When a student, who had heard of the foundational history of Hatha Yoga from me, was told in a Teacher Training course that Hatha Yoga was created by smoking sadhus who stand on their heads, I felt it was time to write this blog.
Over the years I have seen some creatively flamboyant “free for alls” written under the topic of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga is a gentle “class” for beginners. Hatha Yoga is a “soft practice” for physically challenged. Hatha Yoga is a “style” of easy physical postures. A system of physical postures founded by Sage Patanjali et al, are just some of the baseless arguments I have heard and seen in the Yoga world over the last decade.
This blog, though not exhaustive, is a short write up to clarify a few things about traditional Hatha Yoga, its origins and its founders.
To start with, Hatha Yoga is NOT just a system of physical manipulations (exercises) but is a extensive spiritual philosophy (which includes practices) based in the quintessential fundamental of spiritual liberation. It is a moksha shastra itself, the science of fundamental liberation.
Hatha Yoga as a spiritual path came to the forefront around the 9th Cent. A.D. Note: I have mentioned “came to the fore front” and have not used the word “originated,” or “founded”. (I will give the reasons for this in another blog)
The word “Hatha” has been ambiguously translated in modern English translations as “forceful”. Even though the word Hatha (pronounced as Huth) in English is translated as “forceful” it should not be viewed as effortful and compelled. In fact none of the traditional Hatha Yoga scriptures have even a single line in them that suggests that the Hatha yoga path is forceful. The word “Hatha” is never used in Hatha Yoga texts to refer to violent means or forceful effort. In fact, Hatha Pradipika warns the Yogic practitioner against being impatient and forceful. The word actually means and conveys strong determination, directed will and intense self effort in order to facilitate the mergence (samarasa) of Individual and Universal consciousness. Even today, in many local Indian languages, when a child throws a tantrum he is said to be doing “Hatha/Huth“. Thus, it does not convey pain but signifies intense longing. Hatha also has another meaning, a metaphysical one. Hatha is the result of the union of two syllables “Ha” which signifies the solar energy and “Tha” which signifies the lunar energy. The Sun is known by the syllable “Ha” and the moon by the syllable “Tha”, the active and passive energies of our Being.
Owing to the union of the sun and moon, Hathayoga is named thus. – Yoga Bija
The meaning of Ha-Tha is the union of two spiritual energetic forces which are the constituents of our materialized Being. The name itself makes one aware of the goal of Hatha Yoga. The ordinary human appears to be imprisoned in the complex of psycho spiritual embodiment, limited by the dualities of life. The goal of Hatha Yoga is to see (experience) the unity in diversity, the essential One-ness in the duality and to manifest the union of Jiva and Shiva. Thus, Hatha Yoga is neither a “class,” a “style,” nor a “sequence” of asanas, it is an extensive science of spiritual liberation.
The founder of this system is Mahayogi Matsyendranath who received the doctrine of Hatha Yoga from Lord Shiva himself. Matsyendranath passed on the doctrine to his disciple Mahayogi Gorakhnath (Gorakshanath). Gorakhnath is instrumental in propagation of Hatha Yoga science in the recent times. Just as Ramakrishna had Vivekananda, Yukteshwar had Yogananada in the same fashion Matsyendra found in Gorakh the spirit, motivation, devotion and faith to bring Hatha Yoga to the masses. Lord Shiva is considered to be the source of both, Hatha Vidya (Wisdom of Hatha) and Natha lineage. He is invoked as Adinatha (Primordial Lord). Guru Dattatreya is considered as the facilitator who blessed Matsyendra and Gorakh as they went about awakening the masses with this venerable psycho-spiritual science.
The founders of Hatha Yoga science through the lineage of Adinath (Shiva), Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath are known as Nathas. The word Natha has two primary meanings. First, Natha means Na+Atha, the one which is beginning-less, unborn and primal. In this sense Natha means the immortal principle of Shiva consciousness. It is the lineage and teaching inspired by the One who is the beginning less. So in this sense, the teachings of Hatha Yoga too are beginning less and immortal. Secondly, Natha also means the protector, nurturer and care taker. Shiva is called Adinath the Primal Lord and his followers who spread the wisdom of Hatha Yoga are called the Natha Yogis. Since Natha means protector or nurturer, the path of Hatha Yoga propagated by the Nathas also assures protection and nurturing of those who can offer dedication, surrender and devotion to the path. This is why Yogi Svatmarama mentions in Hatha Pradipika “Hatha is the monastery for those who are afflicted by unlimited suffering and for those who are engaged in different Yogas, Hatha is a supporting tortoise”- HYP 1:10.
Traditionally, the lineage of Hatha Yoga propagators is called Natha Sampradaya. Amongst all the Nathas there are 9 who are considered primary inspirations. They are popularly known as Nav-Nathas (nine Nathas). Their names are, Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath, Jaladarinath, Kanifnath, Charpatanath, Nagnath, Bhartrharinath, Revannath and Gahininath. (In some regions of India, depending on the inspirations, few names are interchanged)
The Yoga Siddhas of Natha Tradition are [Note: I have not used the word were] adepts who have reached the heights of spiritual evolution. They have verily become the Absolute Truth and shine forth in the union of Divine purity. They have and they do inspire us by their own spiritual grandeur and love. The main contribution of Natha Siddhas towards humanity is their very presence in the world, among the people beyond class, creed and gender. The main message and purpose of the Nathas is to guide humanity to revolt against the limitedness of mind-body complex. As one scripture says, “Yogis in diverse guises, intent on welfare of humanity, walk on the earth, unrecognized by others” – Kularnava Tantra – 9:66.
Humanity lurks in bondage and thrives in the notion that life is suffering, the Nathas toiled hard to awaken us to work against this mindset. Saint Dnyaneshwarnath in his beautiful contribution Dnyaneshwari says “Pinde Pindacha Grasu, to ha Natha sanketicha Danshu” means “Using the body itself to devour the ego of the body is the main principle and teaching of Natha Yogis”.
Nathas have been inspirational in bringing social change over the millennia across India and the world. The Natha Siddhas themselves are at a transcendental stage which is beyond the limited understanding of our human mind. But through Bhakti (devotion), dedication and Sadhana (practice) one can access them by being the message itself. Because of their compassion for all, they manifest again and again amongst us. It is because of such selfless liberated souls and their inspiring work that the fabric of human society is maintained. When the Indian society was suffocating under the dominance of caste-ism, foreign oppressions and social evils it was the Nathas that went from village to village resurrecting the masses to awaken to their true freedom. The purpose of Hatha Yoga is to awaken ourselves and awaken others. The work of the Nathas is for the greater good of all.
Every human, somewhere deep within, feels the urge of transcending bondage and suffering. But by the axe of societal concepts, cultural presuppositions and peer pressure this urge is prematurely killed. The Nathas tapped into this inner urge of the masses by preaching the equation Jiva = Shiva in the local language of the villagers through songs, poetry and many a times even by awakening a spirit of awe and motivation by using their spiritual powers (siddhis) to convince the people that everyone is capable of tapping into the heights of their own spiritual potential. Since the purpose of Natha Siddhas was raising the masses they did not get involved in academic controversies, philosophical debates and metaphysical duels (as was popular during that time) to establish their rationale amongst the people. They were not interested in establishing any particular dogma, in fact their work was to release the people from accepted dogmas which were eating the society from within. Their work was to raise faith in the One all mighty which is beyond religion and dogma. In traditional Hatha Yoga and the teachings of Nathas there are no limitations based on caste, creed or gender. Everyone is considered to have the same universal potential within and everyone is inspired to reach it and this is why I deeply feel Hatha Yoga is the path for today’s day and age.
I feel modern yoga world should seek to understand the expansive perspective of traditional Hatha Yoga and approach it with humility and surrender. Somewhere I feel the physical bit has been passed on to the west but the heart of Hatha Yoga is still missing to be conveyed. Perhaps the modern Yogis could dedicated a little more time to Faith instead of Fascia, Humility instead of Handstand, Bhakti instead of Backbends ? The Heart of traditional yoga is in humility, surrender, dedication and selfless service. Perhaps its time to step back from the “asanification” of Hatha Yoga and move towards the Heart of this brilliant spiritual science. Adesh!