The Hathayoga Interview

with S Sridharan, Frans Moors & Dr. Kausthub Desikachar

In the year 2011, an interview was conducted on the topic of Hathayogapradipika, with three of the senior students of TKV Desikachar - Frans Moors, S Sridharan and Dr. Kausthub Desikachar. This interview was published in the newsletter called "Synergies in Yoga", published then by the Krishnamacharya Healing & Yoga Foundation. 

The interview is presented here for public interest and with an attitude of sharing this conversation on the most interesting topic of Hathayoga

1. How do you understand the concept of Hathayoga?

Frans Moors (FM): I understand it as the harmony (yoga) of the «ha» and the «tha», two energies that may appear opposite but are in fact complementary. In the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika (HYP) itself, these two are also given as the harmony / union of prana and apana, etc. In other words, it means physical – psychological – emotional health, balance.

In Patanjali['s Yogasutra], I trace ha-tha-yoga when I hear complementaries like “abhyasa-vairagya”, “sthira-sukha”, “prayatna-saithilya”, “dirgha-sukshma”; etc.

S Sridharan (SS): “Hathayoga” is the name given to the yoga teaching in a tradition that lays importance to Prana and identifies two energies in the human system, called “Ha” and “Tha”,  the union of which leads to “liberation”.

Dr. Kausthub Desikachar (KD): The metaphors used in the language of yogis are profound, yet relevant. The merging of our dualities that normally occupy our life, into a unified balanced harmonious state is known as Hathayoga. Sometimes these concepts cannot be taken literally, but have to be considered from a symbolic perspective, as this was often the method of teaching by the yogis of the past.

2. Do you think the message of Hathayoga is different from that of Patanjali's Yoga?

FM: There are differences and similarities. The style, the logic, the consistency and the brevity of Patanjali is incomparable. But on the other side the HYP is very useful, developing ideas in interesting ways and giving more specific details.

SS: The difference is in the process. While Hathayoga emphasizes more on the Pranayama and Bandhas, the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra considers Pranayama as one of the steps with more emphasize on Dhyanam and Samyama to reach the final goal of Kaivalyam.

KD: The sutra era was much older than the Hathayoga texts. So There is differences in not just language and style of teaching, but also on emphasis. Having said that, the message of the two is similar, and in fact Hathayoga principles are very much support our journey of yoga, as mentioned in the Sutras. So in a certain way, it feels as if Hathayoga principles support or prepare us for the path of Patanjali.

3.What are the fundamental tools of Hathayoga?

FM: The main tools are asanas, pranayamas, mudras, nada (meditation on the inner sound).

SS: The fundamental tool of Hathayoga is “Pranayama” with “Bandhas”.

KD: Hathayoga emphasizes the tools of Asana, Kriya, Mudra and Nada as the main means of practice. But if care is given to the commentaries of Hathayoga texts, the list includes also mantra, ahara (diet) and vihara (life style) practices.

4. Is there a significance in the order of the tools presented in Hathayoga texts?

FM: Yes, we can say that the order of presentation follows that given by Patanjali in his YS. It too follows a path which starts mainly with the physical and then becomes more and more internal, gaining in subtlety.

SS: Yes, the order of the tools, namely, Asana, Pranayama, Mudra goes from gross to subtle and use of Body Breath and Mind.

KD: The approach of Hathayogi-s is to move from the gross to the subtle. They start with physical practices such as Asana, but then move on to the domain of prana, through Pranayama and Mudra. Finally they introduce the practice of Nada, which is meditation on the inner sound.

5.Today we know many asanas. While in many of the Hathayoga texts, very few postures are listed, and they are mostly seated? Is there a particular reason for this?

FM: We must also remain humble in our way of interpreting the thoughts of the hatha yogis. The number varies a lot from one text to another: 2 in Goraksa-Sataka, 4 in Siva-Samhita, 8 in Yoga-Yajnavalkya and in Sandilya-Upanishad, 15 in HYP, 32 in Gheranda-Samhita…

Maybe each author has chosen some asanas that are important in the context of his teaching? There are theories but we cannot be certain.

SS: HYP (1.33) says “The Asanas propounded by Shiva are eighty four in number”.  Thus there existed more postures which were passed on from teacher to disciple is clear.  The emphasis on seated postures is more from the point of view of their usage in Pranayama and Dhyanam.

KD: Purpose decides practice. It seems to me that most of the masters decided the tools of practice based on the purpose they were expounding. So it seems reasonable to assume that they had differing views on how many asanas were needed at the time they were teaching, as they were from different eras, and probably even teaching different audiences. But it also seems obvious that the role for asana was not of such high prominence in these times, as their life style and conditions were quite different, compared to what we face today.

6.What is the role of Pranayama in Hathayoga teaching?

FM: Pranayama helps to keep prana (vital force) in the body; it stimulates agni (fire) and burns the impurities, thus purifying the body and mind, and brings prana into susumna (central subtle channel). Others say it in different terms like “awakening of kundalini”. The Hathayoga texts also say that pranayama reduces imbalances in the body, removes lots of illnesses, gives a long and healthy life, improves concentration, etc.

SS: Pranayama is the main and most important tool in Hathayoga teaching. Its role is to take the Prana into Sushumna Nadi which takes one to the state Samadhi.

KD: When we read between the lines of most Hathayoga texts, Pranayama seems to be given the utmost importance as a medium of practice, as well as a vital preparation for reaching the elevated states of yoga.

7.Is pranayama an important tool in Patanjali's doctrine too? If so, why?

FM: Yes, no doubt about it. For Patanjali, it cleanses; it gives clarity and peace of mind, which means it leads to inner light and contact with oneself, also enhancing concentration and leading to higher states of being. And of course, it is an important aid for developing the state of meditation.

SS: Pranayama though one of the eight tools has its significance in the Patanjali’s yoga sutra as the important step leading to Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.  In this scheme there is no way to skip this step for attaining final goal.

KD: The concept of dealing with prana, not necessarily only as breathing, is very important in Yoga Darsana of Patanjali, and its more than obvious when we start looking deeper into his work. In some of the commentaries of Yoga Sutra, especially in sutras that discuss intense practices (tapas), pranayama has been proposed as the best form of tapas. So the emphasis on pranayama is not just in the sutras dealing with pranayama, but also in other occassions.

8. What are Mudras, and why have they been presented in the Hathayoga teachings?

FM: Mudras are special seals that capture the vital force (prana) and bring it to special places of the body. We are not speaking of hand mudras here but of very specific positions that include all the parts of the body, including breath directions, concentrations and visualizations.

SS: Mudras are the practices which intensifies the result of the Pranayama practice to lead to the next step of removing the obstacle (Kundalini) in the course of Prana entering Sushumna.

KD: Mudra-s are special techniques of practice, which seal the vital energy or prana within the body, in special ways to make us vital, strong and healthy. By vitalizing the prana, they in turn influence the mind, senses, and the five elements that constitute the body. Apart from this, they also have specific benefits which are very potent, consistent with the desa (location/focus) they influence. They are among the more subtle tools of yoga, very useful in the domain of yoga as a therapeutic modality as well as a spiritual transformation process.

9. Is the practice of Mudras relevant in today's context? If so, why are not many yoga teachers clearly presenting these teachings today?

FM: To be done correctly, these Hathayoga mudras need special study, preparation (long and short term) and skill. I am in contact with many international yoga groups and I have been surprised to see how little the Yoga Teacher trainers themselves know in this field. Except for a few exceptions, they hardly know how to use them, which one, for which purpose, and also how many of these mudras are relevant today, for whom and in which conditions.

My belief is that some mudras are very useful today when done after careful examination of the practitioner. Most of the time, this requires an individual approach.

SS: Practice of Mudras is not only relevant today but prevalent as well. But of the 10 Mudras, five are practised and yield good results. The balance five have lost their significance as they have symbolic message which requires proper interpretation.

KD: As long as health, and spiritual transformation is relevant, Mudras are going to be useful to mankind. The reason why many yoga teachers are unable to teach these in a clear and consistent manner, lies in the fact that many are not even trained in these domains, while others are ill trained. It is also attributed to the fact that most of modern day yoga practice is associated with asana, especially at a gross level. But these can change if participants are sincerely interested to move into the more subtle aspects of yoga abhyasa. The time is ripe.

10. It seems from some of the classical texts that the journey of Hathayoga is a deeply transformative one. Can you explain a few signs of transformation that take place in such a yoga journey?

FM: Some texts give long lists of results, and some of these look very exciting…. but in practice, it really transforms the person, giving her / him inner clarity and stability, self-assurance, ease in action, better health and inner joy.

SS: The transformation starts from the physical level where the body becomes thin and shining, the breath becomes smooth and long, the voice becomes steady and practitioner overall gets a radiance. The mind is sharp and contemplative helps in best comprehension and emotions are steady.

KD: Hathayoga texts talk about transformation happening in four different stages. In the first stage the whole body and senses come alive, sensitive and vibrant. This stage is called Arambha Avastha. In the second stage there is some resistance and pain (not necessarily physical), and it feels if the whole foundation is shaking, and even collapsing. This stage is called Ghata Avastha. In the third stage there is a profound change that happens, and new qualities emerging, which are positive and light. This stage is called Paricaya Avastha. In the final stage, there is the sustained contentment and harmony, where Sukha and Duhkha no more affects the practitioner as it once did. This is called Nispatti Avastha.

11. Some of the more common Hathayoga texts ascribe a lot of importance to the concept of Nada. In a few simple words, can you describe what is Nada, and what is its significance?

FM: Nada is sound meditation. Preliminary steps are important. The idea is to bring a profound state of contemplation.

SS: Nada is the sound form of internal vibrations which help in focussing the mind inward. The distractions in the state of meditation due to external sounds are warded off by this process.  However one has to reach that stage to hear the inner sound through the practice of Pranayama.

KD: In Yoga and a few other Indian philosophies, every entity in this world is a container of sound. This includes each one of us. The inner sound resonant in each of us is called Nada, and it is representative of the state in which we exist. When we reach the higher states of yoga, this inner sounds becomes harmoniously silent. The practice of Nada presented in Hathayoga texts, suggests that we link and meditate on this inner sound, so that we reach such a state of silence.

12. Would you recommend that the study of Hathayoga concepts is an important part of a Yoga Teacher's education?

FM: Yes. Definitely.

SS: Yes.

KD: Absolutely. There is no doubt about this. I would even go to the extent of saying that if these are not understood, then we are missing the subtle aspects of yoga.

13. How do you think these ancient teachings can be made easily comprehensible and useful in contemporary times?

FM: First by studying them oneself with a competent teacher; second, by experiencing them under the teacher’s supervision, and third, teaching to those who are ready for that approach.

SS: The teachings should be disseminated in the form of workshops to explain the significance of the practice part.

KD: First there needs to be an interest to learn. Then learning with a skilled teacher must follow, who can teach the symbolic reasons behind the literal form of the metaphors. This must be put into practice under supervision. Observation of the outcomes of these experiences, and embracing them, completes the learning process.

14. Was the teaching of Hathayoga mainly for men, or was it also open to women?

FM: In the beginning of the HYP, one of the main references for Hathayoga, Svatmarama, the author, invokes ancient teachers among whom we find women. In Yoga-Yajnavalkya, the master teaches to great experts including his wife. When he arrives at the most subtle and secret teaching, they all have to leave the place except for her…

SS: The original teachings itself was only to Parvati, the Goddess and the list of teachers include two women.

KD: Hathayoga is for both men and women. Some texts even indicate that women were better students than the men of their time.

15. Are there some of these Hathayoga teachings that you think are not necessary for today's times?

FM: Yes. Even if we assume that all these teachings were relevant in those times (even this can be questioned), some of the techniques are not at all recommended today. Some other ones can only be advised after careful examination of the student’s condition of health. And some should be absolutely prohibited, especially the “invasive” ones.

We should never forget that the tools are not the goal. They exist to serve the physical, moral and spiritual growth of the practitioner.

SS: Yes.  The Kechari, Vajroli and Amroli in the Mudra Section.

KD: Yes some of the Kriyas and certain Mudras seem redundant in today’s society.

16. As a yoga teacher, what are our responsibilities in the path of yoga teaching?

FM: I have to teach what is the best for each student.

SS:  Our responsibility is to pass on the tradition in the proper way as it was meant by the teacher.

KD: I feel the most important responsibility is to be a student always, and continue to learn. Even if we are a teacher. The other two qualities I feel are important is inner conviction and self-motivation.

17. As a yoga student, what are our responsibilities in the path of yoga practice?

FM: Learn, practice, experience. My teacher often told me : “Don’t speak much, be a living example”. I try with my limitations.

SS: To sincerely practice what we teach.

KD: Abhyasam [appropriate practice] and Vairagyam [detachment], endowed with Sraddha [Conviction].

18. Today's yoga training mainly focuses on training in yogasanas. Would you think a deeper training in yoga is needed to understand these subtle principles?

FM: Asana is important but not the goal. It’s only a preliminary step to a more internal intensity and experience. To focus mainly on asana training is like cherishing the jewelry box without trying to open it.

SS: The training should include all the components of yoga such as Pranayama, Dhyanam, Yama and Niyama as well.

KD: It is my feeling that the yoga training of current day has improved from about 20 years ago, but still lacks strong foundations in many of yoga’s subtle tools. This has to change, and I sincerely hope that yoga organizations, and more importantly yoga students will pursue the path of excellence in education.

19. How do you see the future of yoga evolving in the current century?

FM: I see, as it were, two tracks. One is more and more looking for the spectacular, superficial, noisy, frivolous. That one is very popular today and will continue to grow. The second one is more profound, serious, traditional.

I hope the first one will not stifle the second.

SS: The future is very bright with the message reaching all the segments of the community.

KD: We are at a time where yoga can go either in a serious direction, or into a superficial commercial journey. Currently it looks like the superficial is more popular. But I do hope and wish that the it is the serious side that will sustain the test of time.