What is Haṭha Yoga? The evolving definition.


The Haṭha Yoga Project team members: (from left) Daniela Bevilacqua, James Mallinson (P.I.),
Jason Birch and Mark Singleton

As the Haṭha Yoga Project marks the end of its third year, this gallant team of scholars chose to gather at the newly formed SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies to present their evolving understandings of the term haṭhayoga. On the surface, this appears to be a fairly straight forward and simple topic to discuss, because haṭhayoga is a familiar phrase which is commonly used to categorize many of the popular forms of transnational yoga practised around the world. However, when scrutinised historically through the lens of philology and when the ethnographical data from contemporary ascetic practitioners is considered, its varied meanings and the subtle nuances of understanding quickly form a very complex debate.

Each of the panelist offered insights into the definition of the term given their particular area of study. The audio recording of this event is available here:

Listen here.


Dr James Mallinson
[00:00-24:51] Early Haṭha Yoga and proto-Haṭha texts. 
Dr Jason Birch
[24:58 - 43:30] The formative years of Haṭha and Rāja Yoga and their influence on 15th - 18th century literature. 
Dr Daniela Bevilacqua
[43:31 - 58:05] The study of contemporary ascetics in India and their understanding of Haṭha Yoga. 
Dr Mark Singleton
[58:10 - 01:13:50] The transnational meanings of Haṭha Yoga which are developing in the globalised milieu of contemporary yoga.

Below are some notable quotes from each of the researchers.


The Amṛtasiddhi is the oldest of the ten texts that we’re [...] editing, as part of the Haṭha Yoga Project. And it introduces various things which become very important in later textual treatments of haṭhayoga, including these three practices that I just mentioned: mahāmudrāmahābandha and mahāvedha. 
It also goes into the principles of the yogic body: sun, moon, fire, bindu, that I’ve been mentioning; these three knots that the breath pierces as it rises up the central channel; a connection between the mind, breath and bindu (if you control one, you control the other two); the four states of practice; and then, four levels of aspirant. 
Now, we’ve just, Jason and I and others in the room, we’ve just had a workshop in Italy where we read this text very closely and we made great progress understanding it. It’s a complex text. One of the things we knew already, from a close reading of it, was that it was written by tantric Buddhists, which is a big revelation and an exciting development in our understanding of early Haṭhayoga’s history.

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Mallinson:

The early proponents of Haṭhayoga do not characterise the practice of Haṭhayoga as difficult or dangerous, but they do acknowledge that manipulating prāṇa forcefully was dangerous and could kill the practitioner. Therefore, they advise that the techniques of Haṭhayoga should be learnt from an expert and that they should be practised gradually, and never forcefully. 
Nonetheless, those who rejected Haṭhayoga emphasised the dangers of forcing the breath and advocated for easier and safer ways for achieving liberation. In particular, gnostic traditions tend to exaggerate the difficulty and exertion of physical yoga techniques because, from their point of view, there are more effective methods for gaining knowledge. 
Perhaps, in response to this criticism, haṭhayoga was defined (in the fourteenth century) as the union of the sun and moon, which was interpreted to mean the practice of prāṇāyāma. This definition became the preferred one of erudite Brahmins who wrote scholarly compendiums that incorporated teachings on Haṭhayoga. In defining Haṭhayoga as prāṇāyāma, within the system of aṣṭāngayoga, these compendiums downplay the forceful effects of physical yoga techniques and emphasise their compatibility with older systems of yoga.

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Birch:

The majority of the ascetics that I interviewed were understanding haṭhayoga not as a kind of method of yoga, but mostly as a kind of mental intention. So, Haṭhayoga is a dṛdh saṅkalp and it is a firm determination to accomplish something or reach a goal. […] 
[The] use of the breath as an interpretation of Haṭhayoga is another type of meaning that the sādhus give to the [term]. And, in fact, this has been explained to me by a sādhu, Garuḍ Dās jī Mahārāji. [He is] a Rāmānujī, and he understood haṭhayoga as [follows]:

Manhant Garuḍ Dās jī Mahārāji: 
“The aim of Haṭhayoga is to reach keval kumbhak and then to go into samādhi. Therefore, the haṭha yogi reaches a stage where he is not going to breathe again if he does not want to and, in so doing, he can push his body into death. The final stage of Haṭhayoga would be the death of the yogi who remains in samādhi.”

Here is some open access background reading material on this topic by Bevilacqua:

An idea that has been growing in popularity, at least since the book called Selling Spirituality (2004) by Carrette and King, is that Yoga along with practices that are prevalent now such as Mindfulness, can be seen as political tools, which are used in conjunction with neoliberalism and commercialisation, in order to get people back to work. So, you relax people and send them back to work the next day. It’s sort of a critique of Haṭhayoga, and in some ways quite a powerful one and [it is] something of an academic trend to see practices (including Haṭhayoga), framed this way. There are some obvious problems with such a theory. [...]

So, I am musing at the moment, as I’m currently reading the new book by Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, where he is talking about the rise of artificial intelligence and the coming of the part-human, part-AI cyborg. This is an idea that I first came across in the context of yoga in the work of Joseph Alter:

In many respects the cyborg is in effect the ultimate embodied form of yogic practice, a jivanmukta as everyman. 
I’m wondering what will now become of Haṭhayoga and how we are going to think about and define Haṭhayoga in a world where humans are increasingly interacting with technology: with biohacking; with possibilities for the elongation of life (so a very typical goal of hathayoga would be immortality, which is apparently now a very near biomedical reality); with new trends to use [tools, such as] the MUSE headband for monitoring your own brainwaves into order to bring yourself into meditative states and NADI X yoga pants that will actually vibrate to tell you how you should move in a particular yoga posture.
So, a philosophical question to leave you with: 
What does yoga become in a post-human cyborg world?

Here is some further helpful (open access) background reading on this topic by Singleton:

Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives.


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