I’ve been preparing for an upcoming workshop on a sacred yoga text known as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP). Pradipika is a Sanskrit word that means “self-illuminating”. This title emphasizes the important point that yoga is within us. Illumination, awakening, growth, and transformation may come through yogic practices of deep inward reflection and contemplation ranging from a seated meditation practice to the active method Ashtanga vinyasa — all part of the hatha yoga system.
Early in the book there is a sutra that says:
For those continually tempered by the heat of tapa (the three types of pain – spiritual, environmental and physical) hatha is like the hermitage giving protection from the heat. For those always united in yoga, hatha is the basis acting like a tortoise.
I totally dig this sutra. It says so much about why so many of us are drawn to yoga – drawn together in solidarity, communion, silence, breath, sweat, and sometimes even tears.
“Like the hermitage” — a house — a structure that protects, gives shelter and a sense of safety and comfort — becomes a home. This is its special purpose — its dharma you might say. It is very clear for the house. Generally speaking, it’s function is not in question.
Our body is our personal, birth granted, house. In Sanskrit the word used for the body is “upadhi”, meaning vehicle. Our body is our vehicle for yoga — the home to our unique spirit. Buddhist teachings refer to this body as “precious” — becoming so when one chooses to take up the torch of yoga turning this otherwise mundane, temporary flesh and bone casing into something extraordinary. We set out to explore, find our dharma and uncover our light.
Asana — yoga posturing — is a method for building and developing a strong, steady, and able house for ourselves. A house that serves to protect the yogi, keep him sure-footed, and protect him from the pains of life. Sometimes by overcoming or preventing/avoiding unnecessary pain and sometimes by enabling one to deal with the pain and carry on.
“Heat of tapa” – tapa or tapas meaning “to heat” or “pain” – suffering that comes in three forms: physical, environmental, and spiritual. Physical pain refers to the ebbs and flows encountered while inhabiting this house. Disease, illness, emotional and mental anxieties, depression, injury and so on – the myriad of challenges we all face at various points in our lives. The environmental pains come from the unpredictable, uncontrolled continually changing earth — flood, drought, earthquake, intense heat and cold. These natural disruptions wreak havoc on the body and mind. The recent heat wave is testament to this — all over DC people were wishing for cooler days, complaining, getting angry, staying home to avoid the heat — any number of behaviors afflicted by something as simple as a few hot days. Then comes the spiritual hardships, all of which are grounded in avidya (yogic dirt) the confusion and grasping to make this temporary house — our bodies — a permanent identity. It’s the ego driven lack of understanding and acceptance of impermanence that supercedes all of this. “Living without realization of the inner being”, according to Swami Mukitbodhananda.
Yoga practice — asana, pranayama, bandhas, mudras, kriyas, meditation (all described in the HYP) — provides the toolbox for building, developing, and sustaining our body — our home for yoga. “Ha” means sun and “tha” means moon and this is groundwork for describing a concept and a method that runs deep. Sun and moon represent opposites and polarity. “Ha” can also be defined as prana and “tha” as mind or mental energy. It is the union of pranic and mental forces that awaken our consciousness and bring about self-illumination.
We enter our bodies through asana and these other practices via an interplay of opposing forces on the gross to subtle levels — generally the more we do it, the more devoted we become, the more subtle the exploration. This provides fertile ground to engage the mind and give it something to focus upon thereby cultivating the 6th and 7th limbs of yoga — dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). As my teacher David Garrigues says, the postures become “meditative devices” — sacred, protective, solitary pursuits toward the spirit.
So, what, you may be thinking, does all this have to do with a tortoise?! That’s one of those fun wacky things about this text that hold value because they represent opportunities to expand the mind. Opportunity to let go of our tight grip on this life as-we-know-it as representing what-is-real and to open up to the fantastical possibilities that union with supreme consciousness — YOGA — may hold.
The tortoise, according to Hindu mythology, is said to support the earth. The story goes that the universe was falling into destruction and the earth lost its foundation. Lord Vishnu (the preservation force) manifested as a tortoise to support the earth on its back. This represents the process of creation and evolution happening both external and internal to one’s self, and of eventual movement back to our center of being —a process that takes place each and every time we move into a yoga posture. Ultimately this is a lesson in patience and endurance — two qualities that are of prime importance when it comes to the practice of yoga (and two qualities that challenge us all in this world of expected entertainment, money driven ease and fast gratification). You’ve got to slow down and be there to appreciate that you’ve arrived — home.
Mukitbodhananda, Swami. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 1985. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India