Hatha yoga has always held a curious fascination for Westerners, on account of the great physical rigors demanded of its practitioners. While some of the more contemplational forms of yoga, which we will examine in future articles, found analogs in the West’s traditions of Christian meditation, nothing like hatha yoga had ever fully developed in Europe. Consequently, it first appeared to Western eyes in much the same vein as those Hindu sages who walked over coals, grew their fingernails back through their hands, or were dragged through processions by hooks run through their nipples. The Monier-Williams dictionary included in its definition of the term that it is “performed with much self-torture.” As the specific examples adduced, however, were of “standing on one leg,” and “holding up the arms,” we might comfortably assume that, like many lexicographers, the Monier-Williams editors simply were not very athletic.
Though hatha yoga may have looked less high-minded than some other forms at a superficial glance, nothing could have been further from the truth. Photo from Flickr
Though hatha yoga may have looked less high-minded than some other forms at a superficial glance, nothing could have been further from the truth. The sage Patanjali is credited with having written the Yoga Sutras—a compilation of yogic instruction dating to sometime around the second century BC. This work was held for centuries as the definitive manual of yoga, which it divided into eight “limbs”, or essential practices. These were yama, the five abstentions from violence, falseness, covetousness, sex (and other forms of excess), and possessiveness; niyama, the five observances of cleanliness, satisfaction with what one has, self-discipline, Vedic study, and surrender to God; asana, the discipline of the body by postures; pranayama, the control of the breath; pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses from the world; dharana, concentration on a meditational aid, dhyana, discipline of thought in meditation; and finally samadhi, the achievement of oneness with the object of meditation, which ultimately formed the means to experience oneness with God. Samadhi became the tool for the final part of the process, for which the eight limbs of yoga were only preparation; one had then to descend to the very core of one’s consciousness to experience viscerally one’s non-difference from all that is, thus attaining kaivalya, or ‘isolation’—not because one is cut off from others, but because one realizes that one is coextensive with all existence, and reposes alone at one with the universe, both physical and spiritual.
The fourteenth century yogi Swatmarama began his practice immersed in this system. In time, however, he came to feel that samadhi could be achieved without the five abstentions of yama and the five observances of niyama that Patanjali had included. He laid out his resulting six-limbed (sadanga) discipline in a work called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dedicated to Shiva, who was said to have been the first to teach hatha yoga to his consort Parvati, but who was overheard by a fish that transmitted the teachings to the world. Just as the eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga were only a preparation for the practice of samadhi to achieve kaivalya, so too hatha yoga was not meant to be an end in itself. It was an intensive system of physical training designed, through mastery of every element of the physical self, to replicate the effect of the monastic rigors formerly imposed.
This was to be done by bringing balance holistically to the human body, both in its physical and its metaphysical anatomies. Each asana, or pose, when combined with proper control of the breath and stilling of the mind, helped to bring about a creative balance between hot and cold, male and female, positive and negative in the body. The results, it was said, would be slenderness of form, cheerfulness of face, brightness of eyes, improved digestion, the hearing of mystical sounds, the clearing of the spiritual channels of the body (nadis), and, of course, the ability to engage in samadhi.
As mentioned before, it was probably the unfamiliar and intense physicality of hatha practice that caught the attention of Westerners, who were used to thinking of the affairs of the body as being separate from the affairs of the mind or of the spirit in a way that they have never been in India. Although India and the West have been in extensive mutual contact since the time of Alexander the Great, cultural traffic between them increased by orders of magnitude during the time of the British raj in the nineteenth century. By that time, medicine and religion had become altogether different practices in the mainstream West, and the reception of hatha yoga, both from returning Englishmen who had studied it and native Indian teachers who came to the West (such as the famous Vivekananda) came through the most analogous channel. Swatmarama’s theories of balance in the human body bore more than a passing resemblance to the ideas of ancient Greek and medieval European thinkers, who wrote extensively about the importance of balancing the so-called ‘humors’ of the body. These old-time physicians, who themselves practiced integrated disciplines of physical and spiritual training, would well have understood Swatmarama. With the triumph of science in Western thought, however, they had generally become misremembered as crude doctors, rather than passingly sophisticated yogis, and hatha yoga, too, came to be associated primarily with health and fitness. The forms practiced in the West today often come very close to being two-limbed, having narrowed their focus toward asanas and pranayama.
How much more yoga has to offer than this, however, becomes abundantly clear in some of its other forms, which found their analogs in Western meditation and spirituality so successfully that most people in the West today don’t even recognize them as forms of yoga. The great expounder of these was not Shiva, but an avatar of the God Vishnu who, in his time on the Earth, was known as Krishna, and who has become almost as popular in the West as yoga itself.