Review by Dennis Littrell from SoCal
The two best known English translations of Svatmarama's classical text on yoga from the Fifteenth Century are by Pancham Singh and Elsy Becherer. The former is 87 years old and the latter is a translation (with commentary by Hans-Ulrich Rieker) from the German, and is therefore twice removed from the original Sanskrit. Both books are out of print. Surprisingly there is virtually nothing else in English despite the fact that the hatha yoga teachings found in popular works, including B.K.S. Iyengar's celebrated Light on Yoga, are in no small part based on Svatmarama's text.
Brian Dana Akers brings us a new translation set with the English following the Sanskrit verse by verse. His style is straightforward, clear and elegant. He does not make the mistake of trying to translate yogic terms that are really not translatable, e.g., "nadi," "prana," "bandha," "mudra," etc. Instead he invites us to use a dictionary of yoga. He also makes the sly suggestion in his brief but graceful Introduction that "the scientifically minded do some empirical research. In a peaceful country, in a quiet place, free of all anxieties..."
Well, I have done some small research and I can tell you that Svatmarama knows whereof he speaks. I can also say along with Akers that I do not recommend some of Svatmarama's practices, (some of the "cleansing" mudras are unnecessary today; indeed they are dangerous) and clearly the old master exaggerates. However, his intention was not hyperbole. He spoke instead in what is called an "intentional language" that would guide teachers and advanced practitioners without confusing or revealing too much to beginners. This way of speaking is also called samdhya-bhasha ("twilight language") according to Georg Feuerstein. Thus a practice that allows one to become "young, even if old" may be distinguished from another practice that "destroys death," which in turn may be distinguished from one which leads to the place where "time is not."
Even though I first encountered the text almost 25 years ago and have read it several times, I did indeed find a dictionary helpful. I used Georg Feuerstein's definitive The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga (1997), but could have also used an English-Sanskrit dictionary to explore the more secular meanings of some words, which might have given me a better feel for some of the nuances of expression used by Svatmarama. To really appreciate Svatmarama's text perhaps this from Feuerstein might be helpful: "Language has the curious capacity to both disclose and veil the truth, and since ancient times the masters of India's spirituality have been especially sensitive to the possibilities and the limitations of linguistic communication." (Opus cited, p. 167) Rather than throw himself into the briar patch of Svatmarama's expression, Akers has wisely stepped to the side and let the text speak for (and against) itself.
But what is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika? It is simply a course in how to obtain samadhi, or liberation or freedom from the pairs of opposites that dominate our lives. It begins with asana and pranayama and ends with transcendence. All of the postures so familiar to us, and all of the breathing exercises have but one purpose: meditation leading to pushing aside the veil of ignorance that characterizes ordinary existence. It takes a long time to get there. The "empirical research" that Akers recommends will be a project of years (unless of course one is particularly gifted).
What is not mentioned in Svatmarama's delineation are the ethical and spiritual considerations called the yamas and niyamas that we find in Patanjali. I recommend that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika be studied in conjunction with Patanjali's celebrated sutras as aids to your practice. They have much in common, but there are some significant differences. Svatmarama makes no concessions to political correctness nor to social or religious considerations. His text is indeed striking in its terse and single-minded, even profane, ambition. Quite simply there is a problem: bondage to samsara. And there is a solution: hatha yoga leading to raja yoga leading to liberation.
Brian Dana Akers and the people at YogaVidya are to be complimented for bringing this text to the general public and for doing so in a most attractive manner. This is the book you want after you have finished with the popular texts.