In popular perception, Hatha Yoga is often reduced to a mere series of physical postures, a shadow of its rich spiritual legacy. While contemporary interpretations focus predominantly on flexibility and stretching, the original principles of this ancient practice offer a deep well of spiritual wisdom.
When you attend a Hatha Yoga class today, you probably expect a fairly gentle, basic yoga practice. Perhaps, a relatively slow-paced session with classic asanas, held for a fairly long time. Unfortunately, our modern understanding of Hatha Yoga is very limited.
As the world quickens its pace and becomes entangled in material concerns, Hatha Yoga calls us back to our inner sanctum. It serves as a poignant reminder that this millennia-old discipline is not just about physical prowess, but about unifying body, mind, and spirit in a holistic tapestry of divine awakening.
This article outlines the history, principles, and practices of classical Hatha Yoga. But before we dive into the historical facts, read this fascinating mythological story that explains how this discipline was passed onto humankind.
The Mythological Origins of Hatha Yoga
Matsyendranatha, a medieval Indian sage, is considered one of the first Hatha yogis. Hindu legends have it that as a baby, Matsyendranatha was thrown into the ocean because he was born under inauspicious stars. He was then swallowed by a fish where he lived for many years.
The fish swam to the bottom of the ocean where Shiva was imparting the secrets of yoga to his consort, Parvati. Upon overhearing the teachings, Matsyendranath began practicing yoga inside the fish.
After twelve years he finally emerged as a Siddha – an enlightened practitioner. Matsyendranath later taught Hatha Yoga to his disciples. This story is the origin of his name, Matsyendranatha, meaning “lord of the fishes”.
His most notable disciple was Gorakshanath, who became a driving force in establishing this discipline in India. Together, Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath are traditionally considered the founders of Hatha Yoga and authors of some of its earliest texts.
The History of Hatha Yoga
Although Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, over time, it branched off in different directions. One of these branches is Hatha Yoga, which gave more importance to the physical body, whereas yogic practices in the previous “classical yoga” period focused almost exclusively on meditation.
The earliest mentions of Hatha Yoga as a specific set of techniques are found in Tantric Buddhist texts, such as the Amrtasiddhi from the 11th century. Around the same time, early Hindu texts also started outlining techniques associated with this style of yoga.
The most important texts from this period are credited to Gorakshanath. He was supposedly the disciple of Matsyendranath, the original yogi who received his lessons directly from Shiva. The principles contained in those texts gave rise to what is known as “post-classical yoga”.
Classical Hatha Yoga
This period was marked by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most influential texts on this discipline. It was written in the 15th century by Swami Svatmarama, a student of Gorakhnath. Other important Hatha Yoga scriptures include the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita.
These texts outline the essential practices of Hatha Yoga: Mitahara (measured diet), Shatkarma (purification techniques), Asana (postural practice), Pranayama (breath control), Mudra (yogic seals), and meditation. Keep reading to know more about these practices.
All these scriptures, in particular, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are still highly relevant today and often studied in Yoga Teacher Training courses, such as the ones held at One Yoga, that give importance to the study of yogic philosophy.
Modern Yoga as Physical Exercise
Yogis began traveling to the West in the late 1880s. Soon, Americans started practicing yoga and the discipline made its way around the world. This marks the beginning of the period known as “modern yoga”.
Some of the first Hatha Yoga schools opened in India during the 1920s, including the Yoga Institute in Mumbai and Krishnamacharya’s School in Mysore. The latter taught famous devotees like T.K.V. Desikachar, Sri K. Patthabi Jois, Indra Devi, and B.K.S. Iyengar.
These disciples went on to create their own styles of teaching. Thus, the practice branched off in different directions. All yoga styles that you might have heard of – Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Power, Yin, Restorative, and more – come from what was once a complete life philosophy called Hatha Yoga.
What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha Yoga is first and foremost a practice of yoga, which means “union”. The ultimate goal of all yogic paths is oneness with the divine. In other words: realization of the true Self and liberation (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth and suffering.
This is achieved through various practices that lead to the stilling of the mind. And Hatha Yoga is no different. In fact, the practices included in this yoga style aim to prepare the body and mind for deep states of absorption through the harnessing of life force.
The Sanskrit word Hatha literally means “force” because this school of yoga emphasizes physical practices and the mastery of the body as a way of attaining liberation. These practices are meant to awaken and raise Prana, leading to enlightenment and, ultimately, immortality.
Hatha Yoga embraces the concepts outlined in the Eight Limbs of Yoga by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. While asanas are an integral part of the practice, Hatha Yoga also emphasizes ethical conduct, breath control, sensory withdrawal, concentration, and meditation.
Below, you will find a brief explanation of the most important Hatha Yoga practices. For more information, we refer you to the relevant blog posts.
Shatkarma – Purification
Hatha Yoga teaches various cleansing techniques. The methods vary depending on the source, but the most common list is called the Shatkarmas. The word means “six actions” as they include six techniques to cleanse different parts of the body.
- Neti: A cleansing procedure for the nostrils and sinuses.
- Dhauti: A cleansing technique for the alimentary canal.
- Nauli: An abdominal massage technique.
- Basti: A method for purifying the large intestine.
- Kapalabhati: A breathing technique that cleanses the lungs and brain.
- Trataka: A purification technique for the eyes and mind.
These techniques aim to remove accumulated toxins and anything blocking the flow of prana in the body. Hatha Yogis use them to prepare their body and mind for the higher practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation. Read more about the Shatkarmas.
Pranayama – Breath Control
Pranayama is made up of two Sanskrit words: Prana meaning “life force” or “vital energy”, and Ayama, which means “extending”. Therefore, pranayama is the expansion of the life force. This is achieved through breathing techniques because Prana manifests in the body as breath.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika illustrates pranayama as a threefold method that comprises inhalation, exhalation, and retention. The text states that three things move while the Yogi breathes in and out: air, Prana, and thoughts, as all three are intimately connected.
It is during retention that stillness emerges. That’s why Hatha Yoga practitioners work up to longer their breath holds. Pranayama is one of the fundamental components of Hatha Yoga. To know more, we recommend reading our comprehensive Introduction to Pranayama.
Asana – Postures
Another important element of Hatha Yoga is the postural practice called asana. These postures come in countless forms, often inspired by nature. Other yogic traditions prior to Hatha Yoga also included asanas, but they were usually seated postures for meditation purposes.
As we have seen, Hatha Yoga gave more importance to the physical body. This led to the development of various non-seated postures such as Kukkutasana (Rooster pose) and Mayurasana (Peacock pose), which helped the yogi cultivate steadiness.
Nevertheless, meditation remained an essential part of Hatha Yoga. That’s why classical texts include many seated poses like Padmasana (Lotus pose) and Siddhasana (Accomplished pose).
According to ancient texts, each posture becomes perfect when the effort disappears, the practitioner no longer thinks about the body, breathes naturally with pranayama rhythms, and is able to rest in a state of meditation.
For this reason, in Hatha Yoga classes postures are held for a relatively long time – even a few minutes. This way, both the body and mind can settle into the asana and benefit from it instead of rapidly flowing from one posture to the next like in Vinyasa, Power, or Ashtanga yoga.
To get a deeper understanding of this vital component of Hatha Yoga, read our article The Four Principles of Asana. The post emphasizes how a balanced yoga practice should align with the ancient yogic concept of Sthira and Sukha, transcending the physical benefits and fostering spiritual growth.
If you are in Koh Phangan and want to practice Hatha Yoga, check out One Yoga’s weekly schedule to find out the next class. You can just show up and join. Our experienced teachers will guide you through a balanced class suitable for your level.
Mudras – Yogic Seals
Hatha Yogis were very concerned with preserving and raising their vital energy. Early texts mention this vital force in the form of Bindu which is located in the head. From there, this life force continually drips down and gets burned up by the internal fire.
Later texts focus on Kundalini, a form of divine feminine energy located at the base of the spine. The scriptures aimed to awaken and raise Kundalini energy and access the storages of Amrita (literally meaning “immortality”) in the head, which subsequently flood the body.
Different techniques were used to preserve Bindu. For example, inverted postures aim to trap Bindu in the head using gravity. Mudras represent another method used to make breath flow into the central channel and force Bindu back up.
Most people today know mudras as hand gestures. However, there are various mudras that involve different parts of the body. Khecari mudra, for example, is performed by curling the tip of the tongue back into the mouth until it reaches the nasal cavity.
Another mudra, called Viparita Karani, is still popular in modern yoga classes. You might know it as the “legs up the wall pose”. In classical Hatha Yoga, this meant any inverted posture. Its purpose as a mudra was to reverse the downflow and loss of vital energy through the use of gravity.
Want to know more about mudras? Read our Introduction to Mudras’ Meanings and Benefits. The post illustrates how to use these gestures and attitudes to direct the energy flow and balance the body and mind for health, concentration, and spiritual growth.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika dedicates almost a third of its verses to meditation. Likewise, other major texts of Hatha Yoga such as the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita discuss meditation.
In all of these yogic scriptures, meditation represents the final goal of all the preparatory cleansing, postures, pranayama, and other steps. In turn, the aim of meditation is to realize the complete absorption and union with Brahman – the ultimate reality, eternal truth, and infinite consciousness.
If you want to start practicing meditation at home, we recommend our Online Studio that features 6 full series dedicated to meditation, in its various forms and levels. You can start with Short Guided Meditations, discover different styles with Meditation for Well-Being, and finally take up a 21-Day Meditation Challenge.
The Modern Hatha Yogi
Traditionally, Hatha Yoga was considered a preparation for spiritual practices: control over the body was intended to assist the development of control over the mind and spirit. In a way, Hatha Yoga still serves this function today.
Nowadays, it has lost much of its spiritual significance as many modern yoga classes focus only on the physical aspect. Nevertheless, the asana practice introduces many people to yoga. Eventually, some feel the deeper benefits and start looking beyond the postures.
Luckily, classical Hatha Yoga has not been entirely forgotten. Many Hatha Yoga texts have been translated for modern-day readers. Studying these scriptures will help you deepen your understanding and cultivate a more holistic practice.
If you wish to try your hand at these readings, please keep in mind that many of the techniques illustrated are highly advanced. Therefore, they should only be attempted after thorough preparation and under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
If you are ready to jump into an intensive Hatha Yoga course we can’t but highly recommend One Yoga’s 200-hour Hatha Yoga TTC. With a specific focus on the ancient principles and techniques of traditional Hatha Yoga, this course will help you deepen your practice, increase your awareness, and develop your teaching skills.
The Benefits of Practicing Hatha Yoga
While the physical perks of Yoga, like flexibility and strength, are widely acknowledged, it’s the spiritual benefits that make this ancient discipline stand out. Among the various yoga styles, Hatha Yoga prioritizes introspection through asanas rather than physical exercise per se.
With constant and sincere practice, the benefits of Hatha Yoga can be immense. Below are some of the results that its practice may bring about, over time.
- Emotional Resilience: Hatha Yoga fosters emotional well-being. The practice helps to balance energies within the body, allowing you to confront life’s challenges with poise and grace. As you engage in each asana and breathwork, you learn to release emotional tension and cultivate equanimity.
- Inner Peace: The practice isn’t merely an exercise but a path to enduring peace. By integrating mindful movements and meditative focus, you lay the groundwork for a tranquil heart and a peaceful mind that resonate throughout your life.
- Spiritual Awakening: When performed with mindfulness and awareness, asanas become conduits for spiritual development. Holding postures for a longer time encourages you to delve into your soul, forging a unique connection to the divine.
- Enhanced Mindfulness: By focusing on each posture and breath, you can develop a deeper connection to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, enriching your experience of the present moment.
By offering these profound spiritual and emotional rewards, Hatha Yoga enriches your entire being. Beyond the obvious physical benefits, Hatha Yoga is nourishment for the soul, serving as a gateway to a spiritually attuned life.
As we have seen, Hatha Yoga is far more than just physical postures. It is a gateway to spiritual awakening, a journey that unites body, mind, and soul. While the practices may seem challenging at first, embarking on this path brings profound rewards.
Through cleansing techniques, breath control, yogic poses, mudras, and meditation, you can purify the body and quiet the mind. This opens the door to inner stillness, heightened awareness, and an abiding sense of joy.
Initially, you may struggle to sit still or hold poses for long periods of time. But with sincere practice, the restless mind settles and you experience the tranquility that lies beneath the surface.
Progress happens slowly but steadily, much like a flower blossoming petal by petal. Over time, you may uncover peace that permeates every cell of your being. This inner transformation spills into daily life, allowing you to meet all experiences with equanimity.
By following in the footsteps of the ancient yogis, you too can attain stillness amidst the motion of modern life. The journey requires commitment but the destination is nothing short of a blissful awakening.