Editor's Note: In "The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices," Daniel Simpson offers us an overview of yoga from its ancient origins to what it has become today. Simpson said in a YouTube interview that he wrote the book that he wanted to read when he started out with yoga and had lots of questions like: Where did yoga come from, How has it changed, Why do these texts not sound like what I'm doing in my weekly yoga class?
In this book, Simpson brings to bear twenty years of exploring the material for himself, seeking practical truths about life beyond abstract theory. He also draws on his training as a journalist for the New York Times and Reuters News Agency, as well as his academic exploration of yoga in graduate school at the University of London’s SOAS (formerly the School of Oriental and African Studies). He says, "My attempt with this book is to bring clarity, to shed a bit of light on these subjects, and hopefully to make it fun." Simpson graciously accepted Accessible Yoga's request to post an excerpt from the book and here it is.
Texts on hatha yoga democratize practice. They are composed in straightforward Sanskrit, with minimal philosophy. Although it seems unlikely that they would have replaced a teacher’s guidance, their instructions are clearer than secretive Tantras. Generally speaking, hatha is a practical method, not a rarefied doctrine.
One of the earliest texts to describe hatha yoga says anyone can try it, whatever their background or belief. “Whether Brahmin, ascetic, Buddhist, Jain, skull-bearing tantric or materialist, the wise man endowed with faith, who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success,” says the thirteenth-century Dattatreya Yoga Shastra (41–42). “Success happens for he who performs the practices—how could it happen for one who does not?”
The focus is on physical techniques, by which “everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success” (Dattatreya Yoga Shastra 40). The sage Dattatreya, who presents these ideas, seems less impressed by tantric rituals. Calling chanting a practice “which can be mastered by all and sundry,” he says: “The lowest aspirant, he of little wisdom, resorts to this yoga, for this yoga of mantras is said to be the lowest” (12–14). Even ways of dissolving the mind, some of which come from Tantras, get short shrift. As Dattatreya explains, there is a hierarchy of practices. “Yoga has many forms,” he tells his student. “I shall explain all that to you: the yoga of mantras (mantra yoga), the yoga of dissolution (laya yoga) and the yoga of force (hatha yoga). The fourth is the royal yoga (raja yoga); it is the best” (9–10).
Other texts list the same four yogas, generally agreeing that the last is superior. Dattatreya says little about it, except that it results from success in hatha. “[The yogi] should practice using these [techniques] that have been taught, each at the proper time,” he says at the end of his detailed instructions on physical methods. “Then the royal yoga will arise. Without them it definitely will not happen” (160).
This message is echoed in later texts. The fifteenth-century Hatha Pradipika defines hatha yoga as a “stairway to the heights of raja yoga,” and says it was composed out of compassion “for those who are unaware of raja yoga, through wandering in the darkness of too many different opinions” (Hatha Pradipika 1.1–3). The interdependence of both is often mentioned: “Without hatha, raja yoga does not succeed, nor does hatha succeed without raja yoga. So the yogi should practice both until they are complete” (Shiva Samhita 5.22).
In practice, raja yoga is samadhi, the ultimate absorption in deep meditation. The innovation of hatha is to make this accessible by physical methods, which are said to still the mind if performed correctly. Conversely, warns the compiler of the Hatha Pradipika (4.79), “I consider those practitioners who only do hatha, without knowing raja yoga, to be laboring fruitlessly.”
Daniel Simpson teaches at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, in teacher trainings around the U.K., and at Triyoga in London. He is a graduate of Cambridge University and has a master's degree from SOAS University of London.
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Excerpted from THE TRUTH OF YOGA: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga’s History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices by Daniel Simpson. Published by North Point Press, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Simpson. All rights reserved.
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