What is Hatha Yoga?

The term ‘hatha’ is quite widely and generally translated as relating to the intention in balancing sun-moon (ha-tha), representative of the same effort directed towards the opposing energies of active and passive as are found within our own bodies. Although, more serious scholars claim this to be a folklore etymology, with the preferred root of the word as ‘ha’: forceful. This suggests ‘hatha’ yoga as any method of working towards the aim of ‘yoga’ that uses any sense of active technique in doing so. I, personally, prefer this more basic and un-idealised definition. For, it is easy to get lost in the romance of yoga, where, really and truly, there is simply the daily need for effort, not always pretty, and often, hardly poetic, more mundane.

This use of effort is referred to as ‘kriya’ yoga by Patanjali, derived from the root ‘kri’, ‘to make or do’, which here stands as a direct synonym for Hatha. On the other hand, nowadays the term Kriya is used to represent a more subtle use of the body, not immediately related to Hatha practices. Which, in the modern day, loosely speaking, I would suggest are anything roughly based-around or including the ‘sun salutation’ movements, and working with a particular emphasis and focus on breath.

On the other hand, there are many styles of ‘yoga’ other than ‘hatha’, or physically based methods. Indeed, all of which would have been included together by Patanjali kriya, for they all involve an attempt at concerted and specific action. Examples of these are as varied as jnana, (yoga of rational-thinking), Bhakti (yoga of devotional worship), or karma (yoga of service/sacrifice).

This brings us to the question regarding what all these variously defined approaches share in common with the universal aim of ‘yoga’. Conceived so differently in their approach, it is confusing then as to exactly what yoga stands-for. This is always an ambiguous endeavor; mainly because the term ‘yoga’ is used equally to denote method as to the practice of yoga, as well as the identification of the term to describe a particular end-state, or result.

Here, Its method and aim are, in fact, the source of the difficulty, being more or less at loggerheads with each other. The method, is to do with an active attempt at restraint, yet the goal, achieved in a passive sense, as to a certain quality of relaxation; in the profoundest sense, a ‘letting go’ of the constraints of a limited and erroneous self-identity.

For this reason, the end-state of yoga is usually envisaged in the negative; as to what it is not, not what it is. Which, makes it much easier to grasp the project of yoga, and what it might mean, through what is said about its’ active technique as regarding the method. In such definition, it is made perfectly clear that the forceful aspect of ‘hatha’ is to do with the ability to self impose limits or restrictions on the propensity of the senses to wander outwardly. This is beyond debate, even within the context of a tradition of practice such as Bhakti, where, even still, devotion is shown in the exclusive focus on the names and forms of this relationship with God.

Indeed, what is always agreed on, is that this state is preceded by an effort at a fixing, controlling, or generally restricting, the operations of the mind through one-pointed concentration, regardless of the particular focus. Importantly, on all accounts, this is not for the sake of a further use, or benefit of the mind and identity it represents, rather a transcendence of it. In this sense, it might be more helpful to envisage yoga, instead of ‘union’ as it’s colloquially translated, rather to do with an attempt at ‘dis-union’.

To recap then, ‘yuj’, or ‘to yolk’ in yoga stands for the attempt at clearing the obstructions to relating to the natural sense of Self, so as a connection with this can be made over and above the obscuration of the false sense of individuality that lies in the way. This is done through narrowing the field of concentration so as the process of identifying with aspects of the external world (not Self) is gradually reduced, finally altogether discarded. Within this endeavour, many methods can be used. In the method of hatha yoga, this is the body, of which it is said;

This very body, Arjuna
Is said to be the field.
Whoever knows the body is called
By the sages the fields knower (13.1)
Those ones who know the difference
Between the field and it’s knower
And how this brings release from matter
They go beyond to the supreme (Bhagavad Gita 13.34)

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