. This chakra, like all the padmas (lotus flowers) is brightly colored, the petals and pericarp being red.

One cannot attempt in this brief space to unravel the significance of all these letters, colors and symbols, or to give the symbols of the other five padmas. Each chakra has its own diagram, colors, animal, divinities, letters, etc. It will be evident that the yogī, as he meditates in each of them in the course of his progress, will have plenty to think about. Arthur Avalon's excellent translation of the Shatchakra Nirūpana, with comments thereon, is a mine of information on the subject, but the thorough student should also read various minor Upanishads, Purānas and general works on yoga touching on this subject. There is a certain amount of conflicting testimony on the subject of colors, divinities etc., but this does not mar the general unity of information as regards all the main features. 15

There is in all the literature on the subject a poetical rather than an exact description of what happens as kundalinī rises. The spine is called "the axis of creation" for the body. In that is the channel sushumnā; within that another, named vajroli and within that again another, called chitrinī, "as fine as a spider's thread." On this tube the lotuses are said to be threaded "like knots on a bamboo rod." Kundalinī rises up little by little, as the yogī employs his will. In one practice he brings her as far as he can, and, as she pierces any one of the lotuses, its face, which was turned downwards before, turns upwards, and when the meditation is finished he leads her back to her home near the base of the spine. 16

It is further explained that as she leaves each chakra on the way up, she withdraws the functions of that center, and so makes them latent, hence the term laya-yoga, or the Yoga of Suspension. It is, of course, natural that in such a process, as attention is given more and more to the higher thought, the lower responses should become latent, as, for example, when we are reading and do not hear or see a person who enters the room.

Kundalinī proceeds upwards until she reaches the great "thousand-petalled lotus" at the top of the head, beyond all the six chakras. There she enjoys the bliss and power of union with the source of all life, and afterwards, as she returns through the centers she gives back to each its specific powers, purified and enhanced. The process of bringing kundalinī to the highest point is usually considered to require some years, but there are exceptional cases in which it is done quickly.

The hatha-yoga books take up a curious view of the mind in relation to all these matters. It is expressed in a few verses of the Hatha-Yoga Pradīpikā. "The mind is the lord of the senses; the breath is the lord of the mind; and that depends on nāda." 17 "There is talk of laya, laya, but what is its character? Laya is the non-arising of further vāsanās, 18 and the forgetting of external things." 19 Some of the minor Upanishads, such as the Muktika of the Shukla-Yajurveda, have a similar idea.

Even so brief an account of these practices as this is would be incomplete without mention of the mudrās, or physical practices, and the nādas, or internal sounds. The mudrās, although in some cases similar to the purifications, are intended for a different purpose—to obtain some delight or power, and to awaken kundalinī, for it is held that the awakening can take place through āsanās (postures), kumbhakas (holdings of the breath) and mudrās.

Though there are many mudrās, only ten are usually recommended. Among the most popular ones intended to awaken kundalinī is that of supporting the body on the palms of the hands and softly striking the posteriors on the ground, which is also considered to remove wrinkles and grey hair. In another, very highly recommended, the membrane under the tongue is gradually cut ("one hair's breadth every seven days"), and rubbed with salt and turmeric, so that the severed parts will not join. The tongue is also gradually lengthened by a process resembling milking, so that after six months the yogī can turn it upwards into the cavity at the back of the palate, and thus, with the hole closed and the breath suspended, contemplate kundalinī and "drink the nectar" flowing there. Another physical method requires a sort of massage for an hour and a half morning and evening, for up to forty-five days. Still another requires the feet to be crossed behind the neck.

It must be mentioned that those rāja yogīs who do not approve of the awakening of kundalinī by these external methods, nor even by meditation upon it, nevertheless usually believe that kundalinī naturally awakens and rises as a result of the purely internal meditations which they practice. This takes place a little at a time so that there is no strong feeling or pain in the body, as is often the case when it is done by the hatha-yoga methods. The purifying and subliming effects of the return journey through the chakra in all cases awakens some degree of clairvoyance and similar powers, but what the yogī sees will depend upon his state of mind, and even then the understanding of what he sees will depend upon his evolutionary status. There is plenty of room for error, inasmuch as his own thoughts and those of others may easily be mistaken for objective realities, as in dreams.

Some of the books prescribe an "elephant mudrā," which is performed by standing up to the neck in water, drinking it in through the nostrils, sending it out through the mouth and then reversing the process. This resembles the action of elephants in the pools and rivers, though they use the trunk only, not the mouth.

Now we come to the nādas or sounds. The Shiva Sanhitā instructs the yogī to close the ears with the thumbs, the eyes with the index fingers, the nostrils with the middle fingers and the lips with the remaining four fingers. After some practice, he will begin to hear the mystic sounds. The first will be like the hum of a bee, then a flute and then a vīnā. With more practice there comes the sound of bells, and afterwards thunder. The mind of the yogī becomes absorbed in these sounds, and he forgets the external things which could distract him. 20 These sounds are usually called anāhata, or belonging to the heart center. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, when the ears, eyes, nose and mouth are closed, a clear sound is heard—first like the tinkling of ornaments, and later like kettle-drums; later still there is the sound of the flute and the vīnā. In the middle stage there may be the sound of bells and horns. The yogī must give his attention to the subtler sounds. The Nādabindu Upanishad also gives much the same order of sounds as the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, mentioning in stage one the sound of the sea, clouds, waterfalls and kettledrums, in the second stage that of drums, bells and horns, and thirdly, that of tinkling bells, flutes, vīnās and bees. The Hansa Upanishad gives the order more in agreement with the Shiva Sanhitā. First come soft chattering sounds, then that of the bell, conch, lute, cymbals, flute, drum, double drum, and, lastly, thunder. The nāda laya or "absorption through sound" is regarded as a great aid to concentration. 21

Samādhi, the highest practice of yoga, is conceived in a very material manner in the hatha-yoga books. The idea is that the yogī in samādhi is uninfluenced by anything external, because the senses have become inactive, and he does not even know himself or others. Although the Gheranda Sanhitā says that samādhi involves union of the individual with the supreme Self (Parātman) so that "I am Brahma and no other; Brahma am I, without any sorrows; I am of the nature of fundamental existence, knowledge and bliss, always free and self -supporting," 22 it also prescribes, for the attainment of this, various mudrās or physical practices, such as that of turning the tongue into the nasal cavity and stopping the breath, 23 the theory being that all you need to do is to cut off contact with this world, and the other state will be there.

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Source: Reproduced from the Great Systems of Yoga, by Ernest Wood, 1954. This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was not renewed at the US Copyright Office in a timely fashion. These files may be used for any non-commercial purpose provided this Notice of Attribution is left intact in all copies.