Ashesha-tapataptanam samashraya-matho hathah
Ashesha-yoga-yuktanam-adhara-kamatho hathah

Hatha is a sheltering hermitage for those completely scorched by afflictions.
Hatha is the tortoise that supports those completely engaged in yoga.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1:10

It’s hard to think of a living being more stable in body plan than the humble tortoise. Built like a Humvee, the tortoise has been around unchanged in the fossil record for 250 million years—in spite of numerous environmental upheavals and major extinctions. In the yoga tradition, the tortoise is one of the incarnations of Vishnu, the force of stability, maintenance, and preservation. He comes to the rescue when the world is in dire straits. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika tells us that hatha (asana, pranayama, and cleansing practices) is like that tortoise, and serves as the foundation and support for the deeper transformative practices of yoga.

The traditional story of Vishnu’s tortoise incarnation describes how the devas (forces of light) and the asuras (forces of darkness) are working together to churn the ocean of consciousness to access the elixir of immortality. They have recruited the primordial naga Vasuki (think serpent power) as the rope, and Mount Mandara (think spine) as the churning rod. But the mountain is sinking and flailing uselessly in the deep waters until Vishnu manifests as Kurma, a massive tortoise.

The tortoise is one of the incarnations of Vishnu—the force of stability, maintenance, and preservation.

Kurma dives to the bottom of the ocean and supports the churning rod on his back; the collective effort is stabilized and properly directed, and the ocean begins to yield its treasures. This story of Kurma illustrates that only when the body and nervous system are stabilized, strong, and balanced, can we effectively develop a clear, tranquil, and one-pointed mind. We then uncover the wealth and treasures hidden deep within the body–mind complex.

In the Devanagari script of Sanskrit, “hatha” is two simple letters (“ha” and “tha”) standing for the two controlling currents of the life force. Yoked together in one word, these letters illustrate the practice of hatha yoga—the joining of the forces of light and darkness, the resolution of disharmony and opposition, and the transcendence of dualities of all kinds. It is this state of balance and equanimity that supports and strengthens us, and which nurtures the unfolding of a deeper level of awareness and spiritual wisdom.

Hatha yoga is the foundation for the other aspects of yoga and spiritual practice, including raja yoga. Raja yoga is the royal path—the yoga of mastery of the mind as Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutra. The opening shloka of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika proclaims that hatha yoga “shines forth as a ladder for those who wish to ascend to raja yoga.” The Hatha Yoga Ratnavali affirms, “Without hatha, raja yoga cannot be accomplished; without raja yoga, hatha is not accomplished.”

The practices of hatha yoga (asana, pranayama, and the cleansing practices) and the behavioral restraints and observances (yamas and niyamas), though not the whole of yoga practice, are the tortoise-like foundation that supports and stabilizes the mind and body as the world spins, the ground beneath us shifts, and our own inner turmoil threatens to destroy our happiness. When we are established in the foundation of hatha yoga, transformation can begin, and self-mastery finally emerges. Then we taste amrita—the immortal bliss of being.

More in this Series

From Asana to Samadhi: Exploring the Hatha Yoga Pradipika