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Hatha Yoga

James Mallinson
Apr 17, 2019 4:02:36 PM

Photographs by James Mallinson

 Published with the kind permission of Brill, Leiden, Netherlands.
Haţha Yoga,in: K.A. Jacobsen et al., eds., Brills Encyclopedia of Hinduism, vol. III, Leiden, 2011, 770-781. (http://www.brill.nl/encyclopediahinduism) 



The word haţha (lit. force) denotes a system of physical techniques supplementary to yoga more broadly conceived; Haţha Yoga is yoga that uses the techniques of haţha. Haţha Yoga is first referred to by name in Sanskrit texts dating to around the 11th century CE, but some of its techniques can be traced back at least a thousand years earlier, to the epics and the Pali canon. Why these techniques were called haţha is not stated in the texts that teach them, but it seems likely that, originally at least, they were called thus because, like tapas (asceticism), with which they were associated, they were difficult and forced their results to happen. 

In this article, only those aspects of Haţha Yoga that set it apart from other techniques of yoga shall be discussed in detail. Important principles and practices that are shared with other methods of yoga, such as subtle physiology, dhāraņā (fixation [of the elements]), and nādānusandhāna (concentration on the [internal] sound), are not analyzed. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the modern “Haţha Yoga” taught by B.K.S. Iyengar is not the same as traditional Haţha Yoga. 

In its earliest formulations, Haţha was used to raise and conserve the physical essence of life, identified in men as bindu (semen), which is otherwise constantly dripping downward from a store in the head and being expended. (The female equivalent, mentioned only occasionally in our sources, is rajas, menstrual fluid.) The preservation and sublimation of semen was associated with tapas (asceticism) from at least the time of the epics, and some of the techniques of early Haţha Yoga are likely to have developed as part of ascetic practice. The techniques of early Haţha Yoga work in two ways: mechanically, in practices such as viparītakaraņī, “the reverser,” in which by standing on one’s head one uses gravity to keep bindu in the head; or by making the breath enter the central channel of the body, which runs from the base of the spine to the top of the head, thereby forcing bindu upward. In later formulations of Haţha Yoga, the Kaula system of the visualization of the serpent goddess Kuņďalinī rising as kuņďalinī energy through a system of cakras, usually six or seven, is overlaid onto the bindu- oriented system. The same techniques, together with some specifically kuņďalinī-oriented ones, are said to effect kuņďalinī’s rise up the central channel (which is called the sušumnā in these traditions) to a store of amŗta (the nectar of immortality) situated in the head, with which kuņďalinī then floods the body, rejuvenating it and rendering it immortal. 

The aims and results of Haţha Yoga are the same as those of other varieties of yoga practice: siddhis (both mundane benefits and magical powers) and mukti (liberation), the latter often understood as being attained in a body immortalized by Haţha Yoga practices. In keeping with the physical orientation of Haţha Yoga practices, its siddhis are predominantly physical, ranging from the loss of wrinkles and grey hair to divine sight or the ability to levitate. In common with earlier formulations of yoga, in particular Kaula ones, the techniques of Haţha Yoga can be used to effect kālavañcana (cheating death), utkrānti (yogic suicide), or parakāyapraveśa (entering another’s body). As in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, siddhis are usually said to be a hindrance to or distraction from Haţha Yoga’s ultimate aim – liberation – but in some Kaula- influenced texts, the pursuit of specific siddhis through specific techniques is taught (Mallinson, 2011a). 

Haţha Yoga is sometimes distinguished from other types of yoga, in particular mantrayoga, layayoga, and rājayoga. Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) identified Rāja Yoga with the “mental” yoga taught in Patañjali’s Yogasūtra and said that other yogas, in particular Haţha, or “physical,” Yoga, were inferior to it (Michelis, 2004, 178–180). This understanding of Rāja Yoga has become widespread, but it is not what it means in Sanskrit texts, wherein it is simply the ultimate aim of yoga (which is usually samādhi) and not a means of attaining it. There is no opposition between Patañjali’s yoga and the techniques of Haţha Yoga in early Haţha Yoga texts; the practices of Haţha Yoga are supplementary to those of ašţāńgayoga (eightfold yoga, i.e. Pātañjala Yoga). (The Vivekamārtaņďa, in keeping with its Śaiva Mantramārga tradition, teaches a sixfold yoga without Patañjali’s yama and niyama [ethical and behavioral observances] but does not call it Haţha.) By the 17th century, Haţha Yoga had become an integral part of most formulations of yoga, including those based on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, as evinced by the creation of a corpus of Yoga Upanišads, whose texts borrowed widely from works that teach Haţha Yoga (Bouy, 1994). The modern yoga widely practiced around the world today is derivative of Haţha Yoga, although it places a greater emphasis on āsana (physical postures) than is found in traditional Haţha Yoga and includes under the āsana rubric innovations from Indian and foreign sources (Singleton, 2010) that are not to be found in traditional teachings on Haţha Yoga. 


Jagannāth Dās Jī Yogīrāj in baddhapadmāsana at Haridwar Kumbh Melā 2010 

Rām Dās Jī Yogirāj. Gāruďāsan. Chitrakoot 1995 




For the early period of Haţha Yoga prior to the composition of the Haţhapradīpikā (which is often called the Haţhayogapradīpikā in secondary literature; c. 1450 CE), Sanskrit texts are our only sources for its practice. (Two vernacular sources that are said to predate the Haţhapradīpikā, the Marathi Jñāneśvarī and the Tamil Tirumantiram, do describe Haţha Yoga techniques, but without further text-critical studies of these works, we cannot be sure of the age of the passages that include those teachings.) A handful of travelers’ descriptions of yoga practice from this period do survive, but they do not provide any details of specific Haţha Yoga techniques. The same is true of later travelers’ reports, which, while useful for determining the social history of yoga and yogīs, add little to our understanding of Haţha Yoga. 

The earliest text to teach a systematized HaţhaYoga and call it such is the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, which was probably composed in the 13th century CE. In its section on Haţha Yoga, after teaching a traditional eightfold yoga that it attributes to Yājñavalkya and others, it describes ten Haţha Yoga practices that it says were undertaken by the ŗši Kapila and other ŗšis in addition to those of Yājñavalkya. These practices, which will be examined in more detail below, are of the variety that came to be known collectively as mudrās (lit. seals, a variety of physical techniques for controlling vital energies, including kuņďalinī, breath, and bindu) in later Haţha Yoga texts and that constitute the techniques of early Haţha Yoga. The Dattātreyayogaśāstra teaches the following such mudrās: mahāmudrā, mahābandha, khecarīmudrā, the three bandhas (lit. locks; jālandharabandha, uddiyāņabandha, and mūlabandha), viparītakaraņī, vajrolī, amarolī, and sahajolī. Other texts that predate the Haţhapradīpikā and describe Haţha Yoga mudrās (without teaching Haţha Yoga as such) include the Amŗtasiddhi, which dates to the 11th century CE and teaches mahābandha, mahāmudrā, and mahāvedha; the Vivekamārtaņďa, which is contemporaneous with the Dattātreyayogaśāstra and teaches mahāmudrā, nabhomudrā (i.e. khecarīmudrā), the three bandhas, and viparītakaraņī; the Gorakšaśataka, which is also contemporaneous with the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, teaches the three bandhas and śakticālanīmudrā; and the Khecarīvidyā, which teaches only khecarīmudrā. None of these texts calls its techniques Haţha Yoga. The practices of the Amŗtasiddhi and Dattātreyayogaśāstra are used to raise bindu or prevent it from falling; the mudrās of the Vivekamārtaņďa work on bindu, not kuņďalinī, even though raising it is an important part of the yoga it teaches; and those of the Gorakšaśataka and Khecarīvidyā are used to raise kuņďalinī (they mention bindu only in passing). 


The only other texts older than the Haţhapradīpikā to teach Haţha Yoga mudrās are the Śivasaμhitā, Yogabīja, Amaraughaprabodha, and Śārńgadhara- paddhati. Each of these texts, which are likely to postdate all those described above, mentions Haţha Yoga by name. The Śārńgadharapaddhati is an anthology of verses on a wide range of subjects compiled in 1363 CE, which in its description of Haţha Yoga includes the Dattātreyayogaśāstra’s teachings on five mudrās. The Yogabija gives an esoteric definition of the word Haţha that is much repeated in later texts, commentaries, and secondary literature: ha means the sun, ţha means the moon, and Haţha Yoga is their union (yoga). In this context, the sun and moon can be variously interpreted as meaning the upper and lower breaths (prāņa and apāna; Amrţasiddhi 6.11–13), the pińgalā and iďā nādīs, Śakti and Śiva as menstrual blood and semen, or the tip of the tongue and the forehead. The Yogabīja teaches the raising of kuņďalinī by means of breath retention and mudrā.


Rām Dās Jī Yogirāj. Pāśinī Mudrā. Chitrakoot 1995 


The HaŢhapradīpikā and Classical HaŢha Yoga


The haţhapradīpikā was composed by Svātmārāma in the 15th century CE (Bouy, 1994, 85). It is for the most part a compilation: it includes verses from all eight texts mentioned above and at least twelve more. The Haţhapradīpikā is the first text that explicitly sets out to teach Haţha Yoga above other methods of yoga. In addition to all the mudrās taught in earlier works, it names āsana (posture), kumbhaka (breath retention), and nādānusandhāna (concentration on the internal sound) as Haţha Yoga’s constituents. These four types of practice are found in most subsequent descriptions of Haţha Yoga. Together with the cleansing practices that also became emblematic of Haţha Yoga and that are taught in the Haţhapradīpikā without specifically being said to constitute part of Haţha Yoga, they constitute what is termed herein “classical Haţha Yoga.” The Haţhapradīpikā became the root text of Haţha Yoga: all subsequent Sanskrit Haţha Yoga anthologies and commentaries refer to it, and most take its definition of the practices of Haţha Yoga to be authoritative. 

The Haţhapradīpikā is the first text on yoga to include āsana among the techniques of Haţha Yoga. It teaches 15 āsanas. Eight are varieties of sitting (or lying) positions suitable for meditation, and seven are nonseated positions. The verses describing seated āsanas are taken from a variety of earlier texts. The descriptions of three of the nonseated āsanas (mayūrāsana, kūrmāsana, and kukkuţāsana ); are taken from the Vasišţhasaμhitā but can also be found in earlier Pāñcarātra and Vaikhānasa Samhitās. No source text has yet been identified for three of the Haţhapradīpikā’s nonseated āsanas: uttānakurmāsana (upside-down tortoise), dhanurāsana (bow), and matsyendrāsana (Matsyendra’s pose). 

The Haţhapradīpikā teaches eight varieties of kumbhaka (breath retention; see below). The verses describing four of these (sūryā, śītalī, bhastrikā, and ujjāyī) are taken from the Gorakšaśataka; source texts have not been identified for the remaining four (sītkārī, bhrāmarī, mūrcchā, and plāvinī). 

The Haţhapradīpikā teaches the ten mudrās found in the Dattātreya- yogaśāstra, supplemented by mahāvedha and śakticālanī (it also mentions yonimudrā in passing). Its verses on mudrā are taken from the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, Vivekamārtaņda, Gorakšaśataka, Khecarīvidyā, and Amaraughaprabodha. 

No source text has been identified for the Haţhapradīpikā’s verses on nādānusandhāna which are said to have been taught by Gorakša. This practice, which involves putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and listening to a succession of internal sounds (nādas), is said to be a technique of laya (dissolution).

The cleansing practices known as šaţ karmāņi, “the six acts,” which became emblematic of Haţha Yoga, are taught in the Haţhapradīpikā in verses that have not been found in earlier works ; in fact, no earlier texts that teach these practices have yet been identified. The vacuum in the abdomen created by one of the cleansing techniques, nauli, is used in basti and vajrolīmudrā to suck liquids through the anus and penis, respectively. We can thus infer that nauli was practiced at least as early as the 13th century, the time of writing of the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, the first text to teach vajrolīmudrā. 


The Principles of Hatha Yoga


As noted above, in the earliest formulations, the purpose of Haţha Yoga was to raise and preserve bindu, semen, by means of the Haţha Yoga mudrās. Onto its techniques those of layayoga, in particular the raising of kuņďalinī, were subsequently super- imposed. The Haţhapradīpikā says that the purpose of the Haţha Yoga mudrās is to raise kuņďalinī. 

This resulted in some conflicts. In the visualizations taught in texts of the Paścimāmnāya lineage of Kaula Śaivism, kuņďalinī, on reaching the store of amŗta located in the head, returns to the ādhāra (base) at the bottom of the spine from which it came, flooding the body with amŗta as it goes. This is what it does as a result of the Haţha Yoga khecarīmudrā taught in the Khecarīvidyā. The purpose of bindu-oriented Haţha Yoga practices is to keep bindu in the head. Thus in the Vivekamārtaņďa, which is the earliest text to synthesize the two paradigms, khecarīmudrā is said to seal the uvula and prevent bindu from falling, but later in the text, the same technique (although not named khecarīmudrā) is said to result in the body being flooded with amŗta. In the Haţhapradīpikā, these verses are found together in the description of khecarīmudrā. 

The techniques of Haţha Yoga, and their development, reflect the ongoing interplay of practice and theory, to which might be added exegesis. The śakticālanī mudrā, for example, originally involved wrapping the tongue in a cloth and tugging it in order to awaken kuņďalinī. Its method was forgotten in certain lineages, but its description was preserved in their texts. Textual corruption obscured the location in the body of where the cloth is to be applied, and now those who teach it, perhaps influenced by the physical location of its benefits (and, of course, their own practical research), say that it is to be done by using nauli, “churning the stomach” (Mallinson, 2011b). 

The Haţhapradīpikā’s success ensured that the raising of kuņďalinī became the rationale for many of the practices of Haţha Yoga. With kuņďalinī came a variety of other practices and aims, and when trying to understand the sometimes contradictory notions of Haţha Yoga, it is useful to bear in mind other oppositions parallel to that of bindu and kuņďalinī: mukti (liberation) and siddhis (powers), tapas (asceticism) and bhoga (enjoyment), and haţha (force[d]) and sahaja (natural). 



The Practices of Classical HaŢha Yoga:



In the Haţhapradīpikā, these techniques are used for nothing more than cleansing the body and balancing its došas (humors) in order to prepare it for the practice of yoga; Svātmārāma adds that some teachers say that prāņāyāma alone will suffice for this purpose. In the Haţharatnāvalī, the cleansing practices are said also to cleanse the six cakras, and some later commentators, seeking to impute a directly soteriological value to all Haţha Yoga practices, say that they directly facilitate various methods of reaching samādhi. 


Complicated physical postures are first included among the techniques of Haţha Yoga in the Haţhapradīpikā. The earliest textual reference to nonseated āsanas is in the circa 10th-century Vimānārcanakalpa. The use of the word āsana to describe any sort of physical posture appears to have become widespread by the early 14th century, when the Maithili Rasaratnākara used it (along with bandha) as a term to describe positions for sexual intercourse. 

The Haţhapradīpikā teaches 15 āsanas, of which seven are not seated postures, and marks the beginning of the proliferation and importance of such postures in the practice of yoga. It is also in the Haţhapradīpikā that practices that were originally not conceived of as āsanas first come to be included under its rubric. Thus śavāsana, “the corpse pose,” which is taught as one of the methods of layayoga in the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, becomes an āsana in the Haţhapradīpikā. In later texts Śaiva karaņas (physical practices taught in Śaiva Tantras, which are similar to to the mudrās of Haţha Yoga), Haţha Yoga mudrās, ascetic mortifications, Sufi practices, wrestling exercises, and Western bodybuilding and gymnastic poses all become āsanas. The benefits of āsanas vary accordingly. In the Haţhapradīpikā, āsana is said to lead to steadiness, health, and suppleness (aims not dissimilar from those of modern yoga); certain individual āsanas are said therein and in other texts to awaken kuņďalinī, destroy disease, make the breath enter the central channel, and increase the digestive fire. 

The 17th-century Haţharatnāvalī is the first text to teach 84 individual āsanas. Descriptions of 84 āsanas are also found in the 18th-century Āsanayogagrantha (Gharote, 2006, lxiii) and Jogpradīpakā, and the early 19th- century Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (now commonly known as the Udai Mandir) has a frieze depicting 84 āsanas. To this day, traditional yoga practitioners will claim to know 84 āsanas. From the 18th century onward, the number of āsanas taught in texts and in oral traditions has increased beyond 84. The six-chapter Haţhapradīpikā teaches over 100 āsanas, the Śrītattvanidhi describes 122 (Sjoman, 1996), and B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga teaches over 200. 



The practice of breath control in Haţha Yoga has three sources: 

1. an ancient (and not specifically yoga) tradition of regulated breathing, or prānāyāma, that is thought to get rid of karma and physical impurity; 

2. a yoga principle that links the breath, the mind, and semen – by stopping one, the others are also stopped; and 

3. specific methods of inhalation and exhalation known as kumbhakas (somewhat paradoxically, since kumbhaka in fact means the holding of the breath), which work on both the gross and the subtle bodies. 



In the earliest systematized textual treatment, Haţha Yoga is identified with ten practices that assist in the preservation and raising of bindu, the essence of life, either through mechanical means or through the raising of the breath through the central channel. In Haţha Yoga’s classical synthesis in the Haţhapradīpikā, two of these practices, amarolī and sahajolī, were subsumed under the heading of another, vajrolī. To the resulting eight practices, which in the Haţhapradīpikā are all classified as mudrās, were added three more: mahāvedha, śakticālanī, and yonimudrā, making a total of eleven. The purpose of śakticālanī and yonimudrā has always been to awaken kuņďalinī and make her rise up the central channel. In the Haţhapradīpikā, this is said to be the aim of all mudrās. 



Haţha Yoga, like other methods of yoga, can be practiced by all, regardless of sex, caste, class, or creed. Many texts explicitly state that it is practice alone that leads to success. Sectarian affiliation and philosophical inclination are of no importance. The texts of Haţha Yoga, with some exceptions, do not include teachings on metaphysics or sect-specific practices. To speak of “yoga philosophy” is to miss the point: yoga is a practical discipline aimed at attaining liberation. If duly practiced, it will work, irrespective of the practitioner’s beliefs. The lack of sectarianism in texts on yoga has made them readily adoptable by traditions other than those of their authors. Thus texts composed in a Nāth milieu could be used to compile the later Yoga Upanišads, and others were translated into Persian to satisfy Mughal interest in yoga. Yoga’s lack of sectarianism has also enabled its spread around the world today. 

The intended audience of the texts of Haţha Yoga was most probably Brahmin men, as is the nature of Sanskrit texts. There are, however, references to women practitioners within the texts. In some texts, householders as well as renunciates are said to be able to practice Haţha Yoga, but the difficulty of many of its practices and the time required to master them, as well as the nature of their goal, liberation, meant that they were for the most part practiced by members of renunciate orders. 

Many of today’s better-known schools of Haţha Yoga, such as Swami Satyananda’s Bihar School of Yoga and Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society, were established by gurus affiliated, albeit tenuously, with the Daśanāmī saμnyāsī order. The teachings on yoga of three students of T. Krishnamacharya, namely his son T.K.V. Desikachar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar, have had the greatest influence on modern yoga. Their lineage, that of Śrīvaišņavism, is closely connected to the lineages of the first text to teach the Haţha Yoga mudrās as well as the first texts to teach nonseated āsanas (Pāñcarātra Samhitās such as the Vimānārcanākalpa and Ahirbudhnyasaμhitā, and the Vasisthasaμhitā). Practice of Haţha Yoga among the Nāths is today almost nonexistent (Bouillier, 2008, 128). 


Further Reading 

Haţha Yoga – the Haţhapradīpikā, Śivasaμhitā, and Gherandasaμhitā – were uncritically edited and translated into English. These texts, arbitrarily selected, have formed the Haţha Yoga canon ever since, and studies of Haţha Yoga have been hindered by this limited view of the tradition. 

Since the 1970s, a handful of critical editions of texts that teach the practices of Haţha Yoga have been published. Among the early works, one finds only the Khecarīvidyā and Śivasaμhitā. The Amŗtasiddhi has not been edited. The Vivekamārtaņďa has been edited (as the []Gorakšaśataka – the names of these two texts became confused) from just four of the hundreds of manuscripts available, and those of its earliest recensions were not consulted. The Dattātreyayogaśāstra, Yogabīja, Amaraughaprabodha, and Amaraughaśāsana have been published as transcripts of single codices. A translation of the Gorakšaśataka based on a single manuscript has recently been published. 

Critical editions of two works, the Śivasaμhitā and Gherandasaμhitā, have been published with translations but without apparatus in the Yoga Vidya series (see http://www.yogavidya.com). 

For the complete version of this article including the Bibliography please refer to the online version.



James Mallinson

James Mallinson is a scholar of the texts and practices of traditional yoga and yogis in India and an Associate at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University. 



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