I generally deemphasize Hatha Yoga. It isn’t necessary to yogic attainment and it seems to be an active hindrance for a lot of people who become distracted by it. The Natha tradition is strongly connected, both conceptually and historically, with Hatha Yoga — the systematization of Hatha Yoga was, after all, a Natha innovation within India and all Hatha classics, such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Siva Samhita are Natha compilations or at least credit Sri Gorakhshanath as their primary source. That said, for Nathas themselves Hatha Yoga serves three functions:
- Keeping the body in shape amidst hours of meditation & ritual;
- Keeping the subtle energy channels clean and clear to aid meditation & ritual;
- Keeping monastic and eremitical Yogis busy.
In our Western context, only the first two are immediately relevant, though the last shouldn’t be discounted: Hatha Yoga is at least a better use of our time than a lot of passive forms of entertainment, though taking a walk in a wooded park does most of us at least as much good.
As to points 1 and 2, these are important but can easily be made too much of. One need not be an Adonis to be an effective Yogi or magician. Good physical health certainly reduces distractions and obstacles to one’s practice, and so should be pursued and maintained conscientiously, but stretching and taking long walks is an effective means without having to tie one’s body into knots in the process. Reasonable exercise, a moderate diet, and natural, relaxed breathing — possibly aided by taking certain herbs — already go a long way toward subtle health without having to resort to difficult and potentially dangerous breathing exercises. None of this is to deny Hatha Yoga’s unique combination of benefits. It is just that combination itself is unique, not the benefits individually.
It is at the level of subtle energy that I think Hatha Yoga shines most brightly, and at this level the most benefit can be gained. While they must be approached cautiously, a variety of breathing exercises are especially effective for magicians. A few simple and safe ones (see below) make very effective daily “cleansing” practices and can even be used to clean up simple curses like the infamous Evil Eye. For working magicians (which, like it or not, includes those who prefer to call themselves healers, psychics, shamans, astrologers who include remediation in their practice, and any magician, mystic, or occultist with community ties), such a method of hygiene is an indispensable tool in the toolkit as it requires no equipment, no preparation time, and can be done anywhere with nothing more than a corner or public restroom to retreat to for a couple of minutes. I have many times used the method given below on the grass in wooded parks, sitting in a coffee shop chair, and in a free moment at work. If you have any dealings with spirits at all or do any sort of energy work which can throw your internal balance off — which, between the two, pretty much includes every type of mystic and magician there is — keeping the subtle system clean is incredibly important. Rituals, herbs, and whatever else you may use in your practice are certainly good to keep up, but sometimes, “in the field”, those things will not be available and as a daily practice nothing beats something you can efficiently integrate with your other practices and responsibilities.
A final point about Hatha Yoga which does not receive any attention at all in modern classes and books is that, whether we realize it or not, Hatha Yoga involves spirits and deities. Any time we are dealing with so-called “subtle energy”, what we are really dealing with is consciousness taking different shapes and focusing on different movements (literally and figuratively). This, of course, is your own consciousness as the individual whose physical and subtle bodies are being exercised in Yoga, magic, and so forth, but it is also the myriad of spirits and deities who are also involved the process. The more deliberate we can be in our dealings with them, the better will the energy flow when and where we need it to.
Everyone already knows something of Kundalini, and She is the most significant example of what I mean; as the Trika Yogi Swami Lakshmanjoo put it, “Siva is not the path; Sakti is the path.” A detailed discussion of Kundalini will have to wait for its own article or series of articles, but She at least opens the present topic with a hint of familiarity.
Myriads of spirits and deities can be mentioned in this connection. Some modern Yoga teachers do talk about the various deities associated with the major cakras along the central channel of the body, but they are usually framed as symbolic constructs or mere aspects of the individual psyche. It is important to understand that while the gods are in one sense within the psyche, they are not limited to the individual mind. It is better to think in terms of the gods projecting in and through certain centers of energy in us and those centers of energy containing the gods in question. Magically speaking, each cakra is a gateway to a particular loka or world; this is true alongside the meditative experience of each cakra being a gradation of individual awareness and the Hatha Yoga reality of whirlpools of subtle energy performing or facilitating various psycho-physiological functions. All of these levels are true simultaneously, without contradiction, and they are perfectly interwoven such that a poor relationship with the deity whose loka is reached through a particular cakra has a negative impact on the individual’s health in relation to that center and their capacity to engage with the associated mind-state.
The channels of subtle energy themselves, those which connect the major and minor cakras and which run out from those centers to the organs and extremities, are ruled generally by the Nagas — a class of largely cthonic spirits associated with a certain Underworld, with flowing water, mental activity, and with venomous serpents. Yogis are themselves traditionally connected with the Nagas, sometimes merely culturally but often very literally as Yogis tend to develop relationships with the Nagas. The Buddha, Bodhidharma, and a number of other famous Yogis of India, China, Tibet, Thailand, and Nepal have had direct dealings with the Nagas, sometimes as friends and sometimes as adversaries, while sorcerers and Tantrikas of these same regions are known to make deals with them and try to keep them peaceful for the benefit of their clients and communities. While this is all literally true, it’s also important to see the inner value: just as with the deities of the cakras, if the Nagas are poorly disposed toward the individual, their Yoga (both physical and meditative) will suffer, as will their health. Subtle energy channels can be cleaned and strengthened through propitiation of the Nagas, and angry Nagas can very much cause problems not only in the subtle energy system but also in the physical body by way of the nerves, blood vessels, and digestive tract — all channels ruled by the Nagas.
With all of this given, even the casual Hatha Yoga practitioner would do well to explore more deeply into the human energy system, the subtle bodies, and the relationships of gods and spirits which interweave them. It is only through these that the real inner development, peace, and magical powers promised by the classics of Hatha Yoga can be realized, as Hatha Yoga was originally intended to be practiced as part of a broader and deeper Tantric program.
If possible, sit in a straight-backed, cross-legged posture on the ground or floor. If this is not possible, get as close to it as possible, prioritizing ease of belly breathing over other concerns. This is especially suitable for use immediately before and/or after any other meditation or magical work, as well as at the end of a day out in the world. You can also use these at any free moment throughout the day if you feel the need to recenter, refocus, and psychically shower. I use it during particularly exhausting days, after having dealt with parasitic people, and usually before any physical exercise, energy work, or pranayama.
Put your hands on your knees and begin to breath slowly with your belly; your shoulders should not rise much, if at all, as you breathe in. Once you have a comfortable rhythm, turn your attention to any areas of physical tension; with the next three breaths, direct your attention to them in turn, releasing the tension as you exhale. Repeat this process with the next three breaths, but turning your attention to any areas of your body in which you are holding emotional tension. With the next three breaths, making nine in total, do the same with focus on areas of the body in which you are holding mental tension.
You don’t need to limit yourself to nine breaths with the above, though at least nine breaths should be used to relax sufficiently. Take a few moments between the two phases of this process to feel your body, returning your breath to any areas of retained tension as needed before moving on. If possible, do not rush.
Men and women must use mirrored practices for the next nine breaths; men should use their right hand and women their left. All of the instructions which follow are written for men, as I am a man myself and this is how I do the exercise, but for women simply reverse every instruction related to the nostrils, energy channels, and colors. If you are a trans person or in some other way have a different gender identity than those at the base of this practice, you will have to experiment to see which way works best for you. As far as I can tell, these exercises do not depend upon gender identity but upon one’s sex at birth, but my sample size is admittedly rather small, so try for yourself to see if you seem to get better results using one way or the other. The same is true of all energy work, Tantra, and Yoga practices which depend upon polarity; biological sex at birth appears to be the deciding factor, but it is possible that a significant enough hormonal shift could reverse this and only further experimentation will tell.
Close your eyes and visualize your body as being entirely clean and clear. Within it, instead of the myriad vessels, organs, tissues, and bones, you instead only see the three major energy channels: the central channel is about a pencil’s width just in front of where your spinal column would be, running from your perineum all the way to the crown of your head; the right-hand channel runs from the right nostril, up and curving back behind the right eyebrow, then running just next to the central channel; the left-hand channel runs just like the right one, but from the left nostril. The two side channels do not run all the way down to the perineum as the central channel does, but instead merge with the central channel about four finger-widths below the navel. Do not worry about the details of colors, cakras, and so on for this exercise; it is more productive to see all of the channels and so on as perfectly clear and open, like tubes of diamond running up and down your crystalline body.
Raise your right hand, pressing the tip of your thumb against the base of your ring finger. Press your right nostril shut with your right ring finger and as you inhale visualize light green vapor entering your left channel through that nostril. When the inhalation is complete, move your finger to close your left nostril and gently exhale light blue vapor from your right nostril. (Again, if you are a woman it should be the left hand pressing the left nostril, etc.) Repeat this sequence for a total of three cycles.
The next phase is like the first, but this time press your left nostril closed (still using the right hand) and breathe in green light through your right nostril. Then, move your finger to close your right nostril and breathe out pink vapor from your left nostril. Again repeat for a total of three cycles.
For the last sequence, place your hands palm up in your lap, right hand first with the left hand on top of it. For those accustomed to using dhyāna mudra, resist the temptation to arch your thumbs; just let them rest with your other fingers. (Women put your right hand on top of your left.) Breathe in the light green vapor through both nostrils, but this time when you exhale, visualize a gray smoke shooting out of the crown of your head from your central channel. Again, do this for a total of three cycles.
At the end of these nine breaths, spend a few moments in simple calm before moving on to anything else or returning to your day.
The green vapor you breathe in during the nine purification breaths is pure vitality, pure prāna; as you inhale it, it cleanses the channels through which it moves of psychic grit and grime. When you breathe out light blue vapor, you are exhaling impurities associated with excessive masculinity (such as rlung- or vāta-related illnesses and obstacles related to the past); when you exhale pink vapor, you are exhaling impurities associated with excessive femininity (such as illnesses of pitta and obstacles related to the future); the gray smoke you breathe out through your central channel is composed of impurities having to do with unclean or hostile spirits and illnesses of kapha. You do not need to worry about accidentally exhaling too much of anything, as the exercise will only remove excess or, more precisely, only the impure aspects of the energy in question. The body and mind are thereby strengthened and not weakened, as the subtle forces are able to move more efficiently rather than getting stuck or pooling up where they are not needed. The idea is to keep everything moving and not stagnant.
Even this simple series of breaths is a form of Hatha Yoga. You will immediately note how much simpler and less prone to cause injuries and imbalances it is compared to most of what you might learn in modern yoga classes. While Hatha Yoga can get very intense for certain purposes, most people do not need such practices most of the time. It is generally best to use the gentlest effective methods, especially where health is concerned. Ruin your health and you will find that your entire practice falls apart.