Yoga has a long history, much of it occurring in India. It’s not surprising, then, that many of the terms and concepts that we use in discussing yoga aren’t easily defined. The term hatha yoga is a case in point. From where does it come? No one seems to be sure.
Many people translate the term hatha as ha for sun and tha for moon, demonstrating the power of yoga to unite body, mind, and soul. There’s only one problem with this definition: it isn’t accurate linguistically. India, the birthplace of yoga, is a land of many different languages, and a quick survey shows that the words for “sun” and “moon”, while similar from dialect to dialect, are generally based on the Sanskrit surya and chandra respectively. Google Translate gives the Hindi translations as ravi and chand, the Gujarati words as surya and chandra, and the Bengali terms as surya and camda.
The word yoga does derive from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning “union”, and the discipline of hatha yoga does indeed unite the body and the breath. In addition, Tantric philosophy posits that there are a collection of energy conduits, or nadis, running up the back. Of these, three are considered to be the most important. Ida nadi refers to the quiet, receptive energies, represented by the moon, while Pingala nadi channels the active energies, symbolized by the sun. These two channels funnel around the central channel, known as Sushumna. Perhaps this is from where people have derived the idea of “hatha” relating to the planetary opposites; like ying and yang, two opposing states are brought together in search of fulfillment.
Some people use the term hatha yoga to differentiate from other forms of the discipline, such as kundalini or ashtanga. Yoga as it is presently practiced derives from philosophies codified into print. The Yoga Sutras, written by the sage Patanjali some time prior to 400 B.C.E., is a collection of aphorisms that delineate the ‘eight-fold path’ of yoga. The word ashtanga means ‘eight’ in Sanskrit, and the Ashtanga yoga style took its name from this term. During medieval times, a second text was written, bringing together many different ideas from many different practitioners. This second book was entitled the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and it’s very likely that the designation was borrowed from this text.
The magazine Yoga Journal is not alone in translating the word hatha as ‘force’, and it is true that force of will is needed to master asana practice. Taking the time of understand the terminology behind yoga helps practitioners to relate movement to philosophy and also to connect with those who have loved yoga over the centuries since its inception. Yoga is a richly layered tradition, and appreciating the complexities can only expand one’s practice.