Breath, Bandha and Agni(Fire) :
The core of asanas in Hatha Yoga
Long term practitioners of yoga asanas, especially those practicing the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, will be familiar with the term "tri-sthanas", which means three places (of focus), which include the breath, the bandhas (energy locks) and the Dhrishti (gaze). In this article I would like to touch upon the use of the first two of these "tri-sthanas", namely the Ujjayi breath (victory breath) and the bandhas, to kindle the Agni (the fire) in one's body. A link is made between Ayurveda and Asana practice and why the body's fire is considered of utmost importance in Hatha Yoga practice.
2) Agni - the fire in the body
Ayurveda places a lot of emphasis on maintaining a healthy "fire" in the body. This fire or metabolism is known as Agni. According to Ayurveda, disease originates when this Agni is weak. This condition is called "Mandha Agni" or dull fire. Under this condition, Ayurveda states that the impurities which are not burnt by the fire get deposited as "āma". Āma can be the excess fat, the VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) that clog the arteries, the white coating on the tongue which stifles one's appetite or anything that is not metabolized and causes the body to be sluggish and further worsens the diseased state. Excess fire, called "Teekshna agni", at the same time, can be dangerous too. It can give rise to inflammation, gastric ulcers etc. Irregular fire, called "Vishama Agni" is a characteristic of Vata imbalance and can also cause problems. The goal, according to ayurveda, for maintaining good health is to have a balanced fire, known as "Sama Agni". The next two sections give an overview of Hatha Yoga and why an emphasis is placed on the kindling of this fire in Hatha Yoga.
3) Hatha Yoga - a overview
The word Hatha (pronounced "Ha-ta") literally means force. It is a form of yoga that was practiced by the people of the Nath sampradaya (tradition) dating back to Matsyendrath and Goraknath in the 10th and 11th centuries CE. An extensively researched book and videos on the history of Hatha Yoga by Dr. James Mallinson of the SOAS University of London are given in the references section below. A lot of emphasis is placed in Hatha Yoga on internally cleansing the body using kriyas and tapas (including asana practice) to make it suitable for meditation.
The system of yoga taught by T. Krishnamacharya to his students in the Mysore palace, and later popularized by his students K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, is characteristic of Hatha Yogic practices. One who has practiced the Ashtanga system of Yoga, especially, would relate to the term "force" because there is nothing easy about the sequence of asanas in that system. Later on, especially in the 20th century, some people reinterpreted the word "Hatha" to mean "balance between the sun and the moon" and softened the notion with the idea of gaining more popularity and not scaring away lay people by drawing attention to the extreme austerities practiced by the Nath people.
It is to be noted that the term asana defined by Patanjali and the simple seated asanas mentioned by the commentators of the yoga sutras, including intellectual giants like Adi Shankara and Vyasa, bear no resemblance to the intense Hatha Yogic asana practice taught by T. Krishnamacharya to his students in Mysore.
Murals of Hatha Yoga
4) The heat of Tapas (Austerity) in Hatha Yoga practice
All of the four popular texts on Hatha Yoga - Hatha Yoga pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Shiva samhita and the Yoga Rahasya- talk extensively on the tapas or the heat generated by the Hatha yoga practice to remove diseases in the body and cure the body of ailments.
(Gheranda Samhita 1.8)
B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrating Yogi Dandasana, a difficult asana, with ease. Hatha Yoga is characterized by tapas (austerity) to generate heat to destroy impurities in the body
4.1) The Ujjayi breath
The first of the two components that are commonly used in asana practice to produce the internal heat is the Ujjayi breath. To emphasize its importance, Gheranda Samhita (5.67) says that "to destroy decrepitude and death one should practice Ujjayi".
4.2) The Mulabandha
The second component used to produce heat is the Mulabandha (the root lock). It is Not just all the hatha yogic texts that place a great deal of emphasis on the Mulabandha but AdiShankara himself emphasized the importance of this energy lock to raise the kundalini.
Prana and Apana give great success in Yoga when they are united by Mulabandha. (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 3.64)
The gastric flames shoot high when the apana ascends and comes in contact with the sphere of fire (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 3.66).
Then the gastric fire and the apana join the naturally hot prana, stoking the body's fire (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 3.66).
5) Practical implications
One might ask what some easily discernible practical implications of the aforementioned concepts are instead of just saying that the Agni burns impurities in the body and that the Bandhas and the Ujjayi breath stoke the Agni.
Viscerally, the way the Ujjayi breath and the bandhas feel when they stoke the Agni in the body is akin to a blacksmith's below as shown in this video. This is why in Hatha yogic practice such as Ashtanga yoga, students are encouraged to maintain a Ujjayi breath and engage the bandhas throughout the one to two hour practice. Students are also dissuaded from drinking water during the practice lest it should douse the Agni in the body. One can clearly feel that one's malleability and hence the ability to go deep into asanas is compromised when one drinks water or relaxes for a few minutes without engaging the Ujjayi breath and the bandhas.
Another practical advice with respect to maintaining the Agni in one's body is to ensure that one eats just enough so that one feels a light fire in one's stomach in the form of a mild appetite even after a meal. This is the ancient adage with respect to eating less especially when traveling in conditions where people could be subjected to illnesses, especially food and water borne.
In this article, a link is made between Ayurveda and Hatha Yoga on the importance of maintaining a healthy Agni in one's body. How Hatha yogic practices like the Ujjayi breath and the Bandhas stoke this agni is described with quotes from the ancient texts. Finally some discernible practical considerations are described.