“There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart.” – Chandogya Upaishad
Yoga comes from a wide and deep river of ancient tradition. Its many currents flow from a complex history of spiritual exploration, philosophical reflection, scientific experimentation, and spontaneous creative expression. Arising from the diverse and involving cultures of India, often moored to and conditioned by Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and other religions, the philosophies, teachings, and practices of yoga are as richly varied as the innumerable tributaries of the vastness of yoga in all its manifestations. What we know of the origins and development of yoga comes to us from a variety of sources, including ancient texts, oral transmissions through certain yogic or spiritual lineages, iconography, dances, and songs. While for some yoga students and teachers the history matters little, for others full appreciation of the practice is richer and clearer than informed by a deeper understanding of where it came from.
HATHA YOGA: THE HATHA PRADIPIKA, GHERANDA SAMHITA, AND SHIVA SAMHITA
All of the best known styles of yoga practiced in the west today are a form of Hatha yoga the Vinyasa flow, Iyengar, Anusara, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Power yoga, and dozens of others that offer only slight variations on a tradition or style but with a branded name. It may come as a surprise that the first in-depth writings on Hatha yoga and related explanations of asana practice are just a few hundred years old, not thousands as is often claimed or intimated in the popular yoga media and literature. Think of how many times you have read an article on Hatha yoga that begins, “In this ancient practice that dates back over 5000 years…”
The first substantial writing on Hatha yoga, the well-known Hatha yoga Pradipika, was written in the 14th century by the Indian sage Swami Swatmarama. A fairly encyclopedic text, the Pradipika looks in detail at asana, shatkarma, pranayama, mudra, bandha, and samadhi, giving very specific guidance on each of these interrelated practices.
The Shiva Samhita, written sometime between the 15 and the 17th centuries, shows more clearly than the Pradipika the influence of Buddhism and tantra in the development of Hatha yoga (Vasu 2004). While only four asanas are described in the detail, the Shiva Samhita provides an elaborate explanation of nadis (the energy channels through which prana flows), the nature of prana or “life force”, and the many obstacles faced in practice and how to overcome them through a variety of techniques. These techniques include dristana (conscious gazing), silent mantra and tantric practices for awakening and moving kundalini energy. The Gheranda Samhita, written in the late 17th century, reflects the diminishing influence of tantra, particulary anything involving sexual interaction. (Mallinson 2004)
According to the original text, there are three purposes of hatha yoga (1) the total purification of the body, (2) the complete balancing of the physical, mental, and energetic fields, and (3) the awakening of purer consciousness through which one ultimately connects with the divine by engaging practices rooted in the physical body. Today we find most Hatha yoga traditions attributing their roots to the Raja yoga philosophy of Patanjali. Raja yoga, greatly influenced by the Buddhist philosophy of yama and niyama, can be seen as having more to do with religion than a person spiritual life. Living in the real world of relationships, work, adventure, culture, and society, you can drive yourself crazy trying to control the mind is the pure raja yogi is instructed to do. Hatha yoga, in its origins, is very much more tied to tantra, seeking spiritual development in the ordinary experiences of life and using the sensuous experience of the body to cultivate the balanced integration of body, mind, and spirit. Ultimately you may find the path of Hatha yoga brings you to a place where all the other paths converge, and simple bliss. This is at least is what those who first wrote about Hatha yoga expected to happen.