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Questions and Answers about Hatha-Yoga,

Atma-Yoga, and Bhakti-Yoga

By His Grace Krishna Kirti dasa Adhikari

On September 24, 2006, Dandavats (http://dandavats.com) published an essay by Danavir Maharaj titled “Yoga Mart,” which criticized the proliferation of hatha-yoga-type methods of self-improvement within ISKCON. [Danavir Gosvami, "Yoga Mart," 24 Sep. 2006, Dandavats, 1 Oct. 2006 <http://www.dandavats.com/?p=1397>] In particular, he objected to the regular use of ISKCON facilities for such activities, and he especially objected to the teaching and practice of “gymnastic” and “meditational” yoga techniques that, prima facie, are things that Srila Prabhupada taught against.  Although Danavir Maharaja had not specifically mentioned any particular name for the yoga style, one yoga advocate/instructor presumed that Maharaja’s essay was at least in part if not fully directed at the type of yoga he espoused. This person defended his type of yoga as a harmless and productive method of preaching that is compatible  with ISKCON and Krishna consciousness.

Since that type of yoga does indeed seem to be gaining popularity among ISKCON’s members and enjoys some measure of institutional support from ISKCON, that type of yoga as an institution or a system of yoga and its underlying precepts merits a closer examination. This essay, in question-answer format, provides a closer look at this yoga. It examines claims made by the institution that promotes it, and it also provides constructive recommendations for how to best dovetail hatha-yoga with ISKCON’s core objectives.

Q: What is wrong with practicing hatha-yoga?

A: Nothing. Hatha-yoga is a bona fide system of yoga.  As a process of self-realization, however, it cannot be practiced in Kali-yuga.

Hatha-yoga is a bona-fide process of self-realization, but it cannot be practiced as such in the age of Kali. It cannot be practiced in urban settings; it cannot be practiced for just an hour or two a day; and it requires strict celibacy. As a process of improving health and mental well-being, however, it may be practiced in Kali-yuga. The Bhagavatam, which was compiled especially for the age of Kali, says that practicing hatha-yoga can improve one’s physical and mental health: “by practicing hatha-yoga, pranayama and so forth one should counteract sufferings due to the body and mind.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam, 7.15.24 trans.]  In Kali-yuga, hatha-yoga may be practiced to improve physical and mental health but not for self-realization.

Q: Isn’t Atma Yoga just hatha-yoga by another name?

A: Atma Yoga is promoted as a process of self-realization, not merely as a means of improving health.

The flash video introduction on the Atma Yoga website states that Atma Yoga is meant to be “a continuation of your journey back to your original soul nature.”

The purpose of this yoga class is to improve your experience of life. Atma-yoga does this by drawing on an ancient science of the body, mind, and soul. The essence of the science is that you are not your body, or your mind. You are, in fact, a soul. The soul is your eternal self; it has three characteristics: always confident, unimaginably wise, and blissfully happy. This yoga class is meant to be a continuation of your journey back to your original soul nature. ["Welcome to Atma Yoga," Atma Yoga, flash video presentation, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/]

The home page itself states that Atma Yoga was “created” to help people seeking a spiritual experience not attainable through practicing hatha yoga in an urban setting.

“Most yoga classes will be beneficial for the body and mind but does little for the soul that is still craving for the ultimate experience. It is for these mature souls that ATMA YOGA was created.”

“Atma Yoga provides a set of principles and practices for a holistic total yoga lifestyle for the modern yogi and urban mystic. Many other yoga systems were designed to be practiced in solitude, in isolation, or as an exclusive engagement in order to obtain the complete benefits. Yoga practices based on these systems may be able to offer partial benefits, such as increased health and physical well being, but in a modern urban context these systems cannot deliver the profound benefits that are the true goal of Yoga practice.”  [Atma Yoga Philosophy," Atma Yoga, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/]

Atma Yoga is “hatha-yoga plus,” it “raises the understanding of Yoga above the valuable but incomplete conception of Hatha Yoga alone.” ["Atma Yoga Philosophy," Atma Yoga.] Atma Yoga is a newly created means of self-realization that differs from hatha-yoga.

Q: Why can’t hatha-yoga be used as a means of attracting people to Krishna consciousness?

A: Hatha-yoga may be used to attract people to Krishna consciousness, just not as a method of self-realization.

Because hatha-yoga and other processes of self-realization based on astanga-yoga, or mystic yoga, are indirect methods that are virtually guaranteed not to work in Kali-yuga, people will be lead to misidentify them as spiritually beneficial. And since much of Atma Yoga is based on such methods and is presented as a means of self-realization, there is an element of deception involved.  From the start, beginning students of Atma Yoga who are not already devotees will be under the mistaken impression that the mystic yoga process can yield tangible, spiritual benefit for them.  Of course, there is no ill intent on the part of those teaching the course, and the locus of the misunderstanding is with the students. Yet because Atma Yoga is promoted as a derivative of the mystic yoga process, it will necessarily perpetuate inauthentic notions of self-realization that students will later need to “unlearn” if they want to make further spiritual progress.

However, just as vegetarian cooking classes have attracted many people to Krishna consciousness, hatha-yoga taught as a means of staying healthy can similarly attract people to Krishna. The way it works is that it first establishes teacher-student relationships. Those relationships lead to friendships, which in turn leads to some students taking interest in other aspects of their devotee teacher. On account of their association with a devotee, some of them eventually become devotees. Furthermore, there is no element of deception involved: students came to learn vegetarian cooking, and on account of sadhu-sanga they become interested in bhakti-yoga. There was no change-up, no use of bait-and-switch. In the same way, teaching hatha-yoga as a means of staying healthy rather than as a means of self-realization is a superior way of using hatha-yoga to bring others to Krishna consciousness.

Q: If Atma Yoga teaches both hatha-yoga and bhakti-yoga together, what is wrong with that?

A: Atma Yoga teaches some things that both hatha- and bhakti-yoga teach against.

Atma-yoga is a process of self-realization based in part on the process of mystic yoga and promoted as suitable for practice in an urban environment. According to the Atma Yoga website, “Atma Yoga provides a set of principles and practices for a holistic total yoga lifestyle for the modern yogi and urban mystic.” ["About Atma Yoga," Atma Yoga, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/]

However, as per our shastras and acharyas, hatha-yoga and other related methods cannot be successfully practiced in an urban environment. Srila Prabhupada frequently and specifically stated that the mystic yoga system cannot be practiced in cities.

In some of its techniques, Atma Yoga has introduced a sexual dimension that both the hatha- and bhakti-yoga schools disapprove of. One such example found in Atma Yoga promotional literature is “Relationship Yoga,” which is supposed to be for unmarried people:

Are you single? Would you like to make your self more attractive to your future partner? This intensive four part workshop will change the way you look at your self and the way others look at you. Based on the irreducible facts of your divine nature and using Vedic practices exclusive to Atma Yoga, this program will rewire you for love from the inside out. ["Relationship Yoga," Atma Yoga, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/relation.html]

Another example of unauthorized mixing of yoga and sexuality is what the Atma Yoga website calls “Soul Mate Yoga”:

This event is based on the goal of giving married couples a highly sattvic way to share intimacy and affection. It is a rare yogic technology that can be used by couples as a way to create a deeper connection without having to rely on sexual contact. It combines partner asanas, pranayamas, and meditations. Duration 4 hours (for married couples or couples with a life long commitment)[ "Teacher's Training," Atma Yoga, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/teacher'straining.html]

If you and your loved one have been looking for a way to take your relationship to a new dimension this is the night that will do it. Dress romantic casual; be prepared to do some light physical yoga. This event is exclusively for couples who already have a life long commitment. ["Soul Mate Yoga," Atma Yoga, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/soulmate.html]

Notable phrases include “dress romantic casual” and “couples who already have a lifelong commitment”; being married appears to be optional. And certainly, yoga was never meant to “rewire” us “for love.” Both hatha- and bhakti-yoga reject such practices and reject theories that permit these practices.

If neither the hatha- or bhakti-yoga schools accept these theories and corresponding practices, then where else could they come from? One plausible source is the New Age movement. “New Age” thinking is progressive, and, as per the “New” in its name, New Age practices are regarded as “new,” “improved.” Atma Yoga itself is promoted as a new creation, yet somehow traditional—an upbeat blend of different yogas that has been long overdue.

New Age philosophies and practices also tend to be open to sexual relationships and sexual conduct that hatha- and bhakti-yoga reject.  The terms “Relationship” and especially “Soul Mate” are familiar New Age idioms, and their use in labels like “Relationship Yoga” and “Soul Mate Yoga” are consistent with how other overtly New Age practices describe and use them. As they are presented on the Atma Yoga website, “Relationship Yoga” and “Soul Mate Yoga” reflect New Age redefinitions of acceptable sexual conduct.

Atma Yoga in some of its important practices bears a strong resemblance to other New Age precepts and practices not accepted in traditional yoga systems, and it apparently embraces some measure of New Age sexual openness. Atma Yoga is an eclectic mixture of different yoga systems with a distinct New Age influence.

Q: But many people have come to Krishna consciousness because of practicing Atma Yoga. If we are to judge something by its result, then how is this not a sure sign that Atma Yoga is bona fide?

A: Instead of Atma Yoga, sadhu-sanga can also account for their transformation.

According to the shastras and the acharyas, sadhu-sanga is one of the most effective means of purification. Since Vaisnavas teach Atma Yoga, it is more likely that conversions to the bhakti-marga occurred because of association with Vaisnavas than because of practicing Atma Yoga.

Interestingly enough, devotee practitioners of psychotherapy have made claims about helping others that are virtually identical to those made by advocates of Atma Yoga. These devotee practitioners of psychotherapy have claimed that their techniques and programs, most notably the Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars, help their clients become more sattvic, more in touch with their true selves, and remove negative influences that adversely affect their material and spiritual lives.

Reactions from students of Atma Yoga and reactions from participants in the Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars are also virtually identical. Here is a testimonial, second hand, about Atma Yoga:

We had an amazing magical Mantric Tantric in Detroit. Everybody was moved, changed, exhilarated, and several said they floated out of the room. After an eight hour day of chanting mantras with a partner you would be “exploding with love…” as one participant described it. ["Detroit Mantric Tantric - a sweet success," 8 Dec. 2003, Atma Yoga, 30 Sep. 2006 http://www.yogamandir.com/Blog/200312.html]

Compare this with the below testimonial from a participant in the Vaisnava Life Skills/Personal Transformation Seminars:

The transformation which took place within each and everyone is the most intense and amazing thing I’ve ever seen or experienced. You could really perceive different manifestations and qualities of the soul coming out, qualities which had been hidden for so long. . . . I experienced myself as simply a spirit soul full of joy, life, strength and peacefulness. For the first time in my life I was “resting in myself” in a way which I have never experienced before. ["Vaisnava personal transformation seminar," 22 May 2004, Jagannath's Chakra, 30 Sep. 2006 http://chakra.org/announcements/eventsMay22_04_02.html]

From these two testimonies, it could be surmised that applied psychotherapy produces the same effects as Atma Yoga, and Atma Yoga produces the same effects as applied psychotherapy. That these two approaches to personal well-being—Atma Yoga and psychotherapy—are very different from one another yet make virtually identical claims and produce equally fantastic testimonials goes far to discredit both approaches.

Because it is the verdict of shastra, which is not subject to the uncertainties of direct perception and emotion, sadhu-sanga is the most likely explanation for the spiritual advancement of people who come to Krishna consciousness through programs like Atma Yoga.

Q: Should we just give up hatha-yoga and pretend that the millions of people interested in practicing hatha-yoga is not a big preaching opportunity?

A: No. We need devotees who are expert in hatha-yoga and who can teach it to these millions of people.

Hatha-yoga is an important aspect of Vedic culture, and promoting Vedic culture wherever possible is always beneficial for preaching.  Teaching hatha-yoga also happens to be an honest livelihood.  Hatha-yoga taught within boundaries acceptable to our parampara, that is, for physical and mental health, means that it is being taught without an element of deception.  Because being straightforward is generally the best policy, and people generally appreciate straightforwardness, presenting hatha-yoga on its own merits rather than accommodating unnecessary deceptions will most likely produce the best results.

For the same reason our cooking classes have been so successful, devotees who teach hatha-yoga according to this strategy will provide an opportunity for others to develop friendships with sadhus.  Sadhu-sanga is a potent impetus to make further spiritual advancement and seriously take up bhakti-yoga, and students who come to Krishna consciousness on account of such a strategy will have the additional benefit of not having to unlearn inauthentic notions and methods of self-realization.

One practical and very important consideration we must uphold is that hatha-yoga must not be practiced or promoted on ISKCON property or supported by the institution.  This also includes advertising for hatha-yoga courses on ISKCON websites.  In his commentary on the Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, Srila Prabhupada has said,

The heart must be cleansed of all material motives brought about through fruitive work, speculative knowledge, the mystic yoga system and so many other forms of so-called meditation. . . . All these activities are against the natural growth of spontaneous love of Godhead. As soon as these are present within the heart, the heart should be understood to be unclean and therefore unfit to serve as Krishna’s sitting place. [Sri Caitanya-caritamrita. Madhya-lila 12.135 Purport]

On the authority of the parampara, Srila Prabhupada wanted his own institution to teach only bhakti-yoga.  He did not want us offering or recommending other methods of self-realization that are themselves anarthas that must be cleansed from the heart.  As followers of Srila Prabhupada, we should remain faithful to his plainly stated instructions.

Devotees who want to teach hatha-yoga should do so as householders, outside of the property and institutional boundaries of ISKCON, and within the limits prescribed by our parampara in order to give people interested in hatha-yoga a chance to associate with genuine sadhus and thereby make spiritual advancement unhindered by speculative philosophies and inauthentic spiritual techniques.

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