“Imagining the Sun and the Moon: The Integrity of Classical Haṭhayoga”

On September 28, 2013, I delivered a paper entitled “Imagining the Sun and the Moon: The Integrity of Classical Haṭhayoga” at the 51st Annual Meeting of the Western Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (WCAAS). The theme of the conference was “Asia in Memory and Imagination,” and it was held at Weber State University, Ogden, Utah.

Listen to an audio recorder of the paper below.


Paper Abstract: Yoga is currently practiced by tens of millions of people around the world and is a budding $10 billion dollar commercial industry in the U.S. alone. Yet despite yoga’s mass popular appeal, surprisingly little attention has been given to the pre-modern Haṭhayoga tradition in South Asia, whose corpus of Sanskrit texts first systematized and expounded the theory and praxis of many of the familiar bodily-oriented practices we would recognize today (i.e. āsana, prāṇāyāma, mudrā).

This gap in scholarship on yoga owes largely to Orientalist and Neo-Vedantin attitudes of condemnation towards the Haṭhayoga tradition and its participants. On the one hand, this is the result of the typical rendering of the Sanskrit word haṭha as “violent” or “forceful,” and on the other, the pejorative view of Haṭhayoga as simply a physical method, and hence less significant or soteriologically substantial than other systems of yoga such as Rāja-, Mantra-, Laya-, Bhakti- yoga. Consequently, Haṭha yogins themselves continue to be marginalized in the memory and history of South Asian religion – by academics and laity alike – and construed as merely bodily oriented siddhi-seeking jogis and performing “fakirs.”

However, by turning the gaze inward toward the corpus of medieval Sanskrit Haṭhayoga texts, we find that the tradition itself does not distinguish between psycho-physical technique and soteriological aspiration, but rather continually directs the practitioner toward the emancipatory attainment of samādhi (spiritual integration) through praxis itself. In this paper, I will attempt to reconcile such reductionist representations of Haṭhayoga by reconsidering its central theory and praxis as outlined in Svātmārāma’s 15th-century Haṭhapradīpikā, recognized as the locus classicus of the Haṭhayoga tradition. Rather than interpreting Haṭha praxis as unnecessarily violent, I will follow Birch’s conclusion that the mysterious “force” of Haṭhayoga rests in the subtle qualitative effects of the successful application of yoga technique, rather than the force of effort (Birch 2011). For herein lies the key to Haṭhayoga theory and the ingenuity of its progenitors: the mapping of the subtle-body (sūkṣma-śarīra), with its dormant power (śakti, kuṇḍalinī) and enumerable channels (nāḍī), that when awakened by the force of Haṭha-praxis, samādhi – the summum bonum of life – is actualized; envisioned as the spiritual integration of the sun and the moon within the human microcosm.


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