Hatha Yoga Project
Did you know that we are still making discoveries about yoga? There is a very important initiative that has taken place recently in the yoga world, which is the Hatha Yoga Project . It was made with specialists of the field in the writings of this time. Laura Arley sheds light on the Hatha Yoga Project and her recent discoveries about yoga!
These discoveries are recent because they are the results of years of work of a five-year project, completed in 2020, which is the “Hatha yoga Project”.
When we begin to question the essence of yoga, its philosophy and especially when we begin to question the antiquity of the yoga that we practice today, there are two visions that clash:
- Those who say that yoga is a thousand-year-old practice: They think that the practice today is almost unchanged, and similar to what was done thousands of years ago.
- Those who say that yoga asanas are very new: They think that the yoga that is taught in classes today is completely new.
These two visions will clash, and form little debates that we like to have when we are passionate about the philosophy of yoga. Laura thinks in particular of a book ” Yoga, a world history “ of Marie KOCK. This book is about the modern history of yoga, and is rather in the camp that thinks it is a relatively recent practice, at least as we know it.
The truth lies between the two sides
What is interesting is that thanks to the Hatha Yoga Project, we are discovering that the truth probably lies between these two camps .
Today, there is a lot of information available, but there is a huge resource of Sanskrit texts that have not yet been translated. The people who attacked it knew that there was a wealth of text hidden all over India. These are Sanskrit writings that can sometimes be copied and recopied by scribes but were kept in temples, gathering dust.
So these experts were obviously interested. These experts you may already know, typically if you have read the book “The Roots of Yoga, by Mark Singleton and James Mallinson which came out recently. These two authors are part of the Hatha Yoga Project team.
The antiquity of hatha yoga questioned
The experts have therefore examined his writings, which date from the 8th century to the 18th/19th century. It is quite interesting because when we talk about it, we talk about a current that comes at a rather late period in the chronology of the history of the philosophy of yoga. Indeed, it will start to appear – at least from what was known before – around the 18th century. This is the idea we had because the most famous writings are typically the Hatha yoga Pradipika which is a text that dates back to about the 15th century. However, it was discovered that there is a way, the path of strength which draws its inspiration from three different sources.
These sources are very different:
On the one hand, Hatha draws its sources from the thought of Patanjali. He tells us how to reach this state of Samadhi, what Yoga is for him, and synthesizes all the ideas that exist at his time on the school of Yoga within Hinduism (Yoga being one of the six darshanas or schools). He will create this synthesis, as we saw last week, (see our article on the yoga sutras of Patanjali) between the 2nd and 4th century of our era . He who is well after will take a little bit of Patanjali.
Hatha will also take some of this revolution that is coming, which is called Tantrism. It is a real revolution in the sense that Tantrism is going to be a philosophical current which will not draw its knowledge from the Veda. So contrary to this notion that the Vedas are the only founding texts, the basis of everything; the knowledge of Tantrism does not come from the Vedas, or even criticize them a little. The great revolution of Tantrism is to be able to say that liberation can be reached in the physical world, that of matter. And so we will be able to use all the means which had been added a little by other currents before Tantrism: the physical body for example. These elements will now become the means to reach liberation . This is what will really provoke a revolution that will shake up all the philosophical currents of the time: Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism will be reached. In Tantrism we find on the other side the notion of shakti, the feminine cosmic principle, which we will talk about in detail in another teaching dedicated to Tantrism. Know that there are these two concepts which are really revolutionary in Tantrism and which will be taken up by Hatha yoga.
We also have his third source of inspiration which are the ascetic practices. We find these ascetic practices among those people who have renounced life in society, who go to live in the forests to be able to practice what we call tapas . This sometimes means standing on one leg for a long time, or not eating for example. Often, these ascetic practices are carried out either with the aim of obtaining magical powers(let’s remember that we had this aspect in the third section of Patanjali’s sutras). Or in a quest for liberation.
He will create a set of physical and mental techniques to master them. Until now, we have not had access to much written material on this practice, but thanks to the Hatha Yoga Project this is changing!
Until today, the famous texts that existed for a long time and that you surely know were three in number:
- Shiva Samhita, which is dated around the 15th century
- Hatha Pradipika, which is also dated around the 15th century
- Gheranda Samhita that we place in the XVIIIth century.
We can therefore think according to these writings that Hatha yoga is quite late. If you have already read the Hatha Pradipika, we are mostly talking about sitting asanas, but also about Pranayama. This is where we will also begin to find the methods of purification.
The first mention of the term Hatha yoga
What is fascinating according to Laura, is that we discovered that the very first mention of the term Hatha yoga, we will find it in a tantra (a text of Buddhist tantrism) in the 8th century.
But beware, this term will appear in this Buddhist text in the 8th century to refer to a way that would be the last way, the way of last resort for people for whom the processes of meditation and mantra recitation have not worked.
It is therefore intended for people who are engaged in the Buddhist path with Tantric influences, in search of spirituality, but who have not succeeded in reaching this state of liberation, of nirvana. This is where the first hint of Hatha yoga appears.
A little later, in the XIXth, XIIth century (always before these three great texts that we know), there is a new Buddhist text which will see appearing processes which look like Hatha yoga. These are, for example, meditation procedures and principles that appear later in Hatha yoga. We see something taking shape.
We can see that the image of Hatha yoga is bigger than we thought.
The appearance of the term Hatha as a set of techniques
The term Hatha as a system of yoga, as a set of techniques of body and mind control, will appear in the 12th century (still before these great texts that we know). It appears in a text of a Vishnu tradition, that is to say a devotional group that will place Vishnu at the center of their cosmology.
To find the true intention of the author
The texts that exist today in India on which researchers have studied are texts that have been copied and recopied a great number of times. So there are several versions. What the experts have done is that they have gone to find many versions that exist, since by dint of copying the writings, we have translation errors on the part of the scribes. These errors accumulate with each transcription, like an Arabic telephone.
So to find the true meaning of what is said, and the true intention of the author who existed in the eighth, twelfth, fifteenth century, experts will make what are called critical editions of these writings. So we’re going to try to find a lot of versions of a particular text and we’re going to compare the different translations into Sanskrit. And so that’s why it’s a project that took place over five years. It ended in 2020, so it’s really something that’s very recent.
This practice has its sources all over the place, has real Buddhist influences and something that really changes the game. For Laura, this is the first revolution found in the findings of the Hatha Yoga Project.
Because a bit like Tantrism, it’s going to be a set of processes that are going to be very inclusive and very accessible. We will start to see techniques that are for everyone. This knowledge, which was reserved for the elite, for those people who went in search of wisdom and truth, can now be transmitted and applied even if you live in society and are a father, for example.
We are no longer in this rigor where you have to go into the forest or renounce the world to be able to practice. It’s going to be something more accessible and it’s also going to cross the barriers of religion or different traditions because it’s going to be able to address everyone. We will somehow get rid of this devotional vision of a particular deity.
The number of postures taught
This is where the second discovery comes in. There is some very interesting work that has been done where experts have looked at the number of postures that are taught in each text.
Little by little we will see appearing in these writings more and more asanas sometimes mentioned in detail, sometimes mentioned just in number but not necessarily in detail. It is really from the 18th century onwards in the Gheranda Samhita that we see an explosion in the number of positions, and little by little we arrive at texts which describe 84 positions, or even more than a hundred positions. If we compare it with the great work of Iyengar “Light of Yoga” we will find 200 asanas described.
Regarding the most famous texts of Hatha yoga :
- The Shiva Samhita will describe 4 asana
- The Hatha Pradipika will describe 15 asana (mostly sitting, to prepare for meditation)
- The Gheranda Samhita will describe 32 asana
What can we learn from this?
There is probably some truth to the statement that some of the asanas in our modern practice have been known for a long time. Maybe not for a thousand years, but for several hundred years. We can therefore say that as it is described in the texts, it resembles our modern practice.
Research continues and there is still much to explore
The other thing Laura wanted to share with us is that this Hatha Yoga Project has brought us back to our humility a little bit. Perhaps very little is known about his philosophy. And maybe in five or ten years, all that Laura tells us will already be completely integrated and obsolete, and we will find new writings translated from Sanskrit and on which we have discovered many new elements.
This means that the debate continues, that philosophy is really a living being according to Laura Arley. There’s really something to consider when you talk about yoga philosophy, that we’re looking at questions that have been asked for thousands of years : about our human nature, very deep questions. The answers to these questions have been trying to exist for a very long time through teachings that are very universal. However, the lessons we have today are sometimes subject to change.
According to Laura, you have to have a certain mental flexibility to be able to say to yourself that everything you know today may be something that will change over time. So we’re probably going to have to change our thinking on a regular basis about certain writings, certain views of yoga and our practice, etc. Laura even thinks that the definition of yoga continues to evolve and take on new meanings and that’s great.
Laura invites us to visit the Hatha Yoga Project website to learn more. In the “resources” and “gallery” sections, there are some interesting videos, including one in which we are given a reading of one of these writings that has been translated and critically edited. We see the text being read and the corresponding dynamic yoga practice in real time, through a sequence of asanas. This is impressive since this sequence really resembles our modern practices.
What to read to go further?
“The Roots of Yoga” by Mark Singleton & James Mallinson, which is a very academic book.
To summarize the findings of the Hatha Yoga Project
- We can go back to the 8th century
- The first texts that mention it or speak of techniques are of Buddhist origin
- From the eighteenth century onwards, non-sitting postures appear in Hatha yoga texts
- Research continues and there is still much to explore.
Who is Laura?
Laura Arley is passionate about the philosophy of yoga. She teaches vinyasa, yin, restorative and seniors in Toulouse and online. Laura is also a teacher of yoga philosophy and speaks at yoga teacher trainings.