Hatha Yoga is a method of opening ourselves to the fullness of sensory experience, and exposing ourselves to the presence of the sublime—not within particular sensory objects, but within the open space of our own consciousness. The method works with opposing forces in the body, symbolized by Sun and Moon, or the syllables HA and THA, and invites these forces to align. As there are many opposing forces in the body, there are many forms of alignment, but Hatha Yoga is premised on the thought that we can balance them all by working with breath. The central technique is to align prana and apana, the ascending and descending forces of the breath, along the central axis of the body. When these forces align, the experience of the body opens up, revealing endless patterns of sensation. The practice is to be present with sensation, allowing it to unfold in the open expanse of our awareness, without being drawn into any particular story about what it means. Through this practice we give ourselves space, and we allow our minds to breathe.
This is the beginning of Hatha Yoga, and there really is no end. For in the philosophy of Hatha Yoga, which is founded on experience and not on speculation of any kind, there is nowhere but here, no time but now, and nothing to do but arrive fully into the present moment. Hatha Yoga teaches that, by giving ourselves space, we can bring the closest and most profound consciousness to the inner movements of sensation, and through that consciousness, we can become more fully aware of everything that is happening within and around us. This the purpose of practicing Hatha Yoga and learning to embody the kind of presence that it teaches—to live each moment with perfect lucidity. That is, to sustain an open and vibrant awareness that is always centered in the present moment, so that each situation, however ordinary or mundane, can graciously reveal itself as the unfolding of something sublime.
To experience the sublime through Hatha Yoga is not to experience some transcendent or otherworldly realm, but to experience this realm, more closely, more vividly, more directly than before, such that our isolating sense of separation from things, our sense of abiding in the world as a separate self, is completely overwhelmed. The experience in question is not unfamiliar. It comes over us rather suddenly in certain aesthetic situations, when we are drawn out of ourselves, for example, by the beauty of the natural world. The experience of being drawn out can be precipitated by the most ordinary events—sunlight slanting over amber plains, or casting shadows over distant mountains, glistening on high peaks, wet with twilight rain. Sometimes, such things catch us without our defenses, and when they do, something unexpectedly moves within us, and we are stunned into attention. Overcome with wonder at the beauty before us, we forget ourselves. We lose ourselves in the unfolding brilliance of the present moment.
Though we lose ourselves, or rather because we do, we feel somehow more lucid, more awake, more in touch with reality. And when the experience fades, and we return to our ourselves, we feel cleansed and renewed, like the cool earth after the summer storm. The experience remains in our memories as a touchstone of clarity. It informs our sense of the real, and gives us some idea of what it would mean to wake up from our delusions and live in continual recognition of the sublime nature of the reality that is unfolding so perfectly around us. This is the point of Hatha Yoga—not only to induce this kind of experience, but to sustain it, so that our appreciation of the sublime begins to saturate the fabric of our daily experience, immersing us in fuller presence to reality. In Hatha Yoga, particularly as seen through the lens of the nectar school, this is what it means to be fully awake.
To practice Hatha Yoga, then, requires nothing more or less than unbroken attention to the patterns of sensation that dance across our sensory fields. These are the material of our experience, and so the very substance of our reality. Beyond them, there is nothing to see and so nothing to miss. There are only objects of conjecture and imagination. Such objects are forever being fabricated and dissolved by our minds, using the same material of sensation. Through the practice of remaining presence with sensation, and giving ourselves space, we can observe this process, and gain insight into the way that our minds construct reality. More pointedly, we gain insight into the way that our minds create our sense of separation from other things by projecting various isolating ideas of things and ideas of who we are, ideas that lay around us overly protective and dense notions of physical and mental form.
In Hatha Yoga, which centers on the exploration of the body, this insight often begins with the dissolution of our bodily images. As we closely follow the currents of our sensation that run through our bodies, we find them running off in defiance of our imagined spatial boundaries. That is, we find them reaching beyond the surfaces of our skin, arcing around the contours of our bodies with serpentine movements, and then fading back into the emptiness that surrounds us. As we soften into this experience, our outlines disappear, revealing the body an open nexus of sensation, an open space for sensation to appear, and so as nothing more or less than precisely what consciousness is. Through this experience, then, we rediscover consciousness as the very essence of the body, even as the body dissolves into consciousness. Instead of losing one to the other (or losing them both to some reductive idea) we allow them to touch each other, to arouse each other, and so to bring other each other awake. And when they awaken, our images of ourselves dissolve, and we lose ourselves in the endless exploration of their intimacy.
Through the explorations of Hatha Yoga, we come to understand with a kind of visceral immediacy that our sense of separation from things is something like an illusion. The edges of things begin to disappear into the open space of our bodies, and we feel a sense of profound intimacy with everything around us. This feeling of intimacy is the nectar of Hatha Yoga, the sweet secretion of that divine union of Sun and Moon, HA and THA, from which the practice takes its name. It comes over us spontaneously when our bodies are completely saturated with an embracing and loving awareness. That is, when the inner contours of our bodies, which contain our memories and hold the archives of our emotional lives, are seen, touched and tasted by an awareness that has lost any separate sense of itself to the wonder of what is there to be found.
This sense of intimacy signals one of the highest forms of alignment to which we might aspire. It is higher, certainly, than having the right view of the world. The right view is about the alignment of our ideas with reality, whereas the experience in question is beyond the constraint of ideas. We might describe it as an alignment of consciousness with the body, but then the very idea of alignment begins to break down. That idea presupposes two separate things, existing in some kind of harmonious balance, whereas the experience in question contains the revelation that these two, consciousness and the body, are not so separate after all.
Rather than compress that revelation into a particular view of reality, where the sensory distinction between the body and consciousness is obscured, for example, by some monistic notion about what there is, Hatha Yoga invites us to explore that revelation on the level of immediate experience, and to do so over and over again—not to reinforce any particular philosophical conviction, but to revel in the continual rediscovery of ourselves as crystallizations of the conscious sublime. Having the right view is not worth much anyway, if the view distracts us from what is actually happening, and prevents us from having a more direct experience of reality. Hatha Yoga therefore disconnects itself from philosophical argumentations and teaches the path of direct experience instead. That is, instead of teaching elaborate Vedantic doctrines about the non-dual nature of the body and consciousness, it teaches a way of experiencing directly what those doctrines describe. It regards the continual rediscovery of the union between consciousness and the body as the defining activity of an awakened life.
Through the conscious exploration of the body, Hatha Yoga exposes us to the illusory nature of the world of appearances, revealing that world as in some sense a projection of our minds. It does not, however, go with a loss of interest in that world. It does not go with a tendency to withdraw from what appears separate and unique, or to discredit such things as mere illusions. On the contrary, it goes with an ever deepening appreciation for such things, for it discloses them as ephemeral reflections of something singular and sublime, something as close and essential to us as our own consciousness. Instead of making an idol of consciousness, or enshrining consciousness in some stilted conception of the divine, Hatha Yoga encourages us to recognize the divine nature of everything that presents itself to our senses within consciousness, and it therefore encourage us to see all things as immediate revelations of the subtle essence of what we are. That is, to see sensations of every kind as immediate revelations of the deathless presence of awareness that spreads itself out through our senses, and holds the phenomenal world in its fold. And when we lose ourselves in gaping wonder at that presence, everything appears suddenly and absolutely sublime.
In Hatha Yoga, wonder is an essential element, and understandably so, for wonder is the psychological foundation of all revelatory experience. To wonder alone, things appear luminous and deep. And when we lose our sense of wonder, the world seems to darken, and to become cold beneath our feet. Without an abiding sense of wonder, we succumb to the kind of impression of the world that makes no room for mystical experience, or or experience that reveals life as the unfoldment of something divine, and gives life the kind of immeasurable worth that transcends all purpose and circumstance. Without wonder, we find ourselves isolated and estranged, standing on an improbable chunk of insentient material, hurling meaninglessly through space, with no possibility of touching the divine elements of reality. Then we have no better option than to cultivate a Stoic acceptance of our existence, one that asserts the basic dignity of human life against the absurdity of creation, but which finds no real cause or occasion to embrace life, to celebrate life as a continual revelation of something divine, and so no provocation to cultivate a deeper intimacy with reality.
So in order to invite the experience of Hatha Yoga, in which the emptiness of things appears not barren and abysmal, but replete with the presence of the sublime, we have to nurture our sense of wonder. We have to care for it with all the labors of our deepest loves. And we begin by seeing the objects of our loves as unique reflections of something more capacious, something which is unconditioned by circumstance, and which is worthy of the most profound love. This is one of the fundamental themes of the Tantric tradition, and the point of approaching yoga, or any other contemplative practice, as a form of bhakti, or devotion to the beloved—it encourages us to see the sublime right before our eyes, in the things that captivate us most, the thing that hold our attention and pull most strongly on the strings of our hearts.
The point is enshrined brilliantly in the mythology of Shiva and Shakti, who can be taken to represent the opposing forces of HA and THA, Sun and Moon, on which Hatha Yoga works. That is, they can be taken to represent the dynamic play between the creative and dissolutive forces through which the mind, the body, and all of reality unfolds. The stories of their ecstatic and often blistering love affair remind us of how difficult it can be to get such forces to align.
2. Shiva and Shakti
In Tantric mythology, Shiva is the embodiment of wonder. He is the embodiment of that open and loving consciousness that recognizes the sacred nature of everything that it perceives. In this connection, Shiva is the friend of shesha, “the remainder.” The word shesha appears in the context of ancient Vedic ritual. It refers to everything that remains after the ritual is done, everything that does not burn cleanly in the sacrificial fire. It refers to what remains smoldering in the coals, charred and obdurate, a disconcerting reminder of the imperfection of our finest attempts to recover our original sense of wholeness, or to heal the wounds of our separation into the realm of embodied form, and to return us to a sense of intimacy with the whole. To the fastidious officiant or priest, shesha is not only unsightly but threatening, because it suggests the imperfection of the ritual. When no one is looking, the priest steps on the shesha, blackening his foot, trying to grind the mess back into the dirt. To him, shesha is intolerable. But to Shiva, who recognizes the impossibility of capturing the whole, each little piece of shesha is lovable and unique, for every little piece is an embodiment of his true beloved, and an irreplaceable reminder of the sublimity of her creation.
As the friend of shesha, Shiva is always accompanied by an entourage of strange beings. These ghanas or “hosts” represent all of the things that are cast out and forgotten, all of the things that do not fit comfortably into the presiding schemes of organization, including, most importantly, the schemes that we identify as our selves. These things, of course, are legion. They include all of the countless thoughts, memories and emotions that lie just beneath the surface of our minds, informing our postures, gestures, habits, expressions, and experiences, but which we do not acknowledge because they do not cohere with our animating ideas of who we are. Simply out, these things offend our adopted sense of identity, and to recognize them would bring shame, confusion or complete existential vertigo. So we quite naturally suppress them, and keep them hidden from ourselves, refusing to admit them as our own. And if they make some flashing appearance, exposing some little corner of themselves, we simply imagine them as marginalia, part of the background noise of our experience, part of the insignificant hum of the inner turnings of our minds.
To keep ourselves safe from these untoward elements of our minds, we continuously perform little rituals to mark off our psychical boundaries, separating the thoughts, memories and emotions that we can integrate from those that we cannot, and thereby seeming to decide for ourselves what we actually think and feel. Through these rituals of psychological organization, we fashion our sense of self. That is, we fashion an animating image of who we are that allows us to cope with the world, and to engage meaningfully with other people.
In the mythology of Shiva and Shakti, there is a figure who represents this natural function of the mind, the function by which the mind marks off its personal boundaries and declares its own solidity. This figure is Daksha, the high priest, who is assigned by Brahma to be the overbearing father of Sati, one of Shakti’s incarnations. As Sati, the Goddess comes into the world to capture the attention of Shiva—to quicken his heart and draw him out of himself, into the unfolding drama of sensual love. Their loving union is essential to the cosmic balance, which is forever being threatened by demonic kings. The rishis, who oversee this balance, have to plead periodically with the Goddess to incarnate, to merge with Shiva, and so to restore, however temporarily, the balance of things.
Daksha is a symbol of religious orthodoxy, and thus of unwavering allegiance to a particular ideological scheme. The story of the tough and tender relationship between Shiva and Sati, comes to its tragic culmination at Daksha’s largest and most elaborate ritual. In planning this ritual, Daksha invites all of the royal families, rishis, gods and celestial beings, but he pointedly excludes Shiva and Sati. That is to say, he pointedly excludes that open and loving consciousness that would remind everyone of things they would much rather keep forgotten. More pointedly, Shiva is not welcome at the ritual because his presence would undermine the very illusion of fullness that the ritual is meant to sustain. Shiva would appear with his entourage of ghosts and other strange beings that do not fit comfortably with the idea of the sacred that Daksha wants to project.
Against Shiva’s sad and prescient warnings, Sati goes to the ritual to protest. She marches into the sacrificial hall as the ceremonies are about to begin, and she sharply demands an explanation from her father. Daksha is emboldened by his audience, and by the grand sacrificial scene, and loudly denounces Shiva as profane. He rudely condemns Shiva as the embodiment of everything that his ritual is meant to transcend, the embodiment of what is disordered, orthogonal, spontaneous, unpredictable and threatens to overflow. In a word that he would not dare to utter before Sati, Daksha castigates Shiva as the embodiment of the feminine.
But the Goddess had warned everyone of what she would do. Before she incarnated as Sati, she made one simple promise. She said that if gods and men failed to recognize her, failed to honor her as the sublime essence of all sentient beings, she would withdraw from the world. She would pull her luminous essence from the husk, leaving the world cold, hollow, disenchanted, and dark. And the goddess keeps her promises. So before Daksha and all his guests, Sati throws herself on the sacrificial fire. And as Daksha wails in disbelief, the body of the Goddess, of Shiva’s beloved, turns to ashes.
The symbolic meaning of this act, of the sudden and violent departure of the Goddess, is about the sacrifice of wonder in the name of knowledge. When we stop looking at the world with wonder—with open and loving attention—and instead we impose upon our perceptions of the world all of epistemic conceits, with their false dualities and immense conceptual schemes, the world suddenly seems to lose its radiance. And the more our sense of wonder wanes, the more we replace wonder with the scaffolding of knowledge, the colder and darker the world of our experience seems to become. Our opportunities for experiencing the sublime gradually turn to dust. And so it happens that when the body of Sati begins to burn, the Sun falls below the horizon. The land is covered by the untimely darkness of night.
According to Tantric mythology, the cosmic role of Shiva is to recognize and continually admire the sublime beauty of Shakti, his beloved. His purpose is to see her, and all that she does, as the revelation of the sublime. This is the singular role of consciousness—to marvel at the unfolding of the natural world. And there is nothing more to it than that. The cosmic role of Shakti, on the other hand, is to draw Shiva out of himself, which is to say, to draw him out of the stupor of his reflective enclosure, and awaken him to the sheer bliss of experiencing the world. And that is to say, of experiencing himself inside of her, within the fold of creation, through the senses of all embodied beings. This is the purpose of nature, the purpose of embodiment—to give consciousness the opportunity to touch and taste itself, to see and hear itself, and thus to revel in continuous awareness of its own sublimity.
Shiva and Shakti, or consciousness and nature, are therefore inseparable. They need one another to play their cosmic roles. Shiva needs Shakti to see, and Shakti needs Shiva to be seen. Without each other, there is no experience, no illumination. But when they come together in their moments of intimacy, there is the highest bliss. They revel in the ecstatic wonder of continually realizing and rediscovering themselves through intimacy. However, these two lovers do not always align. They do not always come together gracefully, nor merge with amorous delight. Their love is replete with longing, intrigue and ecstasy, but also with forgetting, loss and grief. Such is the drama of embodied consciousness, trying to realize itself, and liberate itself from the darkness of delusion and isolation. The stories of Shiva and Shakti reflect this drama well. They remind us that the life of the spiritual seeker, the life of the yogi, is a blistering travail of touching, losing, longing, seeking, and then rediscovering once again that enigmatic sense of wonder that opens us to the sacredness of all things.
Wonder is not only the condition of alignment, but the condensation as well. Slowly it comes to saturate our hearts when we surrender our defenses, open our bodies, and allow ourselves to be taken by the sheer brilliance and profundity of what is unfolding right before our eyes. Wonder is what Shiva feels when he is drawn out of his meditative absorption, only to find himself stunned, riveted, emptied by the matchless beauty of his beloved. And wonder is what Shakti feels when she opens herself up to Shiva, allowing him to see her and touch her in places that she ordinarily keeps hidden, places that she would expose to no other. Finally, wonder is what overwhelms Shiva and Shakti both when they consummate their love by melting sweetly and softly into one another, losing themselves in adoration. Their sensual union has no trace of selfish longing for pleasure, but is moved by complete wonder at the reality of the other. This union is the highest expression of the love between Shiva and Shakti, and the perhaps the richest and most revealing symbol of what we are calling alignment—the revelry of the senses when they are totally open to reality.
3. Alignment Through Breath
In Hatha Yoga, we invite alignment by working with breath. More than an ethereal medium of vitalization, breath is said to be the vehicle of consciousness, the vehicle by which consciousness moves in the world of embodied form. The Hatha technique, which is so simple and so profound, is to move breath slowly and gracefully through the open expanse of the body, drawing sensation into long arcing lines that converge at the base of the spine and then rise upward through the hollow core of the body, only to spread across the palette and then fall back down to the root. This technique creates an open flow of sensation through the body, and the attention naturally follows. Just as the gaze of Shiva moves slowly over Shakti, so the attention moves slowly over the inner landscape of our minds, tracing every contour, following every ephemeral line, and deepening its appreciation, its wonder, for embodied form.
There is nothing that consciousness wants out of this. It does long for any culminating experience or state of transcendence. On the contrary, it longs for nothing because it feels the whole nexus of its beloved, as creative energy, spreading out before it, revealing sublimity at every turn. The opened mind, or pure consciousness, wants only to behold that sublimity, and to contemplate its infinite beauty, so it naturally and effortlessly remains in open contemplation of everything that is immediately arising.
In this contemplation, the balance of prana and apana, or the ascending and descending breaths, keeps the mind from losing itself to projections, and so from being distracted away from what is actually happening. These two movements of the breath correspond to the forces of creativity and dissolution that continually shape our experience, the forces that underlie the narrative voices with which we identify. When these forces are balanced, the mind releases its thoughts and images just as soon as they arise, allowing them to dissolve into an open and easeful flow of consciousness. This is the beginning of the kind of meditation that opens itself up to everything that appears in the inner space of the mind. Instead of focusing on just one or another mental current, and being caught up in whatever story it presents, we remain open to the whole swarming nexus of sensation that lies just beneath the surface of our consciousness.
In this practice, we are exposed to the countless currents of mentality that do not fit comfortably into our abiding sense of who we are, and which we would normally keep hidden from our view. Through the balance of prana and apana, we suspend the mental mechanisms of their suppression. Our usual projections no longer interpose themselves between our consciousness and our bodily sensations, so there is no disruption in the natural exploration of intimacy between them. The images projected by the mind keep dissolving, so awareness is allowed to touch the body directly, without the mediation of our ideas.
The balance of prana and apana is therefore crucial, within Hatha Yoga, to what we might usefully think of as proper alignment. This balance allows awareness to saturate the body, dissolving our limiting projections about who we are, and dispelling our illusions about the difference between the body and consciousness, or what amounts to the same, the difference between what we see and what we are. When prana and apana are in balance, the mind can open naturally to the fullness of sensory experience, so that the the boundaries of the body simply disappear. In this balance, the body no longer appears as another object for consciousness, but it shows itself as the very essence of consciousness, and more specifically, as the open space in which sensation appears. Everything that appears within this space begins to shimmer with an otherworldly light, which is simply a reflection of our own wonder. And that light, in being reflected back to consciousness, allows consciousness to become gradually aware of itself, and so to recognize its own sublimity.
It is therefore through the exploration of the body, and through the exploration of the inner movements of the breath, that consciousness becomes aware of itself. In other words, it is through Shakti, and the divine dance of the senses, that Shiva awakens and realizes his own divinity. Without the exploration of the inner movement of the breath, there would be no revelation of sensation, and nothing to awaken consciousness to its own presence. As Shiva without Shakti, consciousness would remain dark and contracted, and its powers would not unfold. But in the presence of the Goddess, which is the presence of the body, consciousness comes alive. It begins to taste, touch, hear, see, and above all, to breathe, in the most intimate exchange with everything that surrounds it.
Through the expansion and contraction of the breath, consciousness becomes aware of itself as the luminous presence behind every experience, the presence that lights up sensation from within, and provides sensation with the open space in which to unfold, which of course is the space of the body itself. And when consciousness recognizes itself in this way, through the movements of sensation, it realizes a perfect intimacy with the body, a kind of loving union, and it beings to revel in the body as an ephemeral reflection of absolute divinity. This is the union of Shiva and Shakti, the union of Sun and Moon, or HA and THA that we might usefully refer to as alignment. And what sustains this union, as we have seen, is a kind of wonder, a kind of riveted attention to what is immediately present to experience, an attention that wants nothing for itself, is completely free from all projections, and which is therefore ready to lose itself in the ecstatic exploration of the present moment.