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Hatha Yoga the foundation of Modern Yoga

What is Hatha Yoga

The branch of yoga that makes use of physical postures is Haṭha yoga. The Sanskrit word हठ haṭha means “force” or “effort”, alluding to its use of physical techniques. A good translation of the term will be “The Yoga of Effort”.

Modern misunderstandings about Hatha Yoga

A common misunderstanding these days is the mistaken idea that the word Hatha is made of the roots ha, meaning “sun,” and tha, meaning “moon,” and the goal is to integrate the “solar” and “lunar” energies of the body. There are different Sanskrit words for sun and moon but “ha” & “tha” are not one of them.

According to Swami Svatmarama author of the most important text on the Hatha Yoga tradition “The Hatha Yoga Pradipika” the goal of Hatha Yoga is the attainment of samadhi or “oneness of mind”, in that process the energies of the two channels, the ida, and the pingala become balanced, these two energies can be compared to the complementary forces that make up life: male and female, generative and receptive, hot and cold, etc.

Svatmarama then goes on to explain that part of what the hatha yogi is doing can be thought of as balancing these two energies – in a sense, he says, uniting the “solar” and the “lunar” elements of the body. This is where the concept of sun and moon arises and get mistranslated.

This is an important point. Even the Yogis acknowledged that permanent balance of these two sides is impossible – that is, that they are always ebbing and flowing as long as we are in the body. If we were to focus on achieving this balance, we would spend our energy on an impossible task. Finally, and most important of all, even Svatmarama says that effort to balance these channels is not necessary to advance on the spiritual path – that is, that if we focus on building our ability to guide and focus the mind (practicing meditation), the energy of the body will flow exactly as it should.

Origins of Hatha Yoga

Illustration from Jogapradipika. Viparita Karani,

Haṭha yoga flourished from c. 1100. It was practiced by Nath and other yogins in South Asia. Its performance was solitary and ascetic. All its procedures were secret. Its objectives were to force the vital fluid prana into the central sushumna channel of the subtle body to raise kundalini energy, enabling Samadhi (absorption) and ultimately Moksha (liberation).

Hatha yoga made use of a small number of asanas, mainly seated; in particular, there were very few standing poses before 1900. They were practiced slowly; positions were often held for long periods. The practice of asanas was a minor preparatory aspect of spiritual work.

Traditional practices included purifications (shatkarmas), postures (asanas), locks (bandhas), the directed gaze (drishti), seals (mudras), and rhythmic breathing (pranayama). These were claimed to provide supernatural powers including healing, destruction of poisons, invisibility, and shape-shifting.

Yogins wore little or no clothing; their bodies were sometimes smeared with cremation ash as a reminder of their forthcoming deaths. Equipment, too, was scanty; sometimes yogins used a tiger or deer skin as a rug to meditate on.

They followed a strict vegetarian diet, excluding stimulants such as tea, coffee or alcohol. Their yoga was taught without payment; gurus were supported by gifts and the philosophy was anti-consumerist.

The revival of Hatha Yoga and the birth of Modern Yoga

By the end of the 19th century, Hatha yoga was almost extinct in India, practiced by people on the edge of society, and despised by both Hindus and the British. That changed when Yogendra (starting in 1918) and Kuvalayananda (starting in 1924) taught yoga as a means of attaining physical well-being, and to study its medical effects.

They emphasized the physical practices of Haṭha yoga, the asanas and yoga breathing (pranayama), over the more esoteric practices such as purifications (shatkarmas), mudras intended to manipulate the vital forces, and removed all mentions of the subtle body or spiritual liberation.

An important factor that helped the popularity of yoga as an exercise in opposition to a spiritual path was the rise of Indian nationalism and the independence movement; having strong bodies meant being a strong country which could shake off colonial rule.

Krishnamacharya the father of Modern Yoga

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. The father of Modern Yoga at age 100

They were soon followed by the “father of modern yoga” Krishnamacharya at the Mysore Palace. He experimented with many new yoga asanas and transitions between them (vinyasas), creating a dynamic style of postural yoga. Krishnamacharya observed and adjusted each pupil in an individualized approach to teaching, which later became known as viniyoga.

Although his knowledge and teaching has influenced yoga throughout the world, Krishnamacharya never left his native India.

The Yoga Journal wrote about him:

You may never have heard of him but Tirumalai Krishnamacharya influenced or perhaps even invented your yoga. Whether you practice the dynamic series of Pattabhi Jois, the refined alignments of B. K. S. Iyengar, the classical postures of Indra Devi, or the customized vinyasa of Viniyoga, your practice stems from one source: a five-foot, two-inch Brahmin born more than one hundred years ago in a small South Indian village.”

By developing and refining different approaches, Krishnamacharya made yoga accessible to millions around the world.

The arrival of Modern Yoga to the West

The 20th century saw a series of yoga gurus establish schools of yoga in India, train yoga teachers, and turn themselves into brands known around the world: Krishnamacharya and his pupils K. Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar, and Sivananda among them.

  • B.K.S Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

    Sri K. Pattabhi Jois founded Ashtanga Yoga, a vigorous vinyasa style, with its headquarters at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore.

  • B. K. S. Iyengar founded Iyengar Yoga, a precise style that emphasizes correct alignment, using supports where necessary, based at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute (RIMYI) in Pune.
  • Swami Sivananda and his disciples including Vishnudevananda created Sivananda Yoga, a more spiritual style, based in Rishikesh

In Calcutta, the practice of the medieval seated asanas of Hatha Yoga survived into the 20th century and was cultivated by Buddha Bose and Bishnu Ghosh the younger brother of Paramahamsa Yogananda who wrote the famous book “Autobiography of a Yogi”.

The yoga teacher Bikram Choudhury (born 1944 in Calcutta) was very influenced by Ghosh’s writings. He emigrated to America in 1971 to found Bikram Yoga also known as Hot Yoga which become hugely popular opening around 1,650 studios in at least 40 countries in 2006.

Western students become teachers

By the end of the last century, a new generation of western students who learned yoga in India with great masters such as Iyengar and Jois started to create new forms based on Ashtanga Vinyasa and others.

  • In the 90s Beryl Bender Birch, a student of K. Pattabhi Jois created Power Yoga a new form of vinyasa-style yoga.
  • There is another form of Power Yoga created by Baron Baptiste which is based in Bikram style and therefore not associated with Ashtanga Yoga.
  • Jivamukti Yoga was founded in 1984 by Sharon Gannon and David Life two yoga students who trained with Sivananda and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
  • Alongside the yoga brands, many teachers these days offer an unbranded “hatha yoga”, creating their own combinations of poses. These may be in flowing sequences (vinyasas), and often include new variants of the standard poses.

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