A short time ago, thanks to the power of social media networking, I was able to get the following message out to some of the yoga world’s most popular teachers:
I am conducting yoga related research and I would appreciate your help. All you have to do is answer some questions. Please be advised that your response will be published. To encourage honest replies, I promise to maintain complete anonymity. And I’m not expecting a dissertation. Just let the following four questions help you write something truthful:
1) How do you identify what you teach? (Do you identify it as a style of yoga practice, or a yogic form or something else? Why? Or why not?)
2) Do you use the term “Hatha yoga” commonly? (Why? Or why not? If so, how do you use it?)
3) Do any ideas about yoga’s evolution influence what you believe yoga to be, and if so, what are those ideas?
4) Along with what we could call more “yogic” ideas, do you believe that there are important regular, common-level, perhaps sub-yogic ideas about what we do as yoga practitioners, and if so, what are they?
And I received some nice replies. Here’s a typical example:
“Sorry the timing is off for me to participate in this project but good luck.”
This response came from an old friend:
“I guess you don’t know right now (that) I’m (very sick). So I haven’t worked in a month and won’t for awhile and to write a smart response right now to those questions wouldn’t be clear cause I’m a mess but I love you.”
“Can’t do it. Heading out to run a teacher training in (paradise). We should do one together there sometime.”
The truth is I didn’t get a single answer to a single question. All I received were excuses and, because I put people on the spot and didn’t explain what I was up to, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
This time I’m reversing my plan. This note has a made-for-social-media-networking title that declares my intention right upfront and puts me on the spot. We’ll see how this attempt goes, but however it goes—despite the pressure—my real sense of what’s happening is that I’m just the humble host of a cosmically ordained idea’s coming out party.
Again, we’ll see. In any case, this idea is new. It’s a recent discovery, but not wholly original, so I must present it within a certain context. To properly set the stage I have one more reply to share. Another popular instructor writes:
“Sorry your request would take quite some time to reply to properly. Big questions! Most of it is answered in my book. If you want to use or quote any of it you’re welcome to submit any sections and I’ll secure permission from the publisher.”
“Big questions!” Nice, quick way to put it. And check out his message: my questions are too big to answer in a reasonable length of time, but they’re also “answered in (his) book.”
Could both of those things be true? I guess it’s possible, but not in this case. I read his book. It was a good book which I enjoyed, but “most of (my questions were) not answered in it.” Not even close.
Still, the teacher who wrote that last reply shouldn’t feel bad. None of us should feel bad because knowing what Hatha yoga is has been impossible and the problem began long ago in India, when Svatmarama authored The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP).
His text received much attention.
My guess is that Svatmarama’s writing got lots of attention because he was a popular instructor. Since there was no elephant journal blog in those days, only a famous teacher could have popularized something like the HYP. And don’t get me wrong, the how to parts of his text are great.
Svatmarama may have been the greatest Hatha yoga teacher in history.
But knowing how to teach people effective ways to practice Hatha yoga is not the same thing as knowing what Hatha yoga actually is.
In terms of our understanding of what Hatha yoga is, it’s been down hill ever since Svatmarama mistakenly identified Hatha yoga as just a preparatory methodology.
So, first, we must recognize Svatmarama’s mistake. He was dead wrong, and his mistake played into the hands of the Hindu orthodoxy, allowing it to spread further misinformation that Hatha yoga is merely physical.
While Hatha yoga was capable of unifying people’s bodies and souls, the most powerful institution in India made sure that the new yoga’s democratic accessibility and inclusiveness was held against it in comparison to state-sanctioned religious spiritual practice.
The truth is that yoga was never really popular in India. It was never allowed to be popular, which is why Hatha yoga had to come to the United States—so that we can recognize the most important yogic idea ever.
We are poised to recognize this idea because we haven’t let any idea dominate us. We believe in some flawed ideas—for example, that hatha yoga is the physical form of yoga—but it doesn’t mean much to us because we never understood the difference between forms of yoga and styles of Hatha yogic practice in the first place.
So when Paramahansa Yogananda, Vishnu-devananda, Yogi Bhajan, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois all said that they taught their own ways of doing yoga—Kriya Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga respectively—we took what they said at face value, thinking of those styles as different from Hatha yoga.
But they’re not different.
Hatha yoga is the umbrella term for all the different contemporary yoga styles, and we would all know that now if those five influential teachers had been willing to identify themselves as Hatha yogis. Instead, the most influential Hatha yoga teachers all told people they were teaching something more than Hatha yoga.
Yet, had they identified themselves as Hatha yogis, we’d still be stuck.
Strangely enough, our ignorance enables us to see why those teachers didn’t want to be known as Hatha yogis—because of Hatha yoga’s undeserved reputation. All those great teachers either believed the lie that Hatha yoga was merely physical or didn’t want to get caught up in the prejudice.
Miraculously, the teachers’ equivocation worked out great because it led to further explanation, which resulted in all five men unwittingly helping a new idea to develop—mind yoga.
Yogananda said “Kriya Yoga relieves mental struggles.” Vishnu-devananda said “Sivananda Yoga gives peace of mind.” Yogi Bhajan said “Kundalini Yoga is science of the mind.” Iyengar said “Iyengar Yoga affects changes in the mind.” Jois said “Ashtanga Yoga is mind medicine.”
With their collective idea we have the precursor to the most important yogic idea ever—hatha yoga is mind yoga.
As I said, I didn’t come up with this idea. Because we know that the men who inadvertently promoted the idea were all actually Hatha yogis, they must be credited with having established the most important yogic idea.
This idea is perfect. And it becomes more perfect when we use it to fix the Hatha yoga is the physical form of yoga misconception.
We must correct that fallacy, because the idea forces us to recognize Hatha yoga as a form of yoga, in the same category as other forms of yoga. There’s no regular way to know what something is without effectively comparing it to other similar things, so to know what Hatha yoga truly is, we must compare it to other yogic forms.
But wait. We need one more layer of understanding. We need to have a sense of what consciousness is to grasp what all the forms of yoga do in contrast to each other. Sorry, but it’s just something we must do.
To make comprehending consciousness easier, we can start with the one thing we all know about consciousness: we all know that brain chatter exists. We hear it in our heads.
Now all we have to do is ask ourselves how we know what we’re thinking. Something must be listening to the chatter, otherwise we wouldn’t know what we’re thinking. There must be at least one more level to our active intelligence: there’s the brain chatter level and something that listens to the brain chatter
Yogis named the brain chatter level manas.
They also gave Sanskrit names to all four levels, naming the ego level ahamkara, the intellect level buddhi,the soul level prakriti and the spirit level purusha.
Yogananda, Vishnu-devananda, Yogis Bhajan, Iyengar and Jois knew of all those other levels. They also knew (at least unconsciously) that Hatha yoga was uniquely able to soothe the brain chatter level of the mind. That’s what makes it mind yoga.
The other forms of yoga soothe the other levels of consciousness, so the Hatha yoga is mind yoga idea was specific. All those hugely important teachers said the same thing, because it was time for us to know a specific truth. We can now know a further truth by recognizing Hatha yoga as the mind-level form of yoga.
Separated, and in bold type, the most important yogic idea ever reads:
Hatha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga
Without further ado, we can use the most important yogic idea ever to understand all kinds of things that no past yogis have ever understood.
Take the forms of yoga category for example: until now, it has been of no practical use. Desikichar wrote one thing about it. Iyengar wrote another. Vishnu-devananda’s teacher (Sivananda) wrote something else.
There’s been no consistency. Their lists are all different and confused. Obviously, they didn’t give the categorizing much thought and they never even tried to figure out what constitutes a yogic form. I doubt it even occurred to them to try and, trust me, it would have been a slippery ideological slope for them if they had.
But now it’s easy.
The Hatha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga idea makes categorizing easy by helping us understand which forms are really in the yogic forms category and why those forms are in that category.
Again, it simply has to do with consciousness. Yogic forms soothe the different levels of our active intelligence, and the hHtha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga idea brings that whole understanding together.
The idea brings Hatha yoga, Karma yoga, Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga and (what we can call) Raja yoga together into the complete forms of yoga category because there are five levels of consciousness, and because Hatha yoga soothes the mind (manas), Karma yoga soothes the ego (ahamkara), Jnana yoga soothes the intellect (buddhi), Bhakti yoga soothes the soul (prakriti) and Raja yoga soothes the spirit (purusha).
So now we can also understand why the Hatha yoga is the physical form of yoga idea has been so problematic. The idea actually removes Hatha yoga from the yogic forms category, separating it completely from all the other abstract forms.
None of the other forms are physical. They are completely abstract. They’re like things in the mathematics category: algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus are all abstract things. And even though piloting an actual airplane requires an understanding of mathematical calculations, it’s not in the forms of mathematics category.
In the same way, Hatha yoga would not be in the yogic forms category if it merely related to physical action. Because we can only know what something is through effective comparison with similar things, if the concept that Hatha yoga is the physical form of yoga were correct, we could never know what Hatha yoga is.
But no worries.
The idea that Hatha yoga is the physical form of yoga is wrong. It’s wrong even though Hatha yoga clearly has a physical aspect. And it’s okay to recognize that Hatha yoga has a physical aspect.
But when we’re making even an indirect point about the different forms of yoga, we must recognize that Hatha yoga is just like the other forms. It’s abstract. It soothes a level of consciousness. It is the mind-level form of yoga.
Understanding that, we can properly compare and contrast Hatha yoga to the other forms in its category. That’s the only way we can know what Hatha yoga is, so now, for the first time, we know what it is that we are all practicing. We do the mind-level form of yoga.
Plus, we can connect this new understanding to one really ancient, but once again relevant, yogic idea. This idea, The Preternatural Pentad, recognizes consciousness itself as having evolved downward from spirit to soul to intellect to ego to mind. There is no physical level.
The lowest level of consciousness is mind (manas), and if we look at the yogic forms category as the group of like things that soothe all the levels of consciousness, then yoga’s evolutionary process is also easily understood. Yoga started out on the spirit level and worked its way down four more stages to the mind level.
Admittedly, under this theory, hatha yoga relates to the lowest level of consciousness. But that also makes hatha yoga the most democratically accessible and inclusive yogic form possible. It’s for everyone.
We already knew that to be true, which is why we’ve been casually spreading the idea that yoga is for everyone. And now we know that Hatha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga.
These two ideas work together in respect to accessibility and inclusiveness. The Hatha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga idea is primarily accessible since it makes all yogic theory more understandable, and the yoga is for everyone idea is primarily inclusive since it brings us all together.
Of course, the yoga is for everyone idea is also something we can all understand, and the Hatha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga is something that brings all the forms of yoga together. So things reverse on the next level of understanding.
They also separate. Standing alone as the most important yogic idea ever, the Hatha yoga is the mind-level form of yoga idea ultimately allows us to see that there is spirit in everything, including our bodies, which means Hatha yoga isn’t just mind-oriented, Karma yoga isn’t just ego-oriented, Jnana yoga isn’t just intellect-oriented and Bhakti yoga isn’t just soul-oriented.
Svatmarama’s error is thus corrected.
There is no preparatory yogic methodology because the five yogic forms are equally spiritual. Hatha yoga clarifies that concept by teaching us to recognize spirit even in merely physical things like our bodies. No other yoga could do that.
Therefore, as an evolutionary achievement, Hatha yoga is the ultimate yoga.
Hatha yoga took four thousand years to come into existence and it has taken another thousand years for us to have the right idea about what Hatha yoga is. With it—with the most important yogic idea ever—we can know everything we need to know.
Scott Smith Miller is director of Western Yoga College. Anyone interested in the ideas expressed in this piece can find further explanations in his latest book, What Is(n’t) Hatha Yoga? It’s available online at http://www.westernyogacollege.com.
Editor: Lara Chassin
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