Ashesha-tapataptanam samashraya-matho hathah
Hatha is a sheltering hermitage for those continually afflicted by suffering.
Hatha is the tortoise that supports those completely engaged in yoga.
My first memory of pain followed an attempt to ride my tricycle down the back stairs to the basement. Alas, this was not my last memory of pain. In fact, upon reflection, pain appears to be the price of being alive—just part of the package of human existence. The yoga tradition recognizes three categories of pain that affect all of us: adhyatmika, adhidaivika, and adhibhautika. The first type of pain (adhyatmika) arises directly from imbalances deep in our bodies and minds—things like inherited illnesses and difficulties arising from vasanas (subtle karmic impressions), which include emotional injuries. The second type of pain (adhidaivika) stems from the environment—things like natural disasters: hurricanes, floods, drought, extremely hot or cold weather, or misjudging how to descend the basement stairs. The third type of pain (adhibhautika) is inflicted by other living beings—a mosquito bite or a punch in the nose, for example. These three categories—adhyatmika, adhidaivika, and adhibhautika—are collectively known as tapa-trayam, or the threefold pains. These threefold pains may be unavoidable, but the Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us that for those continually tapta (afflicted or distressed with pain), hatha yoga is a protecting sanctuary.
Svatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika ages ago, but we modern practitioners can substitute “inflamed” for tapta, which implies “burned” or “heated” as well as suffering. Now consider recent research around stress-related inflammation as a cause of many chronic diseases. My tricycle incident on the basement stairs resulted in a fat lip and a tender hot bump on the head, both of which subsided quickly. Inflammation as a response to physical injury helps heal the body, but inflammation arising from pain and “heat” on the mental and emotional level (think stress) is more subtle, and can be even more deadly in the long run. We now recognize that many chronic diseases like cardiovascular and digestive ailments, autoimmune disorders, depression, and even general aging are aggravated by or originate in the “inflammation” of the mind. This inflammation of the mind keeps the nervous system and other systems of the body off balance. Chronic low levels of inflammation simmering beneath our conscious awareness wreak havoc on physical and mental well-being over time. In essence, inflammation slowly erodes our inner strength and vitality. At a deeper spiritual level, clinging to life and to the roles we play, causes an existential pain and suffering—an inflammation of the whole being so pervasive we fail to even recognize it.
How does hatha yoga help? Svatmarama equates hatha yoga with a sheltering matha, a protective sanctuary from the misery of pain. A matha, sometimes translated as a “hermitage,” is a place for spiritual practice. This is a place apart from worldly concerns, and, like a monastery, a place of spiritual study and learning.
Hatha yoga, which includes rules of conduct and observances, as well as cleansing practices, asana, pranayama, and relaxation practice—is designed to relieve tension in the body, balance the nervous system, and gently withdraw the mind from its usual preoccupations. In other words, hatha yoga allows us to retreat to the peaceful matha that exists right in our own body and mind. Once we have stabilized and toned the nervous system and mastered reactive tendencies, the body and mind begin to heal. Although life at times might still be painful, suffering no longer defines our thoughts or dictates our behavior. We can then enjoy the next level of benefit from hatha yoga—as a support and foundation for spiritual practice of all kinds. How? That’s a story for another day.