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  • Writer's pictureLia Devincenzi

What is Hatha yoga? A brief history.

Before hot yoga and vinyasa and ashtanga and yin and all the others, there was hatha.

Hatha could mean 'force', or it could mean the union of the sun(ha) and the moon(tha), depending on who you ask.

Yoga originally referred to the mental practices used in order to know the eternal universal self, the Brahman - the true nature of the self. After being mentioned in the Upanishads (800-500 BCE) the different forms of mental and spiritual yoga formed the core theme of the Bhagavad Gita (300-200 BCE).

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (400-200 BCE), currently studied by yoga teachers and practitioners worldwide, still did not include any postures, but placed a bit more emphasis on the body. Asanas are mentioned for the first time, to prepare the body for meditation, but he does not state which ones.

Hatha yoga, the physical practices of yoga, was mentioned for the first time in an 11th century tantric Buddhist text, the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, a long time after the first mention of yoga - about 2000 years after.

While in this and other early texts the term hatha was used, it did not refer to asanas. There were, however, other physical form of yoga such as breathing and hand mudras.

Although asanas were mentioned and described in earlier texts, the 15th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists and describes both seated and non-seated postures. There are some even earlier artifacts that show some of these postures, as on the Mahudi Gate at Dabhoi in Gujarat, decorated in 1220-1230.

Śrī Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989) was a scholar of all six Hindu philosophies, and an ayurvedic physician who further studied yoga for 7 years under his teacher Śrī Ramamohana Brahmachari.

He taught and wrote books about yoga, including much more of the physical aspects of yoga, than had previously been written. Importantly, he linked the breath with movement, first using the term vinyasa (flow) and emphasized the slowness of movement, as well as teaching to one's ability.

His students Indra Devi, K Pattabhi Jois, TKV Desikachar and BKS Iyengar further popularised yoga as exercise and spread it to the western world, although Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda had already imported some of the spiritual aspects of yoga to the US in 1893 and the 1920s respectively.

Indra Devi(1899 -2002) pioneered yoga as exercise in the US and all over the world, lastly in Argentina where she spent the last 15 years of her life.

The now disgraced Pattabhi Jois(1915-2009) was the innovator and founder of Ashtanga yoga, a faster flowing form of yoga in particular sequences of asanas.

Desikachar(1938-2016) was Krishnamacarya's son, and under his father's tutelage, continued to develop his father's style into Viniyoga, coming from the term vini (adapt), which takes into account the individual's unique conditions and needs.

Iyengar(1918 -1914) created Iyengar yoga, famed for its emphasis on precision and alignment. He is also credited for popularising the use of props.

So, where did hatha yoga go?

If a studio or teacher does not claim to teach any of these or other specific new forms of yoga, then hatha yoga is what will be taught. A gentle 'yoga as exercise', with a view to calming the nervous system and encouraging mindful presence and bodily awareness. Depending on the teacher, more or less of the other physical forms of yoga might be included, such as pranayama and meditation, and the same with the philosophy.

Evidently the forms of hatha yoga has evolved greatly over the centuries, but have always focused on mindful practice.


Desikachar T,K,V.(1995). The Heart of Yoga: Developing a personal practice

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