Hatha Yoga and Enlightenment

Heritage of Yoga

Shakyamuni Buddha: From my perspective, what does it mean to be enlightened or awakened?  Do I want to be enlightened?  Do I think it is possible to achieve enlightenment through the practice of Hatha Yoga?

Enlightenment is the direct experience of one’s true nature and the true nature of all phenomena.  It is the sustained state in which one has the direct experience of the emptiness of mind.  That is, that mind can be experienced but has no fixed characteristics (e.g., location, shape, color, etc.).  It is the direct knowing that our true nature is consciousness which includes perception and experience.

In the state of enlightenment all one’s thoughts and deeds benefit all sentient beings.  One is the state of grace.  It is said that the Buddha had non-referential compassion.  Having transcended duality there was no I, no other; all his actions and words were the expression of enlightenment.  When one is fully awakened there is nothing outside of this awakened state.

Do I want to be enlightened?  I sincerely wish to benefit all sentient beings.  I hold this as an aspiration and the wish to accomplish this as the blessing and fulfillment of my precious human existence.  I value that in this life I have the potential and opportunity to realize my true nature.  I’m not sure I have the intensity of practice to accomplish realization.  There have been moments when my aspiration has been strong.  Years where I have spent hours a day in formal practice.  Formal practice being the time where I hold my awareness in the structured teachings of my spiritual path.  At this time in my life I carry my daily life as my practice.  I do not fool myself by thinking this is enough to bring enlightenment.  I sincerely wish that at some point I will resume a formal practice, for I believe that one needs both.

When I ask myself is it possible to attain enlightenment through the practice of Hatha Yoga alone I must first ask the question: Is Hatha Yoga separate from the whole of the Eight Limbs of Yoga?  The myth of the gradual path is that each step is separate.  Yet my own experience of yoga has shown me that at any moment all limbs are present.  The limitation is our perception of separation.  If we don’t bring the larger teachings of the Buddha or the Yoga Sutras to our asana practice then Hatha Yoga is not sufficient to accomplish a sustained state of enlightenment.

In my yoga practice I develop insight into my habitual patterns, a steadiness of mind, an inner peace, an experience of transcendence.  But how does this arise?  It may be argued that enlightenment may come in any circumstance.  I agree.  Nothing occurs outside of this moment, but there are many moments that surround this one.

If I return to my yoga practice to validate my understanding, I need look no further than the moment I finally pushed up into Urdhva Danurasana after many years of failed attempts. Though I did this one day without any warm-up or daily practice leading in this direction I cannot separate it from all the other things I had been doing:  opening tight joints, releasing held trauma, building strength, hearing the wise instructions of my teachers, and in the end, letting go of the accomplishment itself.

When I practice Hatha Yoga I bring the wealth of all my practice to bear.  If one doesn’t have a spiritual practice isn’t this an insight into why many see yoga as a good workout?  For those who have a foundation in spiritual awareness, yoga practice includes the bounty of our spiritual merit, the truth of our spiritual teachings, the blessings of our teachers, the support and practice of our community and our unflagging aspiration to travel the path and bring it to fruition.  Even the hermit of the Upanishads was not without support (tradition & acceptance by the community) in his search and accomplishment of awakening.

There is a quote from Trungpa Rinpoche that I love, “We all want to witness our own enlightenment.”

Just as it is ignorance to believe we can hold to our separateness and awaken, it is delusion to believe there is realization in Hatha Yoga separate from all our lifetimes of spiritual practice.


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