In Lubomir Ondračka’s essay about the system of Hathayoga, he takes us through its up and down history, tracking this mysterious practice from its elusive historical origins to the re-ignited interest from modern day scholars who are keen to unfurl its mysterious and therefore, complicated past; emphasising how very little we really know about the practice.
Written in 2018, Ondračka, from the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Charles University in Prague, takes the reader through the hot and cold reputation involving Hathayoga, as well as the patchwork history of facts, presenting the reasons why Hathayoga is still largely so misunderstood, with large measures of inaccuracy due to its history unknown.
Reasons offered by Ondračka include, from the outset, an uncertain translation of the word itself. “Hathayoga” translated as “Yoga of force” or “Yoga by force”, is then followed by later translations which somehow end up as Hathayoga meaning “sun and moon”. Translation aside, Hathayoga seems to have lived a wobbly existence in the minds of men, therefore being given very little credit; this is, up until recently. Initially, lack of documentation was part in parcel of not only an oral tradition, but of a practice that was more physical than philosophical in nature. Because of its physicality, Hathayoga was easily dismissed regardless of the fact that it’s ultimate aim, that of final liberation, mirrored that of other Yogas. According to the essay, we might almost say that Hathayoga was known as rather repugnant due to a cauldron of societal perspectives around the practice: from the class of characters who often represented the practice at a point in history that many Indians would rather forget, as well as general misrepresentation of it in the West. However, recent interest from scholars toward the practice, has rekindled an awareness of its benefits as a valid and sincere path, as studies continue to bring detail to light.
Another factor that seemed to delay giving credit where credit is due, is the difficult access to texts, as well as the legitimacy of those texts that do exist. Ondračka has offered the reader the smattering of reliable resource texts that can tell us the true tale of Hathayoga, to which he seems to be seeking more. What is surprising, to both the author and the reader of the essay, is the source of some of the most reliable material: having come from the Buddhist Tantric tradition. It’s this very background that seems to immediately bolster a positive historical reputation for Hathayoga. After meandering through a somewhat lost translation and unpredictable challenges in the eras of its development, Hathayoga seems to suddenly find itself accepted.
At this point, Ondračka interestingly notes that the sudden turn in reputation toward Hathayoga comes from its distinguishing trademark that had been its previous downfall: that of being a physical practice. Somehow its this positive tie with Tantrism, combined with its strong appearance in Advaita Vedanta, that brings credibility to Hathayoga. Another factor for this rise in appreciation is its accessibility to all, even the householder. Hathayoga broke free of the philosophical concepts of other Yogas which made them a seemingly more elite endeavour. And, as Ondračka spells out, the Hathapradipika (Hathayoga’s most sourced text to date) is clearly itself an inclusive work.
Sadly, from a rocky start, through an unclearly documented history, and a brief rise in reputation, Hathayoga only seems to have receded back in to a modern day disappearance. Ironically, it’s modern scholars who are attempting to understand the practice by piecing together its tumultuous past, including our human relationship to it, who are bringing the ancient practice to light. Even so, this compilation of evidence doesn’t yet clearly paste together a true Hathayoga.
As an acknowledgement of developing research, Ondračka looks forward to updating this 2018 essay in the summer of ’21, as new and many historical facts continue to be found in the halls of time through works of such Yoga researchers as James Mallinson and Jason Birch. As Ondračka admits, that unlike the Yoga of Patanjali, interest in scholarly research of Hathayoga is a new development, leaving an air of dissatisfaction around a sense of incompleteness; yet, new research means new understanding of the practice which, like any good mystery, keeps us wondering what revelations are in store in future.
For more information about Hatha Yoga in India, please visit Yoga.in
Find Lubomir Ondračka’s article on Hatha Yoga here.