by Jake Jacobs
My introduction to yoga began in the late 1970’s with a 1/2 hour morning program on
KCET, the local PBS station, taught by a man credited with producing the first yoga
program on American Television; a prolific author of yoga books and audio/video on
Hathayoga’s asana and breathing practices, nutrition, meditation and yoga philosophy.
His name is Richard Hittleman (1927-1991) and as well known as he was then, he is all
but forgotten today. I was reintroduced to Mr. Hittleman recently, which triggered an
important memory and a bit of research confirmed why he got me into yoga; he taught a
complete life system, not an exercise class, in easy to absorb 30-minute chunks. One
thing he said about diet has stuck with me for ever since; eat nuts and legumes although it might have started with veggies. Reviewing a few of his books particularly Yoga for Health, I recognized that while modernized to speak to a 20th Century educated,somewhat elitist and spiritually searching audience, his teachings structurally align with the Hatha Pradipika (HP), leaving out the more religiously and ascetically influenced overtones to the extent of virtually ignoring the use of Romanized Sanskrit. Like the HP, he understood marketing as well as yoga.
Researching his background and influences produced extremely limited results.Richard Hittleman was a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx born in 1927. His first yoga
lessons came from a Hindu maintenance man in the Catskill Mountains of New York
where his family summered. Thus, although I did not know this until recently, he
parallels my childhood. I too am a nice Jewish boy, born of parents from the Bronx and
raised in nearby Mt. Vernon who spent his summers in the Catskills sans Hindus. We
both even followed our outward path to the West Coast, Hittleman to the SF Bay Area,
me to Los Angeles. Then he influenced my inner path. As for those who influenced
Hittleman, the little information that can be found is from an unverified blog and Wikipedia.
According to those sources he studied he with the Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi and the British author Paul Brunton in the late 1940’s and regarded Maharshi as his guru.
Reading his work, it seems clear he was influenced by the HP and Patanjali’s Yoga
Sutras, as well as 20th Century new age thinkers including his friend Alan Watts.
Hittleman authored over 20 books, the most complete being Yoga for Health
(YFH) originally published in 3 volumes in 1962 in conjunction with his PBS video
program of the same name. In the introduction Hittleman, like the HP, explains the
benefits of Hatha Yoga practice and, like Krishnamacarya in the Yoga Makaranda,
considers said yoga to be available to all people regardless of age or physical condition:
“You can begin the Yoga practice nearly regardless of your age or physical
condition. This is because you are not in competition with anyone: you do only
what you can do comfortably, at your own pace, without huffing and puffing,
without feeling you have benefited only when you are on the verge of collapse, as
in the case of many exercise systems.”
YOAG FOR HEALTH -Asana
In his introduction Hittleman also brings in the mind body connection:
Hatha Yoga assists you in perceiving the spiritual reality of your existence and, as
stated by the ancient gurus, “is that practice which renders the mind fit for
meditation.”YFH, like the HP, discusses the proper conditions and place for one’s asana
practice. Although it is not as austere as the hut described in HP 1.12-1.14, it has the
same intention of providing a calm and undisturbed location: “Ideally, your practice environment (indoors or outdoors) should be conducive toa serene, elevating mode of mind, and there should be a supply of fresh air.”
Hittleman also follows the practice of the HP that constantly refers to the benefits of yoga practice, setting forth a long list in the introduction as well as for each posture discussed thereafter including the development of strength and muscle tone, flexibility, elimination of tension and quieting of the mind. YFH begins with asana, although the word asana is used only in the introduction where he explains that asana is the Sanskrit name for poses or postures. Thereafter only English is used to name the poses such as lotus pose for padmasana and back-stretch for pascimotanasana, the seated forward bend, a spot on translation. The 20 main postures in YFH are designed to form a complete workout stretching the entire body plus twists. The last pose he calls The Whole Breath, a standing pose connecting the breath to a movement of the arms similar to a jumping jack while the legs remain static. YFH adds 3 advanced postures including various forms of Lotus pose. The others are Abdominal Lifts, which is similar to performing Kapalabhati, and Headstand. Most of the poses would be familiar to those taking yoga classes today but a few are unique such as Dancer’s posture, a squatting pose with legs together and hands on top of the head, palm to palm resembling the namaste hands to chest gesture.
All of the postures are illustrated with photos including beginning through advanced forms. This chapter concludes with a section called Special Routines. Among these are finger pulls, 360 degree head rolls andthe somewhat familiar “lion” pose, involving sticking out the tongue and stretching thefacial muscles, and deep relaxation commonly known today as savasana. Here also Hittleman explains Alternate Nostril Breathing and a practice called “ Directing The Life Force, a pose performed lying on one’s back. This is as close to kundalini practice as it gets in this book although an extended discussion of prana/life-force is included in the Chapters on Nutrition, Philosophy and Meditation. The first chapter concludes with apractice plan laying out three different routines and postures for specific health and physical issues. A significant difference between YFH and the HP is the total omission of mudras and bandhas in the former.
YFH – Nutrition
The second chapter of YFH is a discussion of nutrition that is far more extensive
than the minimal references set forth in the HP and remarkably prescient for 1962.
Hittleman ties his diet program to the concept of “ life-force nutrition” that sustains the
subtle element, prana/ life force. He states that “eating for maximum nutritional value”
can reverse many chronic health problems caused to a great degree by the “average
American diet that is too high in fats, salts and refined sugars” and lacking in complex
carbohydrates. He also notes that the increasing eating of highly processed foods is
another harmful part of the American diet. He recommends a diet focused on fruits,
vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some grains eaten in as natural a state as digestion will
permit. To be avoided are meat, refined sugar and flour, stimulants like caffeine and
foods processed with salt and chemical additives.
YFH – Philosophy
The Yoga Philosophy section of YFH begins with a discussion of self versus Self, in essence a discussion of Brahma/Atman that never mentions these terms. He calls this concept Self-Realization, which involves losing the ego attachments and recognizing the impermanence of this world’s reality and the eternal unchanging nature of Reality:In Yoga, the unreality of what is constantly changing and vanishing is contrasted with that which is eternal, never-changing, without qualities, and beyond duality.This eternal principle, which is your true nature, is designated as Self, God, or Reality; and Self-Realization means that you have recognized your true nature, you have recovered what is misplaced. The HP can be seen as a blueprint for obtaining liberation (Samadhi) and Hittleman advocates similarly.
The rest of the section on Yoga philosophy concerns matters that are beyond the scope of the HP including discussions of karma and reincarnation, the illusion of identity and the False God of the Ego. In the interest of brevity, they will not be discussed further. YFH concludes with a discussion about the purpose of meditation and provides a few meditations techniques. Here again, Hittleman explores, rather briefly, the breathing techniques that accompany meditation.
The majority of Hittleman’s works were produced in the 1970’s and early 70’.
During that time, it is estimated that he introduced yoga to millions of people via his PBS series. Unfortunately, his ego got the better of him and like many yoga gurus before and after, his life turned in 1977 when he founded the Yoga Universal Church under the auspices of the Universal Life Church who bestowed ministerial licenses on anyone for $20. For many this became an attempted tax avoidance scheme and Hittleman, who seemed to sincerely believe that the ashram that he and his wife, Linda, were creating at their property was a real tax-exempt religious organization, was caught up in the net.
Audited from 1979-82, the IRS offered a reasonable settlement in part due to that
sincerity, which Hittleman turned down on principle against the strong objections of
Linda. Here his ego took over and he left the yogic path to fight the IRS for almost a
decade, divorce from Linda and slowly and surely sink deeper into the money pit of legal fees, and toward an early death. After losing at trial, Hittleman appealed and that process concluded in October of 1991. He died from prostate cancer a few days later at 64. By then he was broke. He left Linda with a huge IRS debt.