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.