The Goraksha Samhita
As far as we know, the title of the first ever written text dedicated to Hatha-Yoga is 'The Goraksha Samhita' and is also known under the title 'Goraksha Paddhati'. It was written 1,000 years ago by the sage Goraksha. Goraksha is the most well-known student of Matsyendra, the man who heard the teachings of yoga from the very lips of Shiva.
According to legend, Shiva, the God of the universe, decided to teach Hatha-Yoga. But to teach Hatha-Yoga, Shiva needed students. He looked around to see who was fit to be his student and his gaze fell upon his own wife, the charming Parvati. Since he didn't want anyone else partaking in his teachings, he decided to teach her the ancient techniques in the bottom of the sea. In the meantime, a fisherman named Mina caught a big fish. Unfortunately the fish was a whale and Mina was dragged overboard, falling into the mouth of the animal! The animal swallowed him and dived deep the bottom of the ocean.
At that very moment, Shiva was starting to teach his wife yoga and the goddess fell asleep. Shiva, realising that no one was listening to him, stopped. How could this happen, he wondered. Then suddenly he discovered that just a few metres away, someone (or rather something) was listening to him intently. It was a whale. Is it possible that a whale could be interested in Hatha-Yoga, he thought. He opened his third eye in the middle of his forehead, and he saw that there was a man in the belly of the whale. "Are you interested in what you have heard, sir?" asked Shiva. "I have never heard anything more interesting, Master," the man replied. "I would gladly give my life to hear just a little bit more." Shiva smiled. What devotion. This person is certainly fit to receive my teachings, he thought. And the great God taught Hatha-Yoga to Mina, a mere fisherman.
When Shiva finished, he said "You are no longer Mina, the fisherman. You are Matsyendra, mighty among men! The Sanskrit word 'Matsya' means 'fish' and the word 'Indra' means 'Lord'. 'Matsyendra' is thus 'Lord of the Fish'.
Shiva then returned home to Mount Kailash with his wife, who had awakened by now. The whale went to a nearby beach and opened her mouth, releasing Matsyendra. He went to a cave and practised yoga for 12 years in solitude, following what he had learned from Shiva. He is said to have reached enlightenment in his last year of practice. When he returned to the world, many people gathered around him to receive his teachings. Some of these people went on to become his close students and among his close students was Goraksha.
Matsyendra knew a lot but like Socrates, he never wrote anything down. And in the same way that Plato, Socrates' student, wrote more than 30 books, Goraksha, Matsyendra's student, wrote more than 30 books. Among these, only a few have survived the centuries and Goraksha Samhita is the only one that has been translated into English - thanks to Georg Feuerstein who translated it in his book 'The Yoga Tradition' (pp. 400-420).
As previously mentioned, many scholars including Mircea Eliade consider the Goraksha Samhita to be the first book on Hatha-Yoga. That doesn't mean that Hatha-Yoga was not practised before. In the Bhagavad Gita, a text written more than 1,000 years before, the main Hatha-Yoga practices are mentioned. In the Rig Veda, a text written more than 4,000 years ago, several Hatha-Yoga practices are also mentioned. In the Gita, Lord Krishna explains the phenomenon: "I revealed this everlasting yoga to Vivasvan, the sun - the father of light. He in turn revealed it to Manu, his son - the father of men. And Manu taught his son, king Ishvaku - the saint. Then it was taught from father to son in the line of kings who were saints, but in the revolution of times immemorial, this doctrine was forgotten by men. Today I am revealing to you this eternal, secret supreme because of your devotion for me and because I am your friend." (4.1-3).
Goraksha starts by describing his own book as "a ladder to liberation, a means of cheating death, by which the mind is turned away from pleasure (bhoga) and reunited to the soul of the universe" (1.5). For him, proper yoga has six limbs - Asanas, through which diseases are removed; Breath-control, through which bad karma is burned; Sense-withdrawal, through which we are released from all mental modifications; Concentration, through which steadiness is obtained; Meditation, through which a marvelous state of consciousness is realizsd; Ecstasy (Samadhi), through which we attain final liberation" (2.12).
There are as many postures as there are species of living beings, he says (1.8). But the first is said to be Siddhasana, the adept's posture, and the second Kamalasana, the lotus posture (1.10). For him the main purpose of yoga is liberation and the easiest way to reach that state beyond words is by awakening the Kundalini. "Like an ordinary door is opened by means of a key, the door of liberation is opened by means of Kundalini awakening" (1.51).
Once the yogi has a comfortable seat (Siddhasana or Padmasana) - the Sanskrit word 'asana' literally means 'seat', he should regulate his diet: "The yogi who wants to be successful in his or her practice should not eat too much" (1.54). He or she should then start practising meditation on a daily basis. He suggests a meditation on the mantra 'Om' or on the mantra 'So'ham' (1.83). When the mind is quiet enough, the yogi should then add the practice of Nadi Shodana, thus purifying his own nadis or energy channels. Here is how Goraksha describes the technique: "The yogi should breathe through the lunar nostril (left) and then, after holding the breath according to his capacity, expel it again through the solar nostril (right). Breathing through the right nostril, he should retain the breath and then breathe it out again through the lunar nostril. When he is breathing through the left nostril he should meditate upon the white disk of the moon, and when he is breathing through the right nostril he should meditate on the golden disk of the sun. By meditating on the two disks, the yogi's channels will become pure in three months" (1.96-100).
The human body is a replica of the macrocosm. The sun ('ha') and the moon ('tha') exist in us similarly to how they exist in the sky. The moon is thought to be at the root of the palate and the sun inside the abdomen.
When the channels are pure, the yogi should start to meditate on the chakras. He advises a meditation on the seven chakras with eyes open. In the Muladhara-chakra, the yogi should visualise the sleeping Kundalini as a snake. He should see her awakening, especially under the action of several mudras like Mulabandha. And he should then visualise the other chakras as clearly as possible, seeing the mighty goddess raising her radiant body higher and higher, piercing the knots one by one until she reaches the last chakra known as Sahasrara-chakra, the abode of Shiva. When the goddess is actually reunited with Shiva, an overwhelming light is produced in the mind of the practitioner. In that light he or she loses former identity as a mortal. "Like a wave merging with the ocean to suddenly become the ocean itself", the mere man or woman suddenly becomes the soul of the universe (2.86). Such an experience is sometimes called 'enlightenment' or 'Nirvana'.
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