In India, haṭha yoga is associated in popular tradition with the Yogis of the Natha Sampradaya through its traditional founder Matsyendranath. Almost all hathayogic texts belong to the Nath siddhas, and the important ones are credited to Matsyendranath's disciple, Gorakhnath or Gorakshanath. Matsyendranath, also known as Minanath or Minapa in Tibet, is celebrated as a saint in both Hindu and Buddhist tantric and haṭha yoga schools. However, James Mallinson associates haṭha yoga with the Dashanami Sampradaya and the mystical figure of Dattatreya. According to the Dattatreya Yoga Śastra, there are two forms of haṭha yoga: one practiced by Yajñavalkya consisting of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga and another practiced by Kapila consisting of eight mudras.
Currently, the oldest dated text to describe haṭha yoga, the 11th-century CE Amṛtasiddhi, comes from a tantric Buddhist milieu. The oldest texts to use the terminology of hatha are also Vajrayana Buddhist. Later haṭha yoga texts adopt the practices of haṭha yoga mudras into a Saiva system, melding it with Layayoga methods which focus on the raising of kuṇḍalinī through energy channels and chakras.
In the 20th century, a development of haṭha yoga, focusing particularly on asanas (the physical postures), became popular throughout the world as a form of physical exercise. This modern form of yoga is now widely known simply as "yoga".
According to the Indologist James Mallinson, some haṭha yoga techniques can be traced back at least to the 1st-century CE, in texts such as the Sanskrit epics (Hinduism) and the Pali canon (Buddhism). The Pali canon contains three passages in which the Buddha describes pressing the tongue against the palate for the purposes of controlling hunger or the mind, depending on the passage. However, there is no mention of the tongue being inserted into the nasopharynx as in true khecarī mudrā. The Buddha also used a posture where pressure is put on the perineum with the heel, similar to modern postures used to stimulate Kundalini. In the Mahāsaccaka sutta (MN 36), the Buddha mentions how physical practices such as various meditations on holding one's breath did not help him "attain to greater excellence in noble knowledge and insight which transcends the human condition." After trying these, he then sought another path to enlightenment.
According to Birch, the earliest mentions of haṭha yoga specifically are from Buddhist texts, mainly tantric works from the 8th century onwards, such as Puṇḍarīka’s Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakratantra. In this text, haṭha yoga is defined within the context of tantric sexual ritual:
when the undying moment does not arise because the breath is unrestrained [even] when the image is seen by means of withdrawal (pratyahara) and the other (auxiliaries of yoga, i.e. dhyana, pranayama, dharana, anusmrti and samadhi), then, having forcefully (hathena) made the breath flow in the central channel through the practice of nada, which is about to be explained, [the yogi] should attain the undying moment by restraining the bindu of the bodhicitta [i.e. semen] in the vajra [i.e. penis] when it is in the lotus of wisdom [i.e. vagina].
While the actual means of practice are not specified, the forcing of the breath into the central channel and the restraining of bindu are central features of later haṭha yoga practice texts.
Roughly around the 11th century, certain techniques associated with haṭha yoga begin to be outlined in a series of early texts. The aims of these practices were siddhis (supranormal powers such as levitation) and mukti (liberation). James Mallinson gives a list of what he terms “early” haṭha yoga works, which he contrasts with later "classical" works such as the Haṭhapradīpikā:
The earliest haṭha yoga methods of the Amṛtasiddhi, Dattātreyayogaśāstra and Vivekamārtaṇḍa are used to raise and conserve bindu (semen, and in women rajas - menstrual fluid) which was seen as the physical essence of life that was constantly dripping down from the head and being lost. This vital essence is also sometimes called amrta (the nectar of immortality). These techniques sought to either physically reverse this process (by inverted postures like viparītakaraṇī) or to use the breath to force bindu upwards through the central channel.
In contrast to these, early Nāth works like the Goraksaśatakạ and the Yogabīja teach a yoga based on raising Kundalinī (through śakticālanī mudrā). This is not called haṭha yoga in these early texts, but Layayoga ("the yoga of dissolution"). However, other early Nāth texts like the Vivekamārtaṇḍa can be seen as co-opting the mudrās of haṭha yoga meant to preserve bindu. Then, in later Nāth as well as Śākta texts, the adoption of haṭha yoga is more developed, and focused solely on the raising of Kundalinī without mentioning bindu.
Mallinson sees these later texts as promoting a universalist yoga, available to all, without the need to study the metaphysics of Samkhya-yoga or the complex esotericism of Shaiva Tantra. Instead this "democratization of yoga" led to the teaching of these techniques to all people, "without the need for priestly intermediaries, ritual paraphernalia or sectarian initiations."
The Haṭhayogapradīpikā is one of the most influential texts of Hatha yoga. It was compiled by Svātmārāma in the 15th century CE from earlier hatha yoga texts. These earlier texts were of Vedanta or non-dual Shaiva orientation. From both, the Hatha Yoga Pradīpika borrowed the philosophy of non-duality (advaita). According to James Mallinson, this reliance on non-duality helped Hatha Yoga thrive in the medieval period as non-duality became the "dominant soteriological method in scholarly religious discourse in India".
Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists 35 great yoga siddhas starting with Adi Natha (Hindu god Shiva) followed by Matsyendranath and Gorakshanath. It includes information about shatkarma (six acts of self purification), 15 asana (postures: seated, laying down, and non-seated), pranayama (breathing) and kumbhaka (breath retention), mudras (internalized energetic practices), meditation, chakras (centers of energy), kundalini, nadanusandhana (concentration on inner sound), and other topics.
According to Mallinson, Hatha yoga has been a broad movement across the Indian traditions, openly available to anyone:
Hatha Yoga, like other methods of yoga, can be practiced by all, regardless of sex, caste, class, or creed. Many texts explicitly state that it is practice alone that leads to success. Sectarian affiliation and philosophical inclination are of no importance. The texts of Hatha Yoga, with some exceptions, do not include teachings on metaphysics or sect-specific practices.
Hatha yoga represented a trend towards the democratization of yoga insights and religion similar to the Bhakti movement. It eliminated the need for "either ascetic renunciation or priestly intermediaries, ritual paraphernalia and sectarian initiations". This led to its broad historic popularity in India. Later in the 20th-century, states Mallinson, this disconnect of Hatha yoga from religious aspects and the democratic access of Hatha yoga enabled it to spread worldwide.
Between the 17th and 19th-century, however, the various urban Hindu and Muslim elites and ruling classes viewed Yogis with derision. They were persecuted during the rule of Aurangzeb; this ended a long period of religious tolerance that had defined the rule of his predecessors beginning with Akbar, who famously studied with the yogis and other mystics. Hatha yoga remained popular in rural India. Negative impression for the Hatha yogis continued during the British colonial rule era. According to Mark Singleton, this historical negativity and colonial antipathy likely motivated Swami Vivekananda to make an emphatic distinction between "merely physical exercises of Hatha yoga" and the "higher spiritual path of Raja yoga". This common disdain by the officials and intellectuals slowed the study and adoption of Hatha yoga.[note 1]
A well-known school of Hatha yoga from the 20th-century is the Divine Life Society founded by Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh (1887–1963) and his many disciples including, among others, Swami Vishnu-devananda – founder of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres; Swami Satyananda – of the Bihar School of Yoga; and Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga. The Bihar School of Yoga has been one of the largest Hatha yoga teacher training centers in India but is little known in Europe and the Americas.
Theos Casimir Bernard's 1943 account of traditional hatha yoga as a spiritual path, Hatha Yoga: The Report of A Personal Experience, is a rare insight into the way these practices, known from medieval documents like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, actually worked.
Yoga as exercise, of the type seen in the West, has been greatly influenced by the school of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught from 1924 until his death in 1989. He combined asanas from Hatha yoga with gymnastic exercises from the physical culture of the time, dropping most of its religious aspects, to develop a flowing style of physical yoga that placed little or no emphasis on Hatha yoga's spiritual goals. Among his students prominent in popularizing yoga in the West were K. Pattabhi Jois famous for popularizing the vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga style, B. K. S. Iyengar who emphasized alignment and the use of props in Iyengar Yoga, Indra Devi and Krishnamacharya's son T. K. V. Desikachar. Krishnamacharya-linked schools have become widely known in the Western world. Examples of other branded forms of yoga, with some controversies, that make use of Hatha yoga include Anusara Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Integral Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Sivananda Yoga and Viniyoga. After about 1975, yoga techniques have become increasingly popular globally, in both developed and developing countries.
Hatha yoga practice has many elements, both behavioral and of practice. The Hatha yoga texts state that a successful yogi has certain characteristics. Section 1.16 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, states these characteristics to be utsaha (enthusiasm, fortitude), sahasa (courage), dhairya (patience), jnana tattva (essence for knowledge), nishcaya (resolve, determination) and tyaga (solitude, renunciation).
In the Western culture, Hatha yoga is typically understood as asanas and it can be practiced as such. In the Indian and Tibetan traditions, Hatha yoga is much more. It extends well beyond being a sophisticated physical exercise system and integrates ideas of ethics, diet, cleansing, pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation and a system for spiritual development of the yogi.
The Hatha yoga texts place major emphasis on mitahara, which means "measured diet" or "moderate eating". For example, sections 1.58 to 1.63 and 2.14 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and sections 5.16 to 5.32 of the Gheranda samhita discuss the importance of proper diet to the body. They link the food one eats and one's eating habits to balancing the body and gaining most benefits from the practice of Hatha yoga. Eating, states the Gheranda Samhita, is a form of a devotional act to the temple of body, as if one is expressing affection for the gods. Similarly, sections 3.20 and 5.25 of the Shiva Samhita text on Hatha Yoga includes mitahara as an essential part of a holistic Hatha yoga practice.
Verse 1.57 of Hathayoga Pradipika asserts that a brahmachari who practices mitahara in conjunction with tyaga (renunciation, solitude) "achieves success in his inquiry and effort within half a year."
Verses 1.57 through 1.63 of the critical edition of Hatha Yoga Pradipika suggests that taste cravings should not drive one's eating habits, rather the best diet is one that is tasty, nutritious and likable as well as sufficient to meet the needs of one's body and for one's inner self. It recommends that one must "eat only when one feels hungry" and "neither overeat nor eat to completely fill one's stomach; rather leave a quarter portion empty and fill three quarters with quality food and fresh water".
According to another Hatha Yoga text, Goraksha Sataka, eating a controlled diet is one of the three important parts of a complete and successful practice. The text does not provide details or recipes. The text states, according to Mallinson, "food should be unctuous and sweet", one must not overeat and stop when still a bit hungry (leave a quarter of the stomach empty), and whatever one eats should please Shiva.
Hatha yoga teaches various steps of inner body cleansing with consultations of one's yoga teacher. Its texts vary in specifics and number of cleansing methods, ranging from simple hygiene practices to the peculiar exercises such as reversing seminal fluid flow. The most common list is called the shatkarmas, or six cleansing actions: dhauti (cleanse teeth and body), basti (cleanse bladder), neti (cleanse nasal passages), trataka (cleanse eyes), nauli (abdominal massage) and kapalabhati (cleanse phlegm). The actual procedure for cleansing varies by the Hatha yoga text, with some suggesting water wash and others describing the use of cleansing aids such as cloth.
Some Hatha yoga texts teach breath exercises but do not refer to it as Pranayama. For example, Gheranda samhita in section 3.55 calls it Ghatavastha (state of being the pot). In others, the term Kumbhaka or Prana-samrodha replaces Pranayama. Regardless of the nomenclature, proper breathing and the use of breathing techniques during a posture is a mainstay of Hatha yoga. Its texts state that proper breathing exercises cleanses and balances the body.
Pranayama is one of the core practices of Hatha yoga, found in its major texts as one of the limbs regardless of whether the total number of limbs taught are four or more. It is the practice of consciously regulating breath (inhalation and exhalation), a concept shared with all schools of yoga.
This is done in several ways, inhaling and then suspending exhalation for a period, exhaling and then suspending inhalation for a period, slowing the inhalation and exhalation, consciously changing the time/length of breath (deep, short breathing), combining these with certain focussed muscle exercises. Pranayama or proper breathing is an integral part of asanas. According to section 1.38 of Hatha yoga pradipika, Siddhasana is the most suitable and easiest posture to learn breathing exercises.
The different Hatha yoga texts discuss pranayama in various ways. For example, Hatha yoga pradipka in section 2.71 explains it as a threefold practice: recaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation) and kumbhaka (retention). During the exhalation and inhalation, the text states that three things move: air, prana and yogi's thoughts, and all three are intimately connected. It is kumbhaka where stillness and dissolution emerges. The text divides kumbhaka into two kinds: sahita (supported) and kevala (complete). Sahita kumbhaka is further sub-divided into two types: retention with inhalation, retention with exhalation. Each of these breath units are then combined in different permutations, time lengths, posture and targeted muscle exercises in the belief that these aerate and assist blood flow to targeted regions of the body.
Before starting yoga practice, state the Hatha yoga texts, the yogi must establish a suitable place for the yoga practice. This place is to be away from all distractions, preferably a mathika (hermitage) that is distant from falling rocks, fire and a damp shifting surface.
Once a peaceful stable location has been chosen, the yogi begins the posture exercises called asanas. These Hatha yoga postures come in numerous forms. For a beginner, states the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, these asanas are uncomfortable, typically difficult, cause the body to shake, and are typically unbearable to hold for extended periods of time. However, with repetition and persistence, as the muscle tone improves, the effort reduces and posture improves. According to the Hatha yoga texts, each posture becomes perfect when the "effort disappears", one no longer thinks about the posture and one's body position, breathes normally per pranayama, and is able to dwell in one's meditation (anantasamapattibhyam).
The asanas discussed in different Hatha yoga texts vary significantly. Unlike ancient yoga texts of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, it is the Hatha yoga texts that provide step by step methodology on how to enter into an asana. The Hindu text Gheranda samhita, for example, in section 2.8 describes the padmasana for meditation. Most asanas are inspired by nature, such as a form of union with symmetric, harmonious flowing shapes of animals, birds or plants.
According to Mallinson, in the earliest formulations, hatha yoga was a means to raise and preserve the bindu (semen), believed to be one of the vital energies. The two early hatha yoga techniques to achieve this were inverted poses such as Viparita Karani, known as the reverser, or to make breath flow into the center channel which forces bindu up.
However, in later hatha yoga, the Kaula visualization of Kuṇḍalini rising through a system of chakras is overlaid onto the earlier bindu-oriented system. The aim was to access amṛta (the nectar of immortality) situated in the head, which subsequently floods the body. This goal is in contradiction with the early hatha yoga goal of preserving bindu.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika text dedicates almost a third of its verses to meditation. Similarly, other major texts of Hatha yoga such as Shiva samhita and Gheranda samhita discuss meditation. In all three texts, meditation is the ultimate goal of all the preparatory cleansing, asanas, pranayama and other steps. The aim of this meditation is to realize Nada-Brahman, or the complete absorption and union with the Brahman through inner mystic sound. According to Guy Beck – a professor of Religious Studies known for his studies on Yoga and music, a Hatha yogi in this stage of practice seeks "inner union of physical opposites", into an inner state of samadhi that is described by Hatha yoga texts in terms of divine sounds, and as a union with Nada-Brahman in musical literature of ancient India.
The aims of Hatha yoga in various Indian traditions have been the same as those of other varieties of yoga. These include physical siddhis (special powers, bodily benefits such as slowing age effects, magical powers) and spiritual liberation (moksha, mukti). According to Mikel Burley, some of the siddhis are symbolic references to the cherished soteriological goals of Indian religions. For example, the Vayu Siddhi or "conquest of the air" literally implies rising into the air as in levitation, but it likely has a symbolic meaning of "a state of consciousness into a vast ocean of space" or "voidness" ideas found respectively in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Some traditions such as the Kaula tantric sect of Hinduism and Sahajiya tantric sect of Buddhism pursued more esoteric goals such as alchemy (Nagarjuna, Carpita), magic, kalavancana (cheating death) and parakayapravesa (entering another's body). James Mallinson, however, disagrees and suggests that such fringe practices are far removed from the mainstream Yoga's goal as meditation-driven means to liberation in Indian religions. The majority of historic Hatha yoga texts do not give any importance to siddhis. The mainstream practice considered the pursuit of magical powers as a distraction or hindrance to Hatha yoga's ultimate aim of spiritual liberation, self-knowledge or release from rebirth that the Indian traditions call mukti or moksha.
The goals of Hatha yoga, in its earliest texts, were linked to mumukshu (seeker of liberation, moksha). The later texts added and experimented with the goals of bubhukshu (seeker of enjoyment, bhoga).
Hatha yoga is a branch of yoga. It shares numerous ideas and doctrines with other forms of yoga, such as the more ancient system taught by Patanjali. The differences are in the addition of some aspects, and different emphasis on other aspects. For example, pranayama is crucial in all yogas, but it is the mainstay of Hatha yoga. Mudras and certain kundalini-related ideas are included in Hatha yoga, but not mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Patanjali yoga considers asanas important but dwells less on various asanas than the Hatha yoga texts. In contrast, the Hatha yoga texts consider meditation as important but dwell less on meditation methodology than Patanjali yoga.
The Hatha yoga texts acknowledge and refer to Patanjali yoga, attesting to the latter's antiquity. However, this acknowledgment is essentially only in passing, as they offer no serious commentary or exposition of Patanjali's system. This suggests that Hatha yoga developed as a branch of the more ancient yoga. According to P.V. Kane, Patanjali yoga concentrates more on the yoga of the mind, while Hatha yoga focuses on body and health. Some Hindu texts do not recognize this distinction. For example, the Yogatattva Upanishad teaches a system that includes all aspects of the Yogasutras of Patanjali, and all additional elements of Hatha yoga practice.