What Is(n’t) Hatha Yoga?
Our ideas about yoga affect what it is. They help determine how yoga evolves. That’s always been the case, but now we can all be involved. Everyone can affect yoga’s evolution because the yoga we do today is democratic enough to inspire us all to have more easily accepted and understandable ideas about it.
You’ll be reading more about those ideas in the first chapter of this book. Like all the other chapters, the first one is made up of numbered statements. To allow for several levels of understanding, each statement is presented as a 3-part paragraph consisting of a basic idea, an explanation, and a more complex, difficult, or speculative, sometimes even contradictory concept. The longer middle parts contain intermediate-level ideas that will generally serve to explain, explore, and connect basic and advanced approaches to understanding what hatha yoga is(n’t).
The basic ideas always come first, are in bold type like this, and always consist of a single simple sentence. The explanatory, intermediate-level ideas are in the middle and in regular type like this. They usually take up multiple sentences, and don’t have to be completely understood to be of benefit to those seeking a simple understanding of what hatha yoga is. The more advanced third parts are underlined like this, and always consist of a (sometimes not so simple) single sentence.
Now, let’s make sure you’re ready. In Chapter One, you’ll be reading ideas about yoga’s (im)practicality. You can take your time getting used to the ideas. One option is to read all the basic ones first. Each basic idea is bolded, so you can easily skip from one to the next. If you do that, the reading will go like this:
1-1. Health is now a commonly enjoyed byproduct of modern yoga.
1-2. Yoga is more than hygienic.
1-3. Hatha yoga’s sub-practices are cleansing.
And so forth. You can read the whole chapter that way and then loop back to the beginning.
Of course, you can also read all of the paragraphs completely, in order, with the understanding that you’re tracking ideas according to smaller positive loops. You’ll read each paragraph completely, but the third part will probably send you back to the first part. So let’s give that a try with the whole first paragraph:
1-1. Health is now a commonly enjoyed byproduct of modern yoga. Practicing hatha yoga helps the stiff become flexible, the weak become strong, and the lethargic become vital. Yoga’s ability to help the numb regain sensitivity is now of critical importance to the planet.
Once you finished that last underlined part, maybe you wanted to go back to the basic idea. So read the basic idea again. The looping helps anyway. It’s yogic. Let the loops happen until you naturally move on to the next paragraph, 1-2. Read all of it, or part of it. This book is like an “All-Levels” yoga class. We can practice differently and still all practice together.
What Is(n’t) Hatha Yoga?
Chapter 1: The (Im)practical Yoga
1-1. Health is now a commonly enjoyed byproduct of yoga. Practicing hatha yoga helps the stiff become flexible, the weak become strong, and the lethargic become vital. Yoga’s ability to help the numb regain sensitivity is now of critical importance to the planet.
1-2. Yoga is more than hygienic. The difference between ordinary cleanliness and yogic cleanliness has to do with energy experiencing. Yoga helps stressed people relax, but it also leaves room for the anxious feelings positively linked to creativity.
1-3. Hatha yoga’s sub-practices are cleansing. The bodily poses called Asana, and the ten basic behavioral modifications known as the Yamas and Niyamas can purify mind and body. Though the poses come first now, usually to the exclusion of everything else, Asana is still known as the “third Limb of yoga.”
1-4. The ten behavioral practices are commonly ignored. Gandhi famously observed the first Yama, but contrary to popular Indian belief, hatha yogis have been ignoring the so-called “dos and don’ts” since their inception. Western yoga instructors like to frame the teachings positively, but developing the habit of just “not” doing certain things inspires yogic self-observation, not narcissistic self-absorption.
1-5. The five social practices are Non-violence, Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Sexual Continence, and Non-greediness. In Sanskrit the names for the Yamas are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. Intense Yama practice ruins whatever a person has been usually doing in life, while Asana practice can strengthen anything, including greed.
1-6. The five personal practices are Cleanliness, Contentment, Discipline, Self-study, and Surrender to the First Teacher. In Sanskrit the names for the five Niyamas are Saucha, Samtosha, Tapas, Svadyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. There is an obvious hierarchical structure to the Niyamas, with the last one (Ishvara Pranidhana) being the highest practice.
1-7. The social practices enable and inform the personal practices. Telling the truth, for example, enables and informs Contentment. There are really only three “don’ts”: Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Asteya (Non-Stealing), and Aparigraha (Non-Greediness).
1-8. Personal practices enable and inform the social practices. So Self-study makes Sexual-continence not just more likely to happen, but more likely to happen in a healthy way. Concept artist Paul McCarthy said, “Hygiene is the religion of fascists.”
1-9. Why people start a yoga practice matters. It’s true that new students doing the bodily poses for selfish reasons may “get it later,” but problems always mount during the delay. Yoga evolves in favor of democratic inclusion and Asana being taught first hugely increases yoga’s common-level attractiveness.
1-10. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas second is natural. Asana is energetically sensitizing, and since it takes deep sensitivity to really do the Yamas and Niyamas, the new order works. If Asana’s sensitizing capacity was less important, and if the Yamas and Niyamas really were just the “dos and don’ts of yoga,” they would still be taught first as beginner practices.
1-11. The Yamas and Niyamas are pleasurable energy experiences. That’s what makes them hathayogic. Hatha yoga is the yoga of energy, so its sub-practices are only yogically modifying in connection with energy-oriented sensitization.
1-12. The Yamas are like Inhales and the Niyamas are like Exhales. Yama practices expand our social awareness, and Niyama practices deepen our personal awareness. The Yamas help us take people into our practice as an act of generosity, and the Niyamas keep our internal space energetically clean for visitors.
1-13. Doing the Yamas and Niyamas in pairs makes them yoga practices. Yoga is dynamically dualistic. It only happens through the play of two positively opposing things, so the Yamas and Niyamas aren’t yogic until they are coupled. Pairing the Yamas and Niyamas is a new idea that makes them yogic for the first time, but that change also makes the traditional ordering of them even more important.
1-14. Non-violence and Cleanliness, Truthfulness and Contentment, Non-stealing and Discipline, Sexual Continence and Self-study, and Non-greediness and Surrender to the First Teacher make up the five pairs. Beginning with the first practice in each set, every Yama is coupled with a perfectly opposing Niyama, and every Niyama is coupled with a perfectly opposing Yama. Gandhi’s famously social fasts caused him personal harm, but they were acts of great energetic cleanliness that yogically contradicted what is just “normal” yoga.
1-15. Gandhi (albeit unwittingly) did Non-violence and Cleanliness together. Without knowing it, he started peacefully refusing to tolerate social injustice (Ahimsa) right as he was realizing it was wrong for him personally to wear western clothes (Saucha). Gandhi’s Cleanliness practice became trans-personal in connection with Non-Violent energy, and his Non-Violence practice expressed First Teacher compassion in union with primordial energetic Cleanliness.
1-16. One person’s Ahimsa-Saucha combo practice can change the world. It’s within everyone’s ability to practice Non-Violence and Cleanliness to create the seemingly impossible. Gandhi really didn’t know what he was doing in respect to yoga, and it still worked.
1-17. It takes two to tango and three to yoga. All the yogic pairings are really triad structures. The Yamas and Niyamas are paired like the hot channel (pingala) and the cold channel (ida), but Asana and the sashumna hold those pairs together. Positively charged protons and non-charged neutrons seem to be paired in atoms, but negatively charged electrons balance the atomic structure.
1-18. Yama-Niyama practice transcends issues of “right and wrong.” Because it’s impossible to ascribe a universal sense of correctness to anyone’s actions—even yogic actions—the five social practices must be worked with subjectively, in relation to the right personal practice. Then the dynamic dualism can inspire a free yogic play. “Brahmacharya” can be related to sexual continence, or even celibacy, but even for non-theists, it can also just help discourage all the actions we wouldn’t do while “walking with God.”
1-19. The energy of Truthfulness combines with Contentment in a particularly obvious way. So we can listen to Martin Luther King’s recorded speeches, feel the truthfulness being expressed, sense how much he wanted things to change, but at the same time recognize how content Dr. King must have been to knowingly accept his martyrdom. Conversely, Hitler clearly thought he was telling the truth, but the feeling of his discontentment belied his passion, and should have been a warning to everyone, including himself.
1-20. Yama-Niyama combo practices combine to create yogic energy experiencing. A continuing and guiding subtle feel for the constant quantity in life connects the five pairs to yogic energy experiencing, which is Pranayama. The combo practices all create pranayama as a third thing, and the Non-greediness and Surrender combo practice transcends religious conventionality as Pranayama itself.
1-21. The last Yama-last Niyama combo-practice elevates hatha yoga to its highest purpose. Practicing Non-greediness and Surrender to the First Teacher brings religion and science into yogic union. The “First Teacher” is Yoga itself and as a primordial Field of Knowledge it can be accessed the way great scientists like Einstein have spontaneously accessed it in connection with their free love of physics.
1-22. World conditions both challenge and inspire the attainment of hatha yoga’s highest purposes. Right when we need its specific benefits the most, hatha yoga is here and widely available. Hatha yoga can help humans karmically change the unchangeable.
1-23. Humans did not evolve to live in our present environment, but Yoga evolved to help us now. Our biology is suited to a way of life that no longer exists, and yet that evolutionary difficulty can be a yogic advantage since hatha yoga is at its best as a biological miracle worker. Despite yoga’s long-term societal trendiness, whole-hearted, three-limbed hatha yoga practice is only now being taught and has yet to be realized globally, so even though the yoga world is already in its decadent phase, there is still hope that hatha yoga can create a much more powerful change than it has so far.
1-24. More dynamic Yama-Niyama practicing could save the planet. If we become non-violent and yet clean, truthful but also content, both honest and disciplined, sexually continent and self-aware, non-greedy and open to the teachings of Yoga itself, the power of that collective transformation combined with sensitizing bodily work could cause enough Pranayama to counter society’s death wish. People’s vain and greedy yoga-world motivations do not interfere with yoga’s democratic evolution, and perhaps Yoga itself has come in its present Energy-oriented form as the fulfillment of scriptural promises that we would receive help when it was most needed.
1-25. Hatha yoga is Non-violence and Cleanliness practiced along with the bodily poses. Ahimsa and Saucha, and Asana. Hatha yoga is the practical yoga.
Chapter 2: (Not) Understanding Yoga
2-1. Today, yoga is accessible to everyone. More available, comprehensible, and approachable than ever, yoga can now become a part of anyone’s life with relative ease. Yoga will never be wholly and only physical, wholly and only objective, but it has become something that can be known in an easily understood way, as well as in an advanced or “yogic” way.
2-2. Becoming more physical made yoga easier to understand. Exercise helps us feel good. Stretching and strength building yogically helps us feel even better. The idea that yoga is a form of exercise causes confusion, so it’s a good thing that yoga can’t be turned into anything other than what it is.
2-3. Yoga can be known in a regular way on a common level. When something changes, we can contrast what it is now to what it was. Yoga is more physical than it was and that understanding is itself a regular way of knowing what yoga is. Yoga has been relatively physical for only one-fifth of its history.
2-4. Yoga’s evolution toward understandability went unnoticed. Because huge societal upheavals happen over any 4,000-year span, it must have been impossible even for yogis to keep historical account of how yoga was changing from something esoteric and completely spiritual into something increasingly tangible. Claiming that yoga was losing its spirituality, 2,000 years ago, some so-called “yoga gurus,” and the whole of India’s religious orthodoxy began exerting control against yoga’s democratic evolution.
2-5. What yoga is has been explained, but not commonly understood. The second idea in the Yoga Sutra (a 2,000 year old text) explains yoga as the cessation of the movements in consciousness. It’s not an easy idea to understand, but the attempt was there to explain what yoga is in a relatively accessible manner. Yoga has been explained through mythology, science fiction, theory, religion, and science.
2-6. Actually experiencing yoga is not the same as obtaining a conventional understanding of what it is. In fact, experiencing yoga can and in a sense should confound normal thinking. Yoga can’t be understood.
2-7. Only things that are at least relatively tangible can be known. To know what something is, we either have to commonly understand what it does, or be able to compare and contrast it with other similar things. With “air,” for example, we know it by contrasting it to the other elements. Abstractions can also be known through comparison. Originally, knowing what yoga is was impossible because it was singular and expressed as an elevated, completely spiritual realization.
2-8. Yoga became understandable in stages. Yoga’s first form was only for adepts. It’s now for everyone, and there were 3 steps in between. The mythological explanation for how yoga was born in a perfected state had to be interpreted effectively to be truthful, with only yoga adepts really understanding the story about Shiva giving yoga to humankind.
2-9. Ordinary explanations of yoga are becoming common knowledge. Accessible things about yoga started being said at the end of the last century and some of those ideas are now repeated out in the general public, where they are being commonly believed. The regular ideas are not yet considered important knowledge on a level of actual yoga, but the most truthful of them do communicate what yoga is. Resistance to the idea that yoga can be commonly understood makes yogic sense because it will always be a mysterious, unexplainable phenomenon.
2-10. The most popular, useful, and important common idea about yoga is that it is “for everyone.” Since all different types of people do yoga now, its inclusive accessibility is easily recognized, and the “yoga is for everyone” idea not only reflects, but also now drives yoga’s democratic evolution. The common-level knowing of what hatha yoga is will never replace the importance of us understanding that (like all yogic forms) hatha yoga is about experiencing the liberating attainment of Being beyond delusion.
2-11. The “yoga is for everyone” idea itself explains what yoga is now. It isn’t the whole truth, but we can start with the idea anyway—not only because it inspires some interesting questions, but because the answers tell us something about yoga in our time. First and foremost, to know what yoga is today, we must recognize its accessibility and inclusiveness. Yoga is for everyone, but not everyone can do yoga.
2-12. The “yoga is for everyone” idea is itself “for everyone.” It’s a big part of yoga’s democratic evolution, and while there are real-world historians, filmmakers, journalists, and sociologists presenting facts that discredit some of the things “yoga people” commonly believe, even those real-world fact-finders believe in the “yoga is for everyone” idea. People like John Philp, who wrote and directed Yoga Inc., and Dr. David Gordon White, who wrote Sinister Yogis, are inspiring us to be more truthful about what yoga is.
2-13. Truthful ideas about yoga don’t have to be facts. Whether the idea that yoga is for everyone is a fact or not, it’s truthful. It’s telling us something that we can recognize truthfully about yoga. As we follow it and other speculatively accurate ideas wherever they take us, we can’t expect historians like Dr. White, in their capacity as scholars, to accompany us the entire way. Instead, they will probably stick with the facts and try to avoid speculation. With or without the fact-finders, we’ll consider all reasonable possibilities and let the corresponding ideas evolve with yoga.
2-14. Understanding yoga goes beyond the facts. The facts give us useful information, but to be actually truthful about what yoga is, we can’t be caught up in factualism. We have to consider what the facts tell us and don’t tell us. Following from the facts, but comfortable in moving a step further, we recognize that a democratic yogic form namable as hatha yoga is the yoga of our time.
2-15. Common-level truthfulness will suffice. We all don’t have to understand the complex speculations and categorizations involved. “Equal participation by all” may not happen in respect to full understanding, but if we all know that there are explanations for ideas like “yoga is for everyone,” then a truthful democratic commonality can be established and maintained.
2-16. How we do hatha yoga is up to each of us. We can practice hatha yoga however we want and call what we do whatever we want, but (and because) a full sense of truthfulness requires us to acknowledge and take into account a further fact, not necessarily the kind of fact Dr. White or even John Philp would be interested in: We are not just doing yoga. We are also being done by it. Yoga (with a capital Y) does us, and right now, Hatha Yoga is what is doing us.
2-17. The less democratic yogic forms already had their days, or more precisely their eras. Now, a democratic yoga is happening. It’s what’s also happening for those of us studying yoga theory as “jnana yogis,” for those of us being philanthropic as “karma yogis,” and for those of us devoting ourselves to religious practices as “bhakti yogis.”
2-18. Hatha Yoga is knowable as an active evolutionary achievement. It’s a complex idea, but it’s meant for beginners anyway. New students are supposed to be “attentive” to Ishvara. The practice of Ishvara-pranidhana—one of our ten beginner-level behavioral practices—means being attentive to a primordial, active, loving, abstract, evolving, and accessible energetic Field of First Teacher (Ishvara) intelligence. We can also refer to that Field as Yoga itself and (after being the other four Yogas) right now it’s Hatha Yoga itself. Effective surrender reveals ordinary and yogic knowledge, with the most important new thing to know about Yoga itself being that it evolved downward.
2-19. The most knowable yoga is hatha yoga. As the result of yoga’s evolution toward accessible tangibility, hatha yoga is understandable yoga. The understanding hasn’t taken hold yet because so much common-level confusion about yoga had already been created before hatha yoga’s inception, and ever since then its tangibility has caused hatha yoga in particular to be misjudged. Now, we can adopt accessible ideas about it that are more democratic than yoga theory and yet more truthful than factualism. Yoga’s mysteriousness may always cause confusion.
2-20. Common-level confusion will end once hatha yoga is recognized as the yogic form that is for everyone. It’s the simplest way to understand what hatha yoga is and the idea helps us distinguish hatha yoga in comparison with the other four yogic forms. More accessibly tangible than karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, and raja yoga, it is for everyone. It’s impossible to really know what hatha yoga is because that requires the knowing of energy and energy can’t be known, even in a regular scientific way.