The Texts of Hatha Yoga
by Sohaila Akbar
Hatha Yoga is a school or a branch of Yoga that stresses on using physical techniques to master the body. And why is this mastery of the body required? To preserve and channel prana or the vital energy in the body, so that eventually a state of spirituality can be attained. Hatha Yoga aims to attain this by a combined practice of Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, bandha and shat karmas. So, it is not just an Asana practice; it encompasses all practices that make it a Yoga Marga, or a path to the ultimate aim.
Asanas are physical postures; Pranayama involves breathing techniques; Mudras are symbolic gestures of mostly the palms and fingers that facilitate the pranic flow in the body, and shat karmas are specific cleansing techniques to purify the body.
The Texts of Hatha Yoga
There are various texts on Hatha Yoga that serve as practice manuals. Some of the important texts are Hathapradipika, Goraksasataka, Sivasamhita, Hatharatnavali and Gherandasamhita.
Hathapradipika, which dates back to the 15th century and was authored by Svatmarama, is a commentary on the core practices of Hatha Yoga while introducing Asana and Pranayama of various complexity levels. It is considered as the authoritative text on Hatha yoga as it coherently compiled the various practices. Comprising 390 slokas or verses, this book is divided into the following 4 chapters:
- Asana: It lists 15 postures, the causes of success and failures in Yoga, and the yogic diet.
- Pranayama: It lists 6 breathing techniques and 8 breath retention techniques.
- Mudra: 10 mudras and bandhas are listed, which deal with awakening the kundalini power.
- Samadhi: It talks about laya or dissolution, and nadanusandhana or concentration on the inner sound.
Let’s look at some of the important directives in Hathapradipika. It mentions that Yoga is destroyed by overeating or gluttony, overexertion, talking too much, performing meaningless austerities, over-socializing and being restless and unsteady.
Along with this it states that success in yoga is brought about by enthusiasm, openness, courage, consistency and patience, knowledge of the truth, determination and solitude.
Hathapradipika emphasizes that success can only be achieved by practice, and not by merely reading books, wearing appropriate clothes or simply talking about yoga. It also talks about the necessity of a guru under whom one can practice earnestly. It says that knowledge, liberation, stability and success are attained from a guru’s teachings.
Another important aspect in this text is the interdependence of Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga. It is mentioned in Hathapradipika that neither can Hatha Yoga be perfected without Raja Yoga nor one can attain Raja Yoga without practising Hatha Yoga. Raja Yoga is commonly understood as practices involving meditation, in order to reach a higher state of consciousness. So, we see that Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana are both Hatha Yogic and Raja Yogic practices. The systematic practices of Hatha techniques are essential in order to prepare the mind and body for achieving the state of Raja Yoga. Both forms are like the two sides of a coin; where Hatha Yoga provides the practical methods to access Raja Yoga.
Goraksasataka, dating back to the 11th or 12th century, is attributed to the sage Goraksa. It is one of the earliest texts to describe complex Pranayama methods, and the first to teach the technique to gain enlightenment by arousing kundalini, the coiled serpent Goddess at the base of the spine in her dormant form.
In Goraksasataka, the ultimate goal is spiritual liberation, which requires the control of the mind by way of controlling the breath. And to master the breath, three methods need to be practised simultaneously: having a controlled yogic diet, assuming a particular Asana and stimulating kundalini.
Sivasamhita is one of the oldest surviving texts on the subject of hatha yoga. The author and the date of its compilation are unknown. It covers 84 Asanas, 5 types of pranas, meditation, mudras, tantra, and also yogic philosophy, specifically the Advaita Vedanta.
Hatharatnavali, authored by Srinivasa in the 17th century, defines hatha yoga as the 10 mudras beginning with mahamudra, the 8 cleansing techniques, the 9 breath retention techniques and the 84 Asanas. It was the first text to name all 84 Asanas, 36 of which are described in detail.
Gherandasamhita, a text from the 18th century, is almost an encyclopaedic treatise on hatha yoga. It talks about the seven-fold yoga, namely, 6 purification techniques, 32 Asanas, 25 mudras, 10 Pranayamas, Pratyahara (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi.
While most of these texts were originally aimed at male ascetics who had renounced worldly pleasures, today their teachings are adopted by practitioners irrespective of their genders and societal status. It is a testament to the fact that the methods described in these texts help practitioners in their respective yoga journeys.
So, having lightly read upon the content of various hatha yoga texts, we understand that it all comes down to actual practice. And as a motivation for practice, let’s see the ultimate goals and benefits of Hatha Yoga that are aptly summarized in Chapter 4, verse 31 to 34 of Sivasamhita:
“The ability to make all the nadis flow, the steadying of bindu, the incineration of impurities, the destruction of sins, the heating of kundalini, the insertion of the wind into the aperture of Brahman, the curing of all diseases, the increase of the digestive fire, perfect physical beauty, the destruction of old age and death, the achievement of desired goals, happiness and the conquest of the senses: through practice, all these arise for the yogi on the path of yoga. This is not to be doubted.”
[Source: The Shiva Samhita: A Critical Edition and An English Translation by James Mallinson]
About the Author
Sohaila is a Yoga teacher, keen on bringing about positive changes in the lives of others through the knowledge that she has received from her teachers. Prior to this she was a school teacher working towards imparting academic, social and ecological knowledge to young learners. Sohaila is an avid reader of books and have an undying love for fiction. She prefers paperbacks and hardcovers over e-books anyday. She loves travelling, and a good cup of coffee is always welcome!