This article clarifies the difference between Hatha Yoga  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 the two do we find in the “Bible” of yoga—the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali?”

I wrote back . . .

Dear Heather,

You are correct; Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga are not the same.

Here is the difference.

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.

The tradition calls them the sun (“ha”) and moon (“tha”) channels (surya nadi and chandra nadi).

“Ha” + “tha” = “hatha.”

Hatha Yoga aims to equalize the flow of these two channels. This balances our introverted and extroverted natures and results in mental clarity.

As we work toward this and other yogic goals, we apply strong discipline to the mind and body.  If we want results, muscular and psychic forcefulness are required.

“Hatha” also referst to this, because it’s literal translation is forceful.



Think of Indian kings. They are called a “Rajas;” hence, 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 basic urges arise.

Raja Yoga’s meditation work uses the high energy centers of the mind-heart.

The description of so-called Raja Yoga in the 5th century Yoga Sutras was elegant and spare. It’s practices have a rarified and regal quality.

Though it now denotes the practices of the 5th century Sutras and meditative practices that are akin to it, the term, “Raja Yoga” was not applied to the Sutras’ yoga until hundreds of years later.


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

Looking at the historical relationship of the two, we note that Hatha Yoga arose around 600 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 most authoritatively described in the c. 1450 Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 

The Sanskrit word for the practice in those days was a compound, so, if we were to be very true to its sources, we’d write it: hathayoga.

The creation of the Hatha Yoga is attributed to a very storied saint named, Gorakhnath.

Before the 15th century, Hatha’s many different practices of breath, posture and meditation were used in other systems, but the Hatha Yoga Pradipika’s system pulled them together in a new way and 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.

It might be a surprise to some, but 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.


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 new ways we use the term have come into being in the past 50 years.

Here are some of them:

1) “Hatha Yoga” is the catch-all phrase describing all modern posture-based yogas.

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

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, as in the Shadow Yoga of Shandor Remete, it calls itself, “Traditional Hatha Yoga.”