The Meaning of Hatha Yoga (and No, It’s Not “Sun & Moon”) 


As you’re probably familiar with, the term “hatha yoga” is used to refer to the physical branch of Yoga. Curiously, one of the most common misunderstandings in today’s yoga world – and in turn, one of the most commonly-transmitted errors – is the mistaken idea that the word hatha is made of the roots ha, meaning “sun,” and tha, meaning “moon,” and that the term was chosen to convey the idea that, in our physical practices, we are striving to integrate the “solar” and “lunar” energies of the body.

While there are good reasons for this misunderstanding, it actually happens to be inaccurate on a couple levels.  In today’s article at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’re going to take a look at what the Sanskrit word hatha actually means, how this meaning informs our understanding of the purpose of the physical branch of Yoga, and where the mistaken translation comes from.  Finally, we’ll suggest a more accurate way of describing what hatha yoga entails as well as why the clarification is so significant, especially for modern practitioners.

The Literal Meaning of Hatha & Hatha Yoga

To begin, the word hatha literally means “effort,” “force,” or “exertion,” and as such has a couple important implications when designating the physical branch of Yoga.  First, “hatha yoga” technically refers to an approach to Yoga which begins with exertion or physical effort.  Traditionally, we would start with conspicuous effort (i.e., the poses), then work toward more subtle practices, (breathwork, muscular and energetic “locks” designed to guide the flow of energy, etc.), before finally moving to the more internal level of meditation.

The second importance of the term hatha is the reminder it provides that we will need to apply effort if we hope to advance in our practices.  Simply put, many of us presume the spiritual path will be easier than it actually is.  As a result, we often get discouraged and allow ourselves to be derailed by distractions and temptations.  The fact that this is called the path of “effort” reminds us that spiritual work takes every bit as much exertion and dedication as physical work, and that we shouldn’t let that effort discourage us.  The term “The Yoga of Effort” reminds us that this exertion is completely natural and normal, ultimately helping us stay positive and on track.

The Origins of the Concept of Hatha as “Sun & Moon”

At this point, you may be wondering: “But what about ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ – aren’t they at least part of the term?”  Actually, this is a very common but complete error.  Simply put, the Sanskrit root ha- has nothing to do with “sun,” nor does tha have any associations with “moon.”  There are in actuality dozens of words for “sun,” such as the surya in suryanamaskaram (“sun salutation”), and equally many for “moon,” such as the chandra in ardhachandrasana (“crescent-moon pose”), but ha and tha are not among them.  This naturally leads to the question: Where does this highly prevalent but mistaken idea come from?

To answer, we need to travel to a rather later development within Yoga.  The concept of hatha yoga actually goes back thousands of years, but emphasis on the physical branch as a primary approach is a relatively younger development, with its central text, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, originating around 1500 c.e.  In this text, Swami Svatmarama outlined the primary practices of the hatha yoga lineage as well as its goal, which according to him is the same as all other branches, and that is the attainment of samadhi or “oneness of mind.”  Importantly, this is a point Svatmarama emphasizes throughout the text, asserting that the practices of hatha yoga are meaningless if we are not focused on meditation and its goal.

So where do “sun” and “moon” fit into this?  At one point in the text, Svatmarama speaks of how the physical practices can also be seen to impact the flow of energy in the body.  In particular, he discusses how they pertain to what some Yogis considered the two primary energy channels of individuals prior to enlightenment.  These channels are known as the ida and the pingala, and can be compared to the complementary forces that make up life: male and female, generative and receptive, hot and cold, etc.

Svatmarama then goes on to explain that part of what the hatha yogi is doing can be thought of as balancing these two energies – in a sense, he says, uniting the “solar” and the “lunar” elements of the body.  This is where our concept arises, but there are a couple very important things about this.  First, Svatmarama offers this as an analogy and not the literal meaning of the term, and it will go a long way toward our credibility (and accuracy) if we remember that.  Second, and far more importantly, he stresses that this balancing is just one small part of hatha yoga as a whole.  In other words, if we take this as the primary purpose or point of our practices, let alone the meaning of the word, we are misunderstanding both Svatmarama and the hatha yoga lineage as a whole.

Why This Matters…

There are a couple reasons why this clarification is so important.  Part of it is simple linguistic accuracy and credibility – when we teach our students or convey to others an erroneous notion, we undermine our own credibility while distorting Yoga.  Far more important is the fact that, if we place undue emphasis on this “energetic balancing,” we miss out on the more significant parts of the Yogic path, including the prevalence that Svatmarama himself gives to practices such as meditation and control of the mind.

There are further subtler but equally-significant points.  Even the Yogis acknowledged that permanent balance of these two sides is impossible – that is, that they are always ebbing and flowing as long as we are in the body.  If we were to suggest to our students that they should focus on achieving this balance, we would be encouraging them to spend their energy on an impossible task – energy that, according to Svatmarama, would better be invested in meditation.  Finally, and most important of all, even Svatmarama says that effort to balance these channels is not necessary to advance on the spiritual path – that is, that if we focus on building our ability to guide and focus the mind, the energy of the body will flow exactly as it should.

A Suggested Alternative

Coming full circle, if “balancing sun and moon” is not a very accurate definition of hatha yoga, how might we more correctly characterize it for our students?  A suggested alternative might go something like this:

Hatha is the branch of yoga in which we use the physical practices – including postures, breathwork, dietary selection, and other “external” means – to build better control of our thoughts in order to move ultimately toward one-mindedness.  As part of this, we strive to balance the seemingly-dualistic aspects of body and mind, with the understanding that these polarities are a natural part of life and are always in fluctuation.  In this awareness, we strive to move toward greater harmony while also increasing our understanding of and identification with the greater principles that transcend these dualities….

In Conclusion…

Once again, we hope this might give you some helpful insights into another important topic in the world of Yoga philosophy.  Until our next article, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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