A Short History of Hong-Sau, the Energization Exercises, and the Aum-Technique
The Hong Sau technique, as most devotees know, isn’t a technique which Yogananda created some decades ago. It is ancient, and has been practiced by countless yogis for eons, just like Kriya Yoga and the Aum-technique.
Hong Sau, also, wasn’t something Yogananda learned from Sri Yukteswar. He learned it from some other yogi, and then included it in his Kriya-teachings. That is why other Kriya lines don’t practice Hong-Sau. What did Sri Yukteswar think about this new addition? In a letter to Yogananda, quoted in the Autobiography of a Yogi, he said: “Beholding your methods in chant affirmations, healing vibrations, and divine healing prayers, I cannot refrain from thanking you from my heart.” Sri Yukteswar certainly expressed the same appreciation for the Hong-Sau technique, otherwise Yogananda would never have taught it.
“Hong-Sau” is the Bengali pronunciation of the Sanskrit mantra, “Hamsa,” or “Hansa.” At least that is how it is usually explained. Or is “Hong Sau” maybe not only Bengali? Who knows how “Hamsa” was pronounced in ancient times! Swami Vivekananda once had a vision of ancient rishis reciting Sanskrit mantras, and said they sounded very different from the way they are chanted today. Yogananda writes in his Autobiography: “Ham-sa (pronounced hong-sau)…” In other words, he simply states that Ham-sa is really pronounced “Hong-Sau.” Was he a Bengali fanatic, or was there some deeper knowledge in him?
Hong Sau, we said, comes to us from a very distant past. “Hamsa” (Hong-Sau) is already to be found in the oldest of the Vedas, the Rig Veda (1550 BC, and earlier it was transmitted orally). It refers to the supreme Lord. It also stands in yoga scriptures for the Self (atman). Hamsa stems from the Sanskrit words “Aham-Sa,” which literally mean “I am He.”
Hamsa (Hong-Sau) is explained in ancient yoga scriptures to be the sound of the subtle breath itself: the entry of prana into the body causes the sound “ham,” the ejection of prana out of the body the sound “sa.” Therefore the body itself is thought to automatically recite this mantric sound 21.600 times a day. This spontaneous sound is widely known as “Ajapa Mantra” (unpronounced mantra), or “Ajapa-Gayatri,” (unpronounced Gayatri Mantra), or simply “Hamsa-Mantra.”
In his Autobiography Yogananda similarly states: “Ham-sa (pronounced hong-sau) are two sacred Sanskrit chant words possessing a vibratory connection with the incoming and outgoing breath. Aham-Sa is literally ‘I am He.’”
Yogananda described these mantric sounds as “sacred.” The ancient texts agree. The “Gheranda-Samhita” instructs to recite this potent sound constantly, to arrive at a state of exaltation.
“Aham”, when pronounced in mantric form as “Hong,” becomes a bija (seed) mantra, vibrating with the inhalation. Its vibration corresponds, as yoga treatises teach, to the ascending current in the ida nadi. “Sa” becomes “Sau” in mantric form, and vibrates with the exhalation, and with the descending current through the pingala nadi.
The ancient technique of “Hong-Sau” is meant to bring the yogi towards mental calmness, helps him to withdraw his energy inward, and to lead him naturally toward breathlessness. In breathlessness the twofold vibration of “Hong” and “Sau” combines into the single omnipresent vibration, Aum.
Several Masters and scriptures don’t teach “Hong-Sau,” but “So-Ham.” Again, in India some yogis teach the Sanskrit version “Hamsa.” All traditions need to be respected, but disciples of Yogananda should practice what their Guru taught. If his devotee thinks, “Maybe the official Sanskrit version, or the inverted version, would be the better way to practice,” well, he might simply lack a basic understanding of discipleship.
And if, on the other side, he thinks, “I must convert others to my Guru’s ‘better Mantra,’” again some understanding seems missing.
About the ancient symbolism of Hamsa/Hong-Sau: “Hamsa” is traditionally translated as “swan,” (even though literally it means goose), which in ancient Indian scriptures is the vehicle of Brahma, the Supreme Spirit. The swan is also said to possess the sacred knowledge of Brahma. The flight of the Hamsa thus symbolizes the escape from the cycle of samsara (reincarnation). The swan also lives on water but its feathers are not wetted by it, so similarly a “Hong-Sau-Yogi” learns to live in this material world (maya), while being untouched by all its illusions, temptations, and traps. With “Hong-Sau” we strengthen the untouched observer inside. (The soul is the observer, Yogananda wrote.)
As the symbol of discrimination, the white Hansa swan is credited with the ability to separate the true soma nectar from a mixture of milk and water.
A “Parama-hamsa” symbolizes the “supreme swan,” the highest of yogis, a liberated being. Yes, Yogananda wrote his title “Paramhansa,” and it seems we should honor his choice. “Parama-hamsa” could, for fun, also be translated as the “supreme Hong-So,” meaning “the supreme I-am-He.”
The Energization Exercises
In contrast to the anciently-existing Hong-Sau-technique, the energization exercises were Yogananda’s personal creation. He started (or “discovered”) them in 1916, as he writes in his Autobiography. In time he expanded them into a set of 49 exercises.
The energization exercises are his precious contribution to the world of yoga. But of course the principles of energization too are ancient (as are all true principles), and have been used by countless yogis in the past. In classic yogic terminology this method is called prana-dharana (concentration of prana), signifying the technique of projecting life-force (prana) into specific parts of the body, in order to restore specific organs, limbs etc. to health.
Yogananda, then, with the energization exercises, taught ancient principles in a new form, one might say. “People do not know what they have in these exercises,” Yogananda wrote. Done well (pulling prana into the body through the medulla oblongata through will power, and directing it to the body parts), they can perform miracles of healing, physically and psychologically.
The Aum Technique
The Aum-technique which Yogananda taught is equally ancient. Sound is one of the principal and oldest means by which yogis have thought to focus their attention. It is a practice of Nada-Yoga, which is a prominent teaching in the Yoga-Upanishads. The practice of listening to the inner sounds is called “Nada-Anusandhana” in yoga treatises. In those ancient texts the subtle sound one listens for is often called “Shabda.” The ultimate sound to be heard is called “Shabda-Brahman,” the sound of Brahman: “AUM.” The inner sound is said to bring bliss and knowledge, and is described as a boat which takes the yogi across the ocean of delusion, to the Absolute.
In several yoga scriptures, interestingly, different inner sounds were associated with the different chakras. As we see again, Yogananda taught ancient and ever-new wisdom. Indeed, could inner facts ever change?
The “Aum-board,” incidentally, which Yogananda recommended for the Aum-technique, can be admired on old Indian drawings.
“Jyoti-Mudra” (Light-Mudra), the technique Yogananda taught for seeing the inner light (“Bhagavan Jyoti”), is called in Yoga treatises “Shan-Mukhi-Mudra,” the ‘six-openings-seal.” It is referred to, for example, in the ancient “Goraksha Paddhati,” which explains it as the blocking of the ears, eyes, and nostrils with ones fingers: one covers the ears with the thumbs, the eyes with ones index fingers, and the nostrils with the remaining fingers. This Mudra, one reads there, is recommended for the manifestation of the inner sound. Yogananda taught it for seeing the inner light. Interesting! Well, if one thinks about it, he also taught that the Aum-vibration is experienced as both sound and light.
Maha Mudra (Great Mudra) too is a very classical yoga practice. It is said in the Goraksha Paddhati (see above) that it purifies the entire network of the nadis. And the most central Hatha Yoga scripture, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, says that Maha Mudra awakens Kundalini-Shakti, the “serpent power.”
The Point Between the Eyebrows
Lahiri Mahasaya wrote in a letter, quoted in the Autobiography of a Yogi: “He who has attained a state of calmness wherein his eyelids do not blink, has achieved Sambhabi Mudra.”
This particular Mudra (also written “Shambhavi Mudra,” meaning “Shiva-Mudra”) is one of the most important (and often kept secret) Mudras of Yoga. It involves steady gazing at the point between the eyebrows, trying to become completely absorbed in the inner “sign.” “Mudra” means seal, and Sambhabi Mudra is perhaps the most esoteric seal of all, known to saints of all religions (who are always depicted looking upward). It is a closure (seal) to the outward world, to become absorbed within. And Yogananda clearly described that secret “sign” which one sees in Sambhabi Mudra.
Interestingly, as one understands from Lahiri Mahasaya’s letter (printed in his handwriting), he taught this divine practice to be done with open eyes. Yogananda taught that half-open eyes or closed eyes are both good. The painting of Babaji is a perfect Sambhabi Mudra image, with open eyes.
Yogananda taught the ancient Sambhabi Mudra to be practiced at the end of Kriya or Hong-Sau, with deepest soul-devotion. Never end your meditation with techniques. Sit for a long time: “I will leave my finite mansion for my Infinite Mansion through the tunnel of the Spiritual Eye and breathlessness.”
Yogananda, one might conclude, is much more of a traditional yogi than is generally known, continuing a long yogic tradition. He taught central and sacred yoga techniques of ancient lore for modern men and women, for you and me.
Well, the important thing is to practice: banat, banat, ban jai (doing, doing, one day done)!