yoga history & hatha yoga : 101x


Last week when I wrote the “Wait. What is Hatha Yoga?” piece, things got out of hand. My intention was to explain simply that Hatha yoga is all physical yoga, not a style of it. But that exploded. Hatha yoga has a long and complicated history, which has thankfully gotten much more attention in the last few years. I realized I should explain that Hatha Yoga evolved not in line with the tradition of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but in a break from it, about a thousand years later. I also grew curious about how Yoga now seemed to claim Vedanta and Advaita Vedanta as its own, though it was originally an unrelated āstika (school of philosophy).

Because I haven’t studied all of this in years, I’m dusty. I was overwhelmed because there is just so much information. It’s interpreted and categorized in many different ways and the contradictions can be difficult to piece together. There are literally two aisles of books on yoga, tantra, and astika at Columbia’s main library, the cavernous stacks where Ghostbusters was filmed. When I explained this overwhelm to one of my favorite people, the response? “You mean yoga isn’t just an activity?” Sigh.

It is also, sadly, something that doesn’t seem to interest you much. No, no. No guilt. Just an observation.

History is interesting and important to me. As your resident yoga expert, I think you should at least know that yoga is more than a physical practice. The physical practice (which includes kriya and pranayama as well as asana) is called Hatha Yoga. If that’s enough for you, you can move along now.

Though I’m not burning to invest too much time in this, I decided to go back to David Gordon White in attempt to sort it out. Because it wasn’t offsite and available for delivery at the nearest circulation desk, I had to go into the Ghostbuster stacks on my break. This is a wonderful but dangerous thing, as I have no small addiction to libraries. I went in for two books and left with nine.

And gorgeous, glorious books they are. One has old illustrations of the Hatha Yoga Pradapika. Another is a somewhat hilarious book by B.S. Goel on psychoanalysis and meditation from a very Indian perspective. One book, new (2012), American, by a somewhat familiar name, I almost didn’t take. In what felt like a fit of indulgence, I added it to my stack.


The next morning on the train I began reading it: Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga by Richard Rosen. The research distilled! My work done! (Well, okay, not quite.) Why hadn’t I heard of this book? Nevermind. I walked from train to café and read before class.

“Of course, Hatha Yoga isn’t the original yoga, the yoga school that preceded all others. That distinction formally belongs to the system outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, compiled sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. But traditional Hatha Yoga does precede and is the “original” version of what we’ll call modern Hatha Yoga, which began taking shape in the earl decades of the twentieth century.”

This is all on page one. Rosen explains some of what I began writing last week, that Yoga Āstika was codified by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, probably around 2nd century BCE (only a few scholars argue for a date as late as 200 C.E.). This is easily the oldest and most cited text on yoga. It is a text on Rāja Yoga and is largely about cultivation of the mind. The Sutras mentions physical posture (asana) all of three times, and only twice directly. The first, in Sutra 2-29, asana is mentioned as the third of the eight limbs of yoga, after yama and niyama. Much later, the Hatha Yogis would change this by bumping it up to number one. The second is Sutra 2-46, “Asana is a steady comfortable posture” (Satchidananda translation, p152). And indirectly in the third, “By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite [asana is mastered].” (Satchidananda translation, p152). All three occur in the portion on practice, chapter 2. Here Hatha Yoga is a path to Rāja yoga. Notice that all three refer to asana in its literal meaning: seat. For Patanjali, yoga asana meant sitting comfortably for meditation. It did not mean standing or supine postures. Asana means “seat” in Sanskrit.

The development of Hatha Yoga came about a thousand years later. The modern appropriation of the term hatha to describe a style of physical yoga strays from the traditional usage of the term. This likely came from the Sivananda-lineage schools, because unlike most others in the West, they practice (their interpretation of) Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga in addition to Hatha Yoga. When the ashrams and schools (e.g. Sivananda and Integral) practiced their fairly basic and relaxing physical Hatha Yoga, as opposed to their Karma or Bhakti Yoga, hatha yoga came to be understood as a style of Hatha Yoga as compared to styles like Iyengar or Ashtanga-Vinyasa. Not surprisingly, the other non-Hatha Yogas did not take off.

In India, the term yoga is most closely associated with the word dhyana, or meditation (or was until very recently). Unlike the general western concept of meditation, dhyana is not specifically body-oriented. It doesn’t necessarily mean seated meditation, nor does it necessarily exclude the body or Hatha Yoga.

When reading about types of western yoga, keep in mind that any physical yoga is Hatha Yoga, but it is sometimes used to describe a style of Hatha Yoga.

Next time, we’ll talk more about The Yoga Sutras and the development of Hatha Yoga.

Leave a Reply