Sahasraśah santu hatheshu kumbhāh sambhāvyate kevalakumbha eva |
Kumbhottame yatra tu rechapurau prānasya ya na prākrtavainkrtākhyau ||
Let there be thousands upon thousands of breathing practices [pranayams] in Hatha [Yoga]! Kevala-Kumbha alone is considered best among them, in which the vital breath’s [cycle of] exhalation and inhalation cannot be deemed normal and natural [but] nor are they altered and controlled.
Again, a relatively straightforward śloka here, but there are a few points of interest. In the first line Adi Śankaracarya uses the rhetorical device of “there may be many, but only one is good,” which we have seen before. It should be noted, though, that this is the first time that he uses the term Hatha to refer to Yoga. What a richly loaded term Hatha has come to be! Does it mean forceful? Or is the word just a mashing of the words sun and moon together? Is it a type of Rāja Yoga? Or is it its own discreet thing? If you stay in the Yoga game for a bit you’ll hear all types of answers to these questions. [Before proceeding, a quick aside on the Monier-Williams dictionary: it’s great! It’s huge, expansive, but there’s one little catch to it. It was finished in 1899! Our knowledge of Sanskrit has improved since then and so the dictionary probably has a number of errors. But again, I’m an amateur, not a professional scholar, so it’s what I’m working with.] That said, the Monier-Williams dictionary pretty clearly shows the whole sun/moon thing to be so much hippy fairy dust. It defines Hatha thus: “violence, force; obstinacy, pertinacity… oppression, rapine; going in the rear of an enemy…” Oppression! Rapine! Going in the rear of an enemy! Jesus Christ. Maybe the current crises of abuse in Yoga have been written in the DNA all along. And people say words have no power… A few more definitions down (remember Sanskrit words can have so many meanings) we come to: “a kind of forced Yoga or abstract meditation (forcing the mind to withdraw from external objects… and performed with much self-torture, such as standing on one leg, holding up the arms, inhaling smoke with the head inverted etc.)”. There we go. That’s a little better, if not still just a tad discomfiting. As to the other question, is it Rāja Yoga or its own thing, I feel that the answer also lies in the above definition. If we agree that Rāja Yoga is the Yoga of meditation, and accept the definition of “a kind of… abstract meditation,” then there it you have it. Hatha Yoga is a way, a hard way, of doing Rāja Yoga.
In the second line Adi Śankaracarya tips his hand a bit and shows that while he knows about Yoga, he is a Vedantin first. More specifically, he is an Advaita Vedantin. Ultra briefly: there are six so-called orthodox schools of philosophical inquiry in Hinduism. [The Sanskrit term for orthodox is āstika, (derived from asti, which means there is or exists) and it means, literally, one who believes in the existence (of God, or other worlds, etc.).] Yoga and Vedanta are two of them. While Yoga, as we know, focuses on meditation and linking our consciousnesses with higher states, Vedanta focuses on filling in gaps left in the Vedas, which are the oldest and holiest of Hindu scriptures. Vedanta means the end, or better put, the fulfillment, of the Vedas. (For a Western analog, think Matthew 5:17, a passage unfortunately cited by fundamentalist Evangelicals and Catholics to justify their homophobic agendas.) In writing this treatise on Yoga Adi Śankaracarya, who was renowned in his life and remains so to this day as the greatest of Advaita Vedantins, is spreading his wings and showing off in a way. He’s showing that his knowledge has breadth as well as depth. But in this śloka he’s also beginning to infuse his Advaita agenda, and he continues to do so in the coming ślokas as well.
The word Advaita means “not two.” The philosophy, or more specifically the ontology, of Advaita proposes that there is only one existence, and it is all connected. All subject/object differentiation is just an illusion. This is in stark contrast to the existence proposed by Patañjali, which is quintessentially dualistic. A very common rhetorical device used by Advaita Vedantins is to say “neti, neti,” which means “not this, not this.” Why? Because to describe one’s self with a single descriptor, e.g. “I am a Miami Hurricanes fan!,” is necessarily to carve one’s self out of his or her connection with the rest of existence, e.g. Ohio State, Notre Dame, and FSU fans (blech!), and may so engender suffering. Although Patañjali Yoga and Advaita may propose two very different existences, their work is the same. Either way annihilation, or perhaps more accurately, a radically new and different conception of the ego is key.
And so in the second line of the śloka when Adi Śankaracarya describes the breath during Kevala-Kumbha as “neither normal and natural nor altered and controlled” he is saying “neti, neti.” A few ślokas ahead we’ll see a whole block of these constructions, but for now, the next few describe more symptoms or benefits which come from Kevala-kumbha. Stay tuned!