Learning content

Towards the Understanding of the Intricacies and Controversies of Hatha-yoga

1. In which way is hatha-yoga forceful?

It is forceful only in the sense of being power-full, not in the sense that it is violent in any way. The body, breath and mind cannot be forced into anything except into some detrimental perversion. The Sanskrit noun hatha is a synonym for sakti, or power, and it actually means persistence, strong determination, so its adverbial usage hathena, or hathat, means persistently, with clear intention and firm discipline, not by force, as it is evident or even explicitly stated in all classical texts on hatha-yoga. The very idea is that hatha-yoga must be pleasurable and practiced very gently in stages. That is exactly the reason why it is tantra, not tapasya, as it is wrongly believed by many modern ascetic or lay practitioners and some scholars. And it is tantra because the wholehearted participation in the union of opposites is what is actually important in all forms of tantra-yoga: ha-tha, surya-soma, prana-apana, pingala-ida, bindu-nada, akula-kula, asvara-svara, paramatma-jivatma, prakasa-vimarsa, aham-idam, siva-sakti etc. Essentially, tantra is a radically non-dual/monistic experience of Life because it means the direct immersion into the Overall Interconnectedness of Everything with Everything forming the Whole of Existence. And the underlying substance, or the Source of This All, can be perceived as either empty (sunya), as emphasized in Buddhist tantra, because no entity exists by itself, only in close interdependence with every other entity that exists, or it can be perceived full (purna), as emphasized in Hindu tantra, because every entity in essence is the Source Reality. So, whatever is considered to be the Ultimate Reality, it is always One Reality.

Hatha-yoga cannot be properly understood if it is not actually practiced or if it is practiced apart from its tantric basis and context. It is also true that different people practice all kinds of things in very different ways with very different ideas and goals, and tantra undoubtedly is a very complex phenomenon, but the point is to get to the point of all points (bindu) and practice what is truly meaningful and useful to each and every practitioner (svatantra). There is still a lot of controversy about the real nature, philosophy and history of hatha-yoga in spite of a great deal of research done in the last one hundred years or so. However, a lot of clearing still remains to be done and probably things will never get absolutely clear when it comes to the historical origin and original purpose of hatha-yoga. The main question then obviously is what it means to us modern practitioners today and how we can utilize it for our specific purposes effectively.

There are strong indicationsthat hatha-yoga was practiced for centuries by all types of people in India, including women and householders, not just by renunciates. Emphasis was never on asana, but on the comprehensive body-based and concentration-oriented practices that prepared for raja-yoga, usually meaning the experience of meditative absorption (samadhi) into the object of cognition and devotion, whatever it may be. The central practice was always pranayama,or careful regulation of the breath (prana), while the so called “physical practices” of kriya, asana and mudra were there mainly to support pranayama and meditation, and pranayama was perceived as the best introduction to meditation, whose culmination is total psycho-somatic (re)integration, or samadhi. However, the number of people practicing was generally very small, and they were mostly men, often mixing hatha-yoga with different forms of tapas. One of the most influential modern Yoga teachers T. Krishnamacharya tried to change that, as did other hatha-yoga revivalists in the 20th century like Swami Sivananda, Shri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayananda, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri and many others.

Modern sadhus in India are mostly clueless about hatha-yoga: they either do some mantra-japa or do some form of tapas that they sometimes call hatha, but mostly roam around begging and smoking hashish. If they do any asana, pranayama, mudra and other hatha-yoga techniques, they usually do them haphazardly with little or no understanding of either the interconnectedness of all the practices or the inner dynamics these practices are supposed to create. On the other hand, modern scientific research of hatha-yoga mostly medicalized it, that is turned it into an alternative or complementary prevention/therapy, which was often translated into popular styles of the so called “postural yoga” almost totally divorced from its ancient roots. In fact, most modern practitioners think hatha-yoga is just one of the styles of contemporary postural yoga. Mark Whitwell, a worthy student of Krishnamacharya and his middle son T. K. V. Desikachar, is clearing all that up, and modern indologists, whether practitioners or not, are often confusing it with their endless analyses of the intricate historical, philosophical and linguistic facets of hatha-yoga.

2. What was Krishnamacharya’s understanding of hatha-yoga?

In my humble opinion and to the best of my knowledge, the greatest exponent and most influential teacher of hatha-yoga in the 20th century was Sri Tirumalai Muchukunte Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), also known as “the father of modern yoga”, and with a good reason. He modified the ancient practices to suit the unique requirements of modern practitioners and, contrary to what many modern researchers think of him, he revitalized the whole tradition without any significant Western influence. However, being an orthodox vaishnava, he tried to purge hatha-yoga from its tantric roots and “inappropriate” practices, but realized it was impossible and unnecessary. Instead, he emphasized and adapted the techniques that he thought were most useful for contemporary people and clearly declared that without an appropriate hatha practice, meaning primarily personalized asana and pranayama, which is deep enjoyment in the actual union of opposites such as movement and stillness, body and breath, inhale and exhale, receptivity and strength, above and below, front and back, right and left, heaven and earth, inside and outside, male and female etc., no lofty religious or spiritual ideals can be achieved, including good health, mental stability, wellness, vitality and longevity as the basic preconditions for human development.

Krishnamacharya undoubtedly was a staunch traditionalist doing his best to adapt to the rapidly changing world in which he lived. He was deeply aware of the changes and the need to adapt, as it is evident in the revolutionary and radical stuff that he did in the sphere of sincerely teaching and popularizing Yoga among all classes of people, including the Westerners, women and children. However, that flexibility had its limits and he also felt the need to stick to his (mainly patriarchal) tradition, which is understandable. We are all, to a great extent, the product of the society in which we live and probably can never completely get out the social conditioning because we wouldn’t be able to communicate with our social reality, but we must seek and demand our personal freedom to live our lives the way we feel we should. Krishnamacharya encouraged and empowered people to do exactly that by teaching them the Yoga that is right for them. How far will one go in his/her practice, life, love and freedom is entirely up to him/her. And there are no boundaries to human growth.

The important “feminine” point that was somewhat missing or was not explicitly present in Krishnamacharya’s teachings is the power of receptivity. Hatha-yoga, if practiced non-obsessively and with special attention given to soft inhaling and deep relaxation, as emphasized by Mark Whitwell, clearly develops this badly needed power in such a practitioner, and that has a very special significance. The elements of pleasure and devotion then spontaneously seep in and hatha-yoga becomes truly regenerative; it stops being any kind of violent manipulation of the body, breath and mind. And it stops being a mere reflection of the limitations imposed on the individual by society, or a heroic effort of an inspired individual to transcend social constraints, or even a blatant escape from social reality. On the contrary, it becomes a constant and strong transformative power, both on the individual and the collective level.

3. How to practice hatha-yoga effectively?

Language, translations and cultural exchange can be quite misleading. Also, there is personal experience in those people who are actually practicing and that is the highest authority when it comes to determining the essence and course of something that is so entirely practical and personal as (hatha-)yoga definitely is. The idea that hatha means “forceful” or even violent comes from the fact that it aims at “controlling” the body, breath and mind through the systematic application of a specific set of techniques such as karman/kriya, asana/karana, mudra/bandha, pranayama/prana-samrodha, nadanusandhana, different types of dhyana and some others. But, what is the nature of this controlling (nirodha, samrodha, badha etc.)? Is it crude force applied with violence or is it persistent refined effort supported by subtle pleasure, deep sensitivity and sincere devotion? My experience tells me the latter is the case, especially because I don’t really want to control anything, just fully enjoy my enlightening embodiment and healing relatedness.

So, hatha-yoga, if practiced as “strength receiving”, with special emphasis on receiving, since our predominantly patriarchal culture emphasizes (male) strength at the expense of (female) receptivity, truly becomes a “nurturing force” that removes all obstacles to receiving oneself and others. This is the creative and playful aspect of this practice. The destructive and transformative aspect is the strong emotivity that goes hand in hand with the deepened receptivity and helps the practicing individual see through all the social conditioning and actually start living his/her life no matter what. This can be and often is the “hard” part of the practice, but it inevitably comes as the Siva part of the practice after the Sakti part first softened the whole system and allowed us to feel vulnerable, open and fragile. It can only happen like this because female softness is a bit more important for the balance (samarasya) of the Whole than the male hardness. This is what I got from Mark Whitwell and it completely transformed my practice of hatha-yoga from hurtful gymnastics into what it is supposed to be – a “discipline of pleasure” and full “participation in the union of opposites”. I simply realized that the only restriction I had in my life was my imagined inability to love, and hatha-yoga helped me remove that mind-made restriction by the breath-centered practice of daily intimacy with myself.

Modern styles of postural yoga aside, serious practitioners of hatha-yoga are extremely rare nowadays as they have always been. My teacher Mark Whitwell is one such serious and rare practitioner that helped me immensely in understanding what hatha-yoga is really about and how to practice it safely, effectively and with pleasure. Hatha-yoga inevitably is our whole-body participation in the union of opposites that we are and the main goal of the practice is the on-going discovery of our divine nature and living it in all our humanity in spite of all the difficulties suggesting otherwise. Ultimately, it is not even participation, because that implies duality. It is a spontaneous, creative and liberating response to the unfathomable mystery of being alive in the Cosmos as this moving, breathing, thinking, conscious, feeling and totally related human being whose true nature is nothing but Divinity. It is simply being in and being the mystery of existence, living and dying with each new breath within This Power that moves my breath and probably knows why it gave me birth into this life, why it keeps me alive for a while and why it is going to take me away from this world into the inconceivable immensity that I can already feel with every breath I take.

This Power is All there is and I am That. Siva is Sakti and the other way round, there is no One without the Other. Their Union – siva-sakty-aikya – which is the essential tantric definition of Yoga, is the truth and the state of affairs, the whole truth about how things are and how we can “participate” in it. Namely, we participate in this Divine Union through our personal and personalized practice of hatha-yoga, and then we live it out in our relational life as Life’s natural movement to Life. There is no duality, no separation (dvaita), only non-duality (advaita), or one cosmic movement of the infinite ocean of cognition (jnana-sagara) and utter devotion (bhakti). Duality is “just” a fragmented perception of the Whole owing to the conflict/necessity of survival and our need/desire to fit into the society in which we live. And we can release this painful stress, and we can be relieved of the constant demand to conform. Hatha-yoga certainly is a powerful way to do precisely that and freely explore the limitlessness of our human potential for transformation, authenticity and growth.

by Domagoj Orlić