Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Searching for the True Meaning of Haṭha

Published: 10 April, 2012

Modern yoga teachers and their teachings are an eclectic mix.  Attend a yoga class in your local area today and it may be promoted using any number of colourful adjectives: "hot", "fast", "dynamic", "vinyasa", "flow", "insightful", "powerful".  You may (or may not) be surprised to learn that the Sanskrit term haṭhayoga literally means "the Yoga of force".  Most styles of modern yoga, including Aṣṭāṅga and Iyengar, are said to be forms of Haṭhayoga but rarely do you read marketing material describing a yoga class as "forceful" or "violent".  So why is the term force used to describe Haṭhayoga when most teachers emphasize the guiding principle of ahiṃsā (non-violence)?

Ask an Indian guru and he may answer that the force (or the violence) of Haṭhayoga refers to the self-torture endured by those practising extreme asceticism or tapas, such as fasting or holding one arm above one's head for many years.  Or he may offer a more esoteric definition based on the syllables ha and ṭha, that is "the union of the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha)" in the body.

Finding the first definition particularly difficult to apply in practice (and perhaps market!), most Western teachers opt for the more poetic definition "the union of the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha)".  This meaning has become so prolific in modern yoga publications that it would be easy to believe this is the more accurate and wholesome definition.

But are either of these definitions the true historical meaning of Haṭhayoga?  Where does the name Haṭhayoga come from?  How old is it?  How does the term haṭha (force) apply to a yoga practice?

A recently published article "The Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga" by Jason Birch in the Journal of the American Oriental Society (December, 2011) goes some way to answer these questions. 

Jason states that "rather than the metaphysical explanation of uniting the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha), it is more likely that the name Haṭhayoga was inspired by the meaning ‘force’."

In this article, Jason identifies the earliest use of the term Haṭhayoga as far back as the Buddhist tantras in the 8th century.  His research concludes that the ha-ṭha syllable definition was a late development and that the name Haṭhayoga was probably first adopted because the techniques forced apāna (the downward moving breath) to move upwards; "The descriptions of forcefully moving kuṇḍalinī, apāna, or bindu upwards through the central channel suggest that the “force” of Haṭhayoga qualifies the effects of its techniques, rather than the effort required to perform them."

The meaning of Sanskrit terms such as kuṇḍalinī, apāna, and bindu are interpreted differently by various teachers and traditions.  But perhaps practitioners of all styles of modern yoga could benefit by contemplating whether their practice is forceful in the sense of 'effective' and having 'powerful results' on vitality, or whether it is forceful in terms of 'exertion'.  

An effective practice requires skill, knowledge and experience whereas forceful exertion does not.  Practising yoga with exertion may lead to fatigue or injury which detract from both the physical and mental benefits of yoga.  In fact, the Haṭhapradīpikā includes exertion in a list of six obstacles to yoga.
We are pleased to share Jason's article "The Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga" in full for wider distribution.  Please feel free to use it in your teaching or research.  Be warned that it is an academic read, so best to skip the footnotes unless you are that way inclined or find it particularly interesting.   Acknowledgment of the author and publisher when quoting from this article is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Getting the History Right - Yoga in the New York Times

Published: 1 March, 2012

Williams Broad's recent article in the New York Times on "Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here"
contains historical inaccuracies which undermine his argument and integrity.  He claims that Haṭhayoga "began as a sex cult".  This bizarre statement is based on his mistaken belief that the sexual practices of Tantra were adopted by Haṭhayoga, and these practices included the postures and breathing exercises which have become central to modern yoga.

Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (late 18th - 19th c.)
Photo: Jacqueline Hargreaves
Tantric Śaivism reached its zenith in the 10 - 11th centuries with the work of the great Kashmirian Śaiva, Abhinavagupta.  Textual evidence confirms that Haṭhayoga rose to prominence from the 12 - 15th centuries A.D. (in works such as the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, Vivekamārtaṇḍa, Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā, Gorakṣaśataka, Yogabīja and so on).  Much of the terminology in the early Haṭha texts derived from Tantra, but two great innovations had occurred.  Firstly, Haṭhayoga had discarded the complex metaphysics, doctrine and ritual system of Tantra.  This included any transgressive practices of consuming meat, alcohol and ritualized sex.  And secondly, the focus of Haṭhayoga was almost entirely on the practice of yoga rather than other methods of liberation such as gnosis and rituals like initiation (dīkṣā).  By the time of the 15th century, Haṭhayoga had developed a much more complex system of physical practice than earlier forms of Tantric yoga, including many new complex postures (āsana) and breathing exercises with locks (bandhas) and seals (mudrā).

Broad’s comments imply that sex was central to Tantra’s ritual practice.  This is not true.  Ritualized sex was not practiced by all Tantric sects and, when it was practiced, it was but one component in a complex ritual system, which was built on the use of mantras, visualisation, mandalas, mudrās, contemplation, worshiping a deity, making offerings into a fire, etc.  The rich diversity of this religion is lost in Broad's comments and I would encourage anyone who is curious about Tantra to read Alexis Sanderson’s articles, which include the textual, epigraphical and archaeological evidence behind his statements.   

The only sexual practice described in some of the above-mentioned Haṭha texts is Vajrolīmudrā, in which the male Yogin absorbs, via his urethra, a mixture of his semen and a female yoga practitioner's sexual fluids.  The aim of this practice was not "rapturous bliss" but the retention of sexual fluids, which was believed to bring about greater strength, a longer life, a pleasant smell to the body and freedom from disease.  These benefits could also be achieved through chastity and other mudrās, so Vajrolīmudrā was not central to Haṭhayoga and half of the aforementioned texts omit it. 

Mahāmandir in Jodhpur (late 18th - 19th c.)
Photo: Jacqueline Hargreaves
Far from describing the practices of a sex cult, Haṭhayoga texts generally advise male yogins not to associate with women.  After all, Haṭhayoga was usually practiced alone in an isolated place.  Apart from the goal of liberation from worldly life, the texts frequently mention that postures and breathing exercises purify body and mind, give freedom from disease and lead to steadiness of body and mind.  Contrary to Broad's claim, I know of not one instance in a Haṭha text where a posture or breathing exercise is said to bring about sexual arousal.

One must wonder whether Broad has read that Haṭhayoga was designed to raise Kuṇḍalinī, which, far from her early origins as a Goddess, became a metaphor for sexual energy in some 20th-century yoga books influenced by New Age religion.  The raising of Kuṇḍalinī in pre-20th century Haṭhayoga texts is said to cause meditative absorption (i.e. samādhi) and is not concerned with boosting one’s sexual performance.  Even in New Age yoga books, sexual energy is raised for purposes which they considered to be “higher” than mere worldly sexual intercourse.

As to why Haṭhayoga fell into disrepute in 19th century India, see the second chapter of Mark Singleton's book, Yoga Body.  It is true that modern yoga was the result of a reformation in the early 20th century, but the suggestion that its founders unwittingly or otherwise adopted techniques designed for sexual stimulation is false.  The fact that gurus such as Kṛṣṇamācārya and Iyengar do not mention Tantra in their publications has more to do with their own religious affiliation which is closer to the orthodox Brahmanical traditions of India rather than Tantric ones.  Hence, they prefer and teach Patañjali's Yogasūtras and the Bhagavad Gītā, and quote the Haṭha texts to a lesser degree.

The underlying flaw in Broad's argument is that he presents no evidence, scientific or historical, that Haṭhayoga practices cause sexual arousal.  They may lead to health and perhaps less likelihood of impotence, but the suggestion that they cause sexual arousal is absurd.  He does not consider whether the sexual transgressions of gurus and yoga teachers derive from the temptation of a charismatic leader to abuse their power over devoted followers.  One must wonder why Broad has attempted to link yoga techniques with sex scandals in the way that he has.  Some journalists do think that controversy benefits all and to this end are willing to ignore or cherry-pick the evidence and throw out the truth.

Jason Birch
Jason Birch has been dedicated to the study of Sanskrit and the practice of Yoga since 1996.  His special interest is in the Medieval Yoga traditions of India, particularly the Sanskrit texts of Hatha Yoga and the Raja Yoga that stemmed from Tantric Shaivism.  He is reading for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Oriental Studies (Sanskrit) at Oxford University under the supervision of Professor Alexis Sanderson.