How sadhu-s define Haṭhayoga: not anything close to how it is defined in the West

An interesting paper came out this week by ethnographer Daniela Bevilacqua of the Hatha Yoga project. In her paper entitled Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic practitioners of yoga in northern India, Bevilacqua interviewed 48 sadhu-s, or ascetic holy men in Varanasi India. She asked them each to define Haṭha yoga. Her conclusions: three defined it as union of the sun and moon yoga which is a common definition among the Nath sect; five defined is as the keval khumbaka  (retention of breath at the end of the exhale in pranayama) as a means to samadhi; and the majority defined it as “strict intention” which is more of a mental attitude than an actual practice.

What does this “strict intention” mean? It means holding one’s arm up in the air for one or two decades, drinking only juice for sustenance, and sitting in the hot sun and building a fire around one’s self with cow dung as the fire’s medium. This is referred to as tapasya, or austerities. Patanjali lists tapas as one of the 5 niyamas.

My first yoga teacher, Daws (Das), was a product of this school of thought. In his 70’s, he still practices in Kapiolani park daily. He would have his own asana practice of standing in sirasana with variations for one hour. It was amazing to watch, but I saw many harm themselves trying to duplicate his practice.

When I first started practicing with him, our day would consist of sitting in meditation for one hour at dawn, then doing 45 minutes of asana practice. Later in the day at sundown, we would meet and do a two hour asana practice with a 30 minute meditation with chanting to Siva toward the end. I can fondly remember those days of holding vrksasana as the sun would set in the Ocean. Reading this paper reminded me of those days fondly.

My practice is not nearly as intense now that I have a family and am employed full time. But I do remember that the tapas I learned from that practice still burns inside of me. I used to be flakey, but since that practice I have been able to complete projects that I start and work long days without fatigue. I only skip teaching class under the circumstances of illness, family, and travel. I made it through graduate school with a 4.0 average, and was able to complete a four year apprenticeship in the Iyengar system to get fully certified and am still working toward the next level of certification.

Back to Bevilacqua’s paper, she said the motivation for the sadhu-s to do such an extreme practice is to “support the world” during this time of Kali Yuga (time of darkness) in which they believe all lay people have lost their dharma. When we look at what we have done with yoga in the West, it is clear they are concerned about the usage of yoga as a commercialized entity concerned mainly with health and fitness, and not so much its intended spiritual use.

The interesting item to note about the Sadhu-s is that they did not give much importance to asana. It was something they viewed as something a beginner ascetic would do to allow themselves to sit for longer periods to get the real “work” of yoga done in dhyana (meditation). Their personal asana practice was often done privately and consisted of a few simple asanas, according to the paper.

I remember Das would refer to these Sadhu-s as the “superstars” of yoga. It is a tinge sad that in our Western culture we don’t give much value to those who go through extreme measures to display the powers of spirituality. Some good discussion questions for my readers would be how do you use tapas in your practice? If you could choose one sole activity to do daily for the next decade or two, what would that activity be? Many blessings!

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10 thoughts on “How sadhu-s define Haṭhayoga: not anything close to how it is defined in the West

  1. So...

    ‘Hatha’ means stubborn in Kannada, a south Indian language. It also connotes persistence of sorts when used in an appreciative context.
    I remember reading something by Guruji where he mentions this meaning of ‘hatha’ as well.

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  2. k8macdo

    I had not heard of this project. So interesting! Thank you for bringing it to our attention!
    One activity? Hmmmm… That’s hard to say. I would like to try and maintain a practice that combines asana, a deep savasana, some pranayama, and meditation. And trying to live the yamas and niyamas… But that’s several activities, I suppose!

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  3. D

    I enjoyed reading about this along with how your practice has changed along time. Props to you for going keeping a 4.0 average in grad school while doing an apprenticeship! You’re truly inspiring. I am hoping to do the same while I’m in graduate school.

    I feel like I could do pranayama as my sole activity. For me, it can be more accessible than asana at times. I had a very heavy workload last semester. It was difficult to fit in any asana practice, but easier to fit in an pranayama practice. I’m injured at the moment so pranayama it is.

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  4. yogibattle Post author

    Thanks Accidental Goddess. My tapasya apparently does not extend to my ability to edit my own grammar. I know that when I see typos in others’ work I get those same feelings 🙂

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  5. mahasadhu

    Indeed! A wonderful reminder to all in the west, Yoga isn’t about being in the studio and practising asanas for 1.5 hours (it is a good start though), Yoga is exactly what these Sadhus mentioned.

    A good advice I try to implement is to make your daily life your Sadhana, that way one doesn’t need Shirsasna for an hour or have a specific time for Yoga, practise it in your job or whatever you do, this is Highest Sadhana.

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