The Tantric Roots of Hatha Yoga

hatha yoga

The Early Origins of Modern Yoga

Yoga, as we think of it today, is a modern creation. It is not extended far back into the annals of time and Indian history as is often supposed. In fact, yoga as the primary practice of physical postures did not exist prior to the 20th century.

Most scholars agree that yoga had its roots in shamanism (25,000 years ago) and and began to exert influence in the Indus Valley Civilization (2500-1500 BCE), being gradually incorporated into Hinduism via the renunciate traditions (1000-500 BCE) and the Vedic texts (600 BCE – 100 CE) of that same religion.

For now, it is important to realize that early yoga was a spiritual discipline that was not confined to any particular sectarian affiliation or social form and contained the following important features:

  • Consciousness could be transformed through focusing attention on a single point
  • The transformation of consciousness eradicated limiting, mental constraints or impurities such as greed and hate
  • Yoga was a discipline, or range of disciplines, constructed to facilitate the transformation of consciousness.

If we combine all of the previous elements and the traditions that looked at early yoga as a means or a method, we can define early, formative yoga the following way:

Yoga means joining oneself firmly to a spiritual discipline, the central element of which is the process of cultivating a full and present awareness of reality, in which all the energies of the body, senses, and mind are brought to a single point of tranquil focus. Yoga, then, is a wholly internal process—so the point of focus could theoretically be anything.

If the best single translation for ‘yoga’ in these earlier texts and traditions is “discipline,” then perhaps the most appropriate single word for the later (medieval) Tantric usage that we will explore is “union.”  The common element in reference to yoga from this point forward is one of “union” as the dominant motif as opposed to strict mental discipline as a means to liberation found in the earlier conceptions of yoga.

Patanjali’s Yoga System

The text that is often considered to be the most significant in the yoga tradition is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. This text, composed sometime between 100 BCE and 500 CE, contains pithy aphorisms on classical yoga, called the ‘eight-limbed’ (astanga) or ‘the best’ (raja) yoga. The Yoga Sutra represents a codification of yoga ideas and practices, which had been developing for many centuries.

Patanjali gives a succinct definition of yoga in the second sutra: “yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations.” That is, yoga is a state of concentration in which the wandering mind, fed by sense impressions and memories, is controlled and made to be one-pointed (ekagratd). This mental control occurs through developing eight aspects or limbs of the yogic path (ashtanga). These are:

  1. ethics or restraint (yama), comprising nonviolence (ahimsa), telling the truth, not stealing, celibacy and not being greedy
  2. discipline (niyama), comprising cleanliness, serenity, asceticism, study, devotion to the Lord
  3. posture (asana)
  4. breath-control (pranayama)
  5. sense-withdrawal (pratyahara)
  6. concentration (dharana)
  7. meditation (dhyana)
  8. absorbed concentration (samadhi)

Having developed ethical behavior and discipline, the yogin stills the body and the breath and withdraws attention from the external world, as a tortoise pulls its limbs and head into its shell, in order to control the mind through various degrees of concentration or meditation. There is a clear connection here between consciousness, breath and body; the body is stilled through posture, the breath through pranayama and the mind through concentration. In the state of concentrated absorption or samadhi the yogin is no longer conscious of the body or physical environment, but his consciousness is absorbed in a higher state, free from greed, anger and delusion. The states of samadhi are classified by Patanjali into various degrees of subtlety and refinement until the transcendent state of ‘isolation’ is finally achieved (kaivalya). These degrees of absorption represent levels of consciousness purified of limiting constraints.

While the experience of samadhi leading up to liberation (kaivalya) is ineffable, kaivalya is nevertheless conceptualized within a framework of dualist metaphysics, namely the metaphysics of the Samkhya School of philosophy. In this school there is a complete distinction between the self or the passive, conscious observer {purusa) and matter (prakrti). In his exposition, Patanjali assumes this system as the philosophical backdrop to his thinking. Kaivalya, in Patanjali’s system, is liberation from the wheel of transmigration. However, unlike the monistic Upanisads, liberation is here not the realization of the self’s identity with the absolute, but rather the realization of the self’s solitude and complete transcendence. This is a condition of pure awareness in which the self has become completely detached from its entanglement with matter. It is a state beyond worldly or sensory experience, in which consciousness is absorbed in itself without an object, or is reflexive, having itself as its own object.

As we shall see, however, modern yoga does not derive from this system.

Goraksa Natha, Founder of Hatha Yoga


The techniques and philosophical framework of the Saiva Tantras form the basis for the teachings of haṭha yoga, which flourished from the thirteenth century CE and which entered its decline in the eighteenth. The term haṭha means “forceful” or “violent,” but it is also interpreted to indicate the union of the internal sun (ha) and moon (ṭha), which symbolically indicates the goal of the system. The corpus of haṭha yoga is not doctrinally whole and does not “belong” to any one single school of Indian thought. It is nevertheless closely associated with Gorakṣanāth and his teacher Matsyendranāth, who is credited with founding the Saiva Nāth saṃpradāya (between the ninth and thirteenth centuries CE ).

According to the account in Matseyendra’s Compendium, in the 13th century a man from the royal family of the Chola Kingdom (present day Tamil Nadu) who later would be called Goraksa Natha, met a master named Matseyendra (clearly named after the founder of Kaula Tantra from five centuries earlier). This meeting so impressed Goraksa that he wandered India for two years looking for Matseyendra, finally finding him in the Western country. Matseyendra was cavorting with wine and women, when Goraksa humbly approached him with no indication of judgment of such conduct; he passed the test and received initiation from the master.

Goraksa is now considered by many to be the founder of the hatha-yoga system, which he inherited from the Tantric guru, Matseyendra. Goraksa saw (in the 13th century) the Muslim invasion and rule that led to the lack of state-sponsored support for institutions, universities, and temples of Saiva Tantra. Goraksa saw that there was no way to keep this complex religion going with no state support. So he, with others, created Hatha Yoga, a simplified form of yogic practice.  Compared to Saiva Tantra, the hatha-yoga texts have a marked lack of philosophical teachings. They also jettisoned the complex mantra-system that largely defined classical tantric practice. Yet most of the practices found in the hatha-yoga texts are simplified from those of classical tantra. Thus these texts can be seen as an attempt to capture the most essential tantric practices, especially those of the subtle body, in the face of the dissolution of the classical tradition. This explains why the language of these texts is relatively simple: they wanted to be understood by people who could not undertake the years of education required by the classical tantric systems. A lot was lost, of course and if you read Hatha Yoga texts and compare them to Tantric texts on yoga they are very simplified. But that is exactly what we would expect from the culture where there is no longer state support for the religion- simplify or else it`s going to die out.

The purpose of hatha-yoga is the realization of liberation during life, in which the self awakens to its innate identity with the absolute (sahaja), a realization made possible through cultivating a body made perfect or divine in the ‘fire’ of yoga. While Patanjali’s yoga is primarily concerned with developing mental concentration in order to experience Samadhi, hatha  yoga develop a system of elaborate and difficult postures and breathing techniques to produce an immortal body.  Haṭha yoga is concerned with the transmutation of the human body into a vessel immune from mortal decay and it is the system that emphasized the subtle body system of the nadis, chakras, and kundalini, which it inherited from the tantric tradition.

The Tantric Roots of Hatha Yoga

There is widespread misunderstanding today that hatha-yoga derives from or relates to the yoga of Patanjali (some modern postural yogis even chant to him before the beginning of practice, especially the Ashtanga school of Pattabhi Jois).

The practices of hatha yoga and modern yoga (other than concentrative meditation) can`t be found in the Yoga Sutra except for the brief mention of pranayama, whereas in Tantric texts we have a detailed description of many pranayamas. Yoga scholar Christopher Tompkins has done a ground-breaking study in which he documents dozens of passages in the Hundred Verses of Goraksa that are drawn from much earlier scriptures of Tantric yoga (specifically the influential Transcendence of Time). Material currently thought by some scholars (and the general public) to originate in hatha yoga that Tompkins proves comes from Tantric yoga includes the following:

  • The subtle body physiology of 72,000 channels (nadis) with 10 primary channels, of which three are the most important (the ida, the pingala, and the sushumna).
  • The analogizing of those three primary channels to the three radiances of the sun, moon, and fire.
  • The explanation of the functions of the ten vital energies (prana-vayus).
  • The installation and activation of mantras in the subtle centers of the body.
  • The mantra of the “recitation of the Self” (hamsa, so’ham) occurring naturally 21,600 times a day
  • The opening of the heart center analogized to a blossoming lotus
  • The ascension of the soul through the central channel (sushumna) by means of pranayama, dharana, and dhyana.
  • The description of the primal Goddess who affects this process as the “coiled power” (kundalini)
  • The fructification of yoga-sadhana, known as the experience of “nectar-pervasion.”
  • The subtle body physiology was taken directly from the Kaubjika tradition of Tantra

The subtle body physiology was taken directly from the Kaubjika tradition of Tantra

All of these concepts are taken by Gorsaka (the founder of Hatha Yoga) directly from The Transcendence of Time or from an intermediate source that faithfully transmitted them, such as the Kubjika Tantras.

There is NO direct connection between Patanjali’s pre-tantric yoga and the discipline of hatha-yoga, whose respective periods of ascendency are separated by well over a thousand years. In fact, many of the hatha-yoga traditions explicitly see themselves as inheriting practices from the tantric tradition. The Tantra itself had absorbed Patanjali’s practice teachings early on, though rejecting its philosophical dualism. In Patanajli’s system, there is a metaphysical dualism, which means that human beings are considered to be separate from God/dess. This contrasts starkly with Tantra’s assertion of non-dualism, which states that we are, in fact, co-existent with God/dess and direct embodiments of that same source.  Additionally, in Patanjali’s system, the goal is to transcend the body and the world (kaivalya) in a kind of transcendenatlist escapsim. This again constrasts with Tantra’s goal, which is union with God/dess (mukti) and the enjoyment of earthly life and pleasure (bhukti). Such a distinction is important when considering the goal of your spiritual practice.

Though quotes from the Yoga-Sutras are very rare in tantric literature, none of the techniques the Yoga-Sutra taught were forgotten by the tantric tradition. The part of the Yoga-Sutra that appears again and again in the medieval period is its formulation of the eight primary practices of yoga (astanga-yoga). All eight were absorbed by the Tantra and passed on to hatha-yoga.

All of Patanjali`s practices get adopted and developed further in tantra. They clearly know his Ashtānga Yoga, they cite his Ashtānga Yoga, they discuss it and give much more elaborate instruction on it, as well as other practices that are not found in Patanjali, mainly visualization, subtle body practices and energy practices; that`s what Tantra adds that is very different from Patanjali. Tantra incorporates all of Patanjali`s methods but not his philosophy. Of course Tantra does incorporate the 25 tattvas (of Samkhya), but that became part of a much more elaborate philosophical system, that is very different from Patanjali, focusing on unity. There is no duality, not only in terms of spirit and matter, because of course the Tantra says this matter is just a denser form of energy, which Einstein ended up proving — so matter and energy are one and both are forms of spirit, a single divine consciousness in the Tantra philosophy. So, what we find quoted in Tantra is always just Patanjali`s practices, not his philosophy.

In an early modern Sanskrit source, we see clearly that authorities of that time did not think of astanga-yoga (the “yoga of eight components”) as something different from hatha-yoga. In fact, they see hatha-yoga as a tantric amplification of the astanga-yoga. We see this in the 18th century presentation of a yoga of fifteen components in which nearly all of the additional components (angas) come from tantric sources. Moreover, we can prove that people in the 16th-18th centuries didn`t differentiate between Patanjali and Hatha Yoga, because we have sources that say Patanjali`s yoga and Hatha Yoga are synonyms. What I`m trying to say is that Patanjali does not survive at all as a separate school; nobody is preserving Patanjali`s practices apart from the Tantra-influenced Hatha Yoga schools.

The bold items below constitute the astanga-yoga of Patanjali while the non-bolded items are the tantric additions. Explanations of the practices given in the brackets are particular to this early modern text, which understands them differently from Patanjali.

  1. The five yamas of Patanjali (moral codes)
  2. The five niyamas of Patanjali (self-purification and study)Tyaga, renunciation (the non-attachment of mind and body to worldly things)Muana, silence (speaking only the truth if one has to speak at all)
    1. The ten niyamas of the Hatha-Pradapika
  3. Desa, the place for practice
  4. Kala, time (the auspicious astrological moments)
  5. Mulabandha, the root lock (energetic locks to seal in prana)
  6. Asana, posture
  7. Pranayama, breath-control (understood as purification of the nadis)
  8. Deha-samya, equanimity of the body
  9. Drk-sthiti, fixed gaze
  10. Additional angas (optional)Pratyahara, sense withdrawal
    1. Satkarma, the six purifications
    2. Asta-Kumbhaka, eight subtypes of breath retention
    3. Nadi-suddhi, purification of bodily channels
    4. Kundalini
    5. Khecari-mudra, raising energy to the level of the ajna chakra and dissolving it in meditation.
  11. Dharana, fixation of attention
  12. Dhyana, visualization of self as Parama-Siva 
    1. Dissolving the mind in the turya-pada, state of the fourth
  13. Samadhi, absorption 
    1. Nada, sonic experiences in Samadi
    2. Unmani, trans-mental liberation
    3. Mukti, liberation

Examining all of the evidence forces us to conclude that presenting the Yoga-Sutras separately from the Tantra is to engage in an artificial revivalism divorced from the organic history of the yoga tradition. Yet somehow, with more than a hundred English translation of the Yoga-Sutra published over the last 120 years and a segment on the Yoga-Sutra required in nearly every modern yoga teacher training, the realization is still not widespread that the yoga that text describes bears little resemblance to our modern practice of the same name. For example, there are only two sentences on posture in the entire Yoga-Sutra; however, the intrinsic value of the text is quite high for anyone practicing meditation. This is the overlooked elephant in the room of Modern Postural Yoga (MPY).

 Modern Postural Yoga

What is initially striking about the kind of transnational “hatha” yoga commonly taught today is the degree to which it departs from the model outlined in these texts. The most prominent departure is the primacy accorded to āsana as a system of health, fitness, and well-being, and the relegation or elimination of other key aspects such as ṣaṭkarmas mudrā , and even (though to a slightly lesser extent) prāṇāyāma. The Tantric physiology that underpins traditional expressions of haṭha yoga has also generally played only quite a minor role in popular modern yoga.

But essentially their application to modern forms of yoga is limited to a general recognition of the three principal nāḍı̄s , the cakras , and the role that these may play in kuṇḍalinı̄ -type experiences. While such references are commonly to be found in popular texts fashionable in yoga circles and in practitioners’ imaginaire, the larger theories and related practices are usually kept to a minimum, and only occasionally are they encountered in actual yoga teaching and practice. Indeed, the average anglophone yoga class today is far more likely to foreground the sole practice of āsana and largely ignore the subtle system of haṭha yoga. Student yoga teachers commonly learn something about nāḍı̄s and cakras during their training, and many will read a modern commentary and translation of the Hatha Yoga Pradapika, but it is rare for this theoretical knowledge to be applied as part of a haṭha yoga practice. Tibetan systems of physical yoga from the Bon and Buddhist Vajrayāna traditions, which have recently begun to be taught in the West and which bear a close affinity to haṭha yoga, are far more likely to retain an emphasis on the subtle physiology of the body and on practices that work with this body. These Tibetan techniques highlight the extent to which transnational, Indian “hatha” yoga has become decontextualized from the system it claims to represent.  In sum, the Indian tradition shows no evidence for the kind of posture-base practices that dominate transnational anglophone yoga today. We should except from this assertion, of course, seated postures such as padmāsana and siddhāsana , which have played an enormously important practical and symbolic role throughout the history of yoga. And today, largely thanks to modern advertising, cross-legged yoga postures such as these have become powerful and universally recognized signifiers of relaxation, self-control, self-cultivation, a balanced lifestyle, good health, fitness, and spiritual urban cool.

The practice of āsanas within transnational anglophone yogas is not the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage of haṭha yoga. While it is going too far to say that modern postural yoga has no relationship to āsana practice within the Indian tradition, this relationship is one of radical innovation and experimentation. It is the result of adaptation to new discourses of the body that resulted from India’s encounter with modernity.

The person mostly responsible for the creation of what scholars call “Modern Postural Yoga,” (MPY) as practiced in some form today by more than 20 million people in the West, drew heavily on hatha-yoga teachings. His name was Krishnamacarya, and his school of yoga founded in Mysore, India in the 1930’s. Modern Vinyasa Ashtanga Yoga carries on the tradition of Krishnamacarya as developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. As commonly practiced today, a modern postural yoga (MPY) is a form of exercise that often bears only a slight resemblance to the hatha-yoga tradition that inspired it. Though most of its postures are of a 20th century coinage, at least fifty of them can be documented as deriving from pre-modern hatha-yoga, in addition to the non-postural elements, which all derive from the same source. Scholar Mark Singleton’s work, Yoga Body: The Origin of Modern Posture Practice, has shown us that despite claims to the contrary, MPY is a product of modern globalization, having early 20th century European and American exercise forms (such as “harmonial gymnastics”) as its other influences.

Krishnamacarya wished to emphasize the traditional roots of MPY, and thus claimed to have received a direct transmission of sacred knowledge from a disembodied siddha he called Natha-muni. He documented this transmission in a Sanskrit text he called The Secret of Yoga (Yoga-rahasya), which he evidently intended to be the scriptural authority for the modern instantiation of yoga. This is, of course, a perfectly valid claim within the tradition, which possesses an “open canon” that can theoretically be added to at any time -= and transmission from disembodied beings in dreams and visions is well attested in the tradition.

So, speaking in the broadest possible terms, we may say that if Krishnamacarya is the father of MPY, its grandfather was Goraksa, a Nath in a Kaula-influenced Tantric lineage, which makes Matseyandra, the originator of that lineage, its great-grandfather. Since Matseyandra/Macchanda was a guru of Saiva Tantra, I think it is legitimate to argue that when modern yoga teachers seek to re-embed postural yoga practice in a spiritual context, and further seek to align themselves with the ancient system of thought that fits most harmoniously with that practice – thereby empowering and enhancing it – then the system that makes most sense to align with is the very one that modern yoga can ultimately be traced back to: that of classical Saiva Tantra.

For more information on the history and philosophy of Tantra, please visit my website at

Author: Ben D. Hoshour at Saiva Tantra.


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Wallis, Christopher. A History of Yoga: A 6 Page Summary

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Wallis, Christopher. Yoga: Issues of Definition and Categorization