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This article clarifies the difference between Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga.

Today, my yoga student, Heather Haxo Phillips, wrote me:  “What’s the difference between Raja and Hatha Yoga?”

“. . . and which of these two do we find in the “Bible” of yoga—the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?”

I wrote back . . .

Dear Heather,

You’re right; Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga aren’t the same.

Here’s how they differ.

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In Sanskrit, “Hatha” means either “sun-moon” or “forceful.”

Medieval Hatha Yoga made use of two life-force channels (nadis) that are said to run vertically through the torso.

Near 1425, the Yoga Bija introduced a creative etiology for the word “hatha.” It said it derived from the sun (“ha”) and moon (“tha”) channels in a person’s subtle body (Surya Nadi (right) and Chandra Nadi (left)).

“Ha” + “tha” = “hatha.”

This speaks to the fact that the main purpose of Hatha Yoga is to re-engineer the body using these energies.

Hatha Yoga balances and enhances the flow of the surya and chandra nadis–in fact, it does this for the main Sushumna Nadi that runs up the spine– and all the body’s subtle channels.

In the c. 1450 Hatha Yoga Pradipika, this is the reason to practice pranayama (see 2: 4- 6). ” . . . The yogi is fit to control the prana only when all the nadis disrupted by the impurities become pure . . . do pranayama . . . so that impurities in the sushumna nadi attain purity.”

Practices like pranayama balance the nadis and increase their capacity to bear more life-force–to bear more prana.

All of Hatha Yoga’s techniques rework the body so it will accommodate more prana–and eventually accommodate the big energy surges created by kundalini awakening.

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The other meaning of Hatha is “force.”  This points to the aggressiveness of its practices and the aggressive transformations they initiate.  Hatha’s practices leverage the physical body to change the subtle body. 

If we want results in Hatha Yoga, we must apply muscular and psychic forcefulness in our practice over a long period of time.

When we learn about many years of sadhana (spiritual practice) endured by traditional ascetics, we get some idea of the depth of force we’re talking about.

“Hatha” refers to the forcefulness of will and the forcefulness of action needed to evolve on the yoga path.

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“Raja”?

Think of Indian kings.

They are called a “rajas;” hence, Raja Yoga is “kingly” yoga.

The meditative practices of Raja Yoga avoid the body’s “commonness.”

The high energy centers of the mind-heart are exercised in Raja Yoga’s meditative work.

Raja usually focuses on activating the four upper chakras–Anahata, Viishuddha, Ajna, and Sahasrara–the “kings,” or guiding faculties of the subtle body.

In most cases, meditative practices work less pointedly with the body’s lower chakras--where our more basic urges arise.

(Though its activation of the high chakras is apparent, the Yoga Sutra (YS) predates the first descriptions of the chakras–in the 8th century.  Nonetheless, its useful to discuss the chakras when defining what’s happening in Raja Yoga–even in Patanjali’s older form of it.  In the YS, we’re told to exercise meditative control over the body’s undisciplined chitti (mind-force) so as to gain unparalleled clarity–and chitti is understood to operate in the heart (Anahata) and the brain (Ajna, Sahasrara.)

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The language of our Raja Yoga in the 3rd century Yoga Sutras was elegant and spare. It feels as if we’re reading the laconic speech of a king.  

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“Raja” often refers to the practices found in the Sutras–as well as other meditative approaches; however, the term, “Raja Yoga” was not applied to the Sutras’ system until hundreds of years later.

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

Looking at the historical relationship of the two, we note that Hatha Yoga arose around 800 years after the Raja Yoga of the Sutras.  

Scholars date the beginning of Hatha Yoga’s practices to the mid-11th century.

Four seminal texts were composed then: the Amrtasiddhi; Hemacandra’s Yogasastra (where a form of headstand, called Kapalikakarana, is first described); the Tibetan, Chose drug gi man ngag zhes bya ba; and the Kathasaritsagara. 

The poses have a minor position here, but in later Hatha texts, they take a more prominent place.

These four books help define the “Early Hatha Yoga” period

Hatha is most authoritatively described in the mid-1400s Hatha Yoga Pradipika (called the Hathapradipika in period manuscripts).

The HYP launches the “Classical Hatha Yoga” period.

Before the 15th century, Hatha’s many different practices of breath, posture and meditation were carelessly systematized, but the Hatha Yoga Pradipika put them into a clear pattern.  Their outcomes were and ultimate purposes were defined.

Thai-Paschimottanasana-Yoga-Old-Pic-250The HYP made yoga postures—like the ones we do now—a centerpiece of its sadhana.

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Patanjali’s Raja Yoga doesn’t just de-emphasize posture, it offers no path to Kundalini awakening either. 

It’s known for it’s “cessative” practices meant to make the movements (vrttis) of the mind “cease.”

The primary technique of Patanjali’s Raja Yoga is meditation.

That said, the phrase “Raja Yoga” isn’t exclusive to the meditative practices of Patanjali.  We call a whole range of non-Patanjalian meditation practices “Raja” too.

(Ironically, the phrase “Raja Yoga” was applied to Patanjali’s techniques just as Hatha Yoga was being born.)

As a meditation practice, the Yoga Sutras gives us only a small amount of information about posework.

Only two of the 196 sutras give information on asana (2:46 and 2:47).  However, in the commentary (Bashya) on the Sutras–which some scholars suggest was written by the Sutras author, too–12 sitting poses are described.

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The Sanskrit description of the Hatha practice was originally expressed as one word. If we were being true to the medieval sources, we’d call the approach “hathayoga.”

Patanjali’s “Raja Yoga” practice has many synonyms, including, “Classical Yoga,” “Ashtanga Yoga,” or “Patanjalian Yoga.”

But we make the singular term, “Hatha Yoga” do all kinds of work–all on its own.

Most of the variant ways we use the term have become prominent in the past 50 years.

These include:

1) “Hatha Yoga” as a catch-all phrase for all modern posture-based yogas.

In this way, “Hatha Yoga” is a synonym for the term, Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) now used by scholars.

“Hatha” is also applied to two smaller niches in 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) “Hatha Yoga” is also the name taken by pose-based styles that focus strongly on awakening–and which try to integrate many attitudes and techniques from the medieval tradition.

Sometimes, as in the Shadow Yoga of Shandor Remete, these practices are called “Traditional Hatha Yoga.”

LINK HERE TO READ IT AT ELEPHANT JOURNAL