The practice of yoga is often regarded as sequenced postures. But where did they come from and what were they for? The earliest texts that describe haṭha yoga have different priorities – making shapes with the body is merely a warm-up.
Join Daniel Simpson for a comprehensive guide to the Haṭha Pradīpikā, the best-known text about physical practice. Reading it together, we'll explore the different systems from which it emerged, and see how it relates to contemporary methods.
The latest research suggests something changed about 1,000 ago, with the appearance of non-seated postures and new forms of breath-control. Yet there's no sign of postures being linked into sequences until much more recently.
Instead, the aim of the Haṭha Pradīpikā – and the texts that inspired it, which we'll also consult – is to channel vital energy to steady the mind. That results in liberation in this lifetime, which sounds closer to modern objectives than earlier asceticism.
The course makes this history accessible, combining scholarly and practical knowledge with humour and insight. By the end, you'll have a deeper understanding of traditional haṭha, as well as how it differs from postural yoga.
1 – POSTURAL PRELIMINARIES
1.1 – Tapas and Tantra
Early yogis mostly sat still, or put their bodies through gruelling austerities. This started to change with the influence of Tantra, which aimed to transform the body instead of transcending it.
1.2 – Non-seated postures
One major development is the emergence of complex āsanas. The Haṭha Pradīpika describes ways of balancing, twisting and bending, as well as lying down. Many postures are said to cure ailments.
1.3 – Internal priorities
Despite the new focus on postures, the most important are ways to sit still. The rest are preparation for subtler techniques, which work with the body to get absorbed in meditation.
2 – CONTROLLING THE BREATH
2.1 – Purifying preludes
The first objective is to clear the subtle channels through which prāṇa flows. This process starts with alternate-nostril breathing, and is sometimes accompanied by other forms of cleansing.
2.2 – Extensive retentions
As in earlier traditions, holding the breath is the main technique. However, haṭha adds new ways to inhale and exhale that have physical benefits, along with clearing the central channel.
2.3 – Raising awareness
The overall goal is a state beyond thought. This can be attained by suspending the breath in spontaneous retention, or by making it rise along with other vital forces to silence the mind.
3 – MANIPULATING ENERGY
3.1 – Magic mudrās
The biggest innovations of physical yoga are techniques that move substances upwards. First described in a text by Tantric Buddhists, they were widely adopted for their liberating power.
3.2 – Immortal inversions
Old age and death are explained as a leakage of life-giving fluid. This is stored in the head, so inverting the body solves the problem. Another method turns back the tongue to plug the skull.
3.3 – Sexual restraint
Traditionally, yogis were celibate, but ways to prevent ejaculation are said to grant powers to the sexually active. How many were is unclear – as is the number of female practitioners.
4 – DISSOLVING THE MIND
4.1 – King of yogas
The outcome of practice is rāja yoga – absorption in samādhi. In contrast to Patañjali's goal in the Yoga Sūtra, this is oneness with everything. Physical methods make union accessible.
4.2 – Sounds of silence
Techniques of laya dissolve the mind. The most effective is a focus on nāda – internal sound. This subtle jukebox leads a yogi towards liberation, promoting detachment from sensory stimuli.
4.3 – Embodied freedom?
The liberated yogi looks dead to the world, as in ancient texts. However, haṭha explicitly mentions jīvanmukti – being free whilst alive. What might this mean in practice? It depends...
Daniel Simpson is the author of The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices, which was published in 2021 by North Point Press (an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
He teaches courses on yoga history and philosophy at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He also contributes to teacher trainings – both in the U.K. and internationally – and offers online talks and workshops.
Daniel is a graduate of Cambridge University and holds a master's degree in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS University of London. In a previous career, he was a foreign correspondent, working for Reuters and the New York Times.
A translation is provided, along with supplementary articles.
To get the most from the course, it would be helpful to have your own copy of the text. Brian Akers's edition is recommended – it's accessibly written and comes with the Sanskrit.
The publisher's website has a free sample and more details.
How does the course work?
All four modules are available at once, so you can study the materials at your own pace. Each module has three videos, a recorded discussion with Q&A, and suggested reading.
Is it still possible to ask questions?
Absolutely! The course site has online discussion forums, where you can share ideas or request more information. Plus there's an option to add one-to-one sessions.
How long will I have access to videos?
For three months. This provides an incentive to get to the end. You can also download audio recordings of all sessions, or upgrade to unlimited access at the checkout.
Do I need to read the text in advance?
Not necessarily. It's also fine to read along as you go. Course materials quote a range of translations, as well as the nineteenth-century commentary by Brahmānanda.
What level of knowledge is required?
The course is designed for yoga practitioners. It's accessible to anyone, while providing insightful details that will interest those who are already familiar with the text.
Does the course include assignments?
Each module has an optional quiz to test your understanding. No one sees your results.
Do yoga teachers get accreditation?
Everyone who finishes the course will receive a certificate for 12 hours of study. Teachers registered with Yoga Alliance can log these as continuing education with a YACEP.
Spread the cost with monthly instalments