Patanjali’s Yoga Darsana – The Hatha Yoga Tradition

A Comparative Study of Their Means, Goals and Correspondences


If atman is brahman in a pot (the body), then one need merely break the pot to fully realize the primordial unity of the individual soul with the plentitude of Being that was the Absolute.[1]

In the above quote, which paraphrases the Chandogya Upanisad (6.8.7), David Gordon White draws on a useful analogy for one beginning a study of what has come to be known as “yoga”. The absolute, brahman, is “bottled up” within the human body, wherein it becomes identified as atman. It is the human body here that becomes the seat or vehicle of sacrifice and the human soul becomes the indwelling Absolute. The action of breaking, or removing the walls that contain human consciousness so as to bring about a “union” of the individual self (jivatman) with the supreme self (paramatman), is the goal or purpose of the practice of yoga, and, it would seem, this is only possible through the body. The body becomes the mediating vehicle, or mesocosm, which stands between the individual, human world order (microcosm) and absolute, cosmic reality (macrocosm). This monistic vision implies a boundless unity between the individual and the world, or the microcosm and the macrocosm. This monistic philosophy, which became known as Vedanta (lit. “The end of the Vedas), transformed the dualistic Vedic worldview, wherein there was a sharp break between the human order and the cosmic order, which only sacrifice (the mesocosm) could bridge. White notes that, “it was likely the concrete experience of yoga that gave rise to this mystical and monistic vision”[2], wherein all apparent oppositions and disjunctures between the human and divine, male and female etcetera, become consumed through the fires generated by yogic sadhana, or austerities (tapas), conceived of as the internalization of the sacrifice.

Despite the apparent singularity of this vision of “union”, it is important to assert that yoga is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that embraces a number of spiritual paths and orientations. “It” cannot be properly understood as a monolithic system, but rather as a tradition that has been developing for several millennia in India. Its goal and means have been expressed variously and have developed within numerous, often contrasting theoretical frameworks with occasionally incompatible goals.[3] To this effect, Ian Whicher writes:

In its long complex evolution Yoga can be seen as a vast tradition (or rather as several traditions within a tradition) that has incorporated a diverse and rich body of teachings within Hinduism and indeed other religious traditions over a period of many centuries.[4]

As such, classical or raja yoga, which is the name often attributed to the philosophical system that has developed around Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras (ca. 2nd-3rd CE) and its commentarial literature, was preceded by many generations of investigation into the possibilities for self-transcendence and ultimate freedom (moksa).[5] With the appearance of the Yoga Sutras, however, yoga achieved philosophical maturity (somewhere in the classical period; ca. 150-800 CE). Panini’s text “provided a foundational text on the formal philosophical system of yoga”.[6] The Sutras provide its readers with progressive stages of physical and mental training to break the boundaries that confine one’s sense of self to the conditional, samasaric realm and to evoke a radical identity shift or change in perspective—from that of the mortal ego-personality to that of the immortal self. Through the successive unfolding of the various stages of Patanjali’s astanga yoga, the practitioner unravels the layers of ignorance and delusion that bind purusa (the absolute, supreme Self and conscious observer) from prakrti (the phenomenal world/matter).

The Yoga Sutras is a pivotal text in the formulation of what has come to be called “orthodox yoga”. As a foundational text, it is constantly referred to as a source of inspiration or as the text which best encapsulates and defines the final goal or purpose of yoga, whatever form it may come in. Nevertheless, the dualist, metaphysical framework from which Patanjali’s yoga emerged, namely the Samkhya school of philosophy, has caused many students and scholars of yoga to distinguish between it and later, and especially tantric developments of yoga.[7] Upanisadic speculation into the nature of the universe and the relation of the individual soul to it inspired new forms of yoga (e.g. jnanayoga, bhaktiyoga, etc.), which had monistic metaphysical frameworks as their basis. Tantric metaphysics carried this to its logical conclusion: imploding body (microcosm), individual soul (mesocosm), and divine soul (macrocosm), into one. It also developed concrete and coherent methods, like Laya, Kundalini and Hatha yoga[8], for the return of being (atman) in to essence (brahman). As the human body itself is the seat of the sacrifice and the locus of the absolute, it was to the physical, “this-worldly” capacities of humankind that the architects of Hindu tantrism turned. It is through the physical body and yogic sadhana that one progressively attains recognition of the subtle realms of being, and ultimately, the inseparability of the individual, physical being from the absolute, divine Being.

It is this overt transformation of the focus, or geography,of yoga—from its classical (raja yoga) to tantric (kundalini/ laya yoga) context—that I would like to explore in this paper. Although, as has been argued, the goal of yoga (samadhi) may indeed remain the same, the techniques for achieving the goal vary among different schools. Due to the necessary brevity of this paper, I will focus my comparative analysis on the connections, commonalities and differences that obtain between the “classical” school of yoga developed by Patanjaliand the overtly praxis-oriented school of Hatha yoga, as presented in the Nath sampradaya text, the Hathayogapradipika (ca. 15th CE). Although there are important differences between these two schools, mostly in terms of the overt valuation and utilization of the human body as a means towards the ‘end’ of yoga, there are also some notable continuities and similarities. The Hathayogapradipika, for example, claims that the ultimate goal of its elaborate, physically technical path is not only the mastery of the body, but also the mind (rajayoga) and to this effect incorporates the last two stages of Patanjali’s yoga system. Mastery of the body (divyadeha) and the mind (cittavritti)are, in fact, conceived to be interdependent by the hathayoga school. The same might be said for Patanjali’s astangayoga, although he does not elaborate on the necessarily “embodied” steps of the path to the same extent as the hathayoga school.[9]

Before probing the means, goals and correspondences between these two schools in greater depth, it is useful to briefly examine the history, literature, and various classifications that have been accorded the many and various schools of yoga.

Categorizing Schools of Yoga

Systematizing, classifying, or categorizing the numerous streams of Indian “religious” thought and practice that has collectively come to be called Hinduism has been the work of many generations of scholars, practitioners, and lay people. Numerous books have been written to present the various systems of classification that have been developed over years of study and volumes more exist which attempt to problematize, critique, contribute to and move beyond what has come before.[10] This enquiry into the transition between classical, or Patanjala yoga and tantric, or hatha and kundalini yoga enters in to a muddled world of mixed adjectives, transferable names and vastly varied interpretations and systematizations of yoga.

If we accept Mircea Eliade’s definition of yoga, “any ascetic technique and any method of meditation”[11], then there are as many kinds of yoga as there are spiritual paths in India (e.g. karmayoga, bhaktiyoga, jnanayoga, Samkhya yoga, Buddhist yoga, Jaina yoga, Integral yoga, etc.). While all of these forms of “yoga” conform to Whicher’s formal definition of yoga,[12] he picks out eight “major” forms of yoga, including (1) classicalyogaor raja yoga (which is often used to refer to Patanjali’s astanga yoga), (2) jnanayoga, (3) hathayoga, (4) bhaktiyoga, (5) karmayoga, (6) mantrayoga, (7) layayoga and, (8) kundalini yoga. Whicher notes that laya and kundalini yoga are closely associated with hathayoga, and that raja yoga is often used in contrast with hathayoga.[13]According to Sanjukta Gupta, however, laya and kundalini yoga are essentially the same, “though some Tantrics are unaware of (their) identity”, and the techniques of hathayoga are “often despised by the Tantra”, so that, apparently, the hathayogin is not even considered a “true tantric”.[14]

In their focus on tantric traditions and their immediate associations, Sanjukta Gupta[15] and N.N. Bhattacharyya[16] simplify Whicher’s list by classifying yoga into only four categories: matrayoga, hathayoga, layayoga and rajayoga. Of this list, hathayoga occupies a rather ambiguous place. Despite the fact that both discuss hathayoga within a tantric context, they agree that it is not as “characteristically tantric” as layayoga, kundalini yoga and mantra yoga. Interestingly, raja yoga is described as the “highest form of yoga”by all of the above-named sources. Conflating all of these schools and configuring them in a hierarchy, Bhattacharyya writes:

The highest form of yoga…is Raja-Yoga through which nirvikalpa-samadhi is attained. By means of mantra, Hatha and Laya-yoga to aspirant steps up to perfection in the form of Raja-yoga which is complete and final liberation”.[17]

Similarly, Tookaram Tatya writes that “Raja-yoga begins where Hatha-yoga ends”. In accord, he simplifies Whicher, Gupta and Bhattacharyya’s lists by classifying all forms of yoga into two broad divisions: Hatha yoga and Raja yoga.[18] He writes: “The Raja and the Hatha yogas are necessary counterparts of each other, the limbs as it were of the same body, wither of them cannon be successfully followed to the exclusion of the other…”[19] Although Tatya is likely writing as an adherent to the hathayoga path, it is noteworthy that this kind of conflation or fluid crossing of “disciplinary boundaries” is not uncommon in yoga texts, commentaries and academic expositions.

Although scholarly frameworks which organize these many different schools and sub-schools of yoga tend to be more selective (e.g. Gupta above), they often either acknowledge some kind of conceptual and/or practical hierarchy existing between them (e.g. Bhattacharrya above), or a more subtle connection existent between them through a not necessarily dependent or hierarchal relationship between action (karma) and knowledge (jnana). For example, Goldberg, drawing from the commentary of Swami Krpalvananda’s (1913-1981) on the Hathayogapradipika, suggests that although there is a fundamental difference between the disciplinary orientation and emphasis of the raja and hatha yoga schools,[20] at some stage of practice, these distinctions necessarily dissolve (along with the need for or creation of karma).

“… (W)e see a distinct difference between karmayoga and jnanayoga (or rajayoga) insofar as the initial procedures require physical action; yet owing to their prolonged practice they are abandoned naturally in the final stages of attainment”.[21]

The “end” of yoga, thus, ultimately involves recognition of the “crucial interdependence…and continuity between hathayoga and rajayoga“.[22] Clearly, it would be inappropriate for one grasping for an understanding of the various classifications of yoga to conflate all systems into one owing to the fact that there are a vast number of means to the ultimate goal, each with separate histories, metaphysics and procedures for its attainment. Samadhi itself is also conceptualized differently among and between schools. In fact, the differences may even be construed as beneficial in terms of practice, as each practitioner may be inclined towards or suited for one or another form. Nonetheless, if one applies the same bi-polar metaphysics that inspires both Patanjali’s rajayoga and tantric schools of yoga to the actual study of these various systems, there is some stage where words and apparently separate systematic and hierarchal ontologies necessarily dissolve or, by nature, become inadequate qualifiers of what is actually experienced. This is the uniqueness of yoga—as a means toward a goal and, paradoxically a goal in itself, it requires action to propel one towards the eventual achievement of absolute inaction of both the physical (or “gross”) and subtle mind and body.

It is to a discussion of these systems of action, and in particular raja and hatha yoga to which I now turn. Despite this supposed eventual consumption or de-evolution of matter and differentiation that attains from the practice of yoga, rendering all of the above-named schools inherently “empty” of being, there is still a notable transformation that occurred in the transition from classical to tantric systems of yoga. Tantric systems of yoga elaborate complex, mystical physiologies in which the microcosm of the body is identified with the macrocosm of the universe, which serve as maps for the practitioner’s journey inward. Hathayoga, which is often described as preeminently practical in nature, places its emphasis on the use of the human body, and more particularly the need for one to transform it into a divine body (divya deha), to catapult the individual toward realization of boundless, Absolute reality. The same degree of focus on the physicality of liberation is not present in Patanjali’s classical exposition on yoga. Although asanas and pranayama are included in his astanga yoga, the Sutras are predominantly concerned with the later stages of yoga. As such, while the body is present in classical yoga, it is not its primary focus, as could be said for tantric, and especially hathayogic, traditions.

Still, a great deal of authority is afforded to Patanjali’s yoga; if not for a detailed description of the actual “means”, then certainly for the language and philosophy it provides one with to understand its “end”. The Hathayogapradipika, for example,contends that the goal of hathayoga is rajayoga. [23] This is, however, somewhat paradoxical because Patanjali’s yoga is so often conceived by contemporary scholars as radically dualistic as a result of its affiliations with and adaptation of the language of Samkhya, one of the leading schools or classical philosophical systems of India. Georg Feuerstein, for example, contrasts the ideal of rajayoga, which he writes “is to recover one’s true identity as the transcendental Self standing eternally apart from the realms of Nature,” with the ideal of hathayoga, which he states “is to create an immortal body”.[24] There seems, however, to be something missing from this analysis (it may indeed be more dualistic than his claim about Patanjali’s yoga because he fixes the goal of rajayoga as liberation from nature, or material reality and the goal of hathayoga as the perfection of nature…). Clearly, as will be discussed below, the “ideal” of hathayoga is not only to create an “immortal body”. Although this is considered a defining characteristic of hathayoga, and even a necessary step along the way towards its “ideal”, it should not be confused with its ultimate goal, namely, samadhi (or rajayoga). Perhaps, as Ian Whicher argues, the same might be said about Patanjali’s yoga. Although the explicit techniques for the achievement of liberation are not explicit in the Sutras, this does not necessarily mean that rajayoga is disembodied, “excessively spiritual” or isolationist to the point of being a world-denying philosophy, as Feuerstein suggests above. Although the praxis, or bodily, aspect of yoga is elaborated more overtly and in tantric, and especially hatha, systems of yoga, the theory and philosophy provided by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras does not necessarily deny their importance or even necessity.

Classical Yoga

The Yoga Sutra represents the attempt by the great grammarian to provide concise definitions, descriptions and explanations of the central concepts relating to yoga, thereby providing it with a complete and systematic grounding which led to its recognition, legitimization and establishment as one of the six darsanas within Brahmanical Hinduism. It has come to be the most authoritative source for the classical yoga school of Hinduism. Whicher writes: “Out of all of the various yogic schools in existence around the time of the composition of the Yoga Sutra, it was Patanjali’s that was to become recognized as the authoritative perspective (darsana) of the Brahmanic Yoga tradition”.[25]

Many scholars find the roots of Patanjali’s yoga in preceding Indian speculative traditions; and in particular in the radically dualistic metaphysics of Samkhya philosophy (another of the six darsanas). Agehananda Bharati, for example, discusses Samkhya as one of the root contributors to the both classical and tantric ontologies. [26] Samkhya explains the universe as consisting of only two principles: prakrti, inert nature, and purusa, the conscious principal or absolute self. The phenomenal universe of experience, change, activity and movement happens in and through prakrti; purusa, conversely, is the pure consciousness or witness and does not act.[27] Flood states that in Patanjali’s yoga, liberation or nirbijasamadhi, is not the realization of the self’s identity with the absolute but rather, “the realization of the self’s solitude and complete transcendence” and “detached” from its entanglement with prakrti. [28] The fact that Patanjali draws on the language and metaphysics of Samkhya has caused many scholars to classify his yoga system as dualist. There are, however, some important differences between Samkhya and Yoga, which Whichler is careful to point out:

In spite of the similarity between these schools in the approach to the basic structure of reality, they in fact present different systems of thought, holding divergent views on important areas of doctrinal structure such as theology, ontology, psychology, and ethics, as well as differences pertaining to terminology”.[29]

Although a full comparative analysis of Samkhya philosophy is beyond the scope of this paper, suffice is to say that both the samkhyan and rajayoga philosophies for attaining freedom (kaivalya, moksha), are intended to guide the practitioner to the realization of purusa and are thus ultimately derived for soteriological purposes. In order to translate the final realization of yoga into practical, experiential terms, Patanjali translaterd a macrocosmic perpective into subjective, microcosmic terms. Absolute spiritual integration is the ultimate goal of yoga and experience seems to be at the heart of Patanjali’s discourse.

Perhaps the most important difference that exists between these two schools is related to their methodologies. Their ‘means’ for arriving at the ‘end’ or yoga are significantly different. Samkhya relies primarily on discernment between purusa and prakrti, “stressing a theoretical/intellectual analysis” to bring one to emancipation, understood as “isolation” (kaivalya), whereas yoga is “a practical spiritual discipline for mastering the modifications of the mind, and abiding as the changeless identity of Self (purusa)”.[30] Surendranath Dasgupta also observes this difference between the Samkhya and Yoga darsanas. He posits that although the schools are fundamentally the same in their metaphysical positions, they hold quite different views on many points of philosophical, ethical and practical interest.[31]

It is noteworthy that the emphasis on practice as a factor that distinguishes classical yoga from Samkhya is present in both of Whicher and Dasgupta’s discussions. Put candidly, Whicher states,

Samkhya’s overt conceptual means of discrimination (vijnana) is not sufficient enough for the aspiring yogin…Without praxis and its experiential and perceptual dimension, philosophy would have no meaning in Yoga… In yoga, immortality…cannot be demonstrated through inference, analysis and reasoning”.[32]

The Yoga Sutra clearly evidences the central importance that Patanjali gives to experience.

The “eight-limbed” (astanga) path elaborated in the Yoga Sutra can be read as a kind of psychocosmological map, which leads the seeker through progressive stages of disciplined physical and mental training in order to slowly unravel layers of ignorance and delusion which serve to bind the true spirit (purusa) within to the phenomenal world (prakrti). The Yoga Sutra proposes that through dedication to the path of yoga, one gradually becomes aware of the subtle levels of not only the material world but, importantly, how it is reflected inwardly. Patanjali tells us in his opening aphorisms, however, that the very goal of yoga, the “cessation of the turnings of thought” (1:2-4) is only possible through “practice and dispassion” (1:12). One must actively engage in the rigorous effort to still the cognitive functions of the mind (cittavritti). Although the greatest proportion of the Sutras (and commentary on them)is concerned with the later, essentially “inner” stages of meditation(dharana, dhyana, samadhi), the first five steps (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara), which consist of preliminary, “external” exercises, are integral to his rajayoga in that they prepare the practitioner for the more advanced “internal” stages. In her translation of the Yoga Sutras, Barbara Stoler Miller writes that, “For Patanjali, the interior dimensions of yoga are impossible to attain unless one first pays attention to the body”.[33]

Through the meditative practices and contemplative thought experiments Patanjali prescribes,an intimate “transformative” realization is ultimately achieved. Through the initial stages of his yoga, one must pass beyond the bounds of material nature and learn to watch, instead of engage, in the games of the mind and intellect. It is a progressive, unlearning process:

When the turnings of thought stop, a contemplative poise occurs, in which thought, like a polished crystal, is colored by what is nearby–whether perceiver, process of perception, or object of perception” (1:41).

Through “contemplative poise” one becomes aware through intuitive means or by the intellect that prakrti and purusa are distinct. This “seed-bearing contemplation” (sabija-samadhi) leaves traces and still involves cognitive processes but important wisdom is gained by it (1:41-46):

A subliminal impression generated by wisdom stops the formation of other impressions. When the turnings of thought cease completely, even wisdom ceases, and contemplation bears no seeds” (1:50-51).

The “tranquility” that follows the “intuitive cognition” of seed-bearing contemplation (1:47) sets the ground for an even deeper state. The seed of wisdom gained by sabija-samadhi stops the formation of new thought or impressions. Miller writes that thought, recorded memory and even intuition “have no relevance to the realization of the state of pure contemplation” (nirbija-samadhi)–even the wisdom gained in sabija-samadhi dissolves.[34] Rational knowledge, made of prakrti, is necessary to proceed on the path, but in a kind of backwards cycle of de-evolution. One strips prakrti of its external components until it no longer exists—all that is left is purusa which itself dissolves.

Patanjali is most consistentlycelebrated for these expositions on the training of the mind. The very foundation of Patanjali’s yoga practice, writes Whicher, is “mastery of the mind…through the process of nirodha” (cessation).[35] Although this involves a “wide range of methods” (physical, moral, psychological, and spiritual), Patanjali’s yoga is most commended or remembered for its “serious enquiry into the structures and contents of the mind along with an analysis of how the mind—including the empirically rooted sense of self—differs from purusa“.[36] Despite the avowed importance Patanjali places in the preliminary moral and physical aspects of his yoga to prepare one for the later stages of contemplation, meditation and pure concentration,he only devotes ten brief lines to description of asana, pranayama, and pratyahara. Although commentary on these three stages has speculated on which asanas and pranayamas Patanjali was likely alluding to (e.g. Gupta, who writes that “simple sitting-postures are recommended” like lotus, svastika, vajra, bhadra, vira[37]), it is the hathayogins that eventually expand this aspect of yoga into a vast system of physically and spiritually efficacious postures, and it is to this system that we turn now.


While Patanjali’s yoga is primarily concerned with developing mental concentration in order to experience samadhi, hathayoga, or the ‘yoga of force’, develops a system of elaborate and difficult postures (asana) accompanies by breathing techniques (pranayama)”.[38]

Hathayoga occupies a rather ambiguous, and somewhat marginalized position in the vast domain of Indian soteriological systems. As discussed above, its name appears in books, chapters and articles about Tantra, and yet it is most commonly associated with or considered an extension of the classical yoga system of Patanjali and/or Samkha philosophy.[39] Where rajayoga is deemed the “highest” path of yoga[40], hathayoga is described as “inferior”, or “despised by the Tantra”.[41] This occurs in some sources, however, while others attempt to draw parallels with and “fit” hathayoga into the tantric fold.[42] It becomes clear from a careful reading on one of its principle texts, the 15th century Hathayogapradipika, that it in fact corresponds and draws from many, if not all, of these sources, and yet develops them in a unique, and perhaps often misunderstood, way.

As Flood’s quote above implies, hathayoga presents itself as an effort to bring to center “the yoga of force” or “action” (kriyayoga). What he neglectes to mention, however, accurate though it might be, is the fact that hathayoga names rajayoga as its goal. It differs from Patanjali’s yoga, however, primarily because it focuses so intently on the means of achieving the later, “interior” stages of yoga. The aim of hathayoga has been described variously by different authors as a system of yoga aiming to “master” [43] or “control” [44] the body, “overcome normal physiological limits” [45], or to “create an immortal body”[46]. Ellen Goldberg warns, however, that we must “confuse the means with the end”.[47] Perfection, according to Eliade, is always the goal, and, “it is neither athletic, nor hygienic perfection”.[48] The goal of hathayoga, according to one of its primary source texts, the Hathayogapradipika (15th century), is rajayoga (4:103).[49] Although this text goes to great lengths to provide meticulous descriptions of the “means”, little is spared to remind the student of hathayoga that they are only useful insofar as they facilitate knowledge, and ultimately, its dissolution (laya) in the higher stages of rajayoga (4:103).

The body, however, attains unparalleled importance as a “means” in hathayoga. All of the preliminary stages work to master the body, in order to transmute it into a divine body (divyadeha). There is no confusing the goal with the means in the Hathayogapradipika. Eliade writes:

Philosophical justification has a very small place in these brief treatises, which are entirely devoted to technical formulas. The states of consciousness corresponding to the various exercises are mentioned only rarely and in a rudimentary way. It is the physics and physiology of meditation that are the chief concern of these writers”.[50]

The yoga taught in the Hathayogaprdipika pays close attention to describing the specific practices (sadhana) that will lead to experience of absolute reality, or transcendence. Through practice of the its six- fold purificatory program (satkarma), followed by (and in this order) asana, mudra, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, and liberation (samadhi), the final stage, is gradually and systematically induced. The stages of hathayoga are arranged hierarchically because mastery of one prepares one and leads one on to next. The Satkarma prepares the body and keeps it healthy. Asana (such as svastikasana, virasana, matsyasana, pascimotattanasana etc.) and mudra are important aids for regulating vital breath (pranayama). By controlling the breath, the practitioner stops the passage of the breaths through the nadis (“veins” of the subtle body that connect the mind and the senses), thereby stopping the activities of the senses and severing the connection to the mind and the external stimuli which prevent concentration (dhyana) on the essence of the individual self. Pranayama, thus, merges with pratyahara which further melds into the final two stages of hathayoga (rajayoga). Ellen Goldberg writes: “In the same manner that hathayoga leads to rajayoga, asana (as well as other ritual technology such as pranayama, mudra, nada, etc.) leads to advanced stages of meditation (dhyana, samadhi)”.[51]

Although hathayoga clearly takes on a language and practical soteriology of its own, which deserves to be examined on its own merit, it may be (and indeed has been) effectively argued that its goal (moksa) is not different from other forms of yoga.[52] Tatya, in the introduction to a (relatively) recent translation of the Hathayogapradipika writes:

The Hatha- and Raja-yoga’s far from being antagonistic towards each other, are, on the contrary, interdependent, and the pursuit of the Raja-yoga cannot be successfully accomplished without the cooperation of the sister Hatha-yoga”.[53]

According to Sanjukta Gupta, the philosophical speculations about the nature of prakrti and purusa, and the psycho-physical techniques that were systematized in Patanjali’s yoga (to eliminate one’s “false” identification with prakrti) ultimatelyculminated in hathayoga.[54] Clearly, however, tantric theory and practice also influenced hathayoga. There are many allusions made to the “subtle body” metaphysics of kundalini, and layayoga in the Hathayogapradipika. The very fact that hathayoga places so much emphasis on the body may be justification enough to make this parallel, and is likely the reason it always manages to find its way into discussions of tantric sadhana.[55]

Tantric theory and practice (sadhana) revolve, in general, around the basic metaphysical tenet that the absolute reality contains in itself all polarities and all dualities. All that exists and all that is created and destroyed represents the shattering of ultimate unity, the coming apart of the two principles (represented variously as macrocosm and microcosm, Siva & Sakti, samsara and nirvana, purusa and prakrti, ha- & tha- etc.).[56] Despite the different philosophical leanings, symbolism and practical soteriologies, in all cases, the absolute reality is conceived of possessing two attributes or aspects, which stand in polar opposition to one another. They are “conceived as the negative and the positive, the static and dynamic, rest (nivrtti) and activity (pravritti)–the principle of pure consciousness and the principle of activity;–one represents subjectivity and the other objectivity; and, again, the one is conceived as the enjoyer and the other as the enjoyed”.[57] The experience of duality and thus bondage, suffering and illusion is a consequence of the experience of a state of duality. The purpose of tantric yoga, thus, is to bring the two polar principles back together; first within the disciple’s own body and then to be realized in all experience[58].

Volumes of complicated theory and symbolism codify this idea in a countless variety of ways. It is constantly stressed, however, that any of the concepts we may try to attribute to the immutable paradox of reality, which is at once one and many, necessarily fall short of the truth. The universal and absolute consciousness with which the yogin must become identified can not be known through speculation, which is inherently dualistic in character. Thus, the esoteric practices described in the Tantras, eighty per cent of which are concerned with ritual,[59] concern themselves with the ultimate union of these dual aspects of totality.

This concern with a practical soteriology clearly inspires hathayoga the goal of which is the union (yoga) of the two, bi-polar principles: ha=sun + tha=moon. As the tantras never tired of reiterating, nothing can be achieved without practice. The hathayoga texts, Ellen Goldberg writes, “basically adopts a philosophical framework form which to expound its programmatic praxis-oriented ritual procedures”.[60] It is essentially a “bottom-up” procedure, which aims to bring about a return of being (microcosm) into essence (macrocosm). The mediation between these two states of being occurs within the “gross”, physical body and the “subtle”, essential body (mesocosm). Hathayoga, in this sense, serves as a technique for the reabsorption or implosion of the human microcosm into the divine source. This process of de-evolution, or merging of effect into cause, is symbolized as kundalini’s journey through and piercing of the chakras. It is in these very subtle realms into which alchemy, the subject of David Gordon White’s book, The Alchemical Body, enters. He writes:

When the kundalini rises from the muladhara cakra to the svadhisthana, the element earth becomes reabsorbed into and encompassed by the element water. Likewise, water is reabsorbed into fire in the third cakra, the manipura; fire into air in the anahata; and air into ether in the visuddhi cakra. As in Samkhya, hathayoga, and other hierarchical systems, so too in alchemy: that which is higher encompasses, absorbs, that which is lower”.[61]

These experiences, however, only occur in the later, culminating stages of hathayoga. Preceding this subtle gnosis is, in the grave words of Aurobindo, “a lengthly, laborious, and tedious procedure”![62] One needs to be reminded through this process, however, that both tantric and hathayoga treatises declare the attainment of a “divine body” as a necessary preliminary “step” towards enlightenment. In the hathayogic tradition, this groundwork comprises many, interpenetrating advances along a hierarchical path. Gradual shifts in consciousness bring one progressively closer to its final goal, rajayoga.

Concluding Remarks

Although there has been a great deal of scholarly research directed at the many and various systems of yoga that have developed in India over a period of several millennia, there is clearly a tendency to view it in terms of its philosophical and doctrinal characteristics rather than in its other aspect—as a kind of “spiritual technology”.[63] Yoga, as developed in the Hathayogapradipika for example, directs one’s attention to the various practical means prescribed by the various disciplines of yoga to propel the practitioner towards his or her goal. It would seem that if the ultimate “goal” of yoga is indeed “union” of the individual self (jivatman) with the supreme self (paramatman), the means to this goal are just as important and worthy of examination as the goal itself.

Having examined the classical yoga expounded in Patanjali’s classic, the Yoga Sutras, and the Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama, and its associations with tantric theory and practice, it becomes clear that they share some important similarities and differences. Although the Yoga Sutra does probe some of the same practices that arise in the Hathayogapradipika, it remains a fundamentally rajayoga text. It does not locate the body or practice centrally, nor does is expound upon the actual physical practices in nearly as much detail as this kriyayoga tradition. Hathayoga, in its turn, places central importance on the utilization of prescribed physical techniques, combined with subtle physiology, to progress towards Ultimate “union”. Despite their differences in character, however, they ultimately lead the practitioner to the same goal, namely the cessation of the cognitive functions or fluctuations of the mind. The psychophysical effects of hathayoga prepare the ground for the emergence of rajayoga. The transition from classical to tantric forms and theories of yoga, as such,involved the development of integrative practices between body and mind (in this order).

This is not to say, however that Patanjali’s classical exposition on Yoga, was entirely doctrinally or philosophically centered. Whicher notes that it is reasonable to assume that Patanjali “was an active preceptor or guru“, and a great authority on yoga. He notes that he was also writing at a time “of intense debate and ongoing philosophical speculation in India”[64]. From these conjectures, it is quite possible that Patanjali did not place the same amount of effort into developing the same kind of detailed exegesis on practice as the hathayoga texts because: (1) He may have made assumptions about the background and preparedness of the audience for whom he was writing (perhaps a community of disciples, already devoted to the study and practice of yoga); and/or (2) In his effort to supply yoga with a reasonably inclusive and homogenous framework so that it might at par with the many rival traditions, he could not write more than could be remembered (the Yoga Sutras belong to the smrti literature within Hinduism). The former explanation may be more plausible, especially as yoga is characterized not only by its practical nature, but also its initiatory structure. It is conceivable that, because he provides at least a basic framework for praxis, Patanjali only said as much as he needed to in order to impart the essential essence of his yoga.

Out of this classical system, or perhaps in response to it, there emerged new monistic currents of thought with Vedanta speculation and literature, and later the Tantras. Hathayoga, one of the many schools that unfolded during this time period, makes the goal of yoga (rajayoga) dependent on and consistent with its means, which are more overtly elaborated than in Patanjali’s discourse on yoga. Neither school, however, denies the importance of practice. The means are just as important as the end, and neither should be viewed in isolation if a ‘holistic’ understanding of the many various and complex systems of yoga is to be achieved.

Works Cited

Basu, M., 1986. Fundamentals of the Philosophy of the Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu Publishers

Bharati, Agehananda, 1975. The Tantric Tradition. Samuel Weiser, Inc., N.Y.

Bhattacharyya, N.N., 1999. History of the Tantric Religion: As Historical, Ritualistic and Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar

Das Gupta, Shashibhusan, 1976. Obscure Religious Cults. Saraswati Printing Press, Delhi

Dasgupta, Surendranath, 1930. Yoga Philosophy in Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press

Eliade, Mircea, 1973. Yoga, Immortality and Freedom. 2nd Ed. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen; 4

Feuerstein, Georg, 1979. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: As Exercise in the Methodology of Textual Analysis. New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann

Feuerstein, Georg, 1989. Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy. Los Angelos, CA: J.P. Tarcher; 38

Flood, Gavin, 1998. An Introduction to Hinduism. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press; 97-98

Fuerstein, Georg, 1998. Tantra: The Path to Ecstasy. Shambhala, Boston

Goldberg, Ellen, 2001. “The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama and the Rahasyabodhini of Krpvalananda”. In: Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion. Vol.6 (Oct.)

Gupta, Sanjukta, 1979. “Modes of Worship and Meditation”. In: S. Gupta, D.J. Hoens, T. Goudriaan. Hindu Tantrism. Leiden, Koln: E.J. Brill

Miller, B.S., 1995, (trans); Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. Los Angelos, CA: University of California Press

Tatya, Tookaram, 1972. “Introduction”, In: The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama. Adyar, Madras: Vasanta Press

Whicher, Ian, 1998. The Integrity of the Yoga Darshana: A Reconsideration of Classical Yoga. New York: SUNY Press

White, David Gordon, 1996. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press


[1] David Gordon White, 1996. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 18. NOTE: Similar identification also made in the Hathayogapradipika (4.50).

[2] ibid., 18

[3] Georg Feuerstein, 1989. Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy. Los Angelos, CA: J.P. Tarcher; 38

[4] Ian Whicher, 1998. The Integrity of the Yoga Darshana: A Reconsideration of Classical Yoga. New York: SUNY Press; 38

[5] See D.G. White, 1996; I. Whicher, 1998; G. Feuerstein, 1989; for survey of history, literature and branches of yoga.

[6] Ian Whicher, 1998; 38-39

[7] Ian Whicher (1998) challenges interpretations that present Patanjali’s yoga as dualistic, seeing it rather as an “integral” path which does not advocate abandonment of the world (prakrti), but rather “supports as stance that enables one to live more fully in the world without being enslaved by worldly identification”. This is an interesting enquiry, but lies beyond the scope of this paper.

[8] Although hathayoga is often discussed in relation to or as a tantric variant of yoga, it is unclear if it is “officially” part of the Tantric milieu. In this paper, I will discuss it as if it is.

[9] See concluding remarks in this paper for an explanation of some of the very good reasons why this may be the case.

[10] See T. Goudriaan, 1979. “Introduction, History and Philosophy”. In: S. Gupta, D.J.Hoens, T. Goudriaan. Hindu Tantrism. Leiden, Koln: E.J. Brill; 3-5.

[11] Mircea Eliade, 1973. Yoga, Immortality and Freedom. 2nd Ed. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen; 4

[12] “South Indian paths of spiritual emancipation, or self transcendence, that bring about a transmutation of consciousness culminating in liberation from the confines of egoic identity or worldly existence”. In: Whicher, 1998; 6

[13] I. Whicher, 1998; 6

[14] Sanjukta Gupta, 1979. “Modes of Worship and Meditation”. In: S. Gupta, D.J. Hoens, T. Goudriaan. Hindu Tantrism. Leiden, Koln: E.J. Brill; 164-165

[15] ibid.; 164

[16] N.N. Bhattacharyya, 1999. History of the Tantric Religion: As Historical, Ritualistic and Philosophical Study. New Delhi: Manohar; 308

[17] ibid, 1999; 309

[18] Tookaram Tatya, 1972. “Introduction”, In: The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama. Adyar, Madras: Vasanta Press; ix

[19] ibid, 1972; xii-xiii

[20] Ellen Goldberg, 2001. “The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama and the Rahasyabodhini of Krpvalananda”. In: Journal of Indian Philosophy and Religion. Vol.6 (Oct.); 22

[21] ibid, 23

[22] ibid; 24

[23] Although “rajayoga” does not always necessarily refer to Patanjali’s yoga (Gupta, 1979, describes in what other contexts it is used), I chose to use Gupta’s definition; “that which leads to immediate samadhi“, or what Patanjala yoga refers to as “undifferentiated merger” (asamprajnata samadhi).

[24] G. Feuerstein, 1989; 38, italics mine

[25] I. Whicher, 1998; 42

[26] Agehananda Bharati, 1975. The Tantric Tradition. Samuel Weiser, Inc., N.Y.; 204-208

[27] However, and interestingly, they are conceptually interdependent in so far as prakrti cannot act if purusa is not present. See Bharati, 1975;205

[28] Gavin Flood, 1998. An Introduction to Hinduism. New Delhi: Cambridge University Press; 97-98

[29] I. Whicher, 1998; 53

[30] ibid; 53, italics mine

[31] Surendranath Dasgupta, 1930. Yoga Philosophy in Relation to Other Systems of Indian Thought. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press; 2

[32] I. Whicher, 1998; 53

[33] B.S. Miller, 1995, (trans.); Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. Los Angelos, CA: University of California Press

[34] B.S. Miller, 1995; 43

[35] I. Whicher, 1998; 152

[36] ibid; 152

[37] S. Gupta, 1979; 167

[38] G. Flood, 1998; 98

[39] T. Tatya writes that rajayoga and hathayoga are terms that are “synonymous” with the Samkhya and Yoga darsanas (xiv).

[40] N.N. Bhattacharyya, 1999; 309

[41] S. Gupta, 1979; 164-165

[42] For example, Ian Whicher (1998; 6) writes that laya and kundalini yoga are “closely associated with hathayoga.” 1998; 6

[43] M. Eliade, 1973; 228

[44] M. Basu, 1986. Fundamentals of the Philosophy of the Tantras. Calcutta: Mira Basu Publishers; 624

[45] S. Gupta, 1979; 180

[46] G. Feuerstein, 1989; 38, italics mine

[47] E. Goldberg, 2001; 13

[48] M. Eliade, 1973; 228

[49] Svatmarama Svamin, 1972. Hathayogapradipika. Adyar, Madras: Adyar Library and Research Center

[50] M. Eliade, 1973; 230

[51] E. Goldberg, 2001; 9

[52] For example, see E. Goldberg, 2001; 6-7. Goldberg suggests that Patanjali’s astanga system of yoga and the six stages of hathayoga presented in the Hathayogapradipika can be “roughly” paralleled. She also correlates the “rajayoga” described in the HYP with the last three stages (antarangas) of Patanjali’s system (Although Patanjali is never mentioned in the HYP).

[53] T. Tatya, 1972; xvi

[54] S. Gupta, 1979; 166

[55] See, for example, M. Eliade, 1973; 200-273, and S. Gupta, D.J. Hoens, and T. Goudriaan, 1979; 163-183

[56] Shashibhusan Das Gupta, 1976. Obscure Religious Cults. Saraswati Printing Press, Delhi; xxxvi

[57] ibid; xxxiv

[58] ibid; xxxv

[59] Fuerstein, Georg, 1998. Tantra: The Path to Ecstasy. Shambhala, Boston; 124

[60] E. Goldberg, 2001; 21

[61] D. G. White, 1996; 208. See also S. Gupta, 1979; 176-177

[62] M. Basu, 1986; 624

[63] E. Goldberg. “The Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama and the Rahasyabodhini of Krpvalananda”. Queen’s University, Kingston, ON: Unpublished; 1

[64] I. Whicher, 1998; 43

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