Standardising the Non-standard
18/11/16 06:24 By James Russell
A recent proposal from the organisation, Skills Active (SA) to create a ‘National Occupational Standard’ (NOS) within the field of teaching yoga has ignited a wave controversy in the UK. Many teachers are questioning the expertise of Skills Active to implement a standard for the branch of yoga they have specifically targeted: ‘Hatha Yoga’:
“The NOS review will only cover the teaching of the pillars of hatha yoga….., it is not meant to control or pigeonhole individuals and their practices and beliefs..The NOS development process is to be focused on the teaching of hatha yoga, which has no religious bias, goal or aim, thereby promoting yoga in an inclusive way that is open to all religions and not confined to one” (Caroline Larissey, Standards & Qualifications, SA)
As a hatha yoga practitioner, this statement leads me to consider:
1)What are the ‘pillars of hatha yoga’?
2)Is it accurate to say that hatha yoga ‘has no religious bias, goal or aim’?
What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha yoga is a generic term denoting an array of physical and energetic techniques which facilitate the experience of yoga. ‘Hatha’ is a sanskrit word meaning ‘force’. Traditionally, the term “qualifies the effects of its techniques, rather than the effort required to perform them.” (Birch 2011). For example, the experience of ‘kundalini’ energy ascending through the central axis of the body, could be said to be one of ‘force’.
An alternative, comparatively recent interpretation* is summarised by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois:
“To understand the word Hatha here, we should know that Ha means the Surya (sun) Nadi (energetic pathway) and Tha means the Chandra (moon) Nadi. The process of controlling the prana (breath) that moves through these two nadis is known as Hatha Yoga.”
Both interpretations point towards a method of physical transformation in which subtle energy is harnessed and directed towards the ultimate goal: ‘moksha’ - liberation of the yogin during their lifetime.
“Salutations to Sri Ganesha
Now Hatha-pradipika is being written
I bow to Sri Adinath - Lord Shiva, who propagated the wisdom of hatha yoga,
which is regarded as a ladder to reach the highest state of raja-yoga” (Hatha-pradipika 1.1)
Hatha yoga originally developed in the 9th -10th century and was a synthesis of Tantra and Asceticism, that consolidated a vast spectrum of techniques broadly focused upon: containment of subtle energy; retention of semen and the awakening of potent spiritual energy - ‘Kundalini Shakti.’ The pioneers of hatha yoga were ascetics living on the fringes of Indian society. Initially, their teachings were transmitted orally, and then from the eleventh century were recorded in sanskrit texts. Hatha yoga consequently grew in popularity attracting followers from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim and Sufi communities. One of the earliest illustrated hatha manuals is a Persian text called the ‘Bahr al-Hayat’ - Water of Life (1602.)
Although interest in Hatha Yoga declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the twentieth century heralded a new renaissance in which innovative teachers such as T. Krishnamarcharya, Swami Kuvalayananda and Swami Sivananda combined hatha with Patanjala yoga, Neo-Vedanta and Tantra.
As hatha converged with modernity its parameters and identity shifted so that many of its more extreme and esoteric elements were discarded. Self mortification intersected with western physical culture; patriarchy with feminisation and renunciation with consumerism. The practice that emerged promoted hatha as an activity geared towards wholeness, health and well being. It was in this new guise that hatha yoga was successfully exported to the west where it enjoyed renewed popularity.
Contemporary, transnational yoga is often characterised by emphasis on ‘asana’ - posture, so that in some quarters the word ‘hatha’ has become synonymous with postures:
“Hatha simply refers to the practice of physical yoga postures, meaning your Ashtanga, vinyasa, Iyengar and Power Yoga classes are all Hatha Yoga” (YogaJournal.com)
Researchers have coined the term ’Modern Postural Yoga’ to distinguish this approach from the broader system of hatha yoga. For some teachers, ‘hatha’ may be an increasingly redundant label and a link to a medieval system that bears little resemblance to their own interpretation of yoga. Many other teachers continue to align their yoga with hatha and it is commonplace to find hatha yoga on a studio’s timetable - often denoting a fairly gentle class that may contain a variety of practices.
Hatha yoga is ultimately an amorphous, generic concept, in which meaning is constructed, shaped and adapted through the shared practices and experiences of its participants.
Pillars of Hatha Yoga?
The principal foundational texts of Hatha yoga are widely regarded as ‘Hatha Pradipika’,(C.15), ‘Shiva Samhita’ (C.16) and ‘Gheranda Samhita’ (C.17). They describe in detail many of the key groups of practices common to most lineages:
• Yama & Niyama - ethical restraints and personal observances (HP)
• Asana - postures (HP,GS)
• Shatkarma/Kriya - purification (HP, GS)
• Mudra & Bandha - containment of subtle energy (HP, GS, SS)
• Pratyahara - sense withdrawl (GS)
• Pranayama & Kumbhaka - regulation/suspension of breath/lifeforce (HP, GS)
• Dhyana - meditation (HP, GS, SS)
• Samadhi - clear perception (HP, GS, SS)
Although these components form the practical basis of hatha yoga , the term ‘pillars’ is unsuitable in that the practices aren’t prescribed as absolute pre-requisites, or articles of faith.
Within the wider context of yoga, some authors have situated hatha as being ancillary to the practice of ‘raja yoga’ (royal yoga) indicating 'samadhi' and also ascribed to Tantra or Patanjala yoga: “Success in Raja yoga is not possible without hatha and vice versa.” (Hathatatvakaumudi 2.28)
Unlike earlier traditions of yoga in which the body is eschewed as a hindrance to moksha, hatha yogins utilise the body as a tool for liberation and by virtue of their ‘sadhana’ - practice, transmute the ‘Ghata' - the vessel of the body, from the mundane unto the divine.
“Hatha Yoga does not seek mere transcendental experiences. Its objective is to transform the human body to make it a worthy vehicle for self-realisation.” (Fuerstein 1990)
Conception of the body is meta-physical: perceived as a subtle matrix of energetic pathways and vortices, through which spiritual energy and superhuman potential may be accessed and made manifest.
“The body is not to the Hatha Yogin a mere mass of living matter, but a mystic bridge between the spiritual and the physical being.” (Aurobindu 1970)
“1) Religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
2.) A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
3.) A body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.” (dictionary.com)
Based on the above definition, hatha yoga meets many of the criteria of a religion:
1) An array of Deities and supernatural agencies are referenced throughout its extensive literature. These entities are usually associated with Hinduism, or to use its earlier vernacular, ‘Sanatana Dharma.’
“Once I approached Brahma, who was seated on a lotus flower, with four faces, imperishable, eternal, the creator of the world with all animate and inanimate objects, known as ‘parameshti. Expressing my devotion and prostrating before him with reverence, I asked him about the same subject (yoga) about which you ask me now.” (Yoga Yajnavalkya 1.17 -18)
Although a pantheon of Deities frequent hatha texts, and devotional practices may be an adjunct for some yogins, the techniques themselves are mainly non-sectarian. Belief in theological doctrine or aetiology is optional so that success in hatha yoga isn’t dependent upon faith or divine providence.
A ‘moral code governing the conduct of human affairs’ is also found within the hatha corpus in the form of ten ‘yamas’ and ten ‘niyamas’ - restraints and observances. (Similarly, Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga contains five yamas and five niyamas.)
“In order to become worthy of the teachings, the student must first fulfil the moral requirements called yamas and niyamas. which are the moral prerequisites to the study of Yoga.” (Theos Bernard 1950)
2) Practitioners engage in a variety of practices, sharing and affirming the fundamental belief that these practices have the potential to facilitate self improvement. The structure of a typical modern yoga class is highly ritualised and themes of transformation and transcendence remain central. Robert Orsi has termed these kinds of shared experiences & narratives ‘lived religion.’
3.) The global community of hatha practitioners is an example of a “body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.”
Although religious bias can certainly be demonstrated, hatha yoga has always been inclusive - attracting and welcoming practitioners from a variety of faiths and communities:
‘Whether a Brahmin, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, a skull bearer or a materialist, the wise one who is endowed with faith and constantly devoted to the practice of Hatha Yoga will attain complete success.’ (Dattatreyyogasastra - earliest text to teach hatha yoga)
Aims and Goals
Historically, hatha yoga has definite soteriological purpose: one shared throughout traditions of yoga: ‘Moksha’- liberation from the inherent ‘Dukhham’ - difficulty - of ‘Samsara’ - worldly existence.
“There is no other way except yoga which brings success in liberation to the human being.” (Hathatatvakaumudi 1.18)
The associated aims of hatha yoga, (past and present) include: transcendence, immortality, purification, adamantine body, well-being, good health, containment of semen, supernatural powers, peace of mind, meditation, regulation of breath, self-realisation, enlightenment and therapy. Common to all these aspirations is the fundamental premise that hatha yoga is a means of self-development.
Hatha Yoga is a path of physical transformation and spiritual liberation. Although the term ‘pillars’ is inappropriate, there are distinct sets of techniques common to most lineages. However, none of these parts are mandatory and there is considerable freedom for adaptation and innovation.
Hatha yoga evolved through the philosophical lens and worldview of Sanatana Dharma and, as such, is demonstrably bias. It also has definitive aims, goals and soteriology. Self-transformation, transcendence, meditation and liberation remain enduring, integral themes. A number of practitioners choose to practice hatha in conjunction with other forms of yoga, spirituality and self-enquiry.
However, for some contemporary practitioners, hatha yoga is neither a religious nor spiritual activity. A popular interpretation is yoga conceived as a series of breathing and stretching exercises to help promote fitness, and health. Some reject the term hatha entirely and its association with an archaic system that has little in common with their own practice.
Therefore: whilst for some hatha yoga is a religious practice, or an adjunct to other forms of religion & spirituality; for others it is not. Both perspectives are equally valid and important. Ideological freedom has thrived throughout the history of hatha yoga and I believe that it is crucial that we continue to honour and respect our collective diversity.
In the original statement released by Skills Active it is stated that the NOS: “is not meant to control or pigeonhole individuals and their practices and beliefs.” Yet the same statement then describes hatha yoga as having “no religious bias, goal or aim,”. There seems to be a contradiction here which may be due to a misunderstanding of the practice itself.
My concern is that should the proposed standard focus primarily on postural pedagogy, it will be reductive and fail to assimilate the enormous scope of hatha yoga. We cannot ignore the meaning, culture, customs and texts of a thousand year old tradition. Likewise, we cannot ignore the myriad ways in which people today choose to construct meaning and identity from participation in its methods. Hatha yoga is a trans-national phenomena that takes its roots in the spiritual traditions of Southern Asia. As such, I believe it should be considered within a global context and the perspectives of participants, teachers, researchers and indigenous yogis.
I am opposed to the attempt of a self-appointed & unelected minority group to impose their interpretation of yoga upon the wider community. A standard for hatha yoga that fails to consider the whole gamut of practices and the diversity of its practitioners will serve to legitimise the secularisation, diminution and trivialisation of this vibrant, living tradition.
There is no standard way to teach hatha yoga because there is no standard way to practice hatha yoga.
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* The earliest reference to the sun & moon definition appears to originate in the 16th century text ‘Yoga Bija’ - see Birch: “The meaning of hatha in early haha yoga.” (2011)