There are a lot of texts on Hatha Yoga, but none expound on the techniques with greater detail and clarity than Gheranda Samhita. Gheranda Samhita is a gold mine for a passionate Yoga aspirant. Called "The Foundation of Modern Yoga" by author and scholar Ashwini Aggarwal, it is one of the classical texts of Hatha Yoga. One of the most popular translation and commentary has been given by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati of Bihar School of Yoga.
WHAT IS HATHA YOGA?
HATHA is the combination of two syllables – HA & THA
HA represents the Sun, the Vital aspect, the masculine nature of one’s individuality governed by the left hemisphere of brain and the right side of the body, which is dynamic, logical, analytical, and controls mostly the conscious activities.
THA represents the Moon, the feminine aspect of one’s individual existence, governed by the right hemisphere of the brain and the left half of the body and is introverted, creative, emotional, and controls mostly the sub-conscious activities.
The distinction between the vital and the mental energy is not limited to the physical or the mental plane, but is also present in the pranic, intellectual, and emotional plane. Hatha Yoga is a classical science to balance the two for which it gives many techniques progressing from gross to subtle i.e. Shatkarmas to Samadhi. The overall idea of smoothening the flow of prana by balancing the two primary nadis (pranic channels) is to develop concentration and prepare the Sadhaka for a higher plane of existence and higher Sadhana.
HISTORY OF GHERANDA SAMHITA
As detailed as the text is, virtually nothing is known about Sage Gheranda. His mention of Vishnu is a couple of verses is the basis of speculation that he may have been a Vaishnavite (those who worship Vishnu as the Supreme Lord and adopt Vaishnava philosophy). It has been found that his teachings are known in the north-eastern part of India, but he is absolutely unknown in southern parts. 14 manuscripts have been found of the text with the earliest dated 1802 CE. It is most probable that this text is many centuries older as such knowledge was kept a secret in the olden times and passed orally from from Master to disciple.
CONTENT IN BRIEF
Sage Gheranda gives 7 limbs of Yoga or Saptanga Yoga. The popularly known Ashtanga Yoga is the work of Maharishi Patanjali. There is no rule to the number of limbs Yogic Science should be divided into - in essence the content remains the same: it is just that different Masters have segregated it differently. Sage Gheranda calls his Yoga "Ghatastha Yoga" where Ghata literally means an earthen pot and is a metaphor for the human body-mind complex. The seven limbs are:
Mudra and Bandha
Yamas and Niyamas (the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga) are not a part of Saptanga Yoga of Sage Gheranda. The text is a dialogue between Chanda Kapali who comes to Sage Gheranda for the knowledge by which he may attain the Highest.
Chanda Kapali means the one with a cool head - one who has patience and is not disturbed by the world around him easily. This implies that Yamas and Niyamas are already being practiced and the seeker is sufficiently established in them. Gher-anda means one who has come in contact with the core and is still in contact with the outside world. The book is divided into 7 chapters, one for each limb.
Chapter 1 - Shatkarmas
The cleansing practices or the Shatkarmas are discussed first by Sage Gheranda. It is critical to prepare the body for the practice of Asanas, Pranayamas and Meditation - the Shatkarmas remove all impurity and diseases in the body, increase it immunity to protect it from diseases in the future and also remove many psychological blocks in the mind. Six Shatkarma categories are given under which more than 20 practices are explained in great detail.
Chapter 2 - Asanas
Gheranda Samhita gives 32 asanas for practice which strengthen the body, make it stable and bring the body under total control. The asanas are also very powerful in strengthening the Pranamaya Kosha.
Chapter 3 - Mudras and Bandhas
In many cases, the Mudras and Bandhas are discussed after Pranayamas. Sage Gheranda gives 25 mudras along with bandhas and the technique to practice them. Mudras are powerful gestures to control the Prana and prevent it from dissipating. The Bandhas increase the quality of Prana and help in stimulating the Chakras, and bringing further control on the breath.
Chapter 4 - Pratyahara
Maharishi Patanjali mentions Pratyahara after Pranayama in his Ashtanga Yoga. It has been misunderstood by many a commentator that the limbs of Yoga are sequential - when instead they are like the branches of tree; each branch grows at the same time. Sage Gheranda believes that it is easy to awaken the Prana with the senses internalized and hence gives the technique of withdrawing the senses from the sensory objects before Pranayama. Prana is very subtle and deep concentration is required to experience it - Pratyahara provides the mind with the clarity to experience Prana.
Chapter 5 - Pranayama
Gheranda Samhita mentions _ pranayamas along with their techniques. One of the unique characteristics of Gheranda Samhita is that it includes Mantra along with Pranyama. Mantra chanting includes the dimension of vibrations which have a powerful effect on the Chakras and the mind and also allow greater control over the flow of Prana.
Chapter 6 - Dhyana
3 types of meditation are mentioned - Antaranga Dhyana or Internal, Bahiranga Dhyana or external, and Ekachitta Dhyana or One-pointed meditation.
Chapter 7 - Samadhi
Samadhi is the final goal - Samadhi is described in this chapter which can be also be drawn parallel to description of Samadhi in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Some techniques are given to enter Samadhi.