The word “Hatha” comes from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika attributed to the mysterious figure Swatmarama. Hatha has an explicit meaning of force. So then Hatha Yoga has come to be described as the forceful method. Personally I feel “dynamic” might better describe the process of Hatha Yoga which requires the right kind of force directed intelligently to refine the experiential state and create changes in the psychosomatic energy of the adept.
Hatha Yoga uses contraction and relaxation to build up and move energy in the body. Activation of muscles and changes in body position modulate internal pressures within the body. This can be done especially with breath muscles to modulate pressure in the pelvic, abdominal and thoracic regions.
The word energy gets used frequently in vague ways so lets get specific here. Hatha Yoga begins with asana to induce physical sensation. Then moves to Pranayama which generates the sensation of physiological stress. The interplay of action and relaxation with body and breath culminates in a warm blissful feeling. By using Mudras and Bandhas positive blissful feelings are moved upwards towards the heart and in reverse direction from the head down to the heart. Sensation becomes feeling becomes mood becomes emotion.
Only once the yogi has generated a reliable positive emotional state does the practice turn to meditation. There is no mention of stilling the mind or calming the thoughts in the Pradipika as meditation is not entered as a formal practice until after a blissful trance state can be created by the preceding practices.
The use of Nada in meditation is described in great detail and gives Hatha Yoga a unique approach. Nada means sound, beginning with audible sound but then retreating to internal sounds and eventually finding the vibrational quality of the heart space.
Another defining characteristic which sets Hatha apart from other Yoga forms is the emphasis on Prana. Whereas Bhakti Yoga looks at devotion and relationships and Patanjali’s Raja Yoga examines mental formations or Chitta. Hatha aims to purify and harmonise the Prana within the Yogi. Its ultimate aim is to reveal 8 Siddhis or special abilities one of which is liberation. The description of liberation in the Pradipika is of immortality in a transcendental godlike state.
Hatha also holds an implicit meaning of conjoined Ha-Sun and Tha-Moon. This fits nicely with the description of two energy channels called nadis, the Ida-solar and Pingala-lunar Nadis. The two branches of the autonomic nervous system the sympathetic and parasympathetic give a modern confirmation to the relevance of Hatha Yoga’s approach. The aim of Hatha is to purify the instinctual feelings into the pure energy of awareness. This pure energy is then accumulated and made to move upwards through a special channel Sushumna Nadi. We find in the Pradipika a technical reference to Chakras.
How old then is Hatha Yoga? As a codified system roughly 1000 years though many techniques of hatha yoga are referred to in both Hindu and Buddhist texts older than 2000 years. The mixture of different systems known as syncretism is common in Indian spiritual schools. We see in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika a blending of many older yoga fields such as Raja Yoga and Laya Yoga and also Tantric practices.
Hatha Yoga is believed to belong to the Nath tradition devoted to Shiva as the origin of their teachings. The Pradipika begins with saluting Shiva as the primary Guru who taught his wife Parvathi and the teachings then passed through a long line of Sages. It contains what are considered secret teachings meant to be passed only to worthy candidates and recommended to be learnt from a guru. There are other complementary texts such as the Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita which expand on the list of prescribed practices and give further description of the process.
The Pradipika is made up of four sections covering essential practices:
1. Yogic Lifestyle,Yama, Niyama and Asana
2. Pranayama and Shatkarmas (purifying techniques)
3. Mudra, Bandha, Prana and Kundalini
4. Pratyahara, Dharuna, Dhyana and Samadhi
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is generously full with practical applications of the Yoga process. The first three sections aim to establish the Yogi in the yogic lifestyle to minimise negative external influence. Then with dedicated practice to purify the psycho-emotional elements into a balance positive state. The accumulation of Kundalini energy and the purification of blockages to its flow give rise to a spontaneous meditative state. The last section gives an applied approach to Meditation using internal sound to dissolve any remnants of Karma and transcend the bliss of the mind to see the soul in its essence.
So what does this have to do with what one expects from a Hatha Yoga Class in the modern era? This I will discuss in the next article.
Meantime you might find this recent historical work on Kundalini interesting.