6 keys to "success" in Hatha Yoga

What do the ancient yoga texts teach us about "success" in Hatha yoga?

Francesca in Pigeon variation

Yoga has been, for a long time, considered an art and science. Ancient yogis were considered more as scientists who studied the body and our consciousness within it, rather than merely teachers. The ‘science’ of Hatha yoga is stated to not only be a physical practice intended for health and fitness, but also for awakening ‘vital energies’ within us (such as prana, chakra and kundalini energy). In this sense, Hatha yoga is considered the foundation for all ‘higher yogas’ such as Raja yoga, meditation and the path to Samadhi or enlightenment. So even when we perfect that Handstand or become flexible enough to touch our toes with ease, there’s still a long way to go on this journey of yoga!  

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is said to be one of the oldest surviving texts describing the practices of Hatha yoga, and was written in approximately the 15th century CE. Yet this is still a somewhat ‘modern’ text compared to the Vedas and Upanishads, which don’t mention asana at all and are said to have been first written down in around 500 BCE.

This text, originally compiled by Maharishi Swatmarama, explains the entire ‘science’ of Hatha yoga – including asana, pranayama (breath techniques), shatkarma (cleansing or ‘purifying’ practices), mudra (symbolic gestures) and bandha (body locks).

Chapter One of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is based on asana. If you’ve studied Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, you’ll know that Patanjali’s Raja yoga definition of ‘asana’ is ‘seat’, and refers only to the posture we might take for meditation. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is influenced more by the Tantric tradition, which is interested in the body, using it as a way to experience life and the world fully, and the subtle energies within it, and in this text, asana means something different.

This is one of the first texts to describe ‘asana’ as a means to “open the energy channels and psychic centers”, and a process through which “purification and control of the body take place by restructuring pranic flows”. It must be understood though, that this process was not all there was to yoga, and it was still intended to move us closer towards Raja yoga and meditation.

Verse 17 of chapter 1 states that “Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of Hatha yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of body and mind; diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs”.

Pretty early on within the first chapter, we’re actually told how to succeed in Hatha yoga itself….

But wait – ‘succeed’?

We’ll often hear in class there’s no need to grasp for ‘success’ or ‘achievement’ in yoga and to release the need to push ourselves in order to reach a ‘goal’… So what does the text mean by ‘success’?

We all have different ideas of what it means to be ‘successful’; Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson says "The more you're actively and practically engaged, the more successful you will feel", while Deepak Chopra says "Success in life could be defined as the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realization of worthy goals".

How do we reach the ‘goal’ and become successful in Hatha yoga?

According to Maharishi Swatmarama “The real purpose of Hatha yoga is to open the gate to self-realisation”.

So in this sense we can define the ‘goal’ of Hatha yoga as ‘self-realization’ and ‘success’ as the ability to unlock the gate which leads us there.  

In order to unlock something though, we need some keys, and luckily verse 16 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains exactly what these are:

“Enthusiasm, perseverance, discrimination, unshakeable faith, courage, avoiding the company of common people, are the six causes (keys) which bring success in Yoga”.

Let’s take a closer look at these causes or keys:

1. Enthusiasm

Also referred to as ‘a positive attitude’, this key is all about the constant inspiration to practise.

This doesn’t have to mean waking up at 5am every morning and running joyfully to the yoga mat. The most important question to ask ourselves before we practise – one which is likely to inspire us consistently – is; “Why do I practise?”

Considering why we love the practice of yoga in the first place can be enough to ignite the flames of enthusiasm each day, and guide us towards practising in a way that is right for our minds and bodies.

Staying inspired is always helped when we take time to study and learn – whether it’s with teachers we respect, by reading fascinating texts, or finding inspiration through something that isn’t yoga; a fictional book, a dance class or new sport.

So what inspires you? What encourages you to get on the mat each morning, to sit in meditation, to read the texts, or practise pranayama? What draws you back to yoga over and over again?

2. Perseverance

If you still can’t get into that posture you’ve been working on after months of practise, the whole prospect of Hatha yoga can become discouraging. Even at the best of times, we can forget that there’s a whole lot more to this than the postures….

That said, showing up to a 90 minute class every couple of weeks isn’t going to make much of an overall difference – it’s regular practise that ultimately brings success. This doesn’t have to mean a full-on power hour of Ashtanga every morning. This could amount to 20-30 minutes a few times a week at home, either with a guided video or your own intuition. The point to make however, is that it is just all about practise.

Another important text The Bhagavad Gita tells us to ‘let go of the fruits of our actions’, which basically means the focus should be on the practice not the results. By letting go of the results and staying true to the whole reason you practise means there’s a chance to explore, there’s no pressure to get to an end point.

“Whether you are afflicted with material losses or acquire valuable possessions, whether there are visible signs of progress in your sadhana, or not, you must continue with your efforts …"

3. Discrimination

Constant discrimination is a difficult yet essential aspect of practice, not just on the mat, but in daily life too; “Everything you do and every aspect of your life, including your diet clothing, company, material necessities, conversation etc, should be conducive to your sadhana (your practice). If something is going to be detrimental, leave it.”

While there’s no need to try and be something we’re not – for example, drinking a green smoothie because we think it makes us more of a ‘yogi’ – we can indeed continually check that what we’re doing helps us to be the very best versions of ourselves.

Remembering that the ‘purpose’ of Hatha yoga is self-realization, we can begin to discriminate between what helps us move towards that purpose, and what moves us further away from it.

A common aspect of life many modern yogis begin to question when practising yoga is the food choices they make. Before getting up early to practise asana was a regular occurrence, an extra glass of wine, that late-night slice of cake, or a particularly heavy meal many not have been so bothersome the next day. When your first waking hours are spent with your body twisting, bending, inverting and attempting to breathe fully though, we might indeed begin to wonder if those food choices are helping us become our very best selves, let alone moving towards enlightenment.

It’s this kind of discrimination that propels us towards making healthier diet choices, going to bed earlier, and generally taking more care of our bodies than we may have done previously. When we realize that ‘we’ are in fact not completely solitary and we are actually closely connected to others and the world around us, those choices we make are influenced by what would be beneficial for the planet too.

4. Unshakeable faith

Faith in ourselves, our teachers, our practice and in the path of yoga is an underappreciated requirement for ‘success’.

For example, if we’re moving towards a difficult asana, we might have enough physical strength, but if one cell of us doubts we’re able to attain the posture, we’re pretty unlikely to get there.

Having faith sometimes also requires us to let go of the fruits of our actions too. While ‘blind faith’ is never recommended as the only way to self-realization, there must be an aspect of us which continues to believe we’re on the right path, even when things get challenging or don’t seem to be progressing in the direction we hoped for.

Traditionally, practitioners are told to have complete faith in their guru - their teacher or guide. Guru translates as ‘remover of darkness’ and is considered the person who removes someone’s ignorance through teaching. This has been a tricky subject recently, with so many ‘gurus’ turning out so be not as ‘holy’ as we first thought. So while we don’t need blind faith, we do need trust; trust in yourself, your teacher, and an unshakeable faith that helps to guide you through the various ups and downs of being a yoga practitioner.  

5. Courage

Note that we’re talking about courage here, rather than ‘being a hero’! Courage means being brave, but it isn’t always linked to performing dangerous physical feats.

What scares you the most? It might be heights, spiders, snakes, flying, horror movies... or it might actually be the prospect of sitting for just ten minutes with your own thoughts, your own mind; that horror movie that sometimes plays out in the mind.

Many people have not taken to meditation for one fact: sitting there and actually facing your thoughts and ‘inner demons’ can be the most terrifying thing we have to endure. If you’ve been pushing away constantly nagging and ego-driven voices for a long time, sitting in a quiet place with nothing to listen to other than your mind doesn’t sound so inviting, and in fact it takes a lot of courage.

Letting go of that bothersome ego and being yourself (after all, remember that we are on our way towards self-realization) takes a whole lot of courage. Approaching an intimidating asana you’ve been avoiding takes courage and sitting for meditation and facing the mind takes courage. Asking for help when we really need it can take courage too especially if we’ve been used to putting on that “I’m fine” mask every day.

Flip your perception of courage around and you’ll see that what takes the most courage is actually the ability to be vulnerable.

Brené Brown has conducted a study on ‘wholeheartedness’ which reveals that “courage is borne out of vulnerability, not strength”. This study has encouraged many people to change the way they live, as allowing ourselves to show our vulnerability actually enables us to be more open and receptive to others, therefore creating a deeper connection with whom we come into contact.

6. Avoiding the company of common people

The word “common” is a direct translation from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika but essentially refers to people who who have a negative effect on us. Unsurprisingly, this last key to success is often purposefully ignored in many westernized translations and articles based upon this subject. We’re social beings; the more friends we have, the more ‘liked’ and ‘successful’ we feel. A higher social status feeds the ego, but as we mentioned earlier, we need to be discriminative about the company we keep.

Do these people help us to become the very best versions of ourselves? Do they bring out the best in us? Do they help us move towards self-realization? Or are they in fact draining our energy every time we’re around them?

People who lower our ‘vibration’ are sometimes known as emotional vampires; those who like to complain and gossip and moan, and when we finally say goodbye to them at the end of the day, we feel emotionally and physically exhausted.

While they call themselves friends, they’re often only looking to gain something from our company and we soon notice that the relationship is very one-sided.

Finding balance between connection with others who have a positive influence on us – who inspire us and in whom we have faith – and making time for solitary practice and self-reflection is key to a successful practice. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says “During the period of sadhana you may find it useless to mix with people that have lower aspirations….. until his physical, mental, emotional and psychic resistance are developed, it is better to stay away from social interactions and negative influences.”

Of course, while this primarily refers to social company, we might want to consider the company we keep within ourselves; our thoughts.

Holding on to habits of negative thinking, fear and self-doubt definitely don’t bring us any closer towards self-realization. Making the choice about which thoughts we keep is an essential aspect of how positively our practice progresses, and also one of the most difficult of the six keys to obtain.

Summing up

Releasing unnecessary and unhelpful thoughts requires us to use all the keys we’ve previously been given in order to progress.

Enthusiasm and inspiration are there to keep us continually practising and willing to take part in this sometimes demanding journey.
Perseverance ensures we don’t stray from the path.

Discrimination will encourage us to apply the practice of ‘svadhyaya’ or ‘self-study’ to ourselves – questioning the appearance and necessity of each thought.

Unshakeable faith reminds us that something greater lies beyond the thoughts we’ve become accustomed to listening to.

Courage allows us to be brave enough to accept our vulnerability as we move away from the familiar thoughts we know, and towards the unknown.

Combining these with the sixth key of making positive choices about our external and internal company may enable us to unlock the gates of self-realization and finally move towards those higher yogas.

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