H is for Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Hatha Yoga Pradipika (translation: Illumination of Hatha Yoga) is the oldest surviving text specifically on Hatha Yoga, being composed in the 14th or 15th century by yogi Svatmarama (who may or may not be a real individual, as the name Svatmarama translates to “one at peace with one’s soul”).  It is not a long book, consisting of four chapters with a total of approximately 393 2-line Sanskrit verses (a few are longer or only 1 line, and the English translation of a verse is usually 3 or 4 lines).

The book mentions 84 asanas, describes 15.  These 15 asanas cover physical capabilities of flexibility, strength, coordination, and balance.  They represent a microcosm of working out the entire body, establishing the hatha yoga principle of comprehensive physical and mental fitness.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika is not a text on theory only.  Chapter 1 verse 65 says “The practitioner will succeed; the non-practitioner will not.  Success in yoga is not achieved by merely reading books.”  Verse 66 goes on to say “Success is achieved neither by wearing the right clothes nor talking about it.  Practice alone brings success.”  It is like everything else in life: you have to experience it, as well as learn about it, in order to understand it.

In addition to asanas, the book describes pranayama, mudras, and bandhas.  Pranayama refers to breath (see Breathing page).  Mudras are physical actions, “seals,” which beneficially affect the flow of energy in the body.  Bandhas are physical “locks” of areas in the torso to remove obstacles to energy flow.  Mudras and bandhas are advanced stages of hatha yoga beyond asanas and pranayama (although a few mudras are fairly simple and can be practiced without specialized guidance from a guru).  It should also be noted that some of the mudras and bandhas make little sense in light of present-day anatomical knowledge, and in fact the esteemed master Krishnamacharya cautioned against excessively literal interpretation of them.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika concludes with a chapter on Samadhi, the highest level of spiritual awareness in which oneness with the universe is achieved.  Its verses are strikingly similar to other Eastern writings from all centuries of mankind.

Also available is a version of Hatha Yoga Pradipika containing 10 chapters with approximately 626 verses. This includes the material of the shorter version plus additional verses on 8-limbed yoga, mudras & bandhas, and esoteric matters such as the nature of death. This text is historically interesting and a useful addition to the body of knowledge on yoga but only marginally additive to information on hatha yoga.

Two additional root texts of hatha yoga are Gheranda Samhita (translation: Collected Verses of Gheranda) and Shiva Samhita (translation: Collected Verses of Shiva).  Gheranda Samhita, perhaps created in the late 1600s, is a logical extension of Hatha Yoga Pradipika.  In approximately 300 verses, it too discusses asanas, pranayama, and mudras, and concludes with a chapter on Samadhi.  It also includes information on body purification methods, sensory awareness, and meditation.  The approach on asanas is similar to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, confirming the total number as 84 and expanding on 32 asanas which "are useful in the world of mortals."  25 mudras are mentioned, including 4 that are indistinguishable from asanas.  This total of 36 asanas include positions addressing the entire body, ranging from simple poses to physically demanding ones -- reinforcing the hatha yoga principles of comprehensive physical exercise and mental concentration.

Shiva Samhita, created coincident with or after Hatha Yoga Pradipika and before Gheranda Samhita, uses approximately 600 verses to describe yogic principles, energy flow, asanas, mudras, and meditation.  The book mentions 84 asanas and describes approximately 6 (including mudras that are essentially asanas).  The asanas are less demanding, but still notably physical, i.e. more than preparation for spirituality.  Shiva Samhita illustrates that the boundary between hatha yoga and other forms of yoga is not sharply delineated.

Goraksha Paddhati or Goraksha Samhita, approximately 200 verses, and Goraksha Shatakathe first half of Goraksha Paddhati-Samhitadate from perhaps the 11th or 12th century.  Ostensibly prepared by Goraksha Natha (also Gorakhnath or just plain Goraksha), the texts refer to 6-limbed yoga and cover hatha yoga elements -- pranayama, mudras, bandhas -- while devoting dozen of verses to energy flow through nadis (channels), energy concentrations in chakras and otherwise, and Kundalini.  Only 3 specific asanas are mentioned. Goraksha's works are considered by some scholars to be early hatha yoga texts.  Inasmuch as asanas are an essential element of hatha yoga, however, the texts would appear to fall more clearly into the category of companion texts to raja yoga.

A book called Yoga Yajnavalkya is also worth mentioning here.  Written before 1000 C.E., it includes a chapter on asanas describing eight poses that exercise the body in the manner of hatha yoga.  See Patanjali page for more information.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Shiva Samhita, and Yoga Yajnavalkya include many of the same sitting and lying asanas.  The remaining asanas in the four books are remarkably similar and also consist overwhelmingly of sitting and lying poses.  This feature and the relatively small number of total poses stand in sharp contrast to modern yoga, which owes its content to Indian masters of the 20th century (refer to Krishnamacharya page).  Current hatha yoga is not so much an evolution of ancient yoga as it is a major extension.

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