The Report of a Personal Experience by Theos Bernard
My introduction to Bernard’s writings was in the late 1960s. I had already started practising Hatha Yoga and it was Bernard’s clear and detailed descriptions of an intense yoga practice that inspired me. His uncompromising search for the truth, regardless of the difficulties, his objective and totally grounded approach, tempered with an open mind free of preconceptions, convinced me of what Bernard described as a philosophy of life; an undertaking which required openness, skill and discipline.
His intention was “to test by personal experience the techniques of Hatha Yoga.” In doing so he traveled to India and ultimately to Tibet when he was 27-years old. Along the way he visited many Indian cities and learned yoga first hand from several teachers. He took notes and used those notes as the basis for a dissertation to obtain a PhD from Columbia University in 1943. This book is based on that dissertation originally published by Columbia University Press in 1944. At the time Bernard went to India in 1936 little was known in the West about the actual practice of Hatha Yoga. It was considered a mysterious and secret discipline, characterised by extreme physical practices leading to occult and supernatural powers. Bernard sought to test the truth of such claims. He concluded “…during my studies of the science of Yoga I found that it holds no magic, performs no miracles, and reveals nothing supernatural.” He adds, cryptically: “…’by thoroughly practising first the (physical) training, one acquires the Knowledge of the True.’ The training I have here communicated faithfully; but the ‘Knowledge of the True,’ because of its very nature, must remain a mystery.”
Bernard was no dilettante or weekend warrior when it came to Hatha Yoga. He practiced all the regular asanas, mudras, bandhas, and kriyas including many extreme and demanding forms. There are 36 black and white plates in the book showing Bernard demonstrating various poses. Those photos were perhaps the most famous ones seen in the West until B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga came into print in the 1960s. Bernard once stood on his head for three hours; he learned to swallow a surgeon’s gauze, four inches wide by twenty-two and a half feet long, to soak up the contents of his stomach (dhauti kriya); he actually cut the lower tendons of his tongue (khecari mudra) as well as taught himself to draw up water into his colon and expel it (basti kriya). Throughout the book Bernard has reference to the three classic yoga texts from the Middle Ages: Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Geranda Samhita, and Siva Samhita. He quotes from the texts and compares them with each other and with the instructions from his gurus. Relatively new translations of these works are available from the excellent Yoga Vidya series. The beginning question for the yogin is what is the purpose of yoga? The answer found as early as the Vedas is liberation from the delusions of this world (moksha). The practice of Hatha Yoga has long been considered the basis for that liberation. In Bernard’s understanding it is through asana (postures), kriya (purifications), pranayama (breathing exercises), and various mudras (seals or restraints) that the practitioner is lead to Samadhi. Bernard writes that he passes by “the theory of samadhi” to maintain his focus on “the more practical aspects of Yoga.” This is no doubt wise since samadhi, like the less esoteric experience of meditation, is preeminently a personal experience that differs with the practitioners.
It is worth noting that Bernard does not report on his personal meditative experiences. He does near the end of the book give a report of a trance experience under the guidance of one of his gurus. This is not to disparage Bernard’s experience; it is only to suggest that one should take the ancient texts and their promises of superpowers and everlasting life with that grain of salt that might be delivered into the great ocean of Brahman while understanding that yoga is–as Bernard emphasizes–first and fore most a practice, a physical and mental skill that comes only after a lot of hard and steady work, and that one should have no expectations beyond health and vigour–which indeed are reward enough.
Hatha Yoga, The Report of a Personal Experience by Theos Bernard is available from
Harmony Publishing ISBN 978-0-9552412-2-2