Sādhanā’s journey on Hatha’s path

by on March 13, 2012 · 1 comment

in Thoughts on Teaching

“Of all Yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in me, thinks of me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to me, is the most intimatley united with me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is my opinion”  –  Bhagavad-Gita 6.47

yoginām api sarvesāḿ mad-gatenāntar-ātmanā śraddhāvān bhajate yo māḿ sa me yuktatamo matah)

I recently watched a yoga documentary where a non-yogi from the U.S. was thrust into a hatha yoga path. Part of this film makers quest was to take an outsider who had never been exposed to yoga and place him into the whole yoga subculture to see where it would lead. The journey went from West to East. There was one particular part of the film, where BKS Iyengar was interviewed. The context of the interview was on the spiritual effects of yoga. When the journalist asked Iyengar about yoga being a spiritual practice, his response was “No, Hatha yoga is a physical practice.”

When the journalist tried to clarify the point, Iyengar seemed to get agitated, and reiterated his statement, that “No!, Hatha is for physical health and wellness.”

I mention this excerpt, because I find that its common for westerners to tie such a spiritual undertone to the concept of hatha yoga. I’ve witnessed this from several perspectives of those familiar with yoga, and those who have never been exposed to yoga at all. Throughout the years I have come to realize that it’s seemingly common to find people attributing spiritual aspects to a hatha yoga practice. I have mixed perspectives on this, and I can’t say that there is nothing inherently right or wrong in the experience itself. But to clarify my stance, I’m all for awakening to enlightenment. If Hatha can do that for human kind, then I’m all for calling it whatever you want. But I cannot agree that it is advisable to promote hatha as anything more than a series of postures and for a number of reasons. Foremost, as it is taught, Hatha yoga is simply nothing more than moving the body through a set of postures with emphasis on safe anatomical alignment while keeping the mind aware, and to some degree, in control of the breath. As it is experienced, any innumerable spiritual aspects may be derived from it, in the same manner as near death experiences serve as catalysts for people to completely change their way of living. Yes, it’s an extreme example. But, sometimes the effects of hatha yoga can be just as profound for some people. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, some people maintain a disciplined practice to be masters over their bodies and to maintain a degree of flexibility and health benefits. Others experience yoga as transcendental practice or to maintain an inner calm and give the body and mind the attention it needs. These are mainly the two ends of the spectrum and you can fit in any reason between these two examples. So yes, some yogis rightfully experience a type of spirituality within their hatha practice. But that experience belongs to them, should they decide to share it with the world, it should still remain their experience and not conveyed as the end to be obtained from a means, or the result of a set of practices. Not everyone will experience the same spiritual results from a same set of instructions. We’re getting into indoctrination at this point, where we convey that if you simply try, and try hard enough, and do so with diligence, and believe in the method, eventually you will see the results.

So how do we approach a method of teaching that cultivates the potential for spirituality? How can we foster spiritual growth without leading students into false hope? The way I see it being done now is through abstaining from the spiritual talk in yoga classes, and I can’t say it’s an entirely bad idea. I find it to be very Zen in nature. If you are a Hatha yoga teacher, you teach Hatha. If a student discovers an infinite capacitance for devotion through his or her dedication to hatha practice and decides to become a bhakti yogi or join a ministry or become an active leader in their community of worship, then I would say you have done a great job at fostering spirituality by not teaching a spiritual practice. The idea of teaching spirituality by not teaching spirituality seems paradoxical, but that is the very nature of allowing self-discovery. That is the nature of Zen. We bring spirituality to Hatha yoga. When we step onto the mat, our values, attitudes, perspectives and beliefs follow. This is how Hatha is an (individual) spiritual practice.

Right now, this seems to be our only option. Yogis are Turning their backs on the “Guru Principle”, keeping a safe distance from labeling hatha as spiritual, and avoiding intermingling religion. This may be all that we can do to stay politically correct, yet open-minded and open hearted enough to create the space needed for our students to have the potential to experience the transformational power of hatha yoga.   Within the society we live in, the rules we adhere to, the religious tolerance we are expected to have, this system of not pushing anyone’s hand toward a method of enlightenment is becoming more common. Should we be satisfied with what teachers are “allowed” to teach or what they “should not” teach? Does this typical hatha yoga environment suffice or excel? How would we know?

I do think that this should be discussed openly amongst teachers and even students in a non-class setting. How do we cultivate an environment for spiritual growth? How can we do this while avoiding setting spiritual expectations? How can we prevent limiting the Hatha experience with our words? Do our words point towards anywhere but now? Are students who are fascinated with a goal instead of being present? How do we continue to lead students inward and give them access to their own hearts? How do we ensure our words stay on the same path our hearts chose to take.

I don’t have an explicit answer for you. Your answer will be as unique as your intentions. The general answer is to bring this topic back into the light for discussion. I find that many people remain distant from discussing theosophy outside of their dogmatic peers, and for good reason. We don’t want to be labeled, judged, or worse, lose students or followers based on our beliefs. But, I do believe that as teachers, we can find a way to nurture the space, where direct knowledge from experiencing the divinity of nature can be explored by any student at any level of awakening. It will not come from resurrecting ancient sutras. It will not happen by adhering to any styles or by being hip with the latest fashionable knowledge. The system of yoga was intended to elevate one’s consciousness to a transcendental reality. Is this why we teach? If so, how do we remain true to this intention?

  • Sam Dillon

    I do not agree with Iyengar that hatha yoga is a physical exercise ony. I think his thoughts have changed. If you read his classic Light on Yoga read the prayer in the beginning just after Krishnamacharya’s picture also the introduction. Iyengar prays to Patanjali and has a statue of him in his Institue. But it is an inividual thing. Personally for me. The only reason to do hatha yoga is preparation for raja yoga. But I also have a prayer/meditation practise. A
    Bhakti practise to cultivate the Love of God.

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