Ancient Days with the Hatha Yoga Pradipika
I’d like to give my community something meaty—something that connects us to the longer record of practice—six centuries back and into India.
Can we talk about the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP)? Can we talk about a paper-bound yoga companion that’s been a true guide to me since my first encounter with India, with higher academic study, and with a new California life that started 10 years ago?
When I began yoga, I vaguely assumed Sanskrit texts had richness to offer about the practice and I had passing notions that yoga came from ancient India–and I passionately wanted to know more. I love books and history, and it was almost decadently pleasant to begin diving into this sea.
I started doing the HYP’s unusual practices upon reading it, following the guidance of a friend who’d been to Asia. I began the HYP practice of amaroli, something my buddy said would keep away India’s food-borne bugs. It’s in chapter 3, verse 96. It’s not for the squeamish though many cultures do it. It’s the morning drinking of the midstream of urine. Doing it daily, I ate whatever I wanted in India and stayed sickness-free.
Back in San Francisco, I began teaching 20 yoga classes a week and—in those days, knowing less about how to teach—I did all the asanas, too.
Both practices transformed me big-time.
I changed how I taught, not doing all poses, but kept with amaroli for four years. Its effects are difficult to talk about, but it made big changes in my outlook and grounded my body—especially in the ungrounding experiences of a new academic life of intense Ph.D study in the Bay A.
You might think the old yoga texts are dull, but dropping into another time is thrilling--and doing the practices even more so. One can learn how Hatha Yoga was broader and generally more powerful than simple asana practice in the Pradipika. Numerous practices from 600 years ago are laid out for us.
Its four chapter titles are clues to its breadth. They are: Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath practice), Mudra (special positions), and Samadhi (Enlightenment).
The HYP puts the poses in the center of its approach to practice, unlike many older texts. And, if only for this reason, the book is linked to today and living yoga. It feels half-modern, even if it’s half a millennium old!
It’s posture talk is plain. A typical passage on lotus pose (HYP 1:44) goes:
Place the right foot above the left thigh and the left foot above the right thigh. Hold the big toes firmly with both hands brought from behind. Put the chin on the heart. Look at the tip of the nose. This is padmasana. It destroys the sickness of those who practice it.
The book has 15 such descriptions, adding three more about pose-like “mudras.” It tells us how the subtle body—the body of life force—behaves and how to control it with strange practices like shatkarma, “cleansings”—where terribly radical things are done like swallowing a long rag and pulling it out of the throat (or sitting in a river and removing the rectum for washing!).
It carefully lays out steps toward yoga’s endgame: Kundalini awakening—the eruption of the transformative force lying dormant near the pelvic floor. It tells us how prana (life force) helps the body show no age, and how Kundalini evokes the ultimate wisdom of enlightenment that the text calls sahaja, manomani, laya and other names.
I recommend this book to anyone hearing the call for a deeper dive into yoga.
There are numberless paths into life’s great rewards, and the HYP is a tightly bound one that can be taken wherever you go.
Get it on your yoga shelf, examine it, and consider its stranger options. Then use it on your next visit to more exotic and life-changing personal practice.
- Svatmarama, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, 2002, Brian Dana Akers, trans., Woodstock, NY: YogaVidya, p. 75
 Ibid., p. 20