• Hatha Yoga Ain’t no Raja Yoga, ELEPHANT JOURNAL, FEBRUARY 2016

    Posted in Articles by Eric Shaw



    This article clarifies the difference between Hatha and Raja Yoga.

    Today, my 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 . . .

    Dear Heather,


    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.

    What makes Hatha Yoga distinct from Raja Yoga in terms of time period and practice style?

    Looking at Hatha Yoga in relationship Raja Yoga, we note that it arose almost 800 years after the Raja Yoga of the Sutras.  It arose in the Indian Middle Ages.

    Scholars date the beginning of Hatha Yoga’s practices to the 11th century. Ironically, this is about the same time that the term, “Raja Yoga” came into vogue to describe meditative practices like those in the Yoga Sutras. 

    Hatha Yoga is defined in its most prominent text, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, composed a bit later—in the 15th century.  The Sanskrit word for the practice in those days was a compound, so–if we were to be very true to the source–we’d write it: hathayoga.

    The invention of the practice 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.


    Among other novel aspects of Hatha Yoga, it put yoga postures–like the ones we know today–at the center of its sadhana (practice method) and pointed the practice toward the spontaneous psychic shift we call Kundalini awakening.

    On the other hand, Patanjali’s Raja Yoga does not describe a path to Kundalini awakening.

    It is known for it’s “cessative” practice of stopping the turnings (vrttis) of the mind.

    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 in which poses take a primary place.

    As far as the language goes, Patanjali’s Raja practice has many synonyms. We can call it “Classical Yoga,” “Ashtanga Yoga” or “Patanjalian Yoga,” but we make the singular term, “hatha yoga” do all kinds of work on its own.  Just this one phrase–“hatha yoga”–means many different things.   

    Most of its new meanings have evolved in the past 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.”

  • One Response to "Hatha Yoga Ain’t no Raja Yoga, ELEPHANT JOURNAL, FEBRUARY 2016"

    1. d April 27, 2016 05:58 am

      Hi Eric,

      some interesting ideas in your writings. Could you provide a link or citation for this commentary on the Pasupata Sutras?


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