Category Archives: Hatha Yoga

Krishnamacharya and the Hatha Yoga Movement

Yoga has been practiced for centuries, with alternative meanings and health benefits as it has moved into modern day. The Vedas are the primary source of ancient Indian traditions and practices of worship that allow people to live life in a dharmic manner. These texts refer to the attainment of moksha (liberation) and yoga is one of the modes to attain this goal. Traditional Vedic yoga is connected with ideas that revolve around ritual sacrifices for the purpose of connecting the material world with the spiritual world (Feuerstein 5).  The successful yoga practices create focus for a long period of time as a way of transcending the limitations of the mind in order to reach spiritual reality (Feuerstein 5). The preclassical period of yoga was approximately 2,000 years until the second century C.E when it closely followed the sacrificial culture discussed in The Brahmanas and Aranyakas, which re genres of Sanskrit texts. It is the Upanishads, which teach the unity of all things, that ultimately expanded the practice of yoga (Feuerstein 6). Post classical yoga first demonstrates the shift of focus from contemplation with the result of developing a spiritual conscious, to practices that rejuvenate the body and influence a prolonged life. (Feuerstein 6).  Hatha yoga or “yoga of force” is a practice that utilizes posture (asana) and breath control (pranayama) as a way of transforming the body’s energy to influence spiritual transformation (Starbacker 105). The physical nature of hatha yoga is what influenced its appeal in the 19th century as calisthenics became popular in India and around the world.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is widely considered the father of modern yoga as he developed movement-orientated postural systems that have been presented internationally by his disciples (Starbacker 103). Krishnamacharya documents the purpose of yogabhyasa (the practice of yoga or abstract devotion) and why it is an important practice that influences the welling being of the mind and body in his book Yoga Makaranda, which is one of many of his publications. He explains that it is the philosophy of yoga to draw the minds focus inwards to reach deep concentration to develop a form of mental strength. The benefit of this process is comparable to how sleep rejuvenates the mind, in which sleep is of a tamasic nature. The mental strength that is developed through yogabhyasa is called yoga nidra, and it by far exceeds the amount of strength and concentration that sleep or meditation may offer (Krishnamacharya 7). The benefits of yogabhyasa are separated into eight parts: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi (Krishnamacharya 8). There are benefits at every stage of practice; it is not that there is a final stage that reveals all the benefits at the same time. Yama develops compassion towards other living beings, while niyama is a state of peace and tranquility with the environment and internally. Asana practice causes correct blood circulation and internal functions; pranayama develops strength in the bones and bone marrow, heart, brain, muscles and tendons. Pratyahara is to bring ones own indriyas (five senses) under control in order to have a focused mind. Dharana is to stop the mind and hold it in one place, while dhyana is to focus the mind in one direction and to attain whatever form is though about. Samadhi is to have stopped all external movements of the mind and have reached a state of happiness about the physical and spiritual world (Krishnamacharya 8-16).

Krishnamacharya was most influential during his residency at Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore from 1930-1950, when he developed a very physical and acrobatic system of asanas that are most similar to yoga today (Heerman 20). It remains unclear if Krishnamacharya stayed true to his teaching from his guru Rama Mohan Bramachari with the transition of his yoga teachings in India, and the conflicting western views that have greatly influenced the way yoga is received from his students (Heerman 20). Once Krishnamacharya completed his teachings, he set out to teach this spiritual system of yoga throughout India. The traditional system of yoga practices was becoming outdated and was not received well by most people. Because of his unsuccessful pursuit to make a living as a yoga teacher, Krishnamacharya traveled around India giving lectures and demonstrating siddhis (supernormal abilities of the yogic body) (Heerman 21). In order to gain attention and interest in yoga, he demonstrated suspending his pulse, lifting heavy objects with his teeth and performed difficult asanas (Heerman 21). Krishnamacharya was then recruited by the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnarajendra Wodeyar to teach at the Jaganmohan Palace for young male royals (Heerman 21). The Maharaja was very committed to promoting cultural, political and technological innovations for Mysore, as well as encouraging physical education, which was known as the “Indian physical culture movement”, that was designed to created the strength necessary to reclaim India after so many years of colonial rule (Heerman 22). Krishnamacharya’s yoga teachings were greatly influenced to be aerobic and physical due to the Maharaja and the popularity of exercise. As a result, hatha yoga gained wide popularity compared to the traditional yoga practices, which ultimately led to the vast arrangement of yoga forms that are present in India and North America today.

Hatha yoga is mainly the methods of doing asanas (yoga postures). The circulation and strength of the body is only one of eight parts that contribute to the whole of yogabhyasa, while the mindfulness and focus of yoga has not maintained its aesthetic appeal. Krishnamacharya explains his distaste for the way practitioners of yogabhyasa ignore vinyasa krama and worries that the Vedas from which yoga practice has originated will be ruined (Krishnamacharya 26). The form, metre, syllables, and verses that form the entirety of the Vedas are comparable to the way in which yoga should be practiced. The combination of the eight elements of yogabhyasa is what provides the beneficial integrity of yoga practices. From the perspective of Krishnamacharya in Yoga Makaranda, yoga has a deep spiritual meaning and benefit that has deteriorated with the Westernization of hatha yoga. To Krishnamacharya, yoga is a form of Vedic ritual that develops more than toned muscles and flexibility. Although the Yoga Makaranda provides much information on the traditional Hindu practice of yoga with regards to the Vedas, Krishnamacharya is recognized as a figure who influenced the separation of religiosity of yoga from the growth of modern yoga. Other organizations, such as Christian yoga, argue that spiritual expression can still be reached without the Hindu dimensions of yogabhyasa. The interest in yoga in North America encouraged the streamlined approach of simplifying yogic concepts in a way that was acceptable to Western and Christian spiritual views (Heerman 13).

Bas-relief on a temple pillar depicting a yogic posture, utilized in ascetic practice (Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India).
Bas-relief on a temple pillar depicting a yogic posture, utilized in ascetic practice (Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India).

Christian opponents of yoga hold that Hindu traditions are in conflict with Christian doctrine (Jain 4). The contemporary Western view of modern yoga is as a mode physical fitness, separated from its historical origins. Similarly, Hindu opponents of this disconnect of yoga from its historical spiritual origins, believe that yoga has been corrupted by the profit driven popularization of contemporary yogis (Jain 4). Prior to Krishnamacharya, there where other yoga masters involved with the popularization of Hatha Yoga. Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) is widely known to have used a combination of existing yoga with modern ideas and practices (Jain 5). As postural yoga remains without a Hindu signature in modern western society, alternative spiritual connotations have been attached to it. For example, Christian Yoga emphasizes postures and breath control as a way of focusing on Christ (Jain 6). The differing opinions and techniques associated with yoga is what allows it to be appealing to many different groups, but also contribute to the opposition that both Christians and Hindus have towards modern postural yoga.

Krishnamacharya demonstrated exceptional strength and flexibility that encourages the appeal of yoga for its physical benefits, but his teachings in Yoga Makaranda, suggest that he taught with the intention of encouraging anyone to practice yoga. He has extensive teachings on the spiritual origins and the responsibility of the guru to teach a student in such a way that all aspects that contribute to yoga are recognized in order to receive the benefits of yoga. Yet, it can also be seen that Krishnamacharya did not maintain a traditional yoga system that is true to the teachings of his own guru as his career was greatly influenced by Maharaja of Mysore and popularity of physical exercise. The tendency that Krishnamacharya had for tailoring his instructions so that each of his students could maximize the physical benefits, also demonstrates the stray away from the traditional yoga system (Heerman 30).

Besides the conflicting viewpoint of modern yoga and Hindu traditions, Krishnamacharya designed a form of exercise that is unique and modifiable to anyone who wishes to participate. Hatha yoga can build strength, and cause an overall benefit to health as well as encouraging concentration and focus that can be interpreted as spiritual, self reflective, or religious depending on how the participant want to approach a yoga practice. Krishnamacharya may have influenced the separation of Hindu tradition from modern forms of yoga but made yoga accessible to everyone who wishes to participate.


Burley, Mikel (2014) ‘A Purification of Ones Own Humanity’ Nonattachment and Ethics in Yoga Traditions. The Journal of Religion. Vol. 94, No. 2, P. 204-228. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Feuerstein, Georg (2006) “A Short History of Yoga”. The Yoga Tradition. P. 1-10. Hohm Press.

Heerman, Grace (2014) “Yoga in the Modern World: The Search for the ‘Authentic’ Practice.” Sociology and Anthropology Theses. Paper 5, P. 1-45, Tacoma Washington: University of Puget Sound.

Jain, Antrea R. (2012) “The Malleability of Yoga: A Response to Christian and Hindu Opponents of the Popularization of Yoga”. Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies: Vol. 25, Article 4. P. 1-8, Indianapolis, Indiana: Butler University.

Krishnamacharya, Sir T. (1934) Yoga Makaranda: The Essence of Yoga (Part One). Kannada Edition, Madurai C.M.V. Press. P. 1-159.

Starbacker, Stuart R. (2014) “Reclaiming the Spirit through the Body: The Nascent Spirituality of Modern Postural Yoga”. Entangled Religions; Oregon: Oregon State University, Article 3, P. 95-114.

Singleton, Mark (2007) “Yoga, Eugenics, and Spiritual Darwinism in the Early Twentieth Century”. International Journal of Hindu Studies; Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 125-146. Springer.








Sattva guna











Swami Vivekananda

Vinyasa krama

Krishnarajendra Wodeyar






Article written by: Monica Johnson (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is one of the most renowned and accessible texts written on the ancient practice of hatha yoga. Believed to have been written in the fourteenth century C.E. by Svatmarama Yogin, speculation surrounds the true authorship of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika since some of its elements coincide with hatha yoga guides attributed to other authors of the time (Burley 6). In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika Svatmarama melds together the practice of raja yoga and hatha yoga. A disagreement persisted in the early yogic scriptures about which form of yoga was more superior to the other, but by combining raja and hatha yoga practices as well as claiming their dependency upon one another in his work, Svatmarama disbanded this dispute (Birch 527). The Sanskrit word hatha originates from its two roots, ‘ha’ and ‘tha’. The root ‘ha’ refers to properties such as “passion, heat, and positivity,” the root ‘tha’ refers to elements like “cool, receptive, and negativity” (Sivananda Radha 3). Hatha is the incorporation of two extremes while yoga (meaning union) is the bringing together of these polarities (Sivananda Radha 3-4). The Sanskrit word pradipika ‘that which sheds light’, when put into a metaphor helps the reader better understand the context of the title and how it refers to shedding light on the subject of hatha yoga (Burley 6). One who practices hatha yoga would be considered a yogi and yogis are the main reader audience of this particular text. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika contains 389 slokas (Sanskrit verses) and is divided into four upadesas or chapters (Burley 7). The first chapter is titled “Asanas”. In this chapter proper etiquette is revealed for the practice of hatha yoga as well as the yoga postures or asanas. “Pranayama” is the title of the second chapter; it includes emphasis on ‘harnessing’ of fundamental energy and elucidates various techniques or kumbhakas of breath retention that can be utilized to achieve this discipline. Svatmarama also includes six different detoxifying acts called karmans that aid the practice of pranayama in this second chapter. The third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika focuses on the subject of mudras, which are ritual gestures, and the final chapter entitled “Samadhi” centers on the ultimate goal of hatha yoga, the deepest level of meditation (Burley 7). Exploration of this classic text that is a part of the Hindu tradition gives one an understanding of the goals and regimens of the ancient practice of hatha yoga.

Svatmarama outlines in the first chapter of his text various imperative observances that the true yogi must adhere to in order to properly perform hatha yoga. The practice of hatha yoga is explained to be sacred and should be practiced in reverence and secret in order for it to maintain its purity; the full potential of this form of yoga is most accessibly achieved in this way (Svatmarama 4). The fulfillment of the hatha yogi is emphasized as to be completely individual and further instructions of how the practitioner should live and eat, as well as adherences and avoidances is explained to keep their practice on the right path. According to Svatmarama yoga flourishes under acts such as “enthusiasm, openness, courage, knowledge of truth, determination and solitude” and it succumbs to undertakings of “overeating, overexertion, talking too much, performing painful austerities, socializing and restlessness” (6). The first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika also includes important instructions on the proper execution of asanas or yoga postures. An example of an explanation of an asana called Bhadrasana is as follows: “grasp the feet, which are motionless on their sides, firmly with the hands and remain motionless,” this pose is claimed to be “the destroyer of all diseases” (Svatmarama 26). Enthusiastic, involved practice is emphasized in the first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as to be the most important part of the accomplishment of asanas.

The practice of pranayama, according to Burley is the “control of ‘vital force’” (31). This act of harnessing energy is done through techniques of breath retention. The importance of this discipline as outlined in the second chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is that the result of pranayama is to create steadiness in the yogi and in turn, steadying their hatha yoga practice (Svatmarama 33). Svatmarama in the Pradipika alludes to the philosophy of breath and how it links life and death and highlights the importance of the control of breath (33). The mention of nadis, or vital channels, and ways of controlling them (kumbhakas), aids in the explanation of the process of pranayama (Burley 7). The practice of pranayama is explained to weaken diseases in the body; other techniques that contribute to the wellness of the body are karmans, purifying actions (Svatmarama 38). There are six karmans named in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: dhauti, vasti, neti, trataka, nauli and kapalabhati. These karmans are for the most part physically trying and Svatmarama even mentions that the practice of them are not recommended by all hatha yogis (Svatmarama 42). Instructions on various kumbhakas through pranayama aim to enable the student of hatha yoga to achieve success in their practice.

The third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika entitled “Mudras” includes guidelines on various seals or sealing postures. Svatmarama stresses the sacrosanct quality of mudras and that the practitioner must keep them to themselves as something to be revered (Svatmarama 54). Mudras, like pranayama, are to be utilized to prevent disease and bring physical and spiritual well being to the yogi undertaking them. In this third chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, soma ( “the immortal nectar”) is encouraged to be consumed (Burley 23). Along with the encouragement to ingest soma, a significant stress is placed on the importance of the yogi preserving his semen and keeping it within his body. This suggestion is based on the idea that semen is equivalent to life, so in order to avoid death, one must preserve the life or semen within them (Svatmarama 73). These different strategies are resorted to alongside mudras in order to employ authenticity to the hatha form of yoga.

The final chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika concentrates on the final goal of hatha yoga, “Samadhi,” it is the “state of unity” (Svatmarama 85). Samadhi is the collective intention of the yoga practice outlined in the Pradipika. With the combination of the practices of asanas, pranayama and mudras, Svatmarama illuminates the achievement of this deep state of meditation. This last chapter again focuses on the utilization of controlled breath to bring the yogi to their ultimate goal of Samadhi. Svatmarama repeats the importance of blending the practices of raja and hatha yoga gives instructions to follow for the proper execution of sound meditation. The focus for meditation is urged to be placed on nada, which refers to inner sound and leads to absorption of the mind (Burley 99). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika closes on this last speculation on the ultimate goal of its practice.

Yogi Svatmarama’s early work in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika continues to carry on meaning to practitioners of the modern day. The information it expounds in areas of yoga postures (asanas), breathing control techniques (pranayama), sacramental gestures (mudras) and the final goal of realization (Samadhi) gives the reader an explanation of the ancient practice of hatha yoga. Examination and understanding this classic text that is based on the fundamentals of one of the most common forms of yoga creates an interpretation of the mentality or intention attached to the practice of yoga in the Hindu tradition.


 Sources Consulted and Bibliography

Svatmarama (2004) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Translated by Brian Dana Akers. Woodstock:

Burley Mikel (2000) Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Sivananda Radha, Swami (1987) Hatha Yoga The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets, and Metaphor. Porthill: Timeless Books.

Birch, Jason (2011) “The Meaning of hatha in Early Hathayoga.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 131 Issue 4: 527-554.


Related Topics for Further Invesitgation

Raja Yoga













Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


This article is written by Kwynn Nelson (April 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.

Swami Vishnu-devananda

Born as Swammy Kuttan Nair on December 31, 1927 in Kerala, Swami Vishnu-devananda did many different things before he achieved this name. After school he was an engineer in the Indian army during which he stumbled upon the ideas of Swami Sivananda who was one of the most prolific yoga teachers who ever lived. He then left the army to find the ashram of Swami Sivananda and became a school teacher. Within a year he became a monk and was given his name Swami Vishnu-devananda. For ten years he lived at the Sivananda Ashram before he was given the position of a Professor of Hatha Yoga. Hatha yoga is the use of various postures for exercise to control the body and maintain unity within the Self and the Being (Devananda 155).As described in his book The Sivananda Companion to Meditation: How to Master the Mind and Achieve Transcendence, aside from his position at the Ashram and his eventual voyage to the Western world, Swami Vishnu-devananda was renowned for his piece in peace: “In 1969 he founded the True World Order to create unity and understanding between the peoples of the world”(Vishnu-devananda 155). Two years later he flew a small plane over troubled countries and dropped flowers and leaflets of peace from the plane and to the people on the ground below (Vishnu-devananda 155).

Swami was a professor of Hatha yoga at the Sivananda Ashram in India, but he was also a master in Kundalini Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. Respectively each are described in Hinduism The eBook An Online Introduction by Hillary Rodrigues as such: Hatha is “ Yoga involving the performance of specific yogic postures and breathing techniques” ( Rodrigues 549), Kundalini Yoga is “the path of awakening latent cosmic energies within the body”(553), Raja Yoga is “Royal yoga; Pantijali’s yoga”(560), and Jnana Yoga’s focus is transcendental knowledge(550). By combining these different styles he was able to create a yoga that is suitable for many and achievable by anyone who put in the time and effort.

In The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnu Devananda it is said that yoga “balances, harmonizes, purifies, and strengthens the Body, Mind, and Soul of the practitioner” (Devananda x). These are achieved during the growth period known as the “anabolic process” (x). Devananda believed in a triangular model of life. The first point of the triangle is birth, the second growth, and the third death(x). Yoga is to be practiced during the growth cycle. It is through 5 basic yogic principles anyone can achieve balance, harmony, purity, and strength. They are: “(1) proper exercise; (2) proper breathing; (3) proper relaxation; (4) proper diet; and (5) positive thinking (deep philosophy) and meditation.”(xi). Exercise forces the body to be limber and flexible as well as increases circulation. Proper breathing: “connects the body to its battery, the Solar Plexus, where tremendous potential energy is stored” (xii). This energy can then be released for rejuvenation of mind and body. Proper relaxation cools down the system after it has been over worked and allows the body and mind to go to a calm serene state (xxi). Proper diet is for fueling the body. Yogic diets are typically vegetarian and are foods that are easily digested (xiii). Positive thinking: “(deep philosophy) and meditation put you in control. The intellect is purified… nature is brought under conscious control through steadiness and concentration of the mind” (xiv). Together these elements form the basis for Swami Vishnu-devananda’s yogic principles.

Meditation is a key factor in yoga. Vishnu-devananda said much of mediation in many texts. In one such text Meditation and Mantras he describes just how important he believes meditation is in accordance to a person:

Without the help of mediation, you cannot attain Knowledge of

the Self. Without its aid, you cannot grow into the divine state.

Without it, you cannot liberate yourself from the trammels of

The mind and attain immortality.

Meditation is the only royal road to attainment and freedom. It is

a mysterious ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, from error

to truth, from darkness to light, from pain to bliss, from restlessness to

abiding peace, from ignorance to knowledge. From mortality to

immortality.( Devananda 1)

Swami Vishnu-devananda brought this idea of meditation as well as his other ideas over to North America where his practices would slow down the hectic lives of the citizens down.

In 1957 Swami Vishnu-devananda arrived in America. He saw a people who did not take the time to relax and live healthily. As a Professor of Hatha Yoga he desired to do something for these people and their hectic lives. This is why he developed the idea of the “Yoga Vacation” as described in the Sivananda Companion to Meditation: How to Master Mind and Achieve Transcendence by Swami Vishnu-devananda. The idea was to allow people to come to a place to rest their body, mind and spirit (Devananda 155). According to the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres the hectic lives we live today can be improved through simple daily activities: silent meditation and mantra chanting and spiritual lecture (Sivananda 1).

In Devananda’s book Meditation and Mantras he states that people search for happiness in external objects for satisfaction. These satisfactions are only short term though. The challenge to attain full happiness is to gain access and control of one’s internal world. Swami Vishnu-devananda believes that by slowing down all the internal conversation we are having at any given moment and focusing on the good things, that is how we can live a more effective peaceful life (Devananda 2). This is where meditation comes into play. Meditation channels positivity and rids destructive thought. Meditation loosely, is invoking a certain feeling, while remaining conscious. A feeling such a compassion is focused on and all negative thought is pushed out in order to allow it to take complete precedence (4). Mantras are used to develop the ability to concentrate while mediating. “OM” is sometimes recited by the practitioner during meditation (6). Devananda believed the optimal time to practice yoga is dawn and dusk because the atmosphere is charged with spiritual force at these times(10).

Swami Vishnu-devananda was a great teacher and writer on yoga and its practices. He supplied many places and many people with the knowledge of Yoga and also a knowledge of peace. His teachings of Hatha yoga were only a small part of his contribution to mankind. He will be regarded for years to come as a master of yoga and of peace for his plights against the angst of mankind.






Related Readings

Thomas McEvilley (1981) An Archaeology of Yoga. Harvard Press.

Ian Whicher (1998) Yoga and Freedom: A Reconsideration of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press.

Sarah Strauss (2002) The Master’s Narrative: Swami Sivananda and the Transnational Production of Yoga. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

k. Satchidananda Murty (1961) Yoga: Path to Freedom from Suffering. Philosophy Education Society Inc.


Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) HinduismThe eBook, Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd. Print.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami (1995)  Meditation and Mantras. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Print.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami (1988) The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. New York: Three Rivers Press. Print.

Vishnu-devananda, Swami and Swami Sivananda (2012) Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre. Val Morin, Quebec, Canada. (Accessed March 24 2012).

Vishnu-devananda, Swami (2003) The Sivananda Companion to Meditation: How to Master the   Mind and Achieve Transcendence. New York: Gaia Books. Print.

Related Research Topics

Swami Sivananda

4 path yoga

Pantajali Yoga


Article written by Michaela Thompson (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Asana (Posture) in Hatha-Yoga

Asanas and pranayama which are third and fourth limb of the eight limbed path that forms the backbone of Hatha-Yoga. They are: postures (asana) aimed at attaining mastery over the body, and breath control (pranayama) the power over our vital energy, which is our breath (Varenne 111-4). The goal of pranayama is to make ones respiration rhythmic and progressively slower, this is said to allow the practitioner to penetrate other states of consciousness through the harmonization with one’s life force (prana). Controlling the pranayama is done through the suspension of inhalation (puraka), retention (kumbhaka) and exhalation (recaka) and slowing of the overall breathing rhythm. Some yogis with practice can stop breathing for over five minutes (Jones 9895).

Whimsical bas-relief depicting a cat performing a balancing and stretching posture (asana), associated with the practice of Hatha Yoga; Mahabalipuram, India
Whimsical bas-relief depicting a cat performing a balancing and stretching posture (asana), associated with the practice of Hatha Yoga; Mahabalipuram, India

Hatha-yoga is the “physical yoga which teaches the aspirant how to control his body (Fuller 51),” It means the union (yoga) between sun and moon or the two different elements of the body-mind union (Feuerstein 38), and is the type of yoga most commonly known in the west. Although yoga is thought to have existed before Patanjali, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras form the foundation of yoga, along with the Hatha-Yoga Pradipika. According to scriptures there were believed to be originally 8,400,000 asanas, each representing an incarnation needed to be lived before liberation could be achieved; however, only around a few hundred are known today. In the Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha one of the most popular current yoga manuals, only 84 asanas are discussed (Saraswati  9). Animal asanas came about through the risis observation of animals; they saw how the animals lived and created these asanas based on their movements. They then discovered how a particular posture can affect certain hormonal secretions of the body which can therefore improve one’s health. For example, sharshankasana the hare pose may influence the flow of adrenaline such as in the “fight or flight” response, as seen in hares who are easily startled (Saraswati 10). The animal poses are believed to have been created to remind the practitioner that life is sacred and the world is full of living creatures (Radha 6).

Mastering any asana is the first stage in yoga. Poses aimed to increase strength and health can be done in many different ways based on the skill level of the practitioner. Asanas are divided into different categories depending on the text; Swami Sivananada Radha’s book: Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language divides them into categories of structures, tools, plants, fish, reptiles, insects, birds, animals, and finally shavasana, and the text by Swami Satyananda Saraswait: Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha divides poses into beginner, intermediate and advanced. Various poses overlap and many are included in both texts, different yoga sources however usually have different tips and information about particular asanas so many practitioners study a variety of yoga texts.

The Beginner Group according to Saraswati’s text consists of the pawanmuktasana series, exercises for the eyes, relaxation asanas, meditation asanas, varjrasana group of asanas, standing asanas, surta namaskara, and chandra namaskarais. The intermediate group consists of the padmasana group of asanas, backward bending asanas, forward bending asanas, spinal twisting asanas and balancing asanas. The advanced group does not have any subcategories and should be attempted only when the beginner and intermediate poses have been mastered (Saraswati 9-360).

Beginner’s yoga is done for a variety of purposes, whether the practitioner is just starting their journey through yoga, or due to illness or bodily constraints is unable to do more advanced poses. Although the beginner asanas may be simple, the health benefits are alleged to be numerous and should not be underestimated.  The pawanmuktasana series is believed to be very useful for the management of various disorders and maintaining health by developing awareness of the body (Saraswati  21). It is further separated into three groups of asanas: the anti-rheumatic group, the digestive/abdominal group and shakti bandha or energy blocking group (Saraswati 22).

The anti-rheumatic group of postures is aimed at a low level of physical exertion to loosen the joints and to help with ailments such as arthritis, high blood pressure and heart problems. A few examples are: janu chakra (knee crank) aimed at loosening the knee joints and poorna titali (full butterfly) which can alleviate tiredness from long hours of standing or walking (Saraswati 23-44).

The digestive/abdominal group is said to be helpful for people with ailments such as indigestion, reproductive disorders, diabetes, excess gas, constipation, acidity, and lack of appetite. By strengthening the digestive system and clearing energy blockages of the abdominal area these ailments can be relieved. A few postures are:  pada sanchalanasana (cycling) which helps to strengthen the abdominal and lower back muscles while also loosening the knee and hip joints and jhulana lurhakanasana (rocking and rolling) which massages the back, buttocks and hips (Saraswati 44-59).

The energy blocking postures are aimed mostly at improving energy flow. It is also thought to be useful for menstrual problems, a stiff back, toning pelvic organs and muscles, and to improve overall endocrine function. This series is also commonly done prenatally and after birth, as it tones the reproductive muscles and aids in child birth. A few common positions are; rajju karshanasana (pulling the rope), which loosens the shoulder joints and stretches the muscles of the upper back, the chakki chalanasana (churning the mill), which is believed to help regulate the menstrual cycle as it improves the function of the organs and nerves of the pelvis and abdomen. Chakki calanasana can be preformed up to the third month of pregnancy (Saraswati 60-73).

Yoga exercises for the eyes are done to improve visual health, and it is believed that through practice and patience one can improve or even reverse eye disorders such as glaucoma, cataracts and trachoma which are due to defective ocular muscles. An example of a yogic eye exercise is palming. This is done by placing warm palms (due to vigorous rubbing) over the eyelids to relax the eye muscles; the warmth of the hands stimulates circulation of the blood and other parts of the eye (Saraswati 74-8).

Asanas done either before or following yoga practice are typically referred to as relaxation asanas. One example is the shavasana (corpse pose) or death pose which would done by simply lying on your back with the palms facing upward. It is believed that it is useful in developing whole body awareness (Saraswati 85-7) and “the best sign of a good savasana is a feeling of deep peace and pure bliss. Radha the author of Hatha-Yoga: The Hidden Language explains savasana as a watchful surrendering of the ego. Forgetting oneself, one discovers oneself (Radha 254).”

Meditation asanas are done to allow the practitioner to sit still for extended lengths of time. The most popular example is the pasmasana (lotus pose). It is referred to as the “royal posture” as it is both glamorous and graceful. The Lotus symbolizes birth and death, the interaction of the created forces. To the Chinese it represents the past, present and future as the plant bears fruit, flowers and buds simultaneously (Radha 121). This asana creates a firm foundation to begin meditation as it allows the body to be motionless in a steady position. It also is said to relax the nervous system by putting a slight pressure on the spine (Saraswati 93-9).

The vajrasana group of asanas are easy to perform and are beneficial for many aspects of the body and spirit. They are believed regulate the sexual energy as well as reproductive and digestive organs (Saraswati 108-134). In India the simhasana (loin pose) is seen as the absolute representation of royal strength and majesty, it is believed to help one to discover the power masked within oneself and the danger it is to keep subdued pretending to be a mere lamb. Simhasana pose is explained by placing the right foot under the left buttock, and the left under the right. Bring the weight forward on the knees with the arms straight and the palms of the hands placed on the knees. Stretch the jaw wide open, and stretch the tongue out toward the chin. Forcefully exhale air out the mouth with the throat open (Radha 239-41).

Standing asanas are claimed to be very beneficial to those who have back pain or spend a lot of time sitting as they stretch and strengthen the back. The tadasana (palm tree pose) is believed to be especially helpful for stretching the back and loosening the spine; as it is done by reaching to the sky with both arms and raising the heels off the ground. It is said to increase balance both physically and mentally and can be useful during the first six months of pregnancy to keep the abdominal muscles strong (Saraswati 135-140).

Surya namaskara (salutations to the sun) is a group of asanas that were not originally in the yoga scriptures, but were later added on. Surya namaskara is thought to be one of the most useful groups of postures to aid in health yet at the same time is helpful in “preparing for spiritual awakening and the resulting expansion of awareness (Saraswati 159).” It incorporates pranayama, mantra and meditation and is said to be most beneficial if done in the morning. There are twelve asanas which represent the twenty-four hours of the day, the twelve zodiac phases of the year and the biorhythms of the body. The asanas in sequence are: 1. pranamasana (prayer pose), 2. hasta utthanasana (raised arms pose), 3. padahatasana (hand to foot pose), 4. ashwa sanchalanasana (equestrian pose), 5. parvatasana (mountain pose), 6. ashtanga namaskara (salute with eight parts or points), 7. bhujangasana (cobra pose), 8. parvatasana (mountain pose), 9. ashwa sanchalanasana (equestrian pose), 10. padhatasana (hand to foot pose),  11. hasta utthanasana (raised arm pose) and 12. pranamasana (prayer pose). Asanas 13-24 are a repeating of asanas 1-12 (Saraswati 160-172).

Chandra namaskara (salutation to the moon) are similar to the surya namaskara as they reflect the 14 lunar phases of the moon. Each asanas name represents a day of the lunar cycle and should be practiced at night when the moon is visible, or at dawn during a full moon. The sequence of poses for chandra namaskara are the same sequence as the surya namaskara however, the pose ardha chandrasana is added at position 5 and 11 in the first round, and in positions 19 and 25 in the second round (Saraswati 173).

The intermediate group of asanas consist of the padmasana group, backward bending asanas, forward bending asanas, inverted asanas and balancing asanas. According to Saraswati, the padmasana group is believed to help “clear physical, emotion and mental blocks, help awaken the energy centres of the body and induce tranquility (Saraswati 181).” However, they should only be attempted if the padmasana (lotus pose) can be done for extended periods of time with comfort and zero muscle strain. (Saraswati 181-7).

Backward bending asanas are claimed to have a variety of benefits for the torso, particularly the abdomen and back. They are associated with people who “bend over backwards” for others, so it is believed that people who have an apprehension of these asanas may have a fear of facing life or love (Saraswati 194-5). One well known asana is bhujangasana (cobra pose); buhjanga meaning serpent and, “like a snake [while performing the pose the] spine should be moved from end to end, when the head moves the movement is transmitted to the tail (Radha 146-8).” Many yogis believe to cobra pose to be helpful in relocating slipped disks, improving circulation in the back, and alleviating female reproductive disorders (Saraswati 198).

Forward bending asanas are similar to the backward bending in their difficulty, and such positions are claimed to give an insight into the individual psyche.  Some believe “An inability to bend forward may indicate a stiff, proud or stubborn personality (Saraswati 227),” and those that can are associated with; bowing and humility. Forward bending loosens up the back by utilizing gravity to stretch the muscles; it is typically done by bending from the hips and not the waist, which creates greater flexibility in the poses. The utthita janu sirshasana (standing head between knees pose) is pretty self explanatory, and is believed to help stimulate the pancreas and relax the hip joints and hamstring muscles. Like any inverted pose it is thought to supply the brain with rich blood, revitalizing the mind (Saraswati 227-247).

Inverted asanas, similar to utthita janu sirshasana mentioned above, are believed to cause rich blood to flow to the brain which may therefore cause a change in thinking. They are thought to improve health and reduce anxiety by slowing the breath and creating a better exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (Saraswati 258) helping bringing clarity of mind in emotions and in language. These asanas should be done with caution and not preformed around furniture; after vigorous exercise, and should not be attempted by people with high blood pressure or back conditions (Saraswati 259). One of the more difficult inverted asanas is the sirshasana (headstand pose). It is done in six stages working up to the final position with the forearms on each side of the head, interlocking fingers at the back and the rest of the body straight upwards towards the sky. Sirshasana is considered to be the greatest of all asanas (Saraswati 279-283) as it represents: struggle, rebellion, awareness and learning (Radha 44).

The last group of intermediate asanas is the balancing asanas. These poses can be difficult for many if they have not previously developed a good sense of balance. However, with practice they are said to develop the cerebellum; the part of the brain that controls the motion of the body. It can also be helpful when practicing these to find a spot on the wall to focus on to help with balance (Saraswati 290). One example of a balancing asana is the vrikshasana (tree pose) which is done by placing one foot against the opposite legs inner thigh, with the knee facing outwards, and the arms stretched over the head (Radha 102). It is believed that “trees, like people have their destiny, and much of the survival of the tree depends on the sturdiness of the trunk and the branches, sturdiness that must be balanced with flexibility (Radha 109).” Vrikshasana is thought to represent: destiny, firm attachment, seasons of human life, beauty in death and the tree is the symbol of man and the cycle of life (Radha 110).

Advanced asanas are reserved for serious practitioners who have mastered the beginner and intermediate asanas, and should only be attempted when the body is flexible enough and one’s concentration is strong. Any strain in these postures can result in injury (Saraswati 325). Vrishchikasana (scorpion pose) is believed to represent danger, pain, balance, strength, reward, compassion, sexual activity and it is alleged to entice the practitioner with a taste of the nectar of consciousness making them long for more. The scorpion pose is accomplished by resting the forearms on the floor and raising the legs up while the head and chest are lifted, bending the legs at the knees so that the feet slowly lower until they rest on the top of the head (Radha 174-8). [See Saraswati and Radha for an extensive list of yoga asanas with techniques, legends and benefits].


Bernard, Theos. (1982) Hatha Yoga. London: Hutchinson Group.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books & Prints.

Fuller, J.F.C. (1988) Yoga. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Jones, L. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of Religion. (2nd ed., 15 vols.) Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved March 16, 2010, from Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Radha, Swami (1987) Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets and Metaphor. Idaho: Timeless Books.

Saraswati, Swami (1997) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. India: Bihar Yoga Bharati.

Sivananda, Swami (1981) Science of Yoga. India: Divine Life Society.

Varenne, Jean (1976) Yoga and the Hindu Tradition. Chicago: Chicago Press.

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Article written by: Jillian King (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hatha Yoga

The ultimate goal of Hatha-yoga, like all forms of yoga is to transcend the self and realize the ultimate reality (atman) (Feuerstein 38). It is different from other forms of yoga because of its focus on using the body and developing its potential so that when the person achieves atman the body is able to withstand the onslaught of ultimate reality (Feuerstein 38). Therefore, Hatha-yoga is designed the help achieve the Ultimate Reality in a finite human body. The practitioner of Hatha-yoga wants to design and construct a divine body (divya-sharira) for themselves that would guarantee immortality once atman is attained (Feuerstein 39). Hatha-yoga is also considered to be an off shoot of Tantrism as it deals with both the body and the mind, two key aspect in the Tantric practice (Feuerstein 505). The term Hatha-yoga can be explained as the union (yoga) between sun and moon or the two different aspects of the body-mind union. Most Hatha-yoga practitioners use and follow the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, as it is the most popular Hatha-yoga manual (Feuerstein 38).

Hindu teachings associate the creation of the Hatha-yoga tradition with Goraksa Natha and his teacher Matsyyendra Natha (Feuerstein 510). They are thought of as the founders of Nathism. Siva is considered to be the father of the Natha lineage and thus is considered to be the ultimate yogi (Feuerstein 510). Other masters of Nathism include: Jalandhari, Bhartrihari, Gopicandra, and Caurangi (Feuerstein 513-514). As well as references to these masters in Hindu traditions, there are also references to the same people in Tibetan traditions (Feuerstein 513).

In Tantric practices, the life force (prana) is divided along the spinal axis “where the dynamic pole (represented by Sakti) is said to be at the base of the spine and the static pole (represented by Siva) at the crown of the head” (Feuerstein 518). The practitioner of Hatha-yoga works to unite these two poles. For this to happen he/she must first stabilize the alternating life current that flows up and down both the left and right side of the body (Feuerstein 518). The primary objective is to intercept the left and right current and bring the energy into the central channel which starts at the anal center (muladhara) (Feuerstein 518). It is at this anal center that the kundalini [could be considered the manifestation of primordial energy (see Feuerstein 473)] is believed to be asleep (Feuerstein 518). By regularly trying to redirect the life force into the center the kundalini is mobilized (Feuerstein 518). This action could be considered forceful, hence the meaning of the word hatha as “force”. “Hatha-yoga is a forceful enterprise in which the body’s innate life force is utilized for the transcendence of the self” (Feuerstein 518). According to the Sage Gheranda, there are only seven limbs of yoga. He divides the asanas (postures) and the mudra (locks) into two different limbs while he does not regard the moral rules (yama and niyama) as independent features (Feuerstein 521).

A pillar at Srirangam Temple depicting a Yogi performing a variation of the tree posture (vrksa-asana), commonly practiced in Hatha Yoga
A pillar at Srirangam Temple depicting a Yogi performing a variation of the tree posture (vrksa-asana), commonly practiced in Hatha Yoga

The first step in affecting the channel of the life force into the center is breath control (pranayama), the fifth limb of yoga (Feuerstein 518). However, before working on this breath control one must undergo intense and extensive purification (Feuerstein 518). Thus, the Sage Gheranda describes six purification practices. They are as follows: dhauti (cleansing) is broken into four different techniques: antar-dhauti (inner-cleansing), danta-dhauti (dental cleansing), hrid-dhauti (heart cleansing), and mula-shodhana (root purification) (Feuersein 519). The second purification practice is called vasti or basti (bladder) (Feuerstein 519). This is follwed by neti, lauli or lailiki (to and fro movement), trataka, and finally kapala-bhati which in itself contains three different practices. These are: vama-krama (left-process), vyut-krama (inverted process), and shit-krama (shit process) (Feuerstein 520) [for a more detailed description of each of the purification techniques see Feuerstein 519-520]. Once purification has been done, the yoga practitioner may start to work on their breath control (pranayama). Sage Gheranda describes eight different types of breath control which he calls retentions (kumbhaka). These different retentions are as follows: sahita-kumbhaka (joined retention) -broken into two parts: sagarbha (with seed) and nigarbha (without seed)- surya-bheba-kumbhaka (sun –piercing retention), ujjayi-kumbhaka (victorious retention), shitali-kumbhaka (cooling retention), bhastrika-kumbhaka (bellows retention), bhramari-kumbhaka (bee-like retention), murccha-kumbhaka (swooning retention), and finally kevali-kumbhaka (absolute retention) (Feuerstein 527-528) [for a more detailed description of the different breath control techniques see Feuerstein 527-528]. According to Gheranda there are three different levels of pranayama control. The lowest level of control generates heat in the body, the second level causes tremors in the limbs and the third level actually causes levitation (Feuerstein 528).

Along with pranayama is a focus on different bodily postures (asanas), which is the second limb of yoga. These different postures also help prepare the body for the realization of atman. Siva the founder of yoga is believed to have taught these postures (Burley 73). There are a few different accounts of how many were taught (see Feuerstein 521), the Gheranda-Samhita describes the following thirty two: “siddha-asana (adept posture), padma-asana (lotus posture), bhadra-asana (auspicious posture), mukta-asana (liberated posture), vajra-asana (diamond posture), svastika-asana (svastika posture), simha-asana (lion posture), gomukha-asana (cow-face posture), vira-asana (hero posture), mrita-asana (corpse posture), gupta-asana (hidden posture), matsya-asana (fish posture), matsyendra-asana (Matsyendra’s posture), goraksha-asana (Goraksa’s posture), pashcimottana-asana (back-stretch posture), utkata-asana (extraordinary posture), samkata-asana (dangerous posture), mayura-asana (peacock posture), kukkuta-asana (cock posture), kurma-asana (tortoise posture), uttana-kurmaka-asana (extended tortoise posture), uttana-manduka-asana (extended frog posture), vriksha-asana (tree posture), manduka-asana (frog posture), garuda-asana (eagle posture), vrisha-asana (bull posture), shalabha-asana (locust posture), makara-asana (shark posture), ushtra-asana (camel posture), bhujanga-asana (serpent or cobra posture), and yoga-asana (Yoga posture)” (Feuerstein 521)[for a more detailed explanation of the postures as well as pictures of them see Feuerstein 522-523 and Burley 258-271]. While some of the postures are designed to help with sitting for long periods of time while meditating, others are designed for helping to regulate the life force within the yoga practitioner’s body (Feuerstein 521).

Linked with the postures are seals (mudra) and locks (bandha), the third limb of yoga. The seals signify far more advanced techniques and at times merge with some meditative practices. The locks are special maneuvers that are supposed to help restrict the life force within the trunk and thus stimulate it (Feuerstein 523). The seals (mudra) and locks (bandha) are named as follows: maha-mudra (great seal), nabho-mudra (sky seal), uddiyana-bandha (upward-going lock), jalandhara-bandha (Jalandhara’s lock), mula-bandha (root lock), maha-bandha (great lock), maha-vedha (great penetrator), khecari-mudra (space-walking seal), viparita-kari (inverted action seal), yoni-mudra (womb seal), vajroli-mubra (thunderbolt seal), shakti-calani-mudra (power-stirring seal), tadagi-mudra (pond seal), manduki-mudra (frog seal), shambhavi-mudra (Shambhu’s seal), ashvini-mudra (dawn-horse seal), pashini-mudra (bird-catching seal), kaki-mudra (elephant seal), bhujangini-mudra (serpent seal), and finally the five concentrations (dharana) on the five elements-earth, fire, water, air, and ether (Feuerstein 523-525)[see Feuerstein 523-525 for a detailed description of all the locks and seals].

The fourth limb of Hatha-yoga according to Gheranda is detachment from the senses (pratyahara). This involves removing attention from external- sensory objects (Feuerstein 525-526).

The sixth limb is in regards to meditation (dhyana) which can be understood as visualization (Feuerstein 528). The Gheranda-Samhita talks about three types of dhyana: “visualization having a ‘coarse’ (sthula) object, such as a carefully visualized deity; visualization having a ‘subtle’ (sukshma) object, namely the Absolute in the form of the transcendental point-origin (bindu) of the universe, as explained in connection with Tantrism; and contemplation of the Absolute as light (jyotis)” (Feuerstein 528)[for a more detailed description see Feuerstein]. According to Gheranda, with contemplation, the attention is inverted onto the inner essence of Self (atman). He explains it as the process of awakening the kundalini and it merging with atman and then rising to the center at the crown of the head bringing one to samadhi (Feuerstein 528).

Samadhi according to Gheranda is the seventh and final limb of yoga. It is liberation from the states of consciousness and separation of the mind from the body. Reaching this point is reaching the ultimate level and thus moska for the Hatha-yogin (Feuerstein 528-529).


Burely, Mikel (2000) Hatha-Yoga: Its Context Theory and Practice. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Feuerstein, Georg (2002) The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. New Delhi: Bhavana Books & Prints.

Sivananda, Swami (1981) Science of Yoga. India: Divine Life Society.

Sivananda Radha, Swami (1987) Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language: Symbols, Secrets and Metaphor. Porthill: Timeless Books.

White, David Gordon (1996) The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Article written by: Caylee Dutnall (2009) who is solely responsible for its content.