Does “Hathayoga” Really Mean Force? An Interview With Yoga Master Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell is a world-renowned yoga teacher of the old school, who for decades has been sharing the tools of body movement and breath and bearing witness to the madness of the yoga industrial complex with compassion. Sometimes seeming to have stepped directly out of a fourteenth-century Tantric temple, Mark teaches in the traditional way of transmission between teacher and student through non-hierarchical and sincere mutual friendship and affection.

We wanted to interview Mark as someone who does not just hold knowledge of Yoga but embodies it (as you will see if you spend some time with him) about whether “hathayoga” really means “the yoga of force,” as claimed in numerous books and articles. In a world where one study found Yoga to be more dangerous than all other sports COMBINED, and where yoga-related injuries are increasing rapidly, do we really want or need a practice whose very name indicates “force?”

Interview by: The Dirt Magazine, an independent online magazine featuring new writing on spirituality, embodiment, relationships and psychology.

The Dirt: Mark, let’s start with the big question: does haṭhayoga really mean yoga of force?

Mark Whitwell: Well, some have translated and interpreted it that way, and some certainly practice it that way, so maybe we have to say that to them, it does. But I would argue that no, it does not mean that, because if what you are doing is forceful, than it is not yoga.

I have to tell you, I am not an academic. I am not a scholar reading Sanskrit who can look back through the texts and tell you the meanings. But I am very interested in the findings of those who are doing that work, and how it aligns with what for all of us should be the main touchstone of truth, which is our own embodied experience. Not our opinions and impressions, because as we know they can be severely warped, but something deeper.

The Dirt: So could you give us a quick overview of that research, maybe some leads if people want to dig deeper?

Mark Whitwell: Well for the academics reading this, a good place to start is Jason Birch’s article, The Meaning of

Haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga, (Editor’s note: this is available on academia here.) I found this very interesting to hear about what is said in the Tantric and haṭhayoga texts of over a thousand years ago, in some cases.

For starters, it is very interesting to me that Jason Birch finds that all the early references seem to refer to something earlier and lost. So the truth is we don’t know the earliest roots and uses of the word. I believe it may go way way back to the time of the Vedas, but there is no textual evidence for that yet. But I also feel we should be careful not to impose the western academic paradigm of needing textual proof onto what is essentially an Indigenous knowledge system with its own systems of — not belief, that’s dismissive, something deeper — own ontologies, own ways of understanding reality, that should not be seen as less true than the ‘rational’ academic paradigm. Otherwise we’re just continuing the legacy of colonial cruelty, assuming the western paradigm is superior.

The Dirt: That’s very interesting. Could you give us an example of that?

Mark Whitwell: Sure, take for example Krishnamacharya’s text, the Yoga Rahasya. Krishnamacharya described how this was transmitted to him from his ancestor Nathamuni. This kind of thing is absolutely normal and completely dignified, serious and sincere within the Vedic traditions, the Tibetan traditions, the Yoga traditions… all across that ancient world there is a deep tradition of transmission of teachings beyond time and space. This is dismissed or seen as a quaint anthropological phenomenon by modern academic scholars, starting from the first European Indologists, who want to find out the ‘real’ story according to the known laws of western physics etc. “who actually wrote the piece” — that world actually reveal a lot, the assumption of the superiority or priority of their lens on reality. I recommend reading Charles Eisenstein’s essay, ‘The Feast of Whiteness’ for a really good explanation of the problem of imposing a western framework of “but what really happened” onto another culture’s ways of knowing, and suggestions for other ways of engaging.

The Dirt: I think we could have a whole other conversation about that subject alone. But let’s come back to the findings about what ancient texts say about haṭhayoga. Some people who don’t like the implications of ‘force’ use a translation of haṭha as meaning “sun and moon.” Is there a history of that, or is it a modern new age invention?

Mark Whitwell: Oh, there is absolutely a deep profund history of that. Ha and Tha, sun and moon, the union of opposites within and without. Strength receieving, male and female in perfect prior union. This is the essence of the Tantras, and as we now know, haṭhayoga comes to us from the tantric period, approximately 400–1500 CE.

Going back to Jason Birch’s research, he notes that modern books and practitioners have been drawn to the “sun and moon” definition to avoid the distastefulness of “force”. I mean people are using force, but they still don’t want it branded as that. He finds clear definitions of Yoga as the union of sun and moon in early Haṭha texts such as the Amṛtasiddhi (11th/12th century), and of the syllables ha and ṭha being used to indicate sun and moon, and inhale and exhale in earlier medieval Tantric texts. So this definition is valid, but it’s not widespread in the older texts to my understanding. We have the word haṭha in use before that definition is first found.

The Dirt: So what did it mean in those earlier contexts?

Mark Whitwell: Well I think we have to consider what is meant by force. Because there is very much a force we encounter in our yoga, which is the force of life. You know, one aspect of Christopher Tompkins’ excellent work has been pointing out that there are zero references in the tantric literature to a person raising their kundalini, in the sense of a coiled force at the base of the spine. There are references to a coiled force that may act upo0n you, descending down and then rising up your spine, but we don’t awaken kundalini, we are awakened by it. That sense of I the doer is dissolved. If anyone says to you “I awakened my kundalini” or “I had a kundalini awakening” something has gone very wrong, their identity structure has co-opted an experience of some kind and taken it on as an identity possession. Anyway, force is like this. It is something that acts upon us, something we join up with, something we are, not something “you” as a limited and separate self identity enact upon, to use Mary Oliver’s immortal phrase, that poor soft animal of your body. Your yoga is your participation in this force, this power, that you are. Not a manipulation of it, not trying to get to it. Abiding in it. This is how the ancient texts of our tradition speak about yoga, that energy may move forcefully, but not as an act of forceful volition.

Jason Birch has tracked it all down and finds the early Haṭha texts using the word “haṭhat” or forcibly, but only toward a movement of energy, not toward the body or into any movement or action. It has a sense of taking the normal downward movement in embodied life and turning it around, not violently. The implication is “that Haṭhayogic techniques have a forceful effect, rather than requiring forceful effort.” (Birch 2011). Force in the modern sense of pushing these poor old bodies into something that makes them sweat, shake, collapse, strain and sprain is absolutely not there. These are serious devotional practices we are talking about, from the Tantric cultures, one of the lost wonders of the world with their incredible insight that matter was not a degraded shackle pulling down our ethereal souls, but rather just on the spectrum of vibration of the whole cosmos. It’s a similar perspective to the understanding of modern physics that matter is just energy, not solid at all. This was radical, that the body could be a site of liberation, of deity abiding, not just a hindrance to be managed and bullied. The Christian legacy of anti-materiality is deep in the western psychology and has very much shaped the western approach to yoga. We are not that far on from self-flagellation and hair shirts.

The Dirt: So how could we summarise your interpretation of the word haṭha.

Mark Whitwell: I was always taught that asana and pranayama must be done carefully and within our breath capabilities, measured by the number of breaths and the ration of breaths. So I affirm the academic findings that haṭha can either mean the union of sun and moon — that’s accurate, and poetic and beautiful — or it can mean the great force of life, the energy of life that is moving through us, as us, and which our yoga enables us to feel and participate in. To be devoted to. A great force is moving the planets and oceans, the sun and moon, growing your hair. What is that force? What is the force that grows a seed? That force, that power. We don’t enact that, we recognise and abide in it.

As far as I know, looking at the translation work of Birch and Christopher Tompkins and others, “the word haṭha is never used in Haṭha texts to refer to violent means or forceful effort.” (Birch 2011). That matches my experience with Krishnamacharya and Desikachar, and their students such as Srivatsa Ramaswami. All emphasise that the key qualities to master asana were comfort, ease, and stability. Never force.

The Dirt: Could the association of yoga with the word force be to do with the association with tapasya, with ascetics?

Mark Whitwell: Yes, there has been great confusion in the last 500 years between ascetics and yogis. You might like to refer to the excellent article by Domagoj Orlić, “Why Yoga is Neither Physical Gymnastics.” Yoga became associated with obscene acts of self-torture, holding one’s arm in the air for years and years, a metal grate around one’s neck, and such extremes. Yet these extreme practices are not there in the Tantras, the Shastras, the Haṭha texts. They are not yoga. Mortification of the flesh is the opposite to realising the intrinsic union of the source and the seen. It was the early Europeans coming to India and trying to understand what they saw that really popularised an idea of yoga as force, as self-violence. Perhaps reflecting the internalised violence of their own culture. A kind of projection that the Yoga sutras warns us about. And getting confused with the fakirs and ascetics, and seeing it all as a suspicious kind of witchcraft. India internalised all of that British projection and judgement. By the time Krishnamacharya was teaching, yoga was not seen as a high or holy calling. This was a man with the equivalent of 6 or seven PhDs, yet he was teaching yoga, as a very serious undertaking, in a time when it was not taken seriously at all. He would do some kinds of “feats” at the Maharaj’s request, such as stopping his heart for doctors, that kind of thing. But he refused to teach this to his son when he begged him. He said it was just to get attention for yoga, to get the ball rolling so to speak.

The Dirt: So there was also a confusion between ascetiscism and yoga within India as well?

Mark Whitwell: Yes. It’s something Desikachar would often clarify. Krishnamacharya really stood apart from any of the traditions based on anti-body philosophies, dualistic transcendent schools that saw the body as a bag of rotting flesh, a meatsack, that needed to be bullied and purified and ideally gotten rid of altogether. That kind of school has denigrated asana and pranayama the way they denigrate the body itself. Krishnamacharya’s lineage came from the 10th century Ramanujacharya, who had declared that yoga was the means that the two became one, and that householders and ordinary people could practice this. He wasn’t from a monastic, man alone type tradition. Even his guru in the Himalayas, Ramamohan Brahmachari, lived there with his wife and children, in his accounts.

So Krishnamacharya really represented the coming together of these great traditions of Vedanta and Tantra, which belong together. They are branches from the same great tree and are now back together.

The Dirt: And finally, could you tell us what you have observed in terms of the impact of this misunderstanding on people’s yoga, and how to correct that.

Mark Whitwell. Thank you. Thanks for caring about all the people out there, sweating away and struggling and getting injured. I think the idea that the body, that the earth, that the feminine is less, something to be conquered and controlled, has done great harm. It is the basis of centuries of patriarchal culture. And that cultural split, between some sense of essence within, and a dead materiality without, has enabled humanity to use and abuse its Mother, the body of Nature, and our own bodies are part of that body. So the conditioning towards a forcefulness towards embodiment runs very deep. This is the same psychology in the earlier Indologists translating haṭha as simple “yoga of force” and in the bullies who rose to prominence in the yoga world. And then the same psychology in the western students, who had been conditioned to control themselves, restrain the body, who were beaten at school, who thought a good teacher hit you with a stick to help you get it right… who were hit by their parents… this is the western mind, the modern mind, the cultural framework criticised as “whiteness,” but I don’t think that is accurate enough, as it is not intrinsically tied to skin colour. Basically it is deeply in us to bully and force the body, and yoga is our way out of that, into reverence and ease, and yet it has been popularized as mere duplication of the same old hegemonic patterns of abuse.

Your body is tired. It’s been forced into so many things it didn’t want to do. Deprived of sleep, filled with comfort food, too much or too little, plucked and poisoned, whipped along in jobs it hated, squashed into uniforms and cubicles. Yoga is the freeing of our bodies from all of this, the freedom to be that soft animal, that embodiment of love, that piece of wild mother nature. Our yoga is careful, precise, different for each unique embodiment. Please, don’t throw yourself around in the circus gymnastics they’re calling yoga. It’s just simply not. It’s all made up. There is no precedent for this kind of insane forcefulness, this self-violence. Step out of it all and be free, live your life in the garden.