HAṬHAYOGA is historically the most influential, and today the best known, of the several schools of yoga derived from the classical Yoga of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra. Haṭhayoga differs from classical Yoga, and from its sister schools, principally in the special emphasis that it gives to certain aspects of yoga doctrine and practices. Classical Yoga depends heavily on Sāṃkhya metaphysics and tries to strike a balance between physical exercises and meditation. Haṭhayoga tends to prefer esoteric mysticism to systematic metaphysics and emphasizes physical exercises over meditation. It also pays particular attention to the acquisition of supernatural powers and the conquest of disease and death. The set of mystical, supraphysical concepts contained in haṭhayoga texts make it one of the principal constituents and markers of the current of Hinduism known as Tantrism.
Many of the aspects of yoga that are especially associated with haṭhayoga appear to be quite ancient. As early as the Ṛgveda (10.136) is found a description of munis (ascetics) who possess the power of flying on the wind. Yogic practices and concepts such as those elaborated in haṭhayoga texts already are mentioned prominently in the early Upaniṣads. The supraphysical "veins" (nāḍis ) of the human body, which become a central feature of the mystical anatomy of haṭhayoga, appear in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (8.6.6). Included among these is a central vein leading to the crown of the head. Breath control is referred to, somewhat elliptically, in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (1.5.23). The later Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (2.8–15) describes the practices of yoga, including breath control, in some detail and notes that "he who has attained a body made of the fire of yoga will not be subject to sickness, old age or death" (2.12).
Most of the elements of haṭhayoga appear in a more developed form in the descriptions of Tantric ascetics found in the Mālatī-mādhava of Bhavabhūti (c. 725) and in the Harṣacarita of Bāṇa Bhaṭṭa (c. 650). The majority of the extant texts of haṭhayoga, however, are associated with the somewhat later sect of the Kānphaṭa Yogis, sometimes called Nāths or Nāth Siddhas. In the South the so-called Tamil Siddhas of about the tenth to fifteenth century wrote poems grounded in the concepts and vocabulary of haṭhayoga. These same concepts and vocabulary also pervade the works of Tantric Buddhism and even infiltrate the yoga literature of the austere Jains. Because of the great religious and linguistic diversity of the literature, often coupled with an intentionally hermetic style, scholarly understanding of its overall structure and history remains incomplete.
The idea of a supraphysical subtle body with its own anatomy forms the conceptual heart of haṭhayoga. Although different texts describe this mystical anatomy somewhat differently, most mention seven cakras, or "centers," located in the trunk and head, connected by a network of nāḍi s, or "veins." Each of these cakra s takes the form of a lotus and is associated with a particular yantra, or mystical diagram; mantra, or mystical invocation; and god or pair of gods.
The first cakra, called the mūlādhāra, or "root," is a lotus of four petals located in the perineal area between the anus and the sexual organs. Its yantra is an inverted triangle with a liṅga of Śiva in its center together with the mantra "oṃ" and the elephant-headed god Gaṇeṣa. Coiled around the linga is a sleeping snake called Kuṇḍalinī, who blocks the top of the liṅga with her mouth. This Kuṇḍalinī represents the energy (śakti ) of Śiva. The yogin attempts to awaken her and make her ascend through the central nāḍī, called the suṣumnā, passing through each of the remaining cakras until she reaches the highest, called the sahasrāra ("lotus of a thousand petals") or brahmarandhra ("opening of brahman "), located on the top of the head. There Kuṇḍalinī unites with Śiva, an act that produces the supernatural powers and immortality that the yogin seeks. Ultimately this union is identical with the experience of enlightenment itself.
The various physical and meditative techniques employed by the adepts of haṭhayoga to achieve this experience involve the parallel immobilization of breath, semen, and mental activity. The term haṭha, in fact, means "forceful suppression." Thus, haṭhayoga is that meditative technique that involves the forceful suppression of one's senses and control of one's bodily processes. These techniques are described in such texts as the Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā of Svātmārāma, the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, the Gorakṣa Śataka, and the Siddhasiddhānta Paddhati. One of the most important of these techniques is the khecarī ("she who moves in the sky"). The yogin inserts his tongue in his throat, thus blocking both respiration and the descent of saliva. On the plane of the subtle body, it is said that this practice blocks the descent of the nectar of immortality produced by the moon located beneath the sahasrāra cakra. Normally this nectar falls into the fire of the sun located in the lower body. The practice of the khecarī enables the yogin, according to the Haṭhayoga Pradīpikā, to "drink" this nectar and thus "live many years, free of disease and with a body as soft as the stem of a lotus."
One of the best scholarly discussions of haṭhayoga is Shashibhusan Dasgupta's Obscure Religious Cults, 3d ed. (Calcutta, 1969), based principally on Bengali sources. Also excellent are Kamil V. Zvelebil's work on the Tamil Siddhas, The Poets of the Powers (London, 1973), and Mircea Eliade's classic on yoga in general, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed. (Princeton, N.J., 1969). The Sanskrit text that best describes the practices of haṭhayoga is Swami Svātmārāma's The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā (New York, 1974), which includes an English translation of the text. The mystical anatomy of haṭhayoga is described in the Ṣaṭcakranirūpana and Pādukāpañcaka, jointly translated by John George Woodroffe as The Serpent Power, 7th ed. (Madras, 1964).
Burley, Mikel. Hatha-Yoga: Its Context, Theory, and Practice. Delhi, 2000.
David N. Lorenzen (1987)