Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice

Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice

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  • Book Name Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice
  • Author Mikel Burley
  • Language, Pages English, 339 Pgs.
  • Upload Date 2023 / 08 / 04
  • ISBN 9788120817067, 8120817060
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Many thousands of people throughout the world claim to practise some from of yoga, but the philosophical background of this ancient discipline is frequently either neglected or subjected to oversimplification and misrepresentation. This has been especially true of hatha-yoga (literally, the 'forceful yoga'), the tradition most performance of posture (asanas), cleansing practices (karmani or kriyas) and techniques that involve altering the breathing rhythm and flow of 'vital energy' (pranayama). In this study, philosopher and hatha practitioner Mikel Burley places the soteriological system of hatha-yoga within its proper context, drawing attention to its continuity with Vedic religion, its initiatory pedagogical structure, and to the theoretical underpinnings of hatha practice. In particular, he examines the complex notion of a 'subtle bodily matrix' - comprising vital channels (nadis), centres (cakras) and forces (prana)-which is so crucial to the discipline, this matrix being held to form, as it were, a bridge between the gross physical and mental spheres.

Use in made of a wide range of source materials, including seminal texts in the hatha tradition such as the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika and Gheranda-Samhita, as well as primary and secondary works from related streams of Indian thought. The author's approach is both scholarly and accessible, making the study suitable for specialists, practitioners and general readers alike.

Hatha-yoga is concerned with the most fundamental of matters: the development of an ethical and spiritually-oriented appreciation of humanity, the cultivation of maximal health and perceptual acuity, and the quest for Self-realization. Absorbing and penetrating, Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of this subject.

About the Author

Mikel Burley was born in Leicestershire, England, in 1972. He has studied philosophy, both Eastern and Western, at the University of Essex and Western, at the University of Essex and the University of Nottingham, and has travelled widely in India and Nepal. He currently teaches hatha-yoga and Indian philosophy for the Devon School of Yoga, and has had articles published in several magazines and journals, including introductory series on Indian philosophy and Patanjali's Yoga-Sutra in Yoga and Health magazine.

Excerpts from review:

Mikel Burley presents a work that is both scholarly and reflects the understanding of a practitioner in the field. His approach is not merely academic but experiential..... He is sensitive to the deeper basis of the yoga tradition but at the same time free of the fantasy, illusion and wishful thinking that often characterizes new age explorations....

Hatha-Yoga : Its Context, Theory and Practice is important reading for all serious practitioners of yoga, as well as all real scholars in the field, both traditional and modern.

David Frawley
American Institute of Vedic Studies


Hatha yoga is probably the most commonly known of the different branches of yoga but it is also for the same reason perhaps the most misunderstood. Yoga practice in the west is now defined mainly in terms of asanas or physical postures which are the easiest aspect of yoga for the outward looking western mind to grasp. As there are most elaborately described in Hatha yoga texts this modern western asana based yoga often calls itself Hatha yoga as well.

However Hatha yoga is much more than asana. It is a complete and integral system of spiritual development for body mind and soul. It is not only a sophisticated physical system but contains in depth knowledge about the subtle body its nadis and cakras as well. It goes into great detail not only regarding asana but also pranayama mantra and meditation.

The goal of asana practice in traditional Hatha yoga also differs from that of most modern groups. Hatha yoga does not aim merely at making us feel better on a physical level, it contains intense ascetic practices for physical and psychic purification which require specific instruction from a teacher on an individual basis. It is a path of full enlightenment or self realization not a preliminary or bodily based system only. Classical Hatha yoga therefore contains but goes far beyond the usual idea of modern yoga approaches and their exercise/therapy orientation.

If we look at Hatha Yoga in its original and broader sense we see that few people are really practicing it today and few really understand what it is, including many professional yoga teachers. A greater examination of the subject is therefore essential in order to understand what yoga was originally meant to be and what its greater parameters have always been.

Another misconception is that Hatha Yoga is something relatively new in the Indian tradition. This is because most Hatha Yoga texts that describe Asanas in detail appear to be only about a thousand years old. However, we can find many seals of figures in yoga postures from the Harappan (or, as it is now called, the Indus-Sarasvati) culture going back to 2500 B.C.E. This shows that classical Hatha Yoga practices rest upon much older traditions. Indeed, disciplines of äsana, prãnãyãma and meditation can be found in all aspects of the Indic tradition and all layers of its literature, Tantric, Puränic and Vedic. One could call classical Indic culture ‘yogic,’ extending a yogic approach even to literature, music and dance.

Hatha Yoga comes in for some criticism for its fixation on the physical body. This is truer of modern ãsana yoga than of classical Hatha. The Hatha yogi views the body as a multilayered system of which the physical is only the outer rung, inseparable from inner levels of prána, mind and consciousness. The Hatha yogi is not concerned with the physical in itself but only as a means to access the deeper levels of body and mind. Hatha Yoga is in fact more concerned with prãna than with the body, and looks at the body as a pränic or energy system, not as a mere physiological structure or set of biochemical reactions.

Prana itself is an important subject in the Upanisads and Brahmanas, where it is often identified with the ãtman or supreme Self The determination that the human being breathes 21,600 times a day (10,800 by day and by night or about one breath every four seconds) occurs first in the Satapatha Brahmana, a very old text from before the Upanisadic period, showing that the Vedic rishis examined the subject with great attention. It can be argued that the main deity of the Rg Veda, Indra, is a symbol for the awakened prána. He is a deity of the atmosphere or region of air, and wields the lightning or power of transformative insight. More specifically he is the präna or energy of seeing (drg-sakti). Hatha Yoga develops from such an energetic worldview, not from a simple fixation on physical forms and structure.

There are very few good books on Hatha Yoga available today despite the plethora of titles in the field. Most are modern äsana books aimed at a mass audience, with little understanding of classical Yoga. Some are scholarly works done as museum pieces by those who have never practiced the system, and who may be unaware of the living aspects of the tradition.

In contrast to these one-sided and potentially misleading approaches, Mike! Burley presents a work that is both scholarly and reflects the understanding of a practitioner in the field. His approach is not merely academic but experiential. The author possesses both a good intuition and sound reasoning so that his views reflect both spiritual and intellectual truth. He is sensitive to the deeper basis of the yoga tradition but at the same time free of the fantasy, illusion and wishful thinking that often characterizes new age explorations.

Most notably the author has assimilated new data on ancient India that show that the old model of the Aryan invasion of 1500 B.C.E. is incorrect. A new archaeological mode) has arisen showing a continuous development of civilization in India from the earliest times (Mehrgarh 7000 B.C.E.) not defined by any outside invasions or intrusive populations. The ending of the Harappan culture came about not through Aryan hordes but through a drying up of the river systems, most notably the Sarasvati river of Vedic fame, on the banks of which most Harappan and pre-Harappan sites have been located. This occurred around 1900 B.C.E. and is described in the Vedic and Purnic texts that speak of the shift from the Sarasvati to the Ganga as the center of civilization in India. This information necessitates a rethinking of the yoga tradition as well, both making it older and connecting it more to Vedic roots.

Many previous scholars, perceiving the long history of yoga in India, have looked for a pre-Vedic basis for the yoga tradition, as it clearly existed before the 1500 B.C.E. date of the proposed Aryan invasion. However, now that that invasion has been disproved, one has to move back the dates of Vedic texts, which reflect the Sarasvati culture, to 3000 B.C.E., if not earlier. This gives an adequate time for the development of the yoga tradition in an Indian context such as is reflected in Vedic texts, which was the idea of great yogis like Sri Aurobindo and Paramahansa Yogananda.

Indeed, the ancient Europeans may have been migrants out of India, or culturally influenced by Indic groups, rather than migrants into the country, as most scholars today stilt believe. Ancient India according to the new model possessed a great civilization based upon Sanskrit as well as a large population that could result in either migrations or cultural diffusion. This means that a yogic element probably existed in ancient European culture, such as appears in the Gundestrop cauldron and in pagan deities like Cernuous, a kind of European Siva figure who sat in yoga postures. It raises the probability that yoga is something inherent in the European psyche as well, and that in taking up yoga Europeans are not doing something exotic but are returning to their more ancient roots.

The demise of the Aryan invasion theory opens the door for a new scholarship on India and a rethinking of the entire yoga tradition. Burley has pioneered important new work in this area that other scholars should follow up and work out in detail.

The new model is of yoga (ãsana. prãnäyäma, mantra and meditation) as an integral part of the Vedic tradition, representing its more practical or experiential side. The Vedas project a view of the universe as the cosmic person (purusa). This seeing of the universe in one’s own body is the basis of all yogic practice. Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory and Practice is important reading for all serious practitioners of yoga, as well as all real scholars in the field both traditional and modern. Burley’s is a real yogic scholarship about yoga.



What is Hatha-Yoga?

Hatha yoga which may also be referred to as Hatha Vidya or simply hatha is a branch of Indian soteriology that is a technical system whose purpose is to achieve freedom release or salvation for its practitioners. There are many Sanskrit terms for this goal and several of these will be discussed during the course of this work. The English term that I most frequently use to denote the goal of hatha yoga and of yoga in a broader sense is self realisation which is really an abbreviated way of saying the realisation of one’s true identity as the self the self (with a capital initial) being the paramatman (the highest or supreme self) who according to yoga philosophy is identical to Brahman (the absolute).

Outside of India and especially in the west the term hatha yoga has come to be most closely associated with physical posture work and relaxation techniques but it should be made clear right away that in its traditional form hatha yoga offers far more than a fitness regime and a method of stress relief management. The use of hatha practices to build stamina and agility and to sooth the nervous system after a stressful day at work, are perfectly valid on their own level, but a gross injustice is done to a noble tradition when such narrow uses are equated with hatha-yoga per se. While not wishing to undervalue the importance of postural training and relaxation, it should be stressed that, in the opulent palace of hatha-yoga, these aspects constitute merely the gates at the entrance. It should also be noted that the degree of dedication required of a traditional Indian hatha initiate is likely to far exceed that of a typical practitioner of westernized ‘postural’ yoga. While the latter may be content to attend a weekly class, and perhaps to incorporate a short routine into daily life, the former will be expected to make a serious life commitment—involving sustained, rigorous and devoted practice—and to orient his or her whole being towards the spiritual goal.

The popular identification of hatha-yoga with ‘postural’ yoga has often led to hatha’s being falsely contrasted with what are perceived to be more ‘mental’ or ‘meditative’ forms of yoga. It is true that there have traditionally existed different approaches to yoga, and that one of the defining features of the hatha approach is the emphasis that it gives to postural work, but to draw rigid distinctions on this point is misleading. in this study I shall endeavor to draw attention to the integrity of hatha-yoga and to its comprehensiveness as a soteriological discipline. I shall show’ that what distinguishes it from other systems is not so much its underlying philosophy—for this has elements in common with many other Indian traditions—but, as intimated already, the emphasis it gives to a particular set of techniques. These include postural techniques, but also, and perhaps more importantly, techniques concerned with the alteration of breathing rhythms, the retention of ‘vital force’ (see below), and the training of the mind.

The principal objective of hatha-yoga practice is to engender the retention and ‘union’ (yoga) of two modes of prãna, the subtle ‘vital force’ which is held to permeate the human bodily complex.4 The practitioner closes off various orifices through which prãna might escape, doing so chiefly by means of muscular contractions called ‘seals’ (mudra) or ‘locks’ (hand/ia), and Endeavour’s to cause the ordinarily upward-flowing and downward-flowing prãnas to move in contrary directions, thereby effecting their ‘union’ within the central channel of vital force. known as susumnä-nadL5 The ‘heat’ (tapas) or ‘fire’ (agni) which results from this forceful union is held to arouse the still more refined—and still more potent—force known as Kundalini-sakti, which is characterized as the Goddess (Devi) and represented as a coiled serpent. This ‘serpent power’ is said to then rise up through the susumnã channel, ‘piercing’ ‘opening’ several vital centers (cakras) as she does eventually ‘joining with’ Brahman (personified a Siva) in the sahasrara-padma (‘thousand-petalled lotus’) at the crown of the head.

On one level, the word hatha is an adjective meaning ‘forceful’, ‘firm’, ‘persistent’, ‘strenuous’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘violent’, and hence a literal rendering of hatha-yoga would be something like ‘forceful yoga’. Such a translation is accurate insofar as the discipline utilizes relatively forceful techniques, but it provides only a partial understanding. To explain hatha’s deeper significance, hatha-yogins often employ a kind of ‘folk etymology’, which consists in breaking the word down into its two component syllables. Ha is said to stand for ‘sun’ and tha for ‘moon’, and this gives us ‘union of “sun” and “moon” as a translation of hatha-yoga. ‘Sun’ (Surya) and ‘moon’ (Candra or Soma), along with ‘fire’ (Agni), are potent symbols within Indian mythology generally, and in the symbology of hatha in particular. In the latter, they have several associations or correspondences, the most important being the following: ‘Sun’ stands for (a) the upward-flowing präna that travels along pingala-nadi (situated to the right of susumnã), (b) pingala-nadi itself, and (c) the subtle ‘female’ and ‘heating’ energy known as rajas (lit. ‘space’ or ‘void’), which must be unified or integrated with the ‘male’ ‘cooling’ energy, bindu. ‘Moon’ stands for (a) the downward-flowing prãna, called apana, which travels along idd-nd1i (to the left of susumnã), (b) ida-nadi itself, and (c) bindu (lit. ‘point’, ‘spot’ or ‘seed’), tile subtle essence of ‘male’ energy, which manifests on the gross physical level as semen ( ukra or lu/cia). ‘Fire’ stands for (a) the transmuting force of ‘inner combustion’ brought about by the ‘union’ of prana and apana in susumna-nadi, (b) susumna-nadi itself, and (c) Kundalini-sakti, who is stirred from her ‘sleep’ by means of hatha-yoga.

Purpose and structure of the study

As its subtitle intimates, the purpose of the present study is to explore hatha theory and practice within their proper context. Only by taking account of this context can we hope to make any headway in understanding the complex praxis associated with hatha-yoga. The ‘context’ or ‘background setting’ I have in mind is broadly philosophical—comprising epistemological and metaphysical aspects, and including the crucial notion of self-identity-but it also encompasses the fields of mythology, cosmology, history and physiology. As has been noted, the major themes which colour the mosaic of hatha philosophy are shared by many other streams of Indian thought, and thus hatha cannot be studied in isolation. My approach has involved examining and bringing together material from a wide range of sources, carefully appraising that material, and drawing out its significance in relation to the hatha tradition.

The study is divided into three parts. Part I, comprising chapters 1-4, deals with the context out of which hatha-yoga has grown, and within which it remains firmly rooted. The aim of this first part is to set forth a clear and concise overview of those aspects of the Indian spiritual and religious tradition that are relevant to an understanding of hatha-yoga, a task that involves examining (a) the seminal texts and principal darthnas8 of Indian philosophy (chapters 1 and 2), (b) the pedagogical relationship between guru (teacher) and sisya (student) (Chapter 3), and (c) some of the mythological and symbolic associations that underly much of the terminology used in hatha treatises (Chapter 4).

Parts 2 and 3, comprising chapters 5-7 and 8 and 9 respectively, focus more sharply upon hatha-yoga itself, Part 2 dealing with its important theoretical concepts, and Part 3 with its practical techniques (Chapter 8) and some of the effects of those techniques (Chapter 9).

Although a substantial amount of literature already exists on hatha-yoga, I hope the reader will find that I have made a useful and novel contribution to this field of enquiry. Indeed, while a profusion of books have been published, and continue to be published, on hatha, relatively few of these display more than a superficial appreciation of the subject matter. Publications can be found—often occupying space in the ‘health’ sections of bookshops and libraries—that provide guidelines about the cleansing procedures, breathing techniques, and multifarious postures which form an integral part of hatha practice, rarely is such practice closely examined in relation to philoso. The amount of attention that has been given to the more gymnastic and ‘aesthetic’ aspects of hatha-yoga——in popular books, magazines, and other media—has tended to further ingrain upon the western mind the view of this discipline as primarily postural and fitness-oriented. Hatha-yoga has, to a large degree, become ‘secularized’ in the West, hut to remove the spirit from hatha is to leave a husk. It is therefore essential that some effort is made to redress the balance.

It is also, unfortunately, necessary that the kind of ‘spiritual snobbery’ exhibited towards hatha by certain practitioners of other mind-training disciplines be shown to be wildly misdirected. By ‘spiritual snobbery’ I mean the opinion that hatha is a ‘low’, or even a ‘decadent’, form of yoga simply because it pays attention to and works with the rather than ignoring the physical level and concentrating exclusively on higher more loftey (supposedly more spiritual) things. In the present study I attempt to shed some light upon the far from decadent ideas that underpin all hatha practices to step beyond as it were the threshold of the palace gates.

Textual Sources.

The textual sources I have drawn upon are many and varied and a complete list of these can be found in the bibliography. There are however a far smaller number of texts which have formed the backbone of my research some of these being among the earliest known systematic manuals of hatha yoga. Below are brief sketches of the key texts referred to including details of the specific editions used.




Foreword by David Frawley ix
Acknowledgements xv
Abbreviations xvii
Introduction 1
What is Hatha yoga? 1
Purpose and structure of the study 4
Textual sources 6
Part One:
Contextual Aspects of Hatha Yoga
1 Early Sources 15
Vedas 18
The Aryan Invasion myth 26
Yoga in the Upanisads 29
2 Yoga and the Indian Darsanas 40
The Astika Darsanas 40
Samkhya and Yoga 50
Patanjala yoga and hatha yoga 59
3 The Guru Sisya Relationship 64
4 The Symbology of Siva 72
The Myth of hatha yoga’s origin 73
Symbolism in Yoga 74
The Meanings of Siva 80
Part Two:
Theoretical Aspects of Hatha Yoga
5 Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga 95
The various yogas 95
Raja Yoga 102
The Goal of Yoga 105
Degrees of Samadhi 113
6 The Body in Hatha Yoga 125
Unwarranted prejudice against hatha yoga 125
Kaya Sadhana 131
The Notion of Jivanmukti 135
The Human being as multilayered 139
Microcosm and macrocosm 143
7 The Subtle Bodily Matrix 147
Prana 148
Nadis 153
Cakras 159
Kundalini 171
The nerve nadi identity theory 179
Part Three:
Practical Aspects of Hatha yoga
8 Hatha techniques 187
Abhyasa and vairagya 188
Preliminary requirements 190
The central techniques 197
9 Effects of Hatha yoga 220
Siddhis 221
Scientific Data 226
10 Conclusion 239
Appendix A: Illustrations and photographs 245
Representations of Siva 245
Nadis and Cakras 251
A Selection of Asanas and mudras 258
Appendix B: Transliteration and pronunciations of Sanskrit terms 272
Appendix C: Texts on Hatha yoga in Sanskrit and other Indian Languages 275
Appendix D: Traditional Hindu Cosmological timetable 278
Glossary of key Sanskrit terms 280
Bibliography 290
Index 299
Contents and Sample Pages


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