Hatha yoga is physical yoga, and it is the variety of yoga that we most commonly encounter in the West. Indeed, many Westerners think of little else when they hear the word yoga. It is often promoted as a superior method of physical development with no religious ties necessarily attached, and on this basis it is the approach to yoga that has had the greatest success in penetrating both secular culture and the evangelical church.
Its classical textbook is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the fifteenth century A.D. by Svatmarama, a little-known Indian yogi. Its first three verses declare that the ignorant masses are not yet ready for the lofty raja yoga and so hatha yoga has been developed as a “staircase” to lead them to it.16
How does this “staircase” work? First, it is common for literature on hatha yoga originating from Hindu sources17 to emphasize that the purpose of the postures and breathing exercises is to “free the more subtle spiritual elements of the mind.” In other words, the physical exercises of yoga are intended to facilitate altered states of consciousness. They further are intended to foster “the development of will power, concentration, and self-withdrawal,” all necessary to “help you put your mind in a focused state to prepare for Meditation and, eventually, the search for enlightenment.” Finally, they are designed to “open the energy channels, which in turn allows spiritual energy to flow freely.”
Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh yoga teacher who was a major exponent of kundalini yoga in the United States until his death in 2004, affirmed that “the purpose of Hatha Yoga is to raise the awareness. It is a technology to bring the apana and prana, the moon and sun powers together to raise the consciousness. In other words, its stated aim is to raise the Kundalini. That is the purpose of Hatha Yoga. The difference from Kundalini Yoga is only a matter of time and rate of progress. The purpose of the two approaches is the same.”18
In chapters seven and eight of his coauthored book, The Spiritual Laws of Yoga, medical doctor and best-selling New Age Hindu author Deepak Chopra explains the wide-ranging spiritual purposes behind a variety of common hatha yoga poses. These include “energy-opening poses” such as the “spinal twist,” the “kneeling wheel,” the “diamond pose,” the “fish pose,” and the “child’s pose,” all of which are designed to open the chakras so that “vital energy is able to flow freely. The vital energy rising up through the spine is known as the awakening of the kundalini.”19
The question of whether yoga in general, and hatha yoga in particular, can be separated from their Hindu roots is where the rubber meets the road most directly for Christians. In parts two and three we will examine this issue in depth and we will also look at the leading yoga teachers and their distinctive brands of yoga, specific areas of Western culture where yoga has penetrated, and how Christians can and should respond to this major cultural development.