For most people, Hatha yoga defines yoga - the timeless union of mind, body and soul. Whether they practice every tenet of the discipline or just the western perceptions of them is neither here nor there.

Western perceptions of them?

Many yoga practitioners in the western part of the world think of yoga primarily as a fitness regimen; a particularly refreshing and healing type of workout... but nothing more. Some may go further, embracing the vegetarian/vegan diet and meditating regularly. Few would go so far as to undertake yoga's prescribed purification rituals.

We're not here to shame anyone who adopts whatever part of the yoga lifestyle that fits into their lives. Superprof only wants to educate people on how extensive and all-encompassing yoga is and, most importantly, about how Hatha yoga came to be a phenomenon separate from fundamental yogic practice.

To fully understand how Hatha became a separate branch of a doctrine whose very name is Unity, we have to reach far back into history.

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Before Time: Pre-Classical Yoga

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment people started practising yoga because written records only go back so far. Granted, five thousand years - the earliest record of yogic practice, is a long time but humans had colonised and civilized millennia before then.

While there are artefacts pointing to human spiritual activity far back into history, who can tell whether a statue of a sitting human figure is a depiction of a god in human form or a meditating guru?

Early yoga was a more even balance of physical, mystical and mental forces
Early yoga practice embraced the mystical as well as the physical and mental forces. Photo credit: WeTravel.com on Visualhunt.com

Despite the lack of written records, it's believed that early yoga practice had mystical connotations and was carried out by highly spiritual people. Furthermore, we intuit that teachings of the yogic discipline were written down; only the media available then - broad leaves and berry juices were too fragile to withstand the test of time.

So, what do we know?

The Rig-Veda, a collection of ancient Vedic Sanskrit suktas (hymns) from about 2,000BCE mentions yoga. As the Rig-Veda is the oldest known Sanskrit text, we can say with some authority that yoga is an ancient discipline that originated in India, and that had/has a spiritual dimension.

The Vedic texts obviously did not spring up overnight. It took a substantial amount of time and many gurus (masters) to flesh out yogic principles. That's why experts believe that yoga is far older than the mere five thousand years it's credited with.

You might wonder about the yoga poses those early gurus espoused. As we will soon see, they are unlike the yoga we practice, at least in two specific areas.

The Era of Classical Yoga

This era begins with the works of Patanjali, a sage living in the Tamilakam region in southern India. He authored many Sanskrit and Tamil texts; among them - and most relevant to our subject, the Yoga Sutras. General consensus dates his time on earth from the mid-2nd century BCE to the 4th Century CE. Most scholars accept the range of 2nd Century - 4th Century CE as the most likely.

That's when he was thought to be alive; there's no firm date of when he wrote his texts. Thus, dating yogic practice remains an approximation.

There is some debate over just how many sutras Patanjali wrote; for our purposes, it's enough to say he immortalized just under 200 sutras (stitches or threads). These texts contain many words and phrases that even today's yoga devotees would recognise, like Ashtanga, asana and pranayama.

Inverted postures were included in ancient Vedic texts but not standing poses
Early yogic practice included inverted postures but no standing postures. Photo credit: jaimefok on Visualhunt

The text is divided into four parts, or chapters, each addressing a particular aspect of yogic practice.

The Samadhi Pada describes meditation and calming the mind; Sadhana Pada covers the practice of yoga; Vibhuti Pada is the manifestation of yogic power and Kaivalya Pada describes the process of attaining moksha - liberation.

Of these four chapters, only the second is mainstream relevant. It talks about the austerity and devotion to consciousness that a yogi must embrace prior to engaging in the Yoga of Eight Limbs - Ashtanga yoga.

The 'eight' in question does not refer to actual limbs but to the eight principles of yoga, among which we find asanas, pranayama and meditation, all of which are common practices in today's yoga classes.

Because Patanjali's sutras were so impactful in spreading yogic practice far and wide - and through the centuries, he's often referred to as the Father of modern yoga.

How do his texts raise the importance of Hatha yoga?

Interlude: Post-Classical Yoga

Some time around the middle of the first millennium, Tantra emerged as an enhancement to yogic practice. The word Tantra means 'weave', 'loom' and 'warp' - all textile-related terms, but in Indian tradition, it also means a system, theory, text or technique - among other definitions.

Tantra revolves around mantras; words, syllables or sounds thought to bring mystical power. Introducing mantras into yogic practice focused the discipline more on the 'inner' - the chakras, nadis and kundalini. Those are 'wheels' (focal points), channels and energy within the body, respectively.

Until the emergence of Tantra, yoga remained a complete discipline that included physical, spiritual and mental activity. However, turning the practice inward virtually eliminated the physical aspects of yoga, including performing asanas.

Keep in mind that, even before Tantra provoked this split, asanas were very different from the complete set of standing, sitting, inverted and reclined postures we know and practice today. Specifically, standing asanas were thought to bring no benefit; no particular boost to the prana (energy). Thus, they did not feature in ancient yogic practice.

There may be some wisdom behind that assessment. Think about standing postures - Warrior poses, Tree Pose and so on. It takes a lot of energy to adopt such powerful asanas, doesn't it?

So, as Tantra turned yogic practice more toward the spiritual, Hatha, the physical aspect of yoga, was left to flourish on its own. Liberated from the more rigid spiritual aspects of the teachings, Hatha soon became a discipline in its own right; different types of yoga - all with their roots in Hatha made their way around the world.

Hatha yoga's history includes yoga classes only over the last century
Yoga classes are a recent development in the history of Hatha yoga. Photo credit: tarotastic on Visualhunt

Modern Yoga

We may have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in that last paragraph. It wasn't like Tantra bullied meek gurus into submission and those rebelling against chanting and mandalas hopped a jetliner for friendlier shores. It was more like yoga 'disappeared' for a few hundred years.

It didn't exactly disappear; it just went very quiet. Many gurus continued to practise yoga after the shift provoked by Tantra but there were no new texts or philosophies addressing the discipline, from around the Middle Ages until about the mid-19th Century.

That doesn't mean that Hatha yoga rested in suspended animation. From its (so far) earliest mention in the 11th Century Amrtasiddhi Buddhist text, Hatha continued to develop and evolve so that, as other-nationals landed on India's shores, they were immediately taken by the effortless grace and obvious serenity of Hatha yoga practitioners.

By no means are we glossing over the treatment those gurus suffered by those who looked on them with scorn and derision. From the 17th to the 19th Centuries, those who practised Hatha yoga endured quite a bit of hardship; indeed, they suffered persecution at the hands of the last Mughal emperor.

Hatha yoga devotees thus relocated to rural India, where the practice continued to evolve and attract new adherents.

The first British colonialists also viewed the practice in a negative light, which provoked Swami Vivekananda to formulate a distinction between the physical practice of yoga and its spiritual elements. Now, with the mystical elements removed, yoga was found to be a palatable form of exercise.

Swami Vivekananda did the most to promote Hatha yoga in the western world. In one notable conference held in Chicago, he and other spiritual leaders presented yoga to a vast audience. Soon, Americans were practising yoga and, from there, yoga made its way around the world.

Not because Americans promoted yoga but because of the cachet at the time that all things Americans embrace must be worthwhile. The actual promotion of yoga worldwide was done by some of India's most renowned gurus. We'll name them in just a mo...

Several other major changes took place during that time:

  • standing asanas were introduced: Warrior poses, Triangle Pose, Tree Pose, Forward Fold Pose and Mountain Pose among them
  • flow yoga was introduced: Vinyasa, a type of yoga in which the asanas flow into one another, is a relatively new type of yoga
  • other types of yoga were established: Kundalini yoga, Bikram yoga, Hot yoga and Power yoga; prenatal yoga, corrective yoga and rehabilitative yoga to address specific conditions
  • yoga schools were founded to teach various types of yoga, as well as teaching yoga practitioners how to become yoga instructors
  • yoga studios were established

There is still some argument about who founded the first yoga school. Some hold that Shri Yogendra founded the first yoga institute in Mumbai in 1918 while others contend the very first was started by Krishnamacharya in Mysore - but he taught Mysore yoga.

Regardless, among his students, he counted Inda Devi and B.K.S. Iyengar, both of whom went on to develop their own styles of yoga. He taught many others who made their mark on Hatha yoga...

In essence, Hatha yoga is an age-old, yet new discipline that still promotes no harm, and encourages devotees to embrace nature's duality while uniting the mind, body and spirit.

That's what Hatha has always been, and what it's still all about.

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Krishna

Writer with an enthusiasm to learn more about SEO.