29 Jan '16
Posted in Blog by Eric Shaw
Today, yoga student, Heather Haxo Phillips, wrote me: “What is the difference between Hatha and Raja Yoga?”
“. . . and which one of these do we find in the “Bible of Yoga”–the Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali.
I wrote back . . .
When we look at yoga’s history, we see that Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga are not the same.
In Sanskrit, it can mean either “sun-moon” or “forceful.”
Historically, Hatha Yoga (capitalized this way) has made use of the two life-force channels (nadis) that run vertically through the torso. The tradition calls these the sun (“ha”) channel and moon (“tha”) channels (surya nadi and chandra nadi).
One of the things Hatha Yoga tries to do is balance these channels, hence, “ha” + “tha” = “hatha.”
In aiming toward this and other goals, it uses strong discipline and is aggressive toward the body. Hence it is a forceful (“hatha”) yoga.
Think of an Indian king called a “Raja.” Raja Yoga is the “kingly” yoga.
The meditative practices of Raja Yoga avoid the body’s “commonness.”
It avoids work with the body’s lower chakra centers where our more base urges arise.
Its meditation work uses the high energy centers of the mind-heart.
Its expression in the 4th century Yoga Sutras was elegant and spare. Raja Yoga has a rarified and regal quality.
Looking at Hatha Yoga in relationship Raja Yoga, we note that it arose almost 800 years after the Yoga Sutras. It arose in the Indian Middle Ages.
Scholars date the beginning of Hatha Yoga’s practices to the 11th century.
It is defined in its most prominent text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, composed in the 15th century.
Its invention is attributed to a very storied saint named Gorakhnath.
Before Gorakhnath, Hatha’s many different practices of breath, posture and meditation were used in other systems, but the Hatha system pulled them together in a new way.
And it clarified their purpose.
On the other hand, Patanjali’s Raja Yoga does not describe a path to Kundalini awakening.
Patanjali’s Raja Yoga is mostly a meditative sadhana.
That said, the phrase “Raja Yoga” can also indicate a wide range of non-Patanjalian meditation sadhanas , too.
As a meditation practice, the Yoga Sutras gives us only a tiny amount of information about poses (asanas). This distinguishes it from later Hatha Yoga texts.
Patanjali’s practice can also be called “Classical Yoga,” “Ashtanga Yoga” and “Patanjalian Yoga.”
The phrase, “hatha yoga,” also refers to a lot of different things.
Many of its new meanings have evolved in the last 50 years.
1) It can indicate all modern posture-based yogas.
In this way, “Hatha Yoga” is a synonym for the scholastic term, Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) introduced above.
It is also applied to two smaller niches within the wider category of MPY.
2) “Hatha Yoga” is what we call a generic kind of MPY that usually includes mild vinyasas (yoga poses linked by movement).
We would find the phrase used this way on a roster of different styles at a local yoga studio—alongside more clearly defined styles like “Jivamukti Yoga,” “Iyengar Yoga,” or “Power Yoga.”
3) It is also the name taken by pose-based yoga styles that remain strongly focused on Awakening and which try to integrate many of the attitudes and techniques of the early Hatha Yoga traditions.
These styles might try to follow the spirit and full practice range of Hatha Yoga as it was encoded by Gorakhnath when the practice was launched near the 11th century. Sometimes, like the Shadow Yoga of Shandor Remete, it gives itself the fuller name, “Traditional Hatha Yoga.”