In 2008, the Yoga Journal estimated that 15.8 million Americans, or almost 7% of the population, practiced postural yoga. If that percentage described a particular religious affiliation, it would exceed the combined total of Hindus (4%), Muslims (0.6%), Atheists (1.6%), Mormons (1.7%), and Jews (1.7%) in the US – just to give you some perspective. It also raises the question: is yoga an exercise or a spiritual practice? Is it a spiritual exercise? It is postures or meditations, is it flexibility and tone or is it a philosophical way of being in the world? What the hell is yoga anyway?
Yoga had its roots in shamanism, and from there, it slowly spread into the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) where it interacted with what would be known as Hindu culture. Over the course of several centuries, yoga was gradually incorporated into the fold of orthodox Vedic Hinduism. In these formative days, yoga was considered the means whereby the mind and senses could be restrained, the limited ego (ahamkara) transcended, and the self’s true identity eventually experienced. This is yoga as a form of mental discipline and the transcendence of mundane reality and of ‘normal’ humanity as the highest possible attainment (kaivalya). Ultimately, it amounts to transcending human limitations and becoming, in some way, divine. The Brahma-sutra-bhyasa calls yoga “the direct means to perceive reality.” So we can define early yoga as follows:
Yoga means joining oneself firmly to a spiritual discipline, the central element of which is the process of cultivating a full and present awareness of reality, in which all the energies of the body, senses, and mind are brought to a single point of tranquil focus. Yoga, then, is a wholly internal process.
With the rise of asceticism and the tantric traditions in India, yoga as an interior mental discipline, was assimilated into Tantra. Patanjali’s practices were adopted and changed and his dualistic philosophy dropped. Tantra added to the yogic elements of meditation and pranayama, and most importantly, introduced the idea of the subtle body and Kundalini-sakti, mantras, and a non-dualistic philosophy. When state-sanctioned Tantra declined after the Muslim invasion of India, Goraksa Natha created what we know as Hatha Yoga, which was quintessentially tantric in its practices and philosophy. He created an essentialized version of yoga that left behind the complex mantras and philosophy. It is to Hatha Yoga, as the forerunner of Modern Postural Yoga, that we now turn.
Like gypsies, fakirs, and sufi dervishes – figures with whom they were often confused – Hatha yogins lived on the margins of Indian society. They functioned as bogeymen in South Asian fantasy and adventure literature (and in Bollywood, they remain stock villains). Voyeuristic and fascinated European travelers repeated these negative depictions in monographs, articles, and books: Hatha yogins were weird, sectarian, licentious, fanatical, ungovernable, and dangerous black magicians. The stereotypical yogi performed paranormal feats of levitation, sorcery, and bodily possession and had superhuman powers because he never released his semen. They carried out extreme austerities and mortifications, and for Europeans, nothing symbolized Indian backwardness and Hindu perversion like the sight of a yogi lying on a bed of nails. The Victorian prudishness of the era, combined with antinomian practices of the Hatha yogins, convinced Britain it was meant to rule such a backward nation and they did their best to suppress and break up these ascetic sects.
Hatha yogis emphasized the “subtle body” (sometimes called the “energetic body”), a hybrid corporeal-metaphysical entity. Through esoteric techniques—ritual purifications followed by pranayama (restrained breathing), asana (posture work), and mudra (sealing off the subtle body)—Hatha yogis performed bodily alchemy. They drew prana (the breath of life) into the body’s central channel, thus awakening the serpent (kundalini) at the base of spine. As this serpent power uncoiled and moved upward, it purified the pranic channels (nadis) and balanced their lunar and solar sides, pierced the six main chakras, and finally united with the divine in the seventh chakra at the crown of the head. The result was bodily immortality and supernatural power. (As an interesting side note, the chakras arose within the Tantra and there were numerous systems that differed on the number and placement of the chakras. Most tantric systems advocated for five chakras and it was from the Kaubjika school of Tantra that we get what is considered the “standard model” today).
Kundalini is only vaguely familiar to most of the millions of Americans who stretch into Downward-Facing Dog pose on sticky mats in neighborhood gyms and studios. In its mainstream form, Hatha has been cleaned up and partially de-enchanted. The typical American yoga instructor says “namaste” and chants a perfunctory OM with her students, but does not teach tantric physiology. She is much more likely to give a testimonial about yoga’s beneficial effects on the medical body. How did this happen? How did Hatha become exoteric, respectable, and popular—especially among women and men? And how did one athleticized, para-secular version of one yogic discipline become synonymous with “yoga” in America?
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