(excerpt from my book Inside Yoga)
What is the difference between Hatha yoga, classic yoga, Kundalini yoga, Ashtanga, or Vinyasa? For those who have an academic understanding of yoga history, this question probably doesn’t make much sense, because in reality all these names simply represent different (sometimes minor) variations of a system of physical Hatha yoga exercises, which has its roots in the tradition of the Tantric Natha Yogis and their ancient text called Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
So, paradoxically, all these modern yoga “styles” are actually simply different forms of Hatha Yoga. Confused? Let’s clarify the whole thing, starting from the beginning. We need to go back for a moment to the roots of yoga.
First of all, the name “yoga” in ancient times was not used to indicate physical exercises. Yoga, for the people of ancient India, was considered a state of realization, the realization of the Self.
The ancient philosophers in India were a bit like the ancient Greek philosophers. They wanted to find answers to questions like: “Does a soul exist?” “Is there life after death?” “How to be happy?” To find answers to these questions, they developed subtle philosophical systems like Samkhya (6th century BCE) where they tried to rationally analyze different aspects of the human life and the universe. Through their deep philosophical investigations, they came to the conclusion that the universe is formed by two principles: Consciousness and Energy. Consciousness is a state of pure, peaceful awareness from where it’s possible to witness various qualities (gunas, in Sanskrit) expressed by the energy of the universe. So, they called “yoga” the harmonious union of these two principles, and they developed various techniques of meditation to have a human experience of this state of union.
In those ancient times, the yogis used to spend most of their lives practicing deep meditations to reach a level of subtle awareness that could allow them to feel “connected” to the whole universe. Their consciousness was “in harmony” with all the various possible manifestations of life’s creative power inside and outside themselves. For many centuries since these ancient times this experience of union was the actual meaning of the word “yoga.” A group of these ancient yogis understood that in order to practice meditation daily for many hours it was necessary to train the body and the senses properly, so they developed a series of physical exercises that could help them have better control over their bodies. This group of ancient yogis belonged to Tantric schools, and they used to be called Natha. Tantra at that time used to be an esoteric philosophical path in which spiritual knowledge was communicated through symbols, in a way somehow similar to the Neoplatonic symbolism used by many artists during the Italian Renaissance (this classical Tantra has nothing to do with the Western New Age Tantra, which is a modern construction focusing mainly on sex).
The name that the Nathas gave to the system of physical exercises they created is “Hatha yoga.” Hatha means “effort” or “force” and later this word has been translated also as “balance” between the two channels of energy called Ida and Pingala (which mean Sun and Moon in Sanskrit, and for those ancient Tantrics Ida and Pingala represented symbolically the mind and the body). Nowadays most people refer to Hatha yoga as “the union between Sun and Moon.”
So the word Hatha Yoga comes from there, from the physical exercises (asanas/ positions, control of the breath, control of some body functions) that ancient yogis developed to make their bodies more disciplined, balanced, in good health, and to make their minds more focused and calm. At some point between 900 and 500 years ago, they started to write down their knowledge in books, and around that time they wrote a text called Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which for us in the present time represents the foundation of the system of physical yoga. So, from an academic point of view these are the historical roots of Hatha Yoga. By the way, these ancient philosophers/ascetics were not Vedic priests. They lived outside the religious castes of India, outside the villages, outside social conventions. They were free, wise men, using their human bodies to research philosophical, spiritual truth.
In more recent times (20th century), when the art of Hatha Yoga started to be seen with pride by some nationalistic groups in modern India, there has been an unexpected renaissance of this ancient tradition. Personalities like Krishnamacharya, Sivananda, Satyananda, and a bit later, Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar, started to develop their own interpretations of this ancient Hatha yoga system. Some of them, like Sivananda and Satyananda remained more closed to the original tantric views of this system. While others, like Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar, developed styles influenced more by modern gymnastics and martial art. So, the modern version of traditional Hatha Yoga is often taught by schools related to Sivananda (Sivananda was a famous monk that used to be based in Rishikesh, Northern India), or by the Bihar Yoga School of Satyananda (another monk, originally initiated by Sivananda). There are also many other schools that practice Hatha Yoga in a traditional way, but they are less widely known.
The schools of Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, and Iyengar, which nowadays are probably the most popular in Europe and U.S., developed a different style, which blended together Hatha yoga positions with dynamic exercises belonging to Kalaripayattu (martial art from South India), and even with Western gymnastics. The peculiarity of the school of Pattabhi Jois and his pupils is that it does not accept to be called Hatha Yoga. The practitioners of this school prefer instead to say their system derives directly from the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali (circa 2nd century BCE). This creates again quite a bit of confusion, because in reality the authentic Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali used to be purely a system of philosophy and meditation and it was not based much on physical exercises like it is the Hatha Yoga tradition (which was developed anyway several centuries after Patanjali).
Paradoxically, the Hatha yoga approach we find in schools like those of Sivananda is closer to the traditional, authentic Ashtanga of Patanjali because in those schools they also practice forms of classical meditation (Pratyahara, Dharana, and Dhyan) while the modern Ashtanga of Pattabhi Jois, despite the name, is based only on physical dynamic exercises and not on sitting meditation (so, very different from the original system of Patanjali’s Ashtanga).
In conclusion: modern schools of yoga like those of Sivananda and Satyananda follow quite traditional Tantric practices belonging to classical Hatha Yoga, so we can call this modern schools Classical Hatha Yoga, or simply Classic Yoga, or Hatha Yoga. Or, if you like… simply Yoga.
Other modern styles of Yoga based on the Mysore schools of Krishnamacharia, Pattabhi Jois, and Iyengar are more physical/gymnastic-oriented, more dynamic, and less rooted in meditative Tantric practices, even if they consider the classical Ashtanga of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as their main source of inspiration.
I know, this whole explanation might appear still a bit confusing because often these modern yoga schools present themselves using all these ancient words and ancient definitions, trying in this way to give (consciously or not) an altered historical view of their practices. Understandably, they might do so in the effort of attracting more students/clients, and of spreading more widely their yoga practices, presenting them as very “ancient”, “pure”, “authentic”.
In any case, after all, we can’t deny that all these schools and styles, even if diluted and sometimes commercialized, contributed immensely to spreading yoga around the world in the last fifty years, inspiring millions of people, and often creating, directly or indirectly, many positive changes in our societies. They often introduce people to meditation and vegetarianism, for example, or to ethical principles like Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya ( truthfulness), and Santosha (contentment), so they definitely have enormous value.
Though, we can perhaps express the hope that in yoga-teacher-training programs of the future, mentors will spend more time in giving a clearer view of the evolution of yoga through history, and of its authentic roots and meaning, so those who attend yoga classes can understand what they are doing without having to adhere to parochial interpretations that can often be a bit colorful and confusing.