Over the past 20 years a myriad of different names for the many ways of approaching a Yoga practice have arisen. This plethora of titles has partly come about from the industrialisation of Yoga and partly to indicate that some styles differ from the most well known names in Yoga; Iyengar Yoga, Astanga Yoga and Hatha Yoga.
Most people with a bit of Yoga knowledge will be able to get a flavour of what to expect if they see a class with one of these names advertised. Iyengar Yoga will be precisely lined up postures with lots of stretching and holding the best shape you can, Astanga Yoga will be a class featuring salutation-style sequences with postures in between which are presented in a specific order and possess clearly defined parameters. Hatha Yoga is, well, it could be, a kind of gentle, soft class. It could be just Omming and breathing and maybe some stretches. What happens in a Hatha class will depend quite a lot on the character and personality of the teacher and the range of influences they have encountered on their journey.
Hatha Yoga as a name in our modern world benefits from being a little vague- it’s not subject to copyrighted limitations and provides Yoga teachers without a definite tradition a certain amount of free licence. It seems however to have been adopted as the name of choice for the more gentle, accessible classes. This, however, is very much at odds with the origins of Hatha Yoga.
The word Yoga is one of the most challenging to define in modern language- in the Monier Williams Sanskrit/English dictionary ‘Yoga’ has one of the longest entries with dozens if not a hundred possible interpretations and uses for the word! This vastness of its potential use is more than likely due to the evolutionary journey Yoga as a word has been on. It’s meaning has been influenced by the history and politics of India over a very long time. Some of the meanings are agricultural in origin (to yoke oxen), some military (to put on armour), some originate from spectacle or show (a magical trick). What they all have in common is that they agree Yoga refers to a process of bringing together two things into a relationship.
The legendary sage Patanjali made an excellent job at clarifying and pinning down one of the meanings of Yoga. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras appeared sometime in the period around 200 AD and place the word Yoga at the heart of a philosophical system. This system has a single goal; to create a peacefulness in the mind so that the true nature of the Self can be perceived. The relationship between Cit (a personal aspect of mind) and Purusa (essential Self) is only possible if all disturbances from ‘stuff’ in the mind can be removed.
As Yoga’s goal concerns itself with reconciling subtle aspects of the mind and the Self these aspects have to be treated with appropriate subtlety. It’s not possible to bring these subtle things together to create the relationship, a process of clearing away the obstacles to their fragile reunion is the definition of Yoga as a practice. Patanjali focused his treatise mainly on how to engage with processes in the mind. He suggested that the process of clearing space for peacefulness starts in the world outside of us with addressing our attitudes and habits. He mentions the body, briefly, recognising that without a comfortable body the mind will never be at peace so habitual care for the body is a small but integral element of the Patanjali Yoga Philosophy.
Over the course of the next 1000 years the evolution of Yoga continued. The importance of the body in pursuing of the subtle fruits of Yoga had clearly changed in its level of priority. The goal of Yoga remained unchanged, but the method of getting there had changed quite a lot. The era of the Hatha Yogis heralded a different feeling in the way Yoga was approached. Hatha Yoga’s primary text is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This is, in essence, a manual for living the life of a Yogi. By the time it is compiled the collection of practices it purports is pretty comprehensive. It covers everything from where to live, how your house should be set up, what to eat, what time to get up, what to do when you get up, how to move, what to sit on, how to sit, how to breathe from dawn till dusk. It also explains how to gradually build up the intensity of these daily viagrafreesample disciplines until the goal of Yoga (that peaceful state in the mind) is almost an inevitable consequence. It states at various points ‘do this and you will succeed’.
It seems logical to think that perhaps over time dedicated practitioners found working with the mind really hard. They discovered that if you work with the inherent physicality of the body and the breath tangible changes are likely and these steps support in a positive direction of movement towards the goal.
Another important aspect of the Yoga sutras which is emphasised by Hatha Yoga is dedication. To reach the goal it’s important to keep practicing the steps necessary to get to the goal. Hatha Yoga provides a lots of supportive ideas of things to do which you can practice and see improvement around- this helps with keeping the goal in sight. As the goal of Yoga is subtle there are no markers or obvious ways to tell how your subtle mind stuff is evolving and it’s very easy to give up if you feel you’re not getting anywhere! The physical practices of the Hatha Yogi give tangible support.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika provides more specific instructions of what to do to make the body more comfortable- exercises that aid digestive transit are an important feature. Purification of the entire physical system is seen as an essential part of creating the circumstances for a pure and uncluttered mind.
Yoga practices in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika start off quite challenging and can get very intense and extreme. There are practices for clearing excess of anything in the body; mucus, fat and bile for example. There are a large number of cleansing practices recommended including various types of nasal cleansing, abdominal ‘churning’, enemas, purging and regurgitation practices (using large quantities of saline solution) as well a large number of different breathing exercises all with their own special qualities.
The postures featured in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are hard- you need to be strong and fit to perform them. The breathing practices can be very intense with long periods of breath retention. There are practices such as kechari mudra which involves gradually cutting the frenulum of the tongue until the tongue itself can be folded back far enough in the mouth that it can be directed towards the sinuses. It is also documented that the ingestion of mercury was practiced by Yogi alchemists as it was considered to consume toxins from the body. These practices are not for the faint hearted!
It could be tempting to paint a picture of the Hatha Yogis as mad extremists (and if they really did eat mercury, some of them probably were) and to dismiss their intensity as radical or excessively forceful. However the text, as much as it states ‘do this and you will succeed’, also very clearly states ‘gently, gently’, and states quite clearly ‘this way is not for everyone- only start this journey if you are serious about where you want to go’. The Hatha Yogis knew they were offering an extreme lifestyle. They also seemed to understand the breath work was to be respected-after all slowing the breath down and holding the breath for a long time is essentially playing with the stuff of life itself. They may not have known the science of blood gas chemistry and the effects on the brain of too much or not enough oxygen but they knew enough to caution ‘gently, gently’.
I’ve read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika more than once- the first time I read it I felt utterly depressed. The level of dedication and the complete absorption into the Yoga lifestyle it suggested I would need to be able to consider myself a proper Yogi was just not ever going to be possible for a mother of 3 living in a semi-detached house in rural UK. However, when I read it again, and then again some time later having not given up and having ‘gently, gently’ continued on my Yoga journey I now feel Hatha Yoga of medieval times may actually have more in common with the gentle Hatha Yoga of our time than my first encounter with it lead me to believe. The person I am now is changed from the person I was when I started my Yoga journey. Obviously I am much older and many of the changes are natural but I know that Yoga practice has changed me. I am calmer, more capable, more resilient and I can say that I attribute that directly to the things I have learned from study both on and off my mat.
The goal of all Yoga is to fulfil Patanjali’s single goal; to create a peacefulness in the mind so that the true nature of the Self can be perceived. I would suggest that modern Hatha Yoga doesn’t deserve the slightly wishy-washy reputation it has. To find peace is a bold goal and to take the pursuit of seriously is still a brave journey.