By Andre Haralyi M.A., C-IAYT

The creation of Haṭha-Yoga is associated with Goraksha Nātha and his teacher Matsyendra Nātha who likely lived before the middle of the 10th century C.E. In contrast with the Classical Yoga doctrine which emphasizes a progressive withdrawal from the forms of nature, Haṭha-Yoga derived from the Tantra tradition, and understands the body as a vehicle to attained liberation.

The word “Haṭha” means force. This does not imply that this particular type of Yoga is based on vigorous exercises. The forceful aspect of this tradition is due to the fact that its supreme goal is to forcefully raise the psycho-spiritual potency called kuṇḍalinī-shakti, believed to reside coiled three and a half times at the lowest energy center (Mūlabandha-cakra) located at the base of the spine, up to the upper energy center (Sahasrāra-cakra), located at the top of the head.

Haṭha-Yoga can be understood as a tool used for those who were not able to establish themselves in Rāja-Yoga directly. Therefore ancient sages developed very complex models of the human body in order to understand, purify and perfect this vehicle of liberation. Thus the Haṭha Yogi, strives for liberation by means of creating a “Yogic Body” (Yoga-deha) or “Adamantine Body” (vajra-deha), immune from diseases, free from impurities and limitations, and able even to acquire a variety of paranormal powers (siddhi). A whole system of postures (āsanas), cleansing practices (karmans), breath retentions (prāṇāyāma), seals (mudrās) and locks (bandhas) were developed to clean and prepare the body to attain the state of Rāja-Yoga.

At the end of their long journey, the Haṭha Yogi enjoy the condition of utter simplicity. Realizing the psycho-spiritual potential of the body-mind, he attains the ultimate Reality (Brahman). In Haṭha-Yoga, enlightenment itself is not purely mental. It is a whole body-mind event, where super conscious states can have a profound effect on the entire body. Haṭha-Yoga believes that liberation (mokṣa) and enjoyment (bhukti) are perfectly compatible.

The three major surviving classical treatises on Haṭha-Yoga are the Haṭha-Yoga-Pradīpikā, Shiva-Saṃhitā and Gheranda-Saṃhitā.

I. Haṭha-Yoga-Pradīpikā

The Haṭha-Yoga-Pradīpikā, authored by the sage Svātmārāma around the 15th century C.E.,  emphasizes the preparation of the physical body to attain the higher stage of Rāja-Yoga. The Haṭha-Yoga-Pradīpikā unites the physical practice of Haṭha-Yoga with the spiritual goal of Rāja-Yoga

“Salutations to Shiva, who taught the science of Haṭha-Yoga. It is the aspirant’s stairway to the heights of Rāja-Yoga. Yogi Svātmārāma, after saluting the Lord and guru, explains the science of Haṭha for one reason  — Rāja-Yoga.” 

Haṭha-Yoga-Pradīpikā I.1-2

This Yogic approach outlines a series of complex practices designed specifically to arouse a specific energy in the body called kuṇḍalinī that can propel one into higher states of awareness.

In the first chapter, the author salutes his teachers, explains why and who he is writing for, where and how Haṭha-Yoga should be practiced, describes 15 postures (āsanas), and also recommends some dietary habits.

The second chapter explains the connection between breath, mind and life, as well as the energy channels of the body (Nāḍīs), thelife force (prāṇa), six cleansing practices (karmans), a preparatory breathing technique called Nāḍī-śodhana and eight forms of breath retention (Prāṇāyāma).

The third chapter revolves around the explanation of the ten seals (mudrās) and locks (bandhas)

In the last chapter, the author discusses the concepts of absorption (samādhi), laya, the internal sound (nada), two additional seals (mudrās) and the four stages of Yoga.

The Haṭha-Yoga tradition believe that liberation can be achieved when the life energy (prāṇa) is stabilized in the central channel (suṣumṇā-nāḍī) causing a state of balance or harmony in the body called samarāsa. Breath control (Prāṇāyāma) is considered to be the most effective way to regulate the life force called prāṇa.  

II. Shiva-Saṃhitā

The Shiva-Saṃhitā, believed to be written between 1,300 – 1,500 C.E., is presented as a dialogue between Shiva and Parvati, is one of the most celebrated root texts of Haṭha-Yoga and the repository of teachings not found elsewhere within this tradition. It is comprised of  645 verses organized in five chapters.

The first chapter starts by expounding the concept of non-duality while mentioning various methods of liberation and also philosophical points of view regarding reality itself. 

The second chapter explains the body through a Yoga perspective, the energy channels (nāḍīs), the internal fire (agni) and the vital principle (jiva).

The third chapter describes the winds (vayus), the four stages of Yoga, visualization techniques and four postures (āsanas).

In the fourth chapter we find the most systematic and thorough teachings regarding eleven seals (mudrās) especially used to raise the kuṇḍalinī-shakti.

The fifth chapter describes the obstacles to liberation, four types of aspirants of Yoga, the internal sound (nada), seven energy centers of the body (cakras) and a threefold mantra whose repetition leads to absorption in the Absolute (Brahman).

III. Gheranda-Saṃhitā

The Gheranda-Saṃhitā, believed to be written around 1,700 C.E., is presented as a Yoga manual taught by Gheranda to Chanda, is considered the most encyclopedic of all the root texts of  Haṭha-Yoga. It consists of 317 verses divided in seven chapters. In it the sage Gheranda teaches seven means of perfection of the person.

The first chapter starts describing 21 cleansing practices (karmans) carefully organized in six categories by which purification is attained.

The second chapter describes 32 postures (āsanas) by which strength is attained.

The third chapter explains 25 seals (mudrās) by which steadiness is attained.

The fourth chapter describes five techniques of sense withdrawal (pratyahara) by which calmness is attained.

The fifth chapter begins with general guidelines regarding the Yoga practice and then lists ten kinds of breath retention (Prāṇāyāma) by which lightness is attained.

The sixth chapter describes three types of meditation (dhyāna) by which Self-realization is attained.

The last chapter explains six types of absorption (samādhi) by which enlightenment, the ultimate means of perfecting the person, is attained.

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