What is Hatha Yoga?
In a previous blog I spoke about the meaning of Yoga. The Journey and the Destination. In this blog I wanted to talk about Hatha Yoga.
So the yogi embraces the meaning of yoga as a journey to a state of higher realisation. A journey to experience a higher dimension of life. Once the yogi decides to embark on this journey, he or she chooses a path to follow. There are many pathways towards this higher reality. Once of these is BHAKTI yoga. This is loosely translated as the yoga of devotion. In this path the yogi chooses the path of devotion towards his chosen god. In Bhakti yoga the seeker employs his/her emotions to reach their "ultimate nature". The path of intelligence and knowledge is called GNANA Yoga. Here the seeker spends his/her lifetime devoted to studying, meditating and soul seeking. Another path is KARMA yoga. Westerners are familiar with this concept of karma. It is the law of cause and effect. The path of action. If you live your life a certain way and adhere to dharma (righteousness), you can experience this higher reality. Another of these paths is the subject of this blog, HATHA. Hatha yoga is the yoga of will. The yoga of balancing the sun and moon energies within. Asana (the poses), pranayama (expansion of breath) and dhyana (meditation) are all part of hatha yoga. This is the yoga that we in the west are most familiar with.
The origins of early hatha yoga are debatable. It used to be credited to a 11th century yogi by the name of Goraknath. In recent years as new sanskrit texts are discovered and translated, we are finding out that the origins could be more ancient than the time of Goraknath. You can learn about the earlier traditions of hatha yoga by reading 'Roots of Yoga'. Here is an accompanying article from the Yoga Journal. There is also plenty of academic texts available that search for the origins of Hatha Yoga. Dr Jason Birch refers to Hatha Yoga as ‘the Yoga of force’ in his 'The Meaning of Hatha in early Hatha Yoga' paper. It can be viewed here.
Our look on hatha yoga is more modern. In the remainder of this blog I attempt to better explain the concept of modern hatha yoga and try to make it as simple to understand as possible. There will of course always be debates about this subject. Recently I read something online where someone suggested the meaning of Hatha Yoga has been grossly misinterpreted up until now. So I ask for anyone who reads this not to think of this blog as the definitive guide to Hatha Yoga. This is just a basic non-academic introduction.
According to B.K.S Iyengar, "Ha' means the Sun and "Tha" means the Moon. Yoga means to yoke or to join. So hatha yoga is the union or yoking/joining of the sun and moon. Iyengar expands that in yoga terminology, "Sun is the Soul and Moon is the Consciousness". Once the soul and your consciousness are as one, there is total illumination and the destination for the yogi is reached. Sadhguru explains that hatha yoga is a way of working with the body, a way of disciplining, purifying, and preparing the body for higher levels of energy and for greater possibilities. There can be no illumination if the body is not pure. Purity is gained from the union of Sun and Moon energies within. Once purity is gained, illumination or the destination will find the yogi.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā (1500 CE), it is said that in order to purify the mind, it is necessary for the body as a whole to undergo a process of absolute purification. Hatha yoga is also known as the science of purification. The text continues to say the main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind and energy. When this balance is created, the impulses generated gives a call of awakening to the central force (sushumna nadi) which is responsible for the evolution of human consciousness. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost.
Dr Jason Birch has investigated the evolution of the meaning of the Sanskrit word "haṭha." He specifically researched the key role of the above mentioned text the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā in popularising a particular interpretation of this term. When composed the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā drew from various classic texts on different systems of yoga, the text compiler Svātmārāma (a 16th century yogic sage) grouped what he had found under the generic term "haṭha yoga". Although haṭha yoga has evolved into a generic term that is currently understood as a branch of yoga involving physical poses (including sun salutations, vinyāsas, aṣṭāṅga, etc.), it originally had a more specific meaning. After examining Buddhist tantric commentaries and medieval yoga texts that came before the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, Birch found that the adverbial uses of the word suggests that it meant "force". Birch found that, "Rather than the metaphysical explanation of uniting the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha), it is more likely that the name haṭha yoga was inspired by the meaning 'force'.
The Indian mystic Sadhguru enlightens us by saying that hatha yoga is not exercise. "It is, instead, about understanding the mechanics of the body, creating a certain atmosphere, and then using physical postures to channel or drive your energy in specific directions". Yoga is a means to centre your system so that energy can travel from the base of your spine, to your soul and eventually uniting with the consciousness. This unity between soul and consciousness is the doorway to the ultimate destination.
B.K.S Iyengar has often referred to Hatha Yoga as the yoga of Will. He has spoken of man using strength of character to create physical harmony as a means to spiritually evolve. He has spoken of the need to first address physical ailments through asana.
Asana should be approached as a means to create physical balance. The Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā says the concept in hatha yoga is, to bring about a harmony between the two great forces known as ida and pingala. The left and right sides of the body. To bring harmony is to create symmetry. If the left and right side of the body are balanced and in harmony, the body is centred. It is through this centering that the dormant energy of the yogi can travel from the base of the spine and unite with the consciousness (Kundalini). The Pradīpikā says the most important thing is that the nadis have to be purified for the purpose of meditation. Therefore goal of asana should be to create a balance within your body.
The following is excerpted from Iyengar's Light on Life;
"Seek balance of awareness in all positions by observing the differences on the right and left as well as the intensity of stretch from plane to plane, limb to limb, muscle to muscle, joint to joint, and from bottom to top, side to side, and back to front. Create equal stretch, equal stability, equal spacing, and equal intensity of movement. To bring a part of the body in correct alignment, you have to work with the whole body. You have to work with each and every part of the body."
The Clinical Perspective.
Clinically speaking, if your yoga asanas are approached with the goal of creating balance, you are decreasing the likelihood of injuring your body. The research suggests that muscle imbalances are the main causes of injury rather than a lack of flexibility. Muscle imbalances tend to refer to the strength or flexibility of contralateral (right versus left) muscle groups. The late Dr. Vladimir Janda, an expert in chronic musculoskeletal pain says; "Muscle balance is necessary because of the reciprocal nature of human movement, which requires opposing muscle groups to be coordinated". Muscle imbalance occurs when the length or strength of opposing muscle groups prevents normal movement.
The Cultural Perspective.
The great Sage Patanjali in his masterpiece the Yoga Sutras has said the definition of asana means one that is steady and comfortable. According to Yogiraj Satchidananda, this means all yoga asanas should be practiced with the utmost ease and comfort. BKS Iyengar however tells us that steady and comfortable is the goal of asana. Iyengar says; "The steadiness comes only when the effort has ended. So you have to train the body in such a way that what seems complex becomes simple". So train your body so that even the most daring yoga asana at some point, will become steady and comfortable. As is the case with me. Because of the poor health of my back, postures that required back bending and core tightening were always considered too difficult. Through will, I have worked hard and have now made the very poses that I feared, steady and comfortable. The Yoga asana in the image below was always a challenge for me as it mixed inversion and back bending. But now thanks in no part to the inspiring words of BKS Iyengar, this pose is now steady and comfortable. There is zero strain on my body when I attempt the pose. This is the goal of your asana. If there are pitfalls the yogi is reminded not to lose heart. Use the strength of your will and your intelligence to move beyond your anxiety. To quote the mystic Osho Rajneesh, "A certain darkness is needed to see the stars."
Who knows, maybe the destination for the yogi will remain untouched. The stars may seem untouchable, but if you continue to reach, you will land amongst them. Even if the sky is all that is reached, you would still have achieved something for yourself that you didn't imagine possible. Maybe the goal of the yogi is not to go beyond your current limitations, maybe the goal is to find your true nature. Who are you and what are you capable of? Asana helps you reach your authentic nature by never limiting your potential. I often tell students that they will discover themselves when they are in peacock or handstand. In these poses their minds also expand. The student starts to recognise his or her true potential.
When Gauttama Buddha attained the ultimate "enlightenment", he was asked, “What have you attained?” Buddha laughed and said, “Nothing, because whatsoever I have attained was already there inside me. It is not something new that I have achieved. It has always been there from eternity, it is my very nature. But I was not mindful of it, I was not aware of it. The treasure was always there, but I had forgotten about it.” Every human being longs for true and lasting happiness. Maybe this also can't be reached. That doesn't mean we cease to try.
B.K.S Iyengar on his tough approach to teaching the poses; "Many yoga teachers ask you to do the asanas with ease and comfort and without any stress or true exertion. This ultimately leaves the practitioner living within the limits of his or her mind, with the inevitable fear, attachment, and pettiness. These teachers and their students feel that the kind of precise and intense practice I am describing is painful. Yes, it is true that sometimes we experience pain during our practice as we exert ourselves and our will.
Yoga is meant for the purification of body and its exploration as well as for the refinement of the mind. This demands strength of will both to observe and at the same time to bear the physical pain without aggravating it.
Without certain stress, the true asana is not experienced, and the mind will remain in its limitations and will not move beyond its existing frontiers.”
Hatha yoga is the yoga of Will.
1.Iyengar, B., 2008. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. 2nd ed. U.K: Rodale; Reprint edition (19 Sept. 2006).
2.Phillip Page;Clare Frank;Robert Lardner, .., 2009. Assessment and Treatment of Muscle Imbalance:The Janda Approach by Phillip Page (2009-12-28). 1st ed. US: Human Kinetics (1871).
3.Sadhguru, J., 2016. Inner Engineering: A Yogi's Guide to Joy. 1st ed. India: Penguin Random House India Pvt. Ltd (12 Dec. 2016).
4.Satchidananda, S., 2012. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: New Edition. 2nd ed. UK: Integral Yoga Publications; Revised edition (15 Sept. 2012)
5.Satchidananda, Sri Swami, 1970. Integral Yoga Hatha . 1st ed. Canada: Henry Holt & Company, Inc. (1970)
Birch, Jason (2011). "The Meaning of haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 131: 527–554. JSTOR 41440511.