In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hatha Yoga

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Definitions and Meanings of the Term Haṭhayoga
  • Reference Works
  • Historical Development
  • Non-Textual Sources
  • Goals
  • The Yogic Body
  • Bibliographies

Hinduism Hatha Yoga
by
Lubomir Ondračka
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0271

Introduction

Hatha yoga is a system of physical practices that originated in India in the early second millennium. The first Sanskrit text that teaches the distinctive hatha yogic techniques (Amṛtasiddhi) is from the eleventh century and comes from the milieu of tantric Buddhism. The earliest Hindu works are from the twelfth century. The early phase of the historical development of hatha yoga culminates in a text called the Haṭhapradīpikā (early fifteenth century), which is the most important hatha yogic work ever written. From the sixteenth century onward, the nature of the texts changed, the number of techniques increased, and hatha yogic ideas spread beyond the yogic milieu. The majority of the traditions of modern globalized yoga have their roots in this late hatha yoga, but they have different goals. The main aim of medieval hatha yoga was to attain final liberation (mokṣa, mukti) from the chain of rebirth. The exact form of this liberation is rarely specified because the texts contain no elaborated philosophy or theology. The second main goal inherited from the tantric roots of hatha yoga is the acquisition of various extraordinary powers (siddhis). The two goals can merge when the yogi seeks liberation in the immortal physical body. To achieve these goals, hatha yoga uses various bodily techniques. Most characteristic are the practices called mudrās, by means of which the body’s vital energies can be manipulated. The second most important technique is breath control (prāṇāyāma). The complex bodily postures (āsanas) that are emblematic of modern yoga are almost absent from early hatha yoga texts, but since the fifteenth century their importance and number have been increasing. Their absence in the early textual corpus, however, does not necessarily mean that they were not actually practiced. A serious problem that scholars face in studying the history of hatha yoga is the nature of the sources. The main evidence (and for the early period almost exclusive evidence) is the hatha yogic texts. These works are highly prescriptive and say nothing about lived reality. For this reason, corrective descriptive sources (most notably visual material) are highly important, but they begin to appear to a greater extent only from the sixteenth century onward. Hopefully, future research will yield a better understanding of the social realities of the yoga milieu. In fact, systematic academic exploration of hatha yoga began very recently, in 2015 with the Haṭha Yoga Project at SOAS (London). Its results, which are now slowly beginning to emerge, are gradually revealing major new discoveries.

General Overviews

There is no book that can serve as a modern and academically solid survey of the subject, so all the general overviews are relatively short chapters in edited volumes. Still very useful and mostly valid is Mallinson 2011, more recent but quite brief is Mallinson 2021. Singleton 2020 concentrates on early hatha yoga, more comprehensive is Ondračka 2022. Due to the rapid development of research on hatha yoga, it is unlikely that any general overview in book form will appear soon.

  • Mallinson, James. “Haṭha Yoga.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 3, Society, Religious Specialists, Religious Traditions, Philosophy. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 770–781. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section Two, India, Vol. 22/3. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1163/2212-5019_BEH_COM_000354

    Until recently, the only academic and reliable overview. It introduces major early texts, important techniques, and briefly discusses yoga practitioners. Partially outdated today.

  • Mallinson, James. “Yoga: Haṭha.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Religion. Vol. 4, (Q-Z). Edited by Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro, 2526–2529. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.

    A very brief, basic and clear overview. Focuses on early texts and their techniques.

  • Ondračka, Lubomír. “Haṭhayoga.” In Hinduism and Tribal Religions. Edited by Jeffery D. Long, Rita D. Sherma, Pankaj Jain, and Madhu Khanna, 577–588. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Netherlands, 2022.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-024-1188-1_642

    Quite a comprehensive survey. Discusses the history of scholarship, the nature of the sources, the meaning of the term hatha yoga, and the history of hatha yoga, from the formative period to the present. Although published in 2022, it was written in 2019, so it does not reflect the latest research.

  • Singleton, Mark. “Early Haṭhayoga.” In Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies. Edited by Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O’Brien-Kop, 120–129. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781351050753-11

    An informative overview of early hatha yoga, it also briefly mentions the later period. It introduces textual criticism as the principal research method, discusses the precursors of hatha yoga, and describes the main texts and goals.

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