Introduction to Tantra: Part 1


Tantra is a classical Indian philosophy and practice which is often misunderstood, both in India and in the West. It is a complete system for liberation which builds upon the idea that everything we experience is infused with the sacred.

One of the difficulties in understanding Tantra is that it is a system which emphasizes direct experience, rather than mere learning or accumulation of knowledge. Historically, it has often been kept secret, not out of a desire to keep it from others, but because of the possibility of misunderstanding it.

Specifically, Tantra involves working with something that is alternatively called Śiva or Śakti. These are often shown symbolically as deities, but they are actually principles. They are ways of describing the underlying Supreme Reality. Sometimes they are spoken of as if they are opposing poles or two principles behaving in relationship with one another. This is true on one level, but it is perhaps a bit more accurate to say that they are two ways of looking at the same thing. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to fully describe Supreme Reality and so we end up emphasizing one aspect of it. Depending on which aspect is emphasized, Supreme Reality may be referred to as Śiva or may be referred to as Śakti.

Supreme Reality is innately aware and conscious and this is what we call Śiva. The word Śiva literally means an “auspicious sign” or a “good omen.” It is the mark in our awareness when this underlying Reality is being experienced directly.

Supreme Reality is also innately energetic and creative and this is what we call Śakti. The word Śakti means “power” or “energy.” It is the sensation and expression of the dynamic pulsation of Reality.

Śiva and Śakti are often expressed as the masculine and feminine forms of the Divine. This has some merit, but it is important to recognize that this has very little to do with the gender roles of our social conventions. Biology is full of gendered expressions of life, for example, but even here very few of these expressions have much to do with our ideas about “men” and “women.”

Tantra argues that this Cosmic Reality can be experienced directly. The experience is not something which can be described very accurately, but it has great utility to one who is interested in knowledge of Self or any kind of inner unfolding. Aside from being a direct experience (we could say gnosis) of Reality itself, Śiva/Śakti makes the practice of meditation much easier since, when this force is coursing through us, meditative states come more naturally and sometimes even spontaneously. Tantra would argue that this Supreme Reality is our natural state, even that it is our true Self.


Śarīrakañcukitaḥ śivo jīvo niṣkañkucaḥ paraśivaḥ I:5

Śiva cloaked in the body is the individual soul, uncloaked he is the supreme Śiva.” – Paraśurāma Kalpa Sūtra

Tantra is a living tradition that requires direct transmission from a person who has competency with its process to another person who has prepared themselves to receive the experience. This is the initial transmission, which is called Śaktipāta, or “descent of Śakti.”  This experience awakens one to the Cosmic Reality and sets them on the path of developing this Śakti within themselves. One can only cultivate what one can recognize and this is why the transmission must happen through an act of Grace. This is why Tantra emphasizes the importance of a true Guru, or teacher, who has cultivated this Śakti themselves and can awaken it in others. We do sometimes receive some kind of Śaktipāta from circumstances in our lives, but this still would require a living teacher to properly align this in us.

Once, the initial transmission and awakening has happened, then the practitioner can find that power again and practice with raising it, projecting it, and absorbing it. This cultivation is what carries the individual’s inner development and where the various “techniques” of Tantra come in. The energy itself is still the primary focus and anything else is a mere accessory to this process. Rituals or specific formulae may or may not be employed, but at least meditation is a must to develop the focus and expansion of awareness necessary to work with this power.

The practitioner may also seek out initiation, called Dīkṣa. Initiation may be into a mantra, a practice, or a lineage. This is a specific kind of Śaktipāta that creates a powerful energetic link within the practitioner. This facilitates connection with the powerful liberated beings that came before, so that one can seek their guidance, blessings, and protection.

Within the body, the Śakti is often referred to as Kuṇḍalinī, meaning “She who is Coiled.” This indicates a kind of potential energy that must be awakened. The “coil” can be likened to an electrical coil. When electricity is run through a coil, it creates a field. The electricity is the awakening of the Suṣumṇa Nāḍī, or Central Channel. The “field” in this case is the Śakti, Śiva, or just the experience of Cosmic Reality.

Next we’ll look into the history of Tantra!

The Doṣas & Āyurveda

One of the components of Āyurvedic medicine is the concept of Doṣa. A Doṣa is a physiological principle that operates in our organism. Traditionally within Āyurveda, there are three Doṣas: Vāta, the airy principle of movement, Pitta, the fiery principle of transformation, and Kapha, the earthy principle of substance.

Every person has all three acting within themselves, but different people’s physiologies tend to emphasize some of these processes over others. If these principles are acting in a balanced and harmonious way then we are healthy, but if one or more of them begins to overstep its bounds then we will be on the path towards disease.

How do we recognize these Doṣas? Āyurveda explains that each Doṣa has specific qualities, called guṇas in Sanskrit, that it expresses. They are described in great detail at times, but the Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, one of the primary texts of Āyurveda, gives a nice succinct summation in Chapter 1:

तत्र रूक्षो लघु शीतः खरः सूक्ष्मश्चलोऽनिलः |

पित्तं सस्नेहतीक्ष्णोष्णं लघु विस्रं सरं द्रवम् ||

स्निग्धः सीतो गुरु्मन्दः श्लक्ष्णो मृत्स्नः स्थिरः कफः |

Tatra rūkṣo laghuḥ śītaḥ kharaḥ sūkṣmaś calo’nilaḥ |

Pittaṃ sasneha tīkṣṇoṣṇaṃ laghu visraṃ saraṃ dravam ||

Snigdhaḥ śīto gurur mandaḥ ślakṣṇo mṛtsnaḥ sthiraḥ kaphaḥ |

-          Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdayam, Sūtrasthāna, Chapter 1, Verse 11

It explains that the qualities of Vāta are: Dry, Light, Cold, Rough, Subtle, and Mobile.

The qualities of Pitta are: Oily, Sharp, Hot, Light, ‘fleshy-smelling’, spreading, and liquid.

The qualities of Kapha are: Oily, Cold, Heavy, ‘clay-like’, and stable.

How we see or interpret these qualities is part of the subtlety and assessment practices of Āyurveda.

Which qualities seem to predominate in ourselves? How do they affect our health and our lives in positive or negative ways? Which qualities are predominating in the foods that we eat? These are the kinds of questions that we would look to in Āyurveda.

Shakti is the Face of Shiva

The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, one of the more well-known Tantric texts from the Kasimiri Shaivite corpus, opens with the rather severe claim that the highest Reality is beyond comprehension and beyond any designation that we could give it. We don’t need to quibble about the implications of Quantum Mechanics or some of the other stranger discoveries within modern science to have a sense of the truth of this sentiment. One is reminded of the quotation by geneticist J.B.S. Haldine:

“The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

The argument being not just that we don’t understand Reality fully, but that, on some fundamental level, we can’t.

Now this might be rather distressing to those of us who dedicate ourselves to inner work with the supposition that we can “know” ourselves, but the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra offers us the fortunate caveat: though we cannot describe or really “understand” Reality, we can have direct experience of it and this can have a profound impact on how we prioritize what we do know and understand after that point.

In the terminology of the text, this Highest Reality beyond designation is called Bhairava. Bhairava is a name given to the god Shiva, specifically to the more terrifying and awesome form He might assume. In this context, this can be understood either as a kind of anthropomorphizing or as symbolic imagery. One can look at a picture of “Bhairava” the god-form, but that is quite a different thing from having a direct experience of the “thing” the text is calling Bhairava.

There are perhaps other discussions one could find oneself in about what it might mean to have this experience, but the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra, being a practical manual, is more concerned with addressing the method by which we might be able to actually achieve it.

Antaḥ svānubhavānandā vikalponmuktagocarā |

Yāvasthā bharitākārā bhairavī bhairavātmanaḥ || 15 ||

One experiences the state of Bhairava when one is entirely free of dichotomizing thought patterns.

So, if Bhairava is beyond all designations, comprehension, and even the contradictions of dichotomizing thought patterns of our limited minds, how can we possibly orient ourselves towards attaining It? In the words of the text: “what is the object of worship and how can it be worshipped?”

The text answers that the action or “power” of something reveals its nature. Fire is known by its light and its heat, by the fact that it burns. In truth, the “burning quality” of fire is not separate from the fire itself, but we sometimes describe it this way for the purpose of more easily understanding it. In Sanskrit, the word used for “power” is “Shakti.”

Śaktiśaktimatoryadvat abhedaḥ sarvadā sthitaḥ |

Atastaddharmadharmitvāt parā śaktiḥ parātmanaḥ || 18 ||

Just as power is not separate from the thing that possesses that power, the supreme Shakti is not separate from the supreme Reality.

Na vanher dāhikā śaktiḥ vyatiriktā vibhāvyate |

Kevalaṃ jñānasattāyāṃ prārambho’yaṃ praveśane || 19 ||

Though the power to burn is not separate from fire, Shakti is imagined to be separate from supreme Reality as a way to experience It.

Now, it may seem that we have merely substituted one problem for another. How exactly are we meant to experience Shakti, the supreme cosmic power of Reality Itself? Shakti is often personified as a goddess, or even “The Goddess,” but this anthropomorphizing might just cause more misunderstandings. The solution is revealed in the next verse:

Śaktyāvasthāpraviṣṭasya nirvibhāgena bhāvanā |

Tadāsau Śivarūpī Svyāt Śaivī Mukhamihocyate || 20 ||

Enter into the state of undifferentiated experience. Through this one identifies with Cosmic Reality and assumes Its form. It is said that Shakti is the face of Shiva.

The key word here is “Nirvibhāga”, which can be translated as “undifferentiated” or “without separation.”

Since this Power and this Reality are not separate from us at any time, it cannot be something “outside” of our ordinary experience. It is, rather, our ordinary experience without the overlay of differentiation and separation, just as intimate to us as anything else. Shakti is always present all around us, we are just laboring under notions of separation and distinction.

This verse does imply a practice of actively dispelling thought patterns of distinction and separation in order to achieve this state of entering into Shakti. As Swami Laksman Ju says,

“When you enter in the state of energy and leave your individual state (you have not to enter in the state of energy for always), you have to throw off the individual state and enter in the energy to enter in the universal state in the end. Because, unless you [throw] off your individuality, universality will not rise, universality won’t take place.”[1]

For some strange reason, the state described here has popularly been translated as “intense experience.” The experience of Shakti might end up feeling rather intense, but intensity is not the distinguishing feature and seems to imply situations or practices that could possibly be rather opposed to the focus and equanimity that would be required. However, the text does use this basis to justify a rather diverse array of practices, the descriptions of which occupy most of its verses.

I allow that it is often rather difficult to translate these concepts from Sanskrit to English and it might be that the use of the word “intense” here does help illuminate the meaning to some. My only hope is that this exposition clarifies some possible misunderstandings and doesn’t create any additional ones!

ॐ शान्तः शिवः शक्तिः

Oṃ Śāntiḥ Śivaḥ Śaktiḥ!

Om Shanti-Shiva-Shakti!

[1] The Manual for Self-Realization

Types of Samādhi


Samādhi  is the state of Yogic Absorption which is the culmination of the practice of Yoga. In the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali it is seen as analogous with the state of Yoga itself. It is a state of meditation where the mind is free of fluctuation[1] to the point of seeming devoid even of its own nature[2]. This can seem like a rather difficult thing to grasp, but Patañjali spends quite a few verses detailing the distinctions between different types of Samādhi. Aside from being able to document them properly if they do arise, they are useful to understand to gain insights into deeper aspects of how our minds function and how this functioning can be “hacked” in order to foster our spiritual development, achieve liberation, or even unlock the abilities of the mind to comprehend and influence the world around us.

Following the lead from Patañjali, we can say that there are 8 types of Samādhi. They are:

1.      SavitarkaConceptual gross level of awareness

2.      NirvitarkaNon-conceptual gross level of awareness

3.      SavicāraConceptual subtle level of awareness

4.      NirvicāraNon-conceptual subtle level of awareness

5.      Sānanda Bliss level of awareness

6.      SāsmitaPure I-sense level of awareness

7.      Asaṃprajñāta/Nirbīja“Seedless” or Completely absent of Fluctuations/Vṛttis

8.      Dharmamegha – “Cloud Raining Virtue”

There are two main subtypes of Samādhi. They are Saṃprajñāta and Asaṃprajñāta.

The first 6 types of Samādhi listed above are all types of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi.

Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi is a deeper state than Saṃprajñāta.

The final type of Samādhi, Dharmamegha Samādhi, is beyond even Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi.


Saṃprajñāta Samādhi

Saṃprajñāta Samādhi is Samādhi “with Discernment,” also called Samādhi “with Seed” (Sabīja Samādhi). This is when Samādhi is achieved through one-pointed focus on an object. It is considered to be “with Discernment” because it is accompanied by a kind of accurate knowing that provides us with wisdom. When we focus our mind in a still way onto a single object, then we are able to ascertain deeper truths about that object. The development of this discernment is said to proceed gradually, in stages.[3]

It is said to be “with seed” for two different reasons. The first is that it requires an object, a kind of thought pattern, or vṛtti, to coalesce around. Vyāsa also calls this an ālambana, or “support,” for the mind. So, it could be said that it requires a “seed” to “grow.”

It can also be understand that it is “with seed” in that it still produces new karmic impressions. Likely these will be beneficial impressions, but they still keep us on the ongoing wheel of karma. It is also notable that the creation of certain beneficial karmas is usually seen as a necessary precondition to eventually escaping the wheel. Sometimes this is likened to using soap to clean clothing. The soap is necessary to remove the dirt, but then the clothes still have a residue on them. They need to be rinsed after that to lose the residue of the soap itself.

There are different types of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi depending on how the mind perceives the object that it is focused on. These proceed into subtler and subtler aspects of how our mind can perceive objects. They are:

1.      Vitarka – Gross level awareness

2.      Vicāra – Subtle level of awareness

3.      Ānanda – The bliss level of awareness

4.      Asmita – The pure I-sense level of awareness.

This is further subdivided depending on whether the frame of mind is “conceptual” when it is perceiving. Conceptual awareness refers to when there is still the intermixing of the object with its name and meaning as well as the knowledge and imagination of the practitioner. “Non-conceptual” awareness is defined as when the memory is purified until the mind seems empty of its own nature and the object alone is shining forth.

A gross level of awareness refers to the physical aspects of reality. Samādhi with a gross level of awareness that is conceptual is called Savitarka and when it is non-conceptual, as understood above, it is called Nirvitarka.

The subtle level of awareness refers to the underpinnings of the physical reality that we experience. Here we can look to Sāṃkhya Philosophy for guidance. The most apparent aspect of subtle reality is the Tanmātras, the germs of sensory perception that allow us to encounter physical objects. These are Sound, Touch, Form, Taste, and Smell[4]. We might want to notice here that, according to this system, “subtle reality” begins with the phenomenological. It is not some distant otherworldly thing, but, being tied to the senses, is something closer to how we actually encounter objects within our awareness. Subtle reality would extend from there to the operations of the qualities of Nature[5]. It can become progressively more subtle to include the inner Intelligence[6] and the possible subtlety extends all the way to primordial unmanifest Nature itself[7].

Similar to gross level awareness, subtle level awareness can be conceptual or non-conceptual. This is referred to as Savicāra and Nirvicāra respectively.

When Samādhi is achieved with a subtle level of awareness that is non-conceptual, that is with a memory that is purified until the mind seems empty of its own nature and the object alone is shining forth, then the pure Self is able to be glimpsed. Achieving this Nirvicāra Samādhi is thus considered to be an important stage of development. It brings about Wisdom, knowledge that is “filled with truth.”[8] This special kind of knowledge is totally different from that which can be gained by reasoning or study and the seeds that it plants bring about impressions that wipe out all other impressions.

When even these impressions left by wisdom stop then all impressions come to an end and this is the state of seedless Samādhi.


Ānanda & Asmitā

Ānanda and Asmitā Samādhi are never directly explained in the Sūtras. Even Vyāsa’s commentary is curiously silent on them. Vyāsa merely explains that Ānanda Samādhi is free from Vitarka and Vicāra and that Asmitā Samādhi is free even from Ānanda. He says that even in those states, however, the mind is still focused on an object.

Hariharānanda, in his commentary, states that Ānanda Samādhi begins out of the feeling of tranquility and well-being that arises from non-conceptual forms of Samādhi (Nirvitarka and Nirvicāra). He calls it a kind of Sattvic happiness and says that it has the special quality of reducing attachment to external objects of the senses because we feel our happiness radiating from within.

Asmitā Samādhi is the Samādhi that arises when the mind starts to focus on the experiencer rather than the experience. So, the “I” who is experiencing the bliss of Ānanda Samādhi becomes reflected within the mind. Because this “I” is just the experiencer, it is free even from the experience itself. Hariharānanda is quick to note that though this experience is beyond even Ānanda, or bliss, that does not imply that there is a lack of bliss in this state. This is why there is no “Nirānanda” state of Samādhi.

Why would Samādhi on the I-sense still be considered an object-based Samādhi if the I-sense is not the object but the experiencer of the object? This could be understood in two ways. First of all, the I-sense is not actually the “I” or the Self, it is merely the inner Intelligence, or Buddhi, operating within us. The second reason is that though the experiencer has become the focus of this Samādhi, achieving this state still depends upon an object that is being experienced.


Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi

This type of Samādhi is entirely free of an object and so is free even from this discernment or accurate knowing. It is cultivated by a determination to be beyond all thought. In that state, only the latent “impressions” which are the underlying cause of thoughts remain and it is these impressions, when they become activated, that would take the person back out of this kind of Samādhi and back into the ordinary state of a fluctuating mind.

It is also called “seedless” Samādhi. We must take care to be aware that, though this form of Samādhi has no object, it is entirely different from “zoning out” or being asleep because the awareness itself is still fully clear and present even if there are no thoughts.

It is usually assumed that this form of Samādhi generally only happens after the development of high levels of Wisdom arising from the experience of states of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi. Without this, the kind of supreme non-attachment towards all thoughts would not be possible, or at the very least, would only be the result of a kind of ignorance and so not lead towards liberation.


Dharmamegha Samādhi – The Cloud Raining Virtue

There is a further designation of Samādhi that refers to a kind of liberated state that an individual can reach while embodied. This happens when even the complete omniscience that can come from the full development of discernment is no longer compelling or interesting to the individual. This type of Samādhi is called Dharmamegha because it is likened to a cloud that rains virtue, or Dharma. From this Samādhi all afflictions[9] and karmas end. The Knowledge included in the experience of Dharmamegha Samādhi possesses such a magnitude that everything else that can possibly be known seems minor.

With the rising of this Samādhi, the qualities of Nature have served their purpose and their constant transformations end. The state of Liberation is achieved and the Self abides fully in its own nature.



For the Divisions of Saṃprajñāta Samādhi, see Chapter I, Verses 17, 42-51

For Asaṃprajñāta Samādhi, see Chapter I, Verse 18

For Dharmamegha Samādhi, see Chapter IV, Verses 29-34

[1] See Chapter I, Verse 2

[2] See Chapter III, Verse 3

[3] See also Chapter III, Verses 5 & 6

[4] Śabda, Sparśa, Rūpa, Rasa, Gandha

[5] The Guṇas of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas

[6] Called Buddhi and in the Yoga Sūtras often referred to as Liṅga, or “mark,” because it is the first instance of manifestation.

[7] Called Prakṛti. In the Yoga Sūtras, it is sometimes referred to as Aliṅga, “without mark,” because of it pre-exists manifestation.

[8]Ṛtambharā,” See Chapter I, Verses 48-50

[9] Kleśas


Yantras are sacred geometric diagrams that are used in tantric practice. They could be seen as the visual equivalent of Mantras. They are used in rituals and also just as objects of meditation and contemplation. Different deities or powers will have different Yantras and every Yantra will have distinguishing features. However, there are some basic components of all Yantras that can be identified and understood.

Generally, Yantras can be understood as maps of the progression from subtle unmanifest essence into concrete manifest reality. The center of the Yantra represents the unmanifest and the very outside is the final culmination into manifestation. Yantras may be worked with by starting from the center and proceeding out, mirroring the process of creation, or they may be worked with by starting on the outside and working inward, tracing a path of return to source through dissolution.

At the center of the Yantra, there is a dot that represents the unmanifest essence that is called the Bindu. It is analogous to the pure puruṣa/prakṛti avyakta” principle of Sāṃkhya.

Outside of the Bindu, there are interlocking triangles or occasionally other pointed shapes that represent the creative forces. They are the underlying laws that allow for manifestation to take place. They are analogous to the buddhi or mahat level of the Sāṃkhya cosmology. Generally, upward pointing triangles are considered “masculine.” They orient energy from the individual into the Cosmic. They can thus be seen as dissolving. The downward pointing triangles are “feminine” and they orient energy from the Cosmic down into the individual. They are creating. The exact interplay between the two will depend on the individual Yantra. Some Yantras emphasize the masculine component and some the feminine and these components might overlap and interact differently depending on the arrangement.

Outside of the triangles will be a circle, which represents a unity or the infinity of possibilities that exist in this still potential form.

Petals emanate from the circle out in all directions and these are the first manifestations of subtle reality. They are often identified with the senses and other subtle elements of mind. So, this connects to the lower aspects of the Antaḥ Kāraṇa and to the Tanmātras. Depending on the individual Yantra, the number or exact arrangement of petals might vary.

Finally, the outside square of the Yantra is called the Bhūpura. It connects to the elements, the Bhūtas, and our final concrete manifest reality. The cardinal directions, which place us on this Earth are located in the four gates that are on each side of the Bhūpura. These are the access points to enter into the Yantra.


“This life is empty breath.

If I can hear one clear truth,

I’ll be fortunate.” – Lalla


“If you live on the breath,

You won’t be tortured

By hunger and thirst.” – Lalla



Prāṇāyāma is introduced as a discrete practice in the 49th verse of the second chapter of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Patañjali begins by pointing out that some āsana work must precede praṇāyāma practice, so that we have a stable and comfortable foundation in our physical body. This does not mean that’s necessary to perform any elaborate acrobatics, but just the ability to maintain a basic posture with the back straight.

In our comfortable and stable posture, we can begin to practice prāṇāyāma by extending and regulating the inhale and exhale. The breath is through the nose and the qualities that we are aiming for are slowness, relaxation, evenness, and smoothness. Gradually, we can extend the breath in this way and extend the pauses between breaths.

Yogic breath practices imply that there is some concentration of mind as well. The breath itself is seen as a cause for the concentration of the mind, so the act of each inhale and exhale bring the mind back to our focus and object of meditation. This should be done first with inhales and exhales, ensuring that the breath meets the criteria above and that some basic focus can be maintained, then we can begin to practice in the stops of the breath as well. The retention of breath should be seen as a close holding of the mind on the object as well.

“The object of concentration should be present in the mind during each act of inhalation and exhalation, or the inhalation and exhalation are to be looked upon as the predisposing causes bringing the thought of the object of concentration; thus union between the breath and the object of concentration has to be practised. When this becomes habitual, then the suspension of the movement (of breath) has to be practised. During this practice, the mind has also to be kept fixed on the object of concentration. That is, suspension of breath and the mind’s fixation on the object of concentration should be made as a single effort. Or the idea has to be entertained that by the suspension of breath the object of meditation itself has been held tightly in mental embrace. This form of suspension of movement of the mind, as long as the suspension of breath is maintained, indicates one real Prāṇāyāma.” – Swami Hariharananda, The Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali 258-259

When retention of breath is practiced after the exhale, it is called an external hold. When it is practiced after the inhale, it is called an internal hold. It can also be practiced at any point within the cycle of breath and this is called a stationary hold.

Holds can be measured by their location, time, and number. The aim is to make the breath long and subtle.


Location can refer simply to the depth of breath that is practiced, but it is usually take to mean where the sensation of breath is felt during the course of the breath cycle. Swami Hariharananda  recommends a pattern where we bring the sensation to the entire body during the inhale, felt especially on the skin, palms of hands, and soles of feet, and then to bring the sensation inward to the central channel or heart space during the exhale. He says this brings a sense of ease to the body.

The breath can also be inhaled into the belly and then exhaled out to a foot in front of the nose. This technique is taught in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra and is often taught by Dr. Lad.

Hariharananda argues that location can also be observed as a way of increasing subtlety of breath by imagining that the range of the exhale is shorter and shorter to the point where a fine cotton wool placed in front of the nose would not be disturbed.


Time refers to how long the breath is suspended. This can be observed by counting. Certain ratios can be adopted such as a count of four for the inhale and four for the exhale. We can also include the holds and count four for the inhale, four for the internal hold, four for the exhale, and four for the exhale hold. When the count is even in this way, it is called a samavṛtti prāṇāyāma, or even timing. If we practice with a more complex ratio, such as four for the inhale, sixteen for the internal hold, eight for the exhale, and eight for the external hold, then this is called viṣamavṛtti, or uneven timing. The length of the count can be extended and longer holds can be maintained, but the practice should always feel relaxed and easy to perform.

Rather than simply counting, it is especially effective to use a mantra for keeping track of the time of the breath cycle. For example, the mantra could be internal recited twice during the inhale and twice during the exhale to maintain a simple samavṛtti prāṇāyāma. This practice allows the mind to become fixed in the flow of sound, facilitating both concentration and the rhythmic timing.


Number refers to how many breath cycles are practiced. One could simply count, one could roughly keep track by practicing over a set period of time, or one could use a japa mālā to count repetitions of mantras or breaths.

Gradually through practice, the breath becomes slower and less perceptible, quieter and smoother.

Sometimes we use more complex and specific breath patterns for prāṇāyāma, such as alternating nostrils, but the practice can also be quite simple as well. With specific breath practices, sometimes internal engagements, called bandhas, or locks, must be employed to practice correctly. These can allow the suspensions of breath to be held for much longer. This is the means employed by Haṭha Yoga, the more “forceful” type of Yoga, where the stilling of prāṇa is used to still the mind. The softer forms of Yoga instead employ the gradually stilling of mind as a means of allowing the breath to become more still. Swami Hariharananda explains this by saying that focus and devotion bring about an intensity of joy that we get a strong desire to hold it as if in embrace and this will cause the breath to become more still on its own accord.

“Through practice of devotion to God and Dhāraṇā of the Sāttvika type, the intensity of joy that is felt in the innermost being, gives rise to a strong desire to hold it as if by an embrace of the heart, which producing a Sāttvika form of contraction of the nerve-centres may stop the activities of the Prāṇa. Just as in the process of Haṭha-Yoga the impulse of contraction is externally produced, in this process it is internally induced.” – Swami Hariharananda, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali p.262

Through whichever means, as the breath becomes almost imperceptible, it seems to disappear on its own. Here we can enter a fourth type of retention that is said to transcend internal and external.

In higher states of meditation, we can start to feel that even the movement of the breath is a disturbance to our concentration. When everything is quiet in our mind, the breath can start to sound like the loudest thing around. So, progressively making it subtler until it starts to almost disappear would be useful for that depth of mental stability.

This special fourth kind of prāṇāyāma can also be interpreted to mean that the movement of life force, or prāṇa, in the body can now be extended to subtler realms and not merely cycled inside and out of the body. The projection and absorption of this energy starts to make ordinary distinctions between outer and inner lose some of their import.

Through this kind of prāṇāyāma, the veil over inner light is thinned and the mind becomes fit for concentration.

Vyasa argues that there is no tapas superior to prāṇāyāma. It removes impurities and makes the light of knowledge shine. He says that the karmas which cause ignorance and prevent clarity of discernment dwindle away due to the practice of prāṇāyāma. This limb can be seen as an elaboration on the breath meditation that was mentioned in the first chapter.

The 10 Mudras of Hatha Yoga

Mudra can be translated as gesture or a seal or stamp. It is a way of holding and channeling prāṇa. We can see another kind of alchemical metaphor in it as the container that allows the transformative process to happen.

Many people think of hand gestures when they think of mudras, but this is only one kind of mudra. Hand mudras are called hasta mudras, the word hasta meaning hand. Just like how we can gesture with our hands in conversation, but can also gesture with other parts of our body or with our entire body, so other types of mudras exist. In fact, none of the mudras of the Pradīpikā are hasta mudras.

The other main types of mudras are kāya mudras, or full body gestures, and mano mudras, or mental gestures. Generally speaking, kāya mudras are the purview of Haṭha Yoga and its more physical orientation, while mano mudras are practiced within Rāja Yoga. The 3rd Chapter of the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā deals with the kāya mudras and the 4th Chapter, which discusses Rāja Yoga, deals with the mano mudras. Khecarī mudra, already spoken of as being the most important, has both physical and mental methods of practice. So, it is mentioned in both chapters.

The number 10 seems to have symbolic significance for the mudras as lists of mudras are almost always in groups of 10. Just as with the 6 cleansing acts or the 8 prāṇāyāmas, the number can seem a bit forced since there is some overlap between different mudras and one of them[1] has three very different variations with different names.

The 10 Haṭha Yoga Mudras are:

1.       Mahāmudra – The Great Mudra

2.       Mahābandha – The Great Lock

3.       Mahāvedha – The Great Piercer

4.       Khecarī Mudra – The Sky roaming Mudra

5.       Uḍḍiyāna Bandha – The Abdominal Lock or The Upward Flying Lock

6.       Mūla Bandha – The Pelvic Lock or the Root Lock

7.       Jālandhara Bandha – The Throat Lock or the Water Holding Lock

8.       Viparīta Karaṇī Mudra – The Reversing Action Mudra

9.       Vajrolī Mudra – The Diamond Mudra

10.   Śakti Cālana Mudra – The Śakti Churning Mudra

These Mudras are said to have been learned from Lord Śiva Himself and prevent aging and death as well as granting all of the eight classic yogic siddhis, powers or attainments. Because they contain layers of subtlety and are incredibly valuable when unlocked, they should be kept secret just like jewels. One should not speak about them in the same way that one does not speak openly about the experiences with one’s intimate romantic partners.

Before leading into the discussion of each mudra, it might be nice to compare this list with a different list that is found within Śrī Vidyā Tantra. Within Tantra, mudras are rarely physical practices and instead refer to subtle energetic shifts. They do have corresponding hand gestures (hasta mudras) that go along with them, but it is clear from their names that they have deeper meanings that relate to alchemical symbolism. These 10 mudras are:

1.       Saṅkṣoba – Agitation

2.       Vidrava – Liquefaction

3.       Ākarṣa – Attraction/Extraction

4.       Vaśaṃkara – Subjugation

5.       Unmāda – Intoxication

6.       Aṅkuśa – Repulsion

7.       Khecara – Skyroaming

8.       Bīja – Seed

9.       Yoni – Womb

10.   Trikhaṇḍa – Three Containers/Portions

Together, they tell the esoteric story of the stages of practice within a metaphor of cooking or distilling. The agitation is the cooking and stirring of the materials, which then causes them to soften and liquefy. From this, we can extract out the essence and capture it. This essence, just like distilled spirits, is intoxicating. This divine intoxication repels us from the mundane state of things and launches us into the “sky” or inner realms. Within this we become the seed of new creation inside the womb. The three “containers” refer to the divisions of the “Knower,” the “Knowledge,” and the “Knowing” or subject, object, and verb, the divisions which allow for phenomenal existence. Note that in this list Khecarī (Khecara here) is still included,  further cementing its preeminent importance.

Even when it comes to the more physical kāya mudras of Haṭha Yoga, there are still gross and subtle levels to their practice. The outward physical posture or activity is just a way of signaling some kind of energetic shift. If this shift is understood on its own terms, then sometimes it can be effected without taking the outer form of the mudra. This is how one progresses towards Rāja Yoga. The practitioner is thus encouraged to try to “look under” the mudra and see the essence behind what is merely apparent about it.

[1] Vajrolī mudra, which includes Sahajolī and Amarolī mudras as well.