Modern Hatha Yoga—The Yoga of Fiction. ~ Christian Möllenhoff

Via elephant journal
on Dec 9, 2012
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Yoga in the West is basically about posture, otherwise known as asana. As such, yoga has had a huge success all over the world and the physical benefits are often remarkable. Some think it is so good, physically challenging and spectacular that it ought to be part of the Olympic games.

Yet this very yoga is also said to be part of Indian spirituality and the heritage of long lines of mysterious yogis who have passed it on from time immemorial. Taking a sober look at it though, one might ask if that is really the case?

photo: lifesheimagined.tumblr

Sri Mahant Rampuri is an American yogi living in India for forty some years and one of the very few foreigners who has obtained the status of elder in a major lineage. He has in several ways radically changed my understanding of yoga. During a conversation with him when I met him in Haridwar, he challenged me with the following :

You know, yoga is only about 40 years old…

It bothered me that he would seemingly use the word yoga exclusively when talking about yoga as a western phenomenon and avoided using it when talking about his own tradition.

…unless you talk about Goraknath’s stuff.

By Goraknath’s “stuff”, Sri Mahant Rampuri is referring to hatha yoga, in his own opinion a parenthesis in the tradition but one of the main references in the west for the asana movement.

The term hatha yoga as used in the West has become nearly synonymous with yoga postures and all contemporary physical yoga styles are generally considered to be its subdivisions. But strangely enough, when I look into the old hatha yoga scriptures I find nothing that resembles a class in a modern yoga studio.

Of course traditional yogis will rightfully argue that reading translations of old Sanskrit scriptures is not the way to obtain understanding of yoga. Yoga is at its roots an oral tradition suspicious of the written word. Texts are byproducts that cannot replace the living knowledge embodied in the lineage and passed on in its proper context. The same goes for hatha yoga : its written words being at best hints and inspirations.

Nevertheless, reading these texts written by the people who practiced hatha yoga in medieval times might put our own understanding of it into perspective. Unless they happen to be falsifications sold to British anthropologists for good money back in imperial times.

Falsifications or not, the hatha yoga described in such literature stands in sharp contrast with what it has become to today’s practitioners. What you find in these texts doesn’t resemble a class in a modern yoga studio at all, be it Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Sivananda or any other modern yoga style. In fact, in the Indian medieval hatha yoga literature you will hardly even find yoga postures.

Goraksha-Paddhati is probably the oldest of the hatha yoga texts and it is by some attributed to Goraknath himself. Goraknath was one of the early front figures of the Nath order and the one who is often given credit to for having founded hatha yoga or at least for making it known. When the yoga researcher Georg Feuerstein wrote about hatha yoga in his comprehensive book The Yoga Tradition, he included this text as the example of the genre.

The text contains 200 verses, each explaining different practices and aspects of hatha yoga. Surprisingly only a handful of these verses deal with postures. And those which do quickly establish that the only postures that really matter are the meditation postures. The other 97,5% of the book deals with breath-control, concentration, sound and mantra, visualization, meditation and the psychic anatomy of man. Feuerstein did note that asana is overemphasized in modern yoga. I would say that this is quite an understatement.

photo: flickr/Bob K.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika is another hatha yoga scripture and one of the top references for modern yoga. According to general consensus it was probably written in the 15th century and if that holds true it would be a few hundred years younger than Goraksha-Paddhati. This text does give more attention to asana. But out of the asanas described nearly all are sitting postures, most of them well known meditation poses or variations of them. Actually asana is a word both in hindi and sanskrit for the seat where you sit, for example a tiger skin in front of the yogi’s sacred fire altar, the dhuni. Today, even a latex yoga mat is sometimes called an asana.

Looking into the Yoga Upanishads I have not found more to support the notion of asana inspired gymnastics as a significant part of yoga. In the Bhagavad Gita as well asana is noticeably absent. Even in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the so frequently quoted crown jewel of international yoga, there is not the smallest indication of asana being something else other than a pose for sitting.

How has asana in it’s modern form then managed to become the alpha and omega of western yoga? Where do these practices come from if not from the truth seeking yogis? Modern research might hold the answer. According to the work of Mark Singleton and other researchers asana as we know it seem to have evolved from Indian physical culture movements in the first half of the 20th century rather than from secret practices of ancients.

The more I look at the asana phenomenon in the west, the more I see an emperor without clothes. I say that because the mythology that we have created around it simply does not hold true. That which our collective imagination has projected on to this phenomenon does not stand for scrutiny. But actually, in a way this brings us back to yoga, because far more important for a yogi than to place the body in difficult positions is the capacity to see through illusion.


Christian Möllenhoff is a Swedish yoga and meditation teacher living in Paris, France. He is the senior teacher at Yoga & Méditation Paris. He has many years of experience in advanced hatha yoga and meditations from the yoga tradition. He lived an ashram life for several years and is a devoted karma yoga practitioner.



Editor: Malin Bergman

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26 Responses to “Modern Hatha Yoga—The Yoga of Fiction. ~ Christian Möllenhoff”

  1. Vic DiCara says:

    This article is EXCELLENT. Thank you so much Christian!!!

    Asana IS mentioned ONCE in the Gita. In is in the 11th text of the 6th chapter. The qualifying word is "sthiram" (firm). The phrase is: sthiram āsanam.

    Later he elaborates slightly on what he means. In the 13th text he explains what "sthiram" means: samaḿ kāya-śiro-grīvaḿ
    dhārayann acalaḿ sthiraḥ – "Steady posture means: Hold your torso, neck and head straight, balanced, firm and steady."

    [This of course, only proves your point that asana is a hugely minor part of true yoga]

    Here is that section from Chapter Six:

    Krishna: Meditation is an effort to control the flow of thoughts in the mind without coming under their grip. The endeavor is to direct the flow of thoughts away from selfish desires and towards the spiritual. It must be done in seclusion, alone.

    Arjuna: Please say more about the proper location for meditation.

    Krishna: Find a sanctified place and make a place to sit out of kusha grass covered with deerskin, again covered by cloth. It will be a bit off the ground, but not too high. Sit there with good, steady posture and practice directing the flow of your thoughts to a single point, curtailing your external sensual activities. This practice will make your soul very clear.

    Arjuna: Can you elaborate on the “steady posture?”

    Krishna: Hold your torso, neck and head straight, balanced, firm and steady.

    Arjuna: What about “curtailing the senses?”

    Krishna: Restrain your perception from wandering here and there; focus your eyes on the tip of your nose and don’t look elsewhere.

    Arjuna: And controlling the “flow of the mind,” how is that done?

    Krishna: Follow the brahmachari path: let your thoughts pursue no lusts. Then you will be peaceful. You must also keep the mind from focusing on fears. Then your mind will come under your control.

    Arjuna: When I have my mind under my own control, what should I do with it?

    Krishna: Situate me within your pure mind. Make me your ultimate goal.

    This is from a book I am writing, and EJ is publishing the drafts. Here is the full Sixth Chapter on EJ:

  2. Nikki says:

    Wonderful post, it resonated deeply with me and I will share it with my studio. Is there any chance that EJ or the author could [if it is indeed a typo] correct the second to last word from 'trough' to 'through?' That last statement is VERY powerful and I'd love to help ensure the message is delivered as the author intended.

    Thank you.

  3. Thanks for your valuable comment Vic. This example illustrates well the point I am trying to make.

  4. Hi Nikki
    Thank you for commenting and for pointing out this spelling mistake. It should indeed "be through". I have contacted the editing team to have it corrected.

  5. NOW we're talking! Great article.

  6. michelle says:

    Thank you Christian, you bring up a great point that I have been chewing on for years and have also had the great delight to be in the good company of Shri Mahant Ram Puri Ji.
    What I have found being a western "yoga" teacher is that soooooooooooooooo few are really interested at ALL in the deeper practice of self inquiry unless you consider 'Body' Inquiry as a serious study 🙂 !
    Perhaps it's a sign of the times, that the physical vehicle has become the focus. That being said I have to admit, that the most serious students I have, those who have a burning desire to question, all started off with the physical practice. What I have noticed is that the mind is so distracted, so lost in ignorance, that coming in through the back door is sometimes just the key. Because if the body moves with the focus on the breath, it may be the only way to encourage students to sit and watch the mind quietly. I remember how painful it was to sit when I started meditating 25 years ago, and I have to say that moving a little before sitting makes it more "pleasant".
    I am surrounded by teachers and students who only care about 'sweating in sanskrit', so as I watch this strange phenomenon all that can be done is to offer something else and trust that those who are deeply curious, will find their way back to themselves. It is a HUGE disservice to offer a truly curious student, one who really wants to know themselves, an asana class. There are so few who have access to a real lineage.

  7. vikram says:

    the yogis do practice 'hatha yoga' and it is a misnomer to consider that no hatha yoga is practiced within the spiritual community – however the objective of the practice is different as a few asanas chosen wisely and on an individual basis allows the yogi to reach sthiram āsanam which essentially is a state of yoga … a union of the breath, mind and body allowing for the meditative practice to begin.

    to the question that why is it not written in the books … because it forms a really small part in the real job … and to reach sthiram āsanam is not difficult for the practitioner but a nightmare for those engaged in grihasta … which is normal and acceptable.

    and so in Kalyuga, we have hatha yoga dominance which is fine … it allows people a peek in through the door …

    the question of history is so irrelevant and those that obsess about it are being possessive of a body of knowledge that is so dynamic, universal, infinite and at the same time constant … shiva namah !

    from india …

  8. MatBoy says:

    Maybe yoga is just what one does while alive to pass the time, pleasantly, until one dies. Some have been and remain today inclined to make, in their minds, their form of yoga transcendentally important. It make them feel good about themselves, especially when they use it to convince themselves that they are more evolved or elevated than people who practice differently, or don't practice at all. The wheel of life keeps turning; what does yoga have to do with it? Just a way to pass the time I think. What is the outward sign of a life well lived? There is no certain one! Get over yourself.

  9. Thanks for some nice articles Christian. I find these views very necessery to balance the current situation. It´s not that modern yoga is not yoga, but it´s certainly different then some of the roots, or most of them. As a swede I can say that yoga in Sweden is rather americanised here, for good and bad. It´s very "selling it in the market" so to speak, but it it opens up for the many to take part, and it´s mostly beneficial for body and mind. Surely though some will need more.
    It´s always good to remind oneself of the middle way. Lookin forward to some more articles on the comparison of yoga – Indian/Western.

  10. HeatherM says:

    This is a very good article and important for all serious students of yoga.

    The problem is not so much the postures themselves as it is the way it is administered in the West and the knowledge imparted to students. Many students are not aware of the yamas and niyamas or even the 5 koshas, kleshas and all the rest.

    In fact, it came to my attention and something I had long suspected as a teacher that many students actually believe once they get the physical then they will apply some of the theory. My argument for that is by then it may be too late. In other words, attachments to the body and form will have grown/deepened making it truly difficult to uproot the 'deeper' and ultimate reasons for practice.

    Certainly it is a paradox and one that I believe the West has difficulty holding. That is, using the body but not getting attached to the body and understanding that this is truly one level of practice. Most practitioners and teachers gradually devote more time to pranayama and meditation.

    I have to say, however, I learned yoga only under Indian Masters. Because of this it has ingrained a different kind of thinking about practice beyond the popular trends and fads. As well, my own personal training has only been in India.

    For myself, it has always been a source of inner conflict between trying to impart the deeper knowledge and at the same time appreciating the simple fact that students may not want it, are not ready or perhaps are just 'not there yet'.

    I believe a comparison between Indian teaching (certainly different than the West but it is also changing now too) and that of the Western world will shed more light on this complicated issue, and concern.

    I also have to say teaching beyond physical postures while using the body is truly challenging. Yoga is very subtle and most people fail to see or appreciate this. As my own teacher repeatedly said, "teaching technical is easy." Most Indian Masters are not uttering phrases like, "align yourself like you are between two walls" or "touch the sky" and "drop like a swan". Teaching people to see themselves and to awaken to their own inner teacher is totally different. And as one of my own students used to say, "most teaching today is mere orchestration".

  11. The question is not about what is best. The issue is understanding differences. Modern asana practice has little or nothing to do with hatha yoga, its supposed origin. Let modern asana practice stand on its own legs. I am not saying that one is better than the other. I am saying that these are two different occurrences.

    Your way to define yoga is too vague. With a definition like that you can make anything fit into the word and that is not very practical.

  12. Vikram, Om namo narayan !

    Hatha yoga in the old sense is still practiced. I do not claim in the article that it is not. But it is rare both in the west and in India. I would say steadiness of body and mind is a prerequisite for the techniques hinted in the literature of hatha yoga rather than that this is the state of yoga itself as you suggest. The techniques of hatha yoga are in its finer stages subtle meditative practices.

    I disagree with you in that origins are unimportant. The oral traditions of your own country is a good example of traditions that value historical accuracy. I was impressed to learn that there are several casts whose main task is to remember the lineages of gurus that goes thousands of years back and to preserve it for the future. The body of knowledge that constitutes transnational yoga is on the other hand just as influenced by western thinking and practices as by Indian ones and not kept track of in the same way.

  13. Hi Michelle thanks for commenting. If the teacher is knowledgeable also a modern asana practice can bring about a state that is favorable for more deep going techniques like the ones of hatha yoga. I do not think that there has to be a conflict per definition and I am absolutely not against keeping the body in good shape. But since “yoga” means fitness training to a lot of people you will not necessarily attract those interested in the subtle stuff by organising yoga classes. Sweating in Sanskrit is a funny way to say it! I had not heard that one before.

  14. MatBoy says:

    Anyone who practices yoga will eventually have to deal with the knowledge that it has deeper roots pointing to more spiritual and philosophical aspects of the tradition. Some seek out these less physical aspects. I argued that this decision reflects a need or existing inclination within the student. I often notice that those who really 'get into it' use yoga to build walls between themselves and people who do not practice like them. Some take it the next level and place a huge value on their method; this can lead to fundamentalist type of thinking. It begins to look like other religions who are convinced that their system is better, or worse yet, that it is the only true way.

    That you would write your article, explaining to us 'unsaved' how we missed the boat or got it wrong, could reflect this type of thinking. That is why I wrote my response and why I ended with the call to live your life well and not fall back on some external sign, group affiliation or belief system to justify or verify your own self-worth. Your title 'Yoga of Fiction' is a pejorative, a judgement! It is divisive. My response is not intended to be personal but more general. Cheers!

  15. MatBoy says:

    Do you really think your students are not aware of the yamas or niyamas? Or do they just not use those words to classify their ethical and moral conflicts and inclinations. Is it necessary to know the word in order to know the concept? If the vedic system describes life accurately doesn't it describe that which each of us experiences every minute of our lives? Do you really believe that awareness of this ancient classification system is enough to make one a better or more balanced person?

    If the West has failed to grasp the Yoga system it is because so many try to explain it using words, stories and experiences that are so foreign to people here. Our life in the West has everything in it that we need to realize what the old masters were pointing to, no need to travel around the world seeking the holy grail. Embodying the teachings requires more mastery than merely being familiar with them.

  16. Heather says:

    No, and that's no what I am saying in my reply. Sorry, if I did not make it clear.

    My point was only to emphasize how often students are involved with yoga and don't possess any knowledge of the theory behind it. Does it make them less? Does it make them better? Hard to say. Perhaps in some cases it is an intuitive based understanding. Certainly spewing out technical knowledge can also be empty. Knowing then, for example, the yamas and niyamas is meaningless if not applied to life.

    Certainly in the West and as you have stated above (re: we often teach in words). And that was my point in saying that Indian teachers do not.

    I do not agree that people will grasp in the West. As one Buddhist teacher said "in the West there is much information but little wisdom". But does it mean you cannot grasp either if you don't venture out of North America. Hard to say.
    However, most would agree that many students end of up making the trip to India (one way or another…money or lack thereof). But again, does this mean those who stay behind will not learn yoga well? No, not at all. But I have to say from learning yoga within the context of India it is different than the West. And like most teachers we encourage all our students (if they can and if they can budget it) to make that trip!

    Awareness is a start, yes, which might not take the form of words. Deeper awareness is not uttered in only words anyway.

    Thanks for reply. You brought up some interesting questions. For certain, we can travel the world and still miss our own background. But going to India is usually altering in some form or another.

  17. Heather says:

    excuse the grammar, syntax, etc. pls.

  18. Heather says:

    Hi, Good points. I think those who really 'get it' don't build walls. Really. I know, however, what you mean.

    I would argue that unless you have a teacher who leads you to the deeper understanding OR you, yourself are drawn into it, I don't think it comes from just doing the practice. Often students get caught up in a merry-go-round.

    It's really hard to see like a fish in it's own water. But I also believe it is up to the inclination of the student….and you could say their karma. But what is interesting is how many long-time meditators have written that they were sitting on stuff for years and years…and thinking they were doing a 'deep practice'.

    The phrase in yoga has been coined as 'spiritual by-passing'.

  19. howie says:

    Hi – Take a look at the excellent book on this subject called Yoga Body:The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton(Oxford University Press). He demonstrates quite convincingly that asana -centered "transnational yoga", as he calls it, is quite recent in origin (mid-late 1800s), and a good deal of it can be traced to Sri Krishnamacharya, who in turn derived his rigorous asana practice from many sources, quite a few of them well outside the boundaries of traditional yoga.

  20. MatBoy says:

    Your grammar, syntax, etc. are all fine.

  21. yogamamba says:

    Self/Truth alone is – if one is struggling with this or has dificulty grasping this – practices are given to help us as individuals see past our conditioning and be reminded of this. These practices are called different 'abhyasas' – yogabhyasa -yoga – is one of them.

  22. Thanks for the clarification. You do have an important point here. There is defiantly a risk of getting in to sectarian thinking and I think we se a lot of this in the western yoga scene. I am often accused of intolerance when I bring this up but I think it is important and healthy for every western practitioner to consider and digest these things. Not only on an asana level, but also concerning our thinking around yoga as a whole.

  23. Ed S. says:

    And yet – Yoga Sutra I.2, The vrttis are stilled by practice and dispassion. Practice of what? And practice it dispassionately. And II.1 – Kriya-Yoga, the path of action, consists of self-discipline, study, and dedication to the lord. What can we study in a disciplined manner? The path is action, do something. Do we practice some old or new form of hatha yoga? Should I care? I do care immensely about proper alignment. Practice and perfect a musical instrument, like Ravi Shankar, or a western Jazz musician? I see Hatha Yoga as the way for me to meditate, or as the first steps to calm the mind and body before doing sitting meditation. I better give my monkey mind something to do.

  24. Ed S. says:

    I began studying with an Iyengar teacher in July, 2012 (in Bethlehem, PA). The Yoga Sutras are a part of every class. Hatha Yoga and the Yoga Sutra have become inseparable in my Yoga experience. My Hatha Yoga experience has deepened. Even my home practice, which developed only after starting Iyengar training, has taken on a much more spiritual aspect. Now I see most other Yoga classes similar to me going to a Square Dance and having the moves called out.

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