What is Hatha Yoga?

When you attend a Hatha Yoga class today, you probably expect a fairly gentle, basic yoga practice that is at a relatively slow pace and might incorporate breathing techniques and meditation. This form of yoga as exercise has become popular in the West, where students strive to develop flexibility, strength, bodily relaxation, and mental focus. 

Unfortunately, our modern understanding of Hatha Yoga is very limited. True Hatha Yoga goes far beyond stretching! Thus, this article outlines the history, practices, and goals of classical Hatha Yoga. But before we dive into the historical facts, read this fascinating mythological story that explains how Hatha Yoga was passed onto humankind.

Mythological Origins of Hatha Yoga

Matsyendranath, a medieval Indian sage, is considered one of the first Hatha yogis. Hindu legends say that as a baby, Matsyendranath 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 an enlightened siddha. This story is the origin for his name, Matsyendranath, meaning “lord of the fishes.”

Matsyendranath later taught Hatha Yoga to his disciples. His most notable disciple was Gorakshanath, who became a driving force in establishing Hatha Yoga in India. Together, Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath are traditionally considered the founders of Hatha Yoga and authors of some of its earliest texts.

Origins of Hatha Yoga

Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years. Over time, it branched off in many different directions. One of these branches is Hatha Yoga, which emerged in the 11th century. This is known as the “post-classical yoga” time period. Whereas yogic practices in the previous “classical yoga” period focused almost exclusively on meditation, the physical body was given more importance in this era. This led to the birth of Hatha Yoga. 

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, techniques associated with Hatha Yoga also start to be outlined in a series of early Hindu texts. 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.

Classical Hatha Yoga

This period is marked by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most influential texts on Hatha Yoga. It was written in the 15th century by Swami Svatmarama, the student of Gorakhnath. Other important Hatha Yoga scriptures are the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita. These texts outline the important practices of Hatha Yoga: mitahara (measured diet), shatkarma (purification techniques), asana (postural practice), pranayama (breath control), mudra (yogic seals), and meditation. These texts, first and foremost the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are still highly relevant today and often studied in Yoga Teacher Training courses.

Modern Yoga as Exercise

Yogis began traveling to the West in the last 1880s. Soon, Americans were doing yoga and the practice made its way around the world. This marks the beginning of the period of “modern yoga.” Some of the first Hatha Yoga schools were opened in India during the 1920s, including the Yoga Institute in Mumbai and Krishnamacharya’s school in Mysore.

Krishnamacharya taught famous devotees like T.K.V. Desikachar, Sri K. Patthabi Jois, Indra Devi, and B.K.S. Iyengar. They all went on to create their own styles of teaching. Thus, the practice branched off in many different directions. All yoga styles that you are aware 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 rebirth and suffering. This is achieved through various practices that lead to the stilling of the mind. And Hatha Yoga is no different!  

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 were meant to awaken and raise the subtle energy, leading to enlightenment and even immortality. Below, you will find a brief explanation of the most important Hatha Yoga practices. 

Purification (Shatkarma)

Hatha Yoga teaches various cleansing techniques. The methods vary depending on the text, but the most common list is called the shatkarmas. The word means “six actions” because there are six techniques that cleanse different parts of the body.

  1. Neti, a cleansing procedure for the nostrils and sinuses.
  2. Dhauti, a cleansing technique for the alimentary canal.
  3. Nauli, an abdominal massage.
  4. Basti, a method for purifying the large intestine.
  5. Kapalabhati, a breathing technique that cleanses the lungs and brain.
  6. Trataka, a purification technique for the eyes and mind.

These techniques are supposed 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 about the shatkarmas here.

Breath Control (Pranayama)

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 life force. This is achieved through breathing techniques because prana manifests in the body as breath. As a result, breathing techniques are key components of Hatha Yoga.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains pranayama as threefold: 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 the retention where stillness emerges. That’s why Hatha Yogis work up to longer breath holds.

Posture (Asana)

Another important element of Hatha Yoga is the postural practice called asana. These postures come in numerous forms, often inspired by nature. Other yogic traditions prior to Hatha Yoga also included asanas, but they were usually seated postures for meditation.

Hatha Yoga, on the other hand, 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 the ancient texts, each posture becomes perfect when the effort disappears, the practitioner no longer thinks about the body, breathes normally in pranayama, and is able to rest in a state of meditation.

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, it continually drips down and gets burned up by the internal fire. Inverted postures were meant to trap the bindu in the head using gravity. Mudras were used to make breath flow into the central channel and force the bindu back up.

Later texts focus on kundalini, a form of divine feminine energy located at the base of the spine. The aim was to awaken and raise the kundalini energy and access the stores of amrita (literally meaning immortality) in the head, which subsequently flood the body. For this purpose, the Hatha Yogis also used mudras

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 into the nasal cavity. It is both said to seal the bindu in the head, and to enable the Yogi to access the amrita.

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.

Meditation

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 texts, meditation is the final goal of all the preparatory cleansing, postures, pranayama, and other steps. The aim of this meditation is to realize the complete absorption and union with Brahman – the ultimate reality, eternal truth, and infinite consciousness.

The Modern Hatha Yogi

Traditionally, Hatha Yoga was considered a preparation for spiritual practices: control over the body was supposed to assist the development of control over the mind and spirit. In a way, Hatha Yoga still serves this function today. Although it has lost much of its spiritual significance in modern yoga classes, 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. Please keep in mind that many of the techniques are highly advanced and should only be attempted after thorough preparation and under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

Are you ready to take your practice to the next level? Discover the true essence of yoga in our 300-Hour Yoga Teacher Training! With a strong focus on philosophy, pranayama, and meditation, this course takes you on the authentic path of yoga according to ancient traditions: classical Hatha Yoga and traditional Tantra. You will gain all the necessary tools to expand your own practice and step into your calling as a teacher and guide.

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