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History of Hatha Yoga

The Hatha Yoga or the Physical Dimension of Meditation

Hatha Yoga is the physical dimension of yoga, its two main disciplines being posture and breath work. But Hatha Yoga is not – or at least historically was not – a style of yoga that reduced it to the physical aspect. In the beginning there was only the one yoga, sometimes referred to as Maha Yoga, the great yoga. Before the one greater yoga broke apart into small factions, Hatha Yoga was the physical school through which all yogis had to pass. No yogi, however, remained at the level of Hatha Yoga or even reduced yoga to this level. Hatha Yoga was thus the ‘primary school’ of the yogic education system. In a similar fashion Raja Yoga was the meditation school of Maha Yoga, which all yogis attended during some part of their journey. We could liken it to today’s high school level of education. In the ancient days you did not start this level of yoga without the primary education.

Similarly we can look at Bhakti Yoga, the devotional discipline of yoga, as the tertiary education level. It was attended after proficiency in Raja Yoga had been gained: you would never go there straight from primary school or without any prior education. It is only in modern history that the link of these disciplines has been fractured and people practise one or the other exclusively.

The medieval yoga text Hatha Ratnavali states that, without success in Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga cannot be obtained. This statement means that spiritual realization has a physical dimension without which it is nothing more than self-hypnosis. Such self-hypnosis or belief can easily collapse in the next crisis. Yogis are not satisfied with belief; they want to know. For, if you believe, how do you know that your belief is not wrong?

Deep knowledge, or vijnana as yogis call it, holds even in moments of crisis. Such knowledge has to hold even if it is tested in the difficult moments of life. For this reason, to attain the total transformation of the human being it is not enough just to change your mind by sitting down and meditating. This will not lead to lasting change. The body and the breath have to be included in the change as well. The higher yoga of meditation is a seed that can sprout into the blossom of spiritual freedom, but for that to occur the seed has to be sown into ground that has undergone preparation through Hatha Yoga.

While today on the one hand we face the problem of meditators who do not adequately prepare the body for meditation,on the other hand we have Hatha yogis who get stuck in the meaningless drudgery of mere physical yoga. If the yogi does not go beyond the practice of posture and breath work, and does not graduate to and include formal meditation, then Hatha Yoga is not what it purports to be. It is then mere body-building, body-beautifying and gymnastics.There is nothing wrong with those, as long as the label clearly states that we are doing only that. The problem with today’s physical yoga is that it pretends to be more. And it is so only if it merges into the mental and spiritual disciplines of yoga.

The great Shankaracharya declares text Aparokhsanubhuti that Raja Yoga (i.e. the yoga of meditation) can lead to freedom, but only for those whose minds are completely purified. But he also says that, for those who have not reached that stage, Raja Yoga needs to be combined with Hatha Yoga. It is important that we do not prematurely nurture thoughts of attainment, as this will prevent true attainment. To counteract such tendencies, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that, as long as prana has not entered the Sushumna (central energy channel), all talk of knowledge is nothing but the rambling of fools. Yoga has always held that true knowledge is not something that just takes place in one’s mind, but that true knowledge has a physical, a biochemical or bioelectrical, component (although one should never reduce it to that component alone). In yoga this component is called siddhi (power of attainment).

Yogis believe that it is not enough just to talk about jnana (knowledge). Siddhi means that attainment of true knowledge must also involve transformation of the body and breathing pattern. Otherwise knowledge is relegated to the sphere of belief or just consists of bold statements.

Hatha Yoga is the discipline that deals with the physical and respiratory component of true knowledge. It is the foundation of all yoga, and it prepares the yogi for the practice of the higher limbs.

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