Hatha Yoga Essays
by Charles MacInerney
A young man died and was met by an angel. This Angel explained that the man must choose whether he will go to Heaven or to Hell. "But before you choose, I will show you both." The angel led the man down a great hall at the end of which was two great doors. "Which would you like to see first?" The man took a deep breath and asked to see Hell first, thinking to get it out of the way. The Angel opened the doors to Hell and led the man through. A great banquet hall stretched away from them, fading into the distance. On it were all manner of wonderful foods and drinks. Sitting on either side of this banquet were the residents of Hell. Everyone had a board tied to each arm extending from shoulder down to their wrists so that they could not bend their arms at the elbows, and thus could not feed themselves. As far as the young man could see were bodies: People dying from hunger and thirst, and corpses interspersed with skeletons. He backed out of the room in horror pursued by the screams and moans of suffering and shut the door behind him.
After some time the young man regained his composure and asked to see Heaven. The Angel opened the doors to Heaven and led the man through. A great banquet hall stretched away from them, fading into the distance. On it were all manner of wonderful foods and drinks. Sitting on either side of this banquet were the residents of Heaven. Everyone had a board tied to each arm extending from shoulder down to their wrists so that they could not bend their arms at the elbows and thus could not feed themselves. BUT some of them were dancing, while others sang, and everyone was talking and laughing as they fed each other at arms length.
The Five Yamas (Abstinences)
These five moral disciplines are essential to the spiritual development of the student of yoga. In many ways they are universal, appearing in most of the ancient religions of the world.
AHIMSA (Non-violence). This often misunderstood precept was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi who once said "Ahimsa is not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean meek submission to the will of the evil-doer: it means the putting of one's whole soul against his will."
SATYA (Truthfulness). The serious student of Yoga should always seek the truth in any situation and MUST ALWAYS speak it.
ASTEYA (Non-stealing). Asteya is not limited to the legal definition of stealing. Asteya means non-stealing in it's broadest possible sense, including non-covetousness.
BRAHMACHARYA (Chastity). By living a chaste life the Yogi is able to transmute his sexual energy into spiritual energy. In it's most severe application Brahmacharya includes not only refraining from sexual intercourse, but not thinking sex, not looking with desire, or even conversing in private. Many Yogis do not adopt such a strict interpretation. In fact, most Yogis and Sages in India's past were married men with families. What is necessary is to free oneself from sexual desire and lust. In fact there is an entire school of Yoga called TANTRIC YOGA devoted to the practice and refinement of Sex as an act of love and worship eventually leading to Samadhi.
APARIGRAPHA (Non-receiving). Receiving gifts is prone to destroy the independence of the mind and make one slavish. This Yama also means that nothing should be hoarded or collected beyond that which is required immediately. It bears much resemblance to Jesus Christ's parable about the lilies of the field. Hoarding demonstrates a lack of faith.
Most traditional schools of Yoga require a student to master these five abstinence, along with that of the Niyamas before they are allowed to proceed along the "Eight-Fold Path". In the West however, this is not practical, as most Westerners would never advance past the first two steps to experience the real benefits of Hatha Yoga. This is why we often start students out with the powerful practice of Asanas (poses) initially, to give them a glimpse of the potential hidden within the practices of Yoga.
For most Westerners this introduction to the physical exercises is sufficient and the benefits of a healthy body are reward enough. For those who sense the deeper beauty and power to be found in the devotion of their life to Yoga, rather than just practicing the physical exercises, the Yamas and Niyamas hold the key to opening the doors to the inner mysteries of their own Soul.
The Five Niyamas (Observances)
SAUCHA (PURITY). Purity of body externally is promoted by good habits like bathing, brushing teeth, etc. Physical-Internal purity is realized through the practice of Asans (Postures that tone the body and remove toxins and impurities as well and eliminating tension and stress), Pranayama (Breathing exercises that cleanse and aerate the lungs, oxygenate the blood and purify the nerves), and good eating habits. More important is Mental-Internal purity. This is achieved by ridding the body of disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, delusion, anger, lust, pride and greed through the practice of Bhakti (adoration). Still more important is the cleansing of the intellect of impure thoughts which can be burned off in the fire of Svadhyaya (the study of the Self).
SANTOSA (CONTENTMENT). This Niyama must be cultivated. There will always be differences among Men. This is fine in and of itself. But when it becomes a distraction to you the mind cannot concentrate or become one-pointed and thus it is robbed of it's peace. There is contentment and peace when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire.
TAPAS (AUSTERITY). A conscious effort to achieve ultimate union with the Divine and to burn up all desires which stand in the way of this goal. Burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a specific goal. There are three types of tapas relating to body, speech and mind. Non-violence is one example of the first category. Speaking truth and using words that do not offend are two of the tapas of speech. Developing a mental attitude whereby one remains tranquil and balanced in joy and sorrow and retains self control are tapas of the mind. Through tapas the yogi gains courage and wisdom, integrity, straightforwardness and simplicity.
SVADHYAYA (STUDY). "Ignorance has no beginning, but it has an end. There is a beginning, but no end to knowledge." Svadhyaya is the study of the great religious books of the world, of all faiths, that the student may come to understand his own faith better.
ISHVARA PRANIDHANA (WORSHIP OF GOD). During the course of seeking enlightenment one must encounter the "dark night of the soul". This is a period when you come to question all that you thought you knew and you find yourself powerless and lost amid your desires and fears. Only now, at the darkest hour can true worship be discovered. In bhakti the mind, the intellect, and the will are surrendered to the Lord and the seeker prays: "I do not know what is good for me. Thy will be done." When the feeling of 'I' and 'mine' disappears, the individual soul has reached full growth.
There once lived a man of great knowledge. His reputation as a scholar spread throughout the land and still he longed for recognition. And so it came to pass that this scholar sought out a Zen Master in a nearby monastery asking to be shown the true nature of the universe. But part of him wanted and expected the Zen Master to acknowledge his wisdom. The scholar was granted an interview and seated at a low wooden table. The Zen Master entered the room in silence, placed a tea cup before the scholar and proceeded to fill it with tea. The cup filled up and began spilling over the table, and still the Zen Master continued pouring. The scholar cried out in alarm "My cup is overflowing!" The Zen Master answered "Precisely!" and so ended the interview.
I used the story of the Tea Cup to demonstrate that knowledge without humility is in fact a handicap to learning. Complete beginners start with an open mind and listen to every word because it is all new to them. They know they are ignorant and so they do not fear to ask questions. The experienced student has heard most of it before, and not listening, misses the little that he did not already know, and so the beginner passes him by. A full cup can receive no tea. Therefore, when breathing empty your lungs, when learning empty your mind; when loving empty your heart; and when worshiping empty your soul.