Prana, Chakras and Mastery of the Body and Life-Energy

The scientists of Hatha Yoga developed an understanding of the body and its interaction with the life-energy that relies on the subtle energy centers rather than solely on physical organ systems. The physical organ systems are part of the physical body’s structural mechanism, yet without the movement of the life-force, they are dead and unable to do anything. Everything relies on this life-force, which the ancient practitioners called “prana”. In their view, there is a universal life-force which permeates all existence and carries out activity. In the physical body, it is this force that makes the difference between “life” and “death” of the body. This is a subtle force, however, and not directly perceptible by the physical senses. The practitioners of Hatha Yoga felt that by gaining mastery over the most accessible manifestation of the life-force, the breathing process, they would be able to gain control over the entire range of subtle energy actions within the body.

Sri Aurobindo provides an overview of this understanding: “The Prana has according to Yogic science a fivefold movement pervading all the nervous system and the whole material body and determining all its functionings. The Hathayogin seizes on the outward movement of respiration as a sort of key which opens to him the control of all these five powers of the Prana. He becomes sensibly aware of their inner operations, mentally conscious of his whole physical life and action. he is able to direct the Prana through all the Nadis or nerve-channels of his system. He becomes aware of its action in the six Chakras or ganglionic centres of the nervous system, and is able to open it up in each beyond its present limited, habitual and mechanical workings. He gets, in short, a perfect control of the life in the body in its most subtle nervous as well as in its grossest physical aspects, even over that in it which is at present involuntary and out of the reach of our observing consciousness and will.”

Western scientists have done research on various claims of the Hathayogins and found that in fact, control over heartbeat, blood pressure, stress reduction and breathing could be effected by those who were proficient in the practices. Some of these are the “involuntary” functions that cannot normally be controlled by most people consciously.

This basis is a preparation for the higher aims sought by the Hathayogins, namely, the achievement of various psychic and spiritual realisations. Sri Aurobindo comments that at this point the action of Hatha Yoga begins to correspond more with the practices known as Raja Yoga, and thus, a review of Raja Yoga will be in order.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp. 512-513

Combining Pranayama With Asana Enhances the Results of Hatha Yoga

The power of Asana to bring about stability and foundation to the physical body is only the beginning of the action of Hatha Yoga. In order to achieve the higher results of the practice, the use of Pranayama, the controlling of the vital force and its flow in the body, is essential. Pranayama is frequently associated with control of the breathing, but this is just the most visible, and thus easiest to grab hold of, aspect of the control of the Prana, or vital life-force. Starting from a stable Asana, the practitioner will develop control over the breathing apparatus to first bring about a calm, alert control, and later to begin to direct and focus the flow of the vital force into different organ systems and for a variety of purposes.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “Pranayama, starting from the physical immobility and self-holding which is secured by Asana, deals more directly with the subtler vital parts, the nervous system. This is done by various regulations of the breathing, starting from equality of respiration and inspiration and extending to the most diverse rhythmic regulations of both with an interval of inholding of the breath. In the end the keeping in of the breath, which has first to be done with some effort, and even its cessation become as easy and seem as natural as the constant taking in and throwing out which is its normal action.”

It should be noted in passing that practicing Pranayama without guidance can be disruptive, as the practitioner is changing the automatic breathing function that is natural to the body. Without clear and precise guidelines the basic balance between mind, nervous system and physical frame can be disrupted and health issues can ensue. This may include physical health disruptions and mental balance issues.

That said, there can be real benefits to the proper implementation of the practices of Pranayama: “But the first objects of the Pranayama are to purify the nervous system, to circulate the life-energy through all the nerves without obstruction, disorder or regularity, and to acquire a complete control of its functionings, so that the mind and will of the soul inhabiting the body may be no longer subject to the body or life or their combined limitations. The power of these exercises of breathing to bring about a purified and unobstructed state of the nervous system is a known and well established fact of our physiology. it helps also to clear the physical system, but is not entirely effective at first on all its canals and openings; therefore the Hathayogin uses supplementary physical methods for clearing them out regularly of their accumulations. The combination of these with Asana,–particular Asanas have even an effect in destroying particular diseases,–and with Pranayama maintains perfectly the health of the body. But the principle gain is that by this purification the vital energy can be directed anywhere, to any part of the body and in any way or with any rhythm of its movement.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg. 512

The Body as a Perfected Instrument

The practitioner of Hatha Yoga looks at the body as the basis for further spiritual realization and thus, the intensive effort to make it stable, strong and energetic is intended to provide a true platform for spiritual development. A body that is weak, sick, tired or worn out is unable to sustain the concentration of conscious force (tapasya) needed to attain any kind of realization of a consciousness beyond the normal boundaries.

Sri Aurobindo explores the science of Hatha Yoga from this view: “The body, thus liberated from itself, purified from many of its disorders and irregularities, becomes, partly by Asana, completely by combined Asana and Pranayama, a perfected instrument. It is freed from its ready liability to fatigue; it acquires an immense power of health; its tendencies of decay, age and death are arrested.”

Youthful energy, extended life span and vigour are a few of the additional qualities that can ensue from the intensive practice of Hatha Yoga. The Hatha Yogin recognizes that the process of spiritual perfection requires long and patient effort, and the process of dying, and being once again born, and having to re-create the effort after a long period of growth and development of the instrument, is truly a burdensome effort–far better, therefore, if it were to become possible to lengthen the life and health sufficiently to allow far more progress, or even a full realization in the present lifetime!

Sri Aurobindo observes that the wide variety of Asanas, in many cases, quite complex and difficult to master, are able to re-route and regulate the energy flow within the physical system and “…it serves also to alter the relation of the physical energy in the body to the earth energy with which it is related.” Through these means the outer gross body becomes more refined and takes on more qualities of the subtle body, and physical effects, including the possibility of levitation may ensue. This is the basis by which certain special powers begin to manifest for the dedicated Hathayogin. “Moreover, the life ceases to be entirely dependent on the action of the physical organs and functionings, such as the heart-beats and the breathing. These can in the end be suspended without cessation of or lesion to the life.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg. 511

The Perfection of Asana

For those who look upon the practice of Hatha Yoga as some kind of exercise program, the focus tends to be placed on the correct execution and form of the pose being adopted, and there is an ever-greater emphasis on taking on the next advanced pose. Sri Aurobindo reminds us however that the actual purpose of Asana, and thus, the perfection of Asana lies not in achieving new poses or forms, but in using Asana to bring a strong and unwavering power of holding greater energy without spilling it out either in nervous movements or in some kind of mental, vital or physical signs, such as a trembling of the body, which are indications of more energy moving through the system than it can easily hold.

“The body, accustomed to work off superfluous energy by movement, is at first ill able to bear this increase and this retained inner action and betrays it by violent tremblings; afterwards it habituates itself and, when the Asana is conquered, then it finds as much ease in the posture, however originally difficult or unusual to it, as in its easiest attitudes sedentary or recumbent. It becomes increasingly capable of holding whatever amount of increased vital energy is brought to bear upon it without needing to spill it out in movement, and this increase is so enormous as to seem illimitable, so that the body of the perfected Hathayogin is capable of feats of endurance, force, unfatigued expenditure of energy of which the normal physical powers of man at their highest would be incapable. For it is not only able to hold and retain this energy, but to bear its possession of the physical system and its more complete movement through it. The life-energy, thus occupying and operating in a powerful, unified movement on the tranquil and passive body, freed from the restless balancing between the continent power and the contained, becomes a much greater and more effective force.”

The power of bringing the body under complete control, able to hold whatever is brought to bear upon it, represents the perfection of Asana. In this case, it is not even really relevant which particular pose is adopted. The Hatha Yoga practitioner uses Asana as the first step in achieving capacities far beyond what we consider to be the normal human capacity, yet this is not the goal but just a first step in the process of liberating the consciousness from control by the physical body.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp.. 510-511

The First Necessity Is to Develop a Foundation for Spiritual Energy to Manifest

Hatha Yoga begins with Asana, the “seat”, which provides the foundational basis for the further practices which are intended to liberate, direct, control and receive ever-greater energy into the physical frame. It is a quite normal occurrence that people living the ordinary life of humanity find that every little event, every little action of others or of the world, every little provocation of the senses leads to a “spilling” of the energy of life, much of it through an unconscious nervous process of movements, distractions and general restlessness, but also a good deal of it through inability to hold energy and the pressure it creates in the body-vital-mind continuum. This occurs not only on the physical level, but also especially on the vital, nervous level and even on the mental level. We can identify with how disturbed we can become when someone says something we do not like, or does something that interferes with what we were wanting or intending to do. For the scientist of Yoga, these all represent “leaks” of energy that can be cured, and the process of curing these leaks prepares the body to hold substantially more energy than before, thus preparing it for the descent of higher levels of conscious awareness and the higher energy these levels bring with them.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “It is the sign of a constant inability of the body to hold even the limited life-energy that enters into or is generated in it, and consequently of a general dissipation of this Pranic force with a quite subordinate element of ordered and well-economised activity.” The normal life in the world deals with this through a series of accommodations and balancing acts to keep things relatively at an even keel until of course the various parts of the instrument begin to break down. With the increase of mental activity, these imbalances tend to increase because the mind now makes its own demands and overrides the normal accommodations of the physical-vital being left to its own devices.

“Therefore the first necessity of a greater status or action is to get rid of this disordered restlessness, to still the activity and to regulate it. The Hathayogin has to bring about an abnormal poise of status and action of the body and the life-energy, abnormal not in the direction of greater disorder, but of superiority and self-mastery.”

Therefore, Hatha Yoga begins with the Asana, acquiring a firm control over the physical body and its movements, and developing the power of immobility as a sign of increasing control over the body and the ability to thereby open to more powerful forces that are brought about through the subsequent stages of the practice of Hatha Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp.. 509-510

Two Essential Ideas Underlying the Practice of Hatha Yoga

The parable of the “unbaked jar” is used by teachers of Yoga to illustrate the critical and essential nature of solidifying the physical and nervous body in order to enable it to receive, hold and control the increase of energy that accompanies the descent of the higher forces into the being. The clay may be formed into a vessel for holding water, but if one tries to pour water into it without first baking it to the right hardness, the vessel dissolves, the water disappears and the effort is lost.

Sri Aurobindo observes that Hatha Yoga recognizes the importance of preparing the physical body and that there are “…two profound ideas which bring with them many effective implications. The first is that of control by physical immobility, the second is that of power by immobility. The power of physical immobility is as important in Hathayoga as the power of mental immobility in the Yoga of knowledge, and for parallel reasons.”

The immobility being sought is not one of torpor or lassitude, not a form of sleep, but a highly concentrated state of indrawn awareness whereby the body itself becomes steady and unmoving. “…for Yogic passivity, whether of mind or body, is a condition of the greatest increase, possession and continence of energy. The normal activity of our minds is for the most part a disordered restlessness, full of waste and rapidly tentative expenditure of energy in which only a little is selected for the workings of the self-mastering will,–waste, be it understood, from this point of view, not that of universal Nature in which what is to us waste, serves the purposes of her economy. The activity of our bodies is a similar restlessness.”

If we try to just sit quietly for a while, we immediately begin to notice the little disturbances that occur all the time, the itches, the nervous movements, the shifting of the body from one position to another, the darting of the mind equally in all directions. For the Hathayogin, these are signs of unsteadiness and unpreparedness of the physical body. If we cannot hold onto the little bit of energy that operates within our normal human lives and vital systems, how can we expect to hold onto the immense uprush of energy with the opening of the spiritual levels of consciousness and the descent of the higher forces into the mind, vital self and physical being?

We have seen in the Yoga of knowledge that one of the goals is to bring the mind to a quiescent state so that it may open to and reflect the higher planes of conscious awareness; similarly, for the Hatha Yoga practitioner, the stability and quietude of the body is the first powerful tool of this yogic path.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg.. 509

The Primary Challenges Facing the Hatha Yoga Practitioner

The practitioner of Hatha Yoga sees that the psychological and spiritual state is very much under the control of the actions and powers of the physical body. When the body is not healthy, it is difficult to concentrate on spiritual pursuits. When the senses distract the concentration, it becomes impossible to focus on the higher levels of consciousness of existence. While other paths attempt to solve these issues in a variety of other ways and with other means, the Hatha yogin focuses his attention directly on the physical body and works to both understand it and gain mastery over it. This is done primarily through the two levers that are the primary mode of action in Hatha Yoga, namely the control of the physical instrument through use of specific asanas, or postures, that direct and control the flow and accumulation of energy within the body, and the use of specialized breathing techniques, pranayama, which harness the vital energy flow.

Sri Aurobindo describes the issue: “…but the physical being is made up of two elements, the physical and the vital, the body which is the apparent instrument and the basis, and the life energy, prana, which is the power and the real instrument. Both of these instruments are now our masters. We are subject to the body, we are subject to the life-energy; it is only in a very limited degree that we can, though souls, though mental beings, at all pose as their masters….Moreover, the action of each and both in us is subject not only to the narrowest limitations, but to a constant impurity, which renews itself every time it is rectified, and to all sorts of disorders, some of which are normal, a violent order, part of our ordinary physical life, others abnormal, its maladies and disturbances. With all this Hathayoga has to deal; all this it has to overcome; and it does it mainly by these two methods, complex and cumbrous in action, but simple in principle and effective.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp. 508-509

Three Principles in the Practice of Yoga

Sri Aurobindo identifies three principles that form the basis of practice for all forms of Yoga, including Hatha Yoga. These three are purification, concentration and liberation. Purification provides basic preparation for the instrument by removing obstructions from the practice of Yoga and helping prepare it for the energy influx that needs to be held and modulated with the later steps. Concentration focuses the attention and gathers the energy. Liberation results from the purification and concentration steps so that the human instrument is undistracted, focused and able to seat itself in consciousness outside the narrow bands of human activity motivated by desire and revolved through the action of the three Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “first, purification, that is to say, the removal of all aberrations, disorders, obstructions brought about by the mixed and irregular action of the energy of being in our physical, moral and mental system; secondly, concentration, that is to say, the bringing to its full intensity and the mastered and self-directed employment of that energy of being in us for a definite end; thirdly, liberation, that is to say, the release of our being from the narrow and painful knots of the individualized energy in a false and limited play, which at present are the law of our nature.”

The result is: “The enjoyment of our liberated being which brings us into unity or union with the Supreme, is the consummation; it is that for which Yoga is done.”

Hatha Yoga shares these principles and the intended result with the other paths of Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pg. 508

Hatha Yoga Is a Science and a Path to the Supreme

The Western view of Hatha Yoga treats it as an exercise program for the most part, and most people do not put serious thought into the detailed knowledge, not only of anatomy and physiology in evidence in the Asanas or postures that have been developed, but of the relation between the energy flow of the body as determined by these asanas and the accompanying control of the vital force and the psychological, mental and spiritual impacts that can be achieved.

Western science has begun to recognize the real health benefits that can accrue from the practice of Hatha Yoga, which means an understanding of the science behind this path is beginning to appear.

Sri Aurobindo compares the traditional practice of the Yoga of knowledge with the path of Hatha Yoga: “…but while the proper Yoga of knowledge is a philosophy of being put into spiritual practice, a psychological system, this is a science of being, a psycho-physical system. Both produce physical, psychic and spiritual results; but because they stand at different poles of the same truth, to one the psycho-physical results are of small importance, the pure psychic and spiritual alone matter, and even the pure psychic are only accessories of the spiritual which absorb all the attention; in the other the physical is of immense importance, the psychical a considerable fruit, the spiritual the highest and consummating result, but it seems for a long time a thing postponed and remote, so great and absorbing is the attention which the body demands. It must not be forgotten, however, that both do arrive at the same end. Hathayoga, also, is a path, though by a long, difficult and meticulous movement… to the Supreme.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp. 507-508

Samadhi and the Paths of Yoga

Since Yoga aims to achieve realization of union with the Divine in a higher status of consciousness, not just an intellectual conviction or emotional attachment to a specific form or religious belief, it must necessarily involve methods for developing the consciousness on the higher levels. We have seen that Samadhi is a powerful tool for the individual to experience the higher planes and for some forms of Yoga, attainment of Samadhi is tantamount to success in the practice, as it achieves the Oneness that the seeker is trying to achieve.

The status of the yogic trance however can be achieved through all the paths of Yoga, not solely through the practices known under the general rubric of the Yoga of knowledge, although clearly it occupies a central role in that yogic path. There can be the ecstatic trance of the devotional paths, for instance. And there are the paths involving psycho-physical practices that can lead to Samadhi as well. The most well-known of these are called Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo observes: “…for in spite of the wide difference of their methods from that of the path of knowledge, they have this same principle as their final justification. At the same time, it will not be necessary for us to do more than regard the spirit of their gradations in passing; for in a synthetic and integral Yoga they take a secondary importance; their aims have indeed to be included, but their methods can either altogether be dispensed with or used only for a preliminary or else a casual assistance.”

The integral Yoga may, at various stages, utilize the techniques or practices of any of the paths of Yoga, but it is not bound to them. The seeker will deal with the various complex aspects of his nature using whatever tools are necessary, while keeping his focus on the end goal of union with the Divine and the transformation of his life and action in the world. The intense and all-consuming concentration required for ultimate success in the practice of Hatha Yoga cannot be more than a brief interlude in this wider aspiration.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, Part Two: The Yoga of Integral Knowledge, Chapter 27, Hathayoga, pp. 506-507