Where does Hatha Yoga Fit?

sivananda.venkatesBoth a renowned Sanskrit scholar and yogi, Swami Venkatesananda—like his master, Swami Sivananda—can be regarded as a sage of practical wisdom. In this talk at Yasodhara Ashram (British Columbia) in the 1970s, he speaks about the underlying philosophy behind Yoga and Hatha Yoga’s place in this holistic system.

What, basically, does “Yoga” mean? And, how does Hatha Yoga fit into the total scheme of Yoga? For obvious reasons, we give to this word “Yoga” our own interpretation. If you look up the word (Yoga) in a large Sanskrit dictionary, you will find from two hundred to twelve hundred meanings. If you pick up a dictionary of moderate size, you will find at least ten or twelve completely different meanings. One meaning (with) which most of you are familiar is the word “yoke”, “to bring together”, “to join.” Two completely different and dissimilar things cannot come together. Only two things which are basically and fundamentally identical can ever become one.

This is fundamental to the whole concept of Yoga, because we are not bringing together two things that are dissimilar! I am sure that you’ve read or heard someone say that “Yoga is the union of the Supreme Soul: the union of the individual self with the Supreme Self; the union of the individual will with God’s will; the union of the jiva with God.” and so on and so forth. If these unions were between two completely and dissimilar things, they could never come together. And so, I hope you see that the basic concept of Yoga is to discover the harmony, or the unity that already exits!

Yoga is the unity, or the harmony, or the oneness, that exists already. You and I are one! Can we discover that? I think that even in our own domestic or social relationships, if we proceed from there (from this understanding), it (life) will be easier. If we avoid placing emphasis on what appears to be the dissimilarities, we won’t have to battle to become one. We can look for the harmony instead of trying to reject the disharmony which doesn’t even exist! If we start from the premise that you and I are different, the premise that you and I shall never become one, then we won’t even begin to examine the disharmony, the ill will, or the conflict that… appears to exist between us.

If you and I are one, why is it that there appears to be this disharmony? If God and I are fundamentally and basically one, then what is it that makes it appear that there is a fracture or division? Unless you understand this also, you cannot realize oneness. What has brought about disharmony, conflict? If God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, how is it that you are just a small little individual thing?

The easiest way to understand this is to use the example of a blackboard. On it, write the word “me.” Where you have written that word is the only place where the blackness or the omnipresence does not seem to exist. You can wipe off the white chalk and the blackboard is black one again, because the blackness was there all the time. In this example of the constantly homogeneous blackboard is found the exact meaning of the word “yoga.” In this omnipresence, in this cosmic being, a concept of ‘me’ has arisen.

The ‘me’ is not true, not real. If you accept it as true then you don’t even attempt to wipe it off. It is like accepting that the blackboard is no longer black at the spot where the “me” is written in chalk. The blackness cannot be taken away with white chalk. You have merely done what in Yoga and Vedanta is called superimposition.

In other words, a concept has been superimposed upon this omnipresence, superimposed upon this oneness, and so, for the time being, homogeneity seems to have been disturbed. Yet the homogeneity is always there! Wipe off that word “me” and the blackboard springs back to its real nature. Similarly, like the blackness of the blackboard which persists unchanged behind and underneath this word “me” that is printed in white chalk, there is something which is beyond the ‘me’, beyond the ego ego-sense, beyond all thought, beyond all concepts. And Hatha Yoga must enable me to discover the self, which is beyond the ‘me’.

How do I know that such a thing exists? A simple answer given by one of the great masters is “Examine your own sleep!” During sleep, you were there; life went on. The movement of energy was still there; consciousness was still there. If someone tickled your foot, you withdrew it. You say, “But I was not aware.” Quite right: ‘I’ need not be aware! Something is there, something that is beyond the ‘I’, beyond the ‘me’, beyond the ego-sense, and that some-thing is the truth for all time to come. Why isn’t it true for us now? What happened when sleep came to an end? You became aware that you were lying in bed. A desire arises (we don’t know from where), and suddenly there is an apparent loss of oneness when the ego-sense interferes with this homogeneity. From there on, all problems start, including the problems that concern this body.

At that point, you begin to think:

“This is my body… and… I must begin to look after it.”

Can you already see the confusion here? For instance, I pat myself on the chest and say,

“This is Swami Venkatesananda!”

(which suggests that this body is Swami Venkatesananda), while at the very same time, I also say,

“I must look after this body.”

There is a dichotomy here. If this body is Swami Venkatesananda, then it should know how to look after itself. But suddenly, I turn around and say, “This is my body, and I must look after it.” It shows that the relationship between oneself and the body has not been clearly understood. You are left with this puzzle:

Is the body me, or is it mine?

What is known as Hatha Yoga is meant to enable us to see that the body can jolly well look after itself. There is something in the body, activating it, intelligently making it function, that is looking after it.

I have a little trick that will demonstrate this. Ask your friend to stand on the edge of a chair, as close to the edge of the chair as possible. You will see that his legs, feet, and toes soon start quivering in order to keep him from falling off the chair. That movement is being done in spite of him! If he tries to stop it, it gets worse.

If while standing on the chair, your friend is able to see:

My God, I want to stop this, but the legs say… “No, sorry, we know what to do!”

Then that is already Yoga! If all the Yoga postures are done in that spirit of watching, then suddenly you discover that intelligence (which sustained you during sleep, and which is the same intelligence that made your friends feet tremble on the chair) is beyond the ‘me’, beyond the ego-sense, beyond the mind. That’s all Hatha Yoga is!

It is this discovery which really promotes health, not all the pushing and tugging and chugging which people bring into what they call Hatha Yoga. Swami Sivananda’s own unique teaching was that even if you are only able to practice a few Yoga postures, practice them with such tremendous inner awareness that you will discover the God within which is beyond the ‘me’. The awareness is only meant as a door. Don’t get shut in by it: get out through it! I must be aware, and when aware, I must be able to look beyond the ‘me’. If that is done, then, of course, even a few yoga postures will do. Swami Sivananda insisted:

“Practice Yoga asanas … … without undo exertion.”

When it came to pranayama, his motto was:

“Inhale as long as comfortable. Exhale as long as comfortable. Hold as long as comfortable.”

One word is not more important than another. One can inhale and exhale quite comfortably, but don’t leave out the “for as long as” aspect, the part which has you reach out towards your potential. You can prolong the inhalation, prolong the holding, and prolong the exhalation without making it uncomfortable, neither trying to kill yourself, nor allowing yourself to be too soft. Swami Sivananda’s attitude was that all the practices of Hatha Yoga could be done as contemplation, as meditation, in such a way that they may discover the power and the intelligence which is beyond the ‘me’.

If there is some kind of manifestation of divine grace in this world, it is seen in what is called the “unconscious.” I don’t know if you have ever thought about this, namely that there is no such thing in this world as “unbearable pain.” Whatever pain we experience in this world is bearable. Should it go beyond that threshold, we are knocked unconscious. That to me is proof positive of grace, and proof positive of what we have just been discussing: the reservoir of power, of intelligence, beyond the ‘me’. When intelligence knows that the conscious mind cannot take any more of the troubles of life, it makes you go unconscious. It probably can even stop the flow of life in the body.

Viewed in this light, pain, unconsciousness, and even death, can be regarded as a manifestation of the intelligence of life. If that view is taken, pain and sickness need not necessarily be symptoms of either weakness or “sin,” or anything, not even the thing called karmic retribution. Thus, pain can merely be the sigh that the intelligence of the body is so alert that, like a watchdog, it starts barking. Why not?

Unfortunately, the ego will reject this with “I don’t deserve this pain.” There is the feeling: “I am so good, and so holy, and so nice, and I have never done anything wrong. I have prayed to God, and I do Yoga three times a day, and… why me, my Lord? Why me?” You have heard, “We are the chosen ones.” Do you know the Lord’s response to “we are the chosen ones”? The Lord looks down, and He says: “I chose you for this, especially for this! I don’t give it to anybody else! Some people react with “Why me?” and some people take some drugs, instead of being open to it and getting the message.

However, from point of view of Hatha Yoga, you are given plenty of notice that something isn’t quite right. There is some discomfort somewhere. Somehow, at the time, you don’t pay any heed to it. You either push it away, or withdraw from it, or drug yourselves into unconsciousness, get depressed, or fight it. You do everything except listen to the message. You don’t ask:

What are you trying to tell me?

When the message is ignored, naturally the problem gets worse, and worse, and worse. Then you develop something like terminal cancer.

I think it should be made clear that the yogis are not saying that pain in itself is a good thing. The body is not just made up out of assembled parts: it’s integrated with the whole being, including the mind, the spirit, and so on. When the body becomes an integrated whole, there is health. In Hatha Yoga, one can realize that it’s not just the physical body which makes up the whole, but that the physical body must be in harmony with the mind and the spirit. You won’t see this if you are stuck on the emotional level.

About Sri Swami Venkatesanandaji:

Sri Swami Sivanandaji, founder of the Divine Life Society and Swami Venkatesanandaji’s Guru, said of him: “Venkatesananda’s letters are full of honey. He does not even prepare a draft; he sits at the typewriter and the letter is at once ready. The work he does other people won’t be able to do. So many books and pamphlets are coming out of the press – all through his work only. “He has not uttered a single word that could displease me. If I want to get some work done urgently, the next morning it is ready; he would go on sitting up all night. He has no ego. He will never say ‘This is not good.’ He is humble and egoless.” For more information about Swami Venkatesanandaji, please visit the website, swamivenkatesananda.org

Source: The YASODHARA YOGA TALKS – Swami Venkatesananda 1975
Copyright © 1997

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