The Hatha Yogic Practices are part of a much larger network of Yoga and Yogic practices. See Scroll on Yoga. If you are just coming from that page read on...
Simply defined Hatha Yoga refers to a group of Yogic Practices that utilises the Body-Mind balance and connection as a path to spiritual development and self-realisation. The Sanskrit ‘hatha’ translates to force or effort or wilfulness/exertion to imply the physical energy aspect of the name given to this branch of yoga. It also translates to the Yin/Yang, the balance of masculine and feminine energies, the harmonisation of the human though body, breath and mind. Under this definition many yogic practices could be fully or partially Hatha Yogic Practices.
Below is my own summary on the subject of Hatha Yoga.
What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha Yoga as a preparation for Advanced Yogic Practices
The Hatha Yogic Practices refer to practices that work with and through the subtle energy channels of the physical body as a path to Self-Realisation (Yoga). The Hatha Yogic Practices are in and of themselves both the preparation for and the advanced practices of Yoga, sometimes categorised as Raja Yoga, here meaning advanced seated breath and meditation practices.
The Raja Yogic path is often described as the 8 Limbs of Patanjali from the Yoga Sutras
(a scripture dating perhaps from 2nd or 3rd Century).
This Ashtanga Path of sage Patanjali shows us rules, practices and observances…
- for behaviour and moral education and lifestyle (yamas and niyamas)
- for posture practice referencing just the advanced seated postures held for a long time (asana)
- for subtle energy mastery of Prana through breath practices (pranayama in seated posture)
- to be able to withdraw senses from outwards to inwards (pratyahara)
- to develop concentration and absorption into states of meditation (dharana and dhyana)
…that lead to the ultimate state of
Self-Realisation / Yogic Mastery (Samadhi)
The Sutras have far more and deeper esoteric teachings than the above. The 8 Limbs of Yoga are often referenced in modern yogic studies and in Hatha Yoga Studies.
How do you do Hatha Yoga?
Hatha Yoga Practice Path
The merging of breath and posture (either dynamic or still / held postures), through specific energetic channels of the Bodies is the very art and science of Hatha Yoga.
In my book of yoga, and with the above definition in mind, I consider Hatha Yoga an Advanced Practice of Yoga.
If we look at classic Hatha Yoga Teachings / Scriptures such as the 15th Century scripture by Swami Svatmarama, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Light on Hatha Yoga), we get the picture of the path of practice that is recommended in that era and then for some centuries to come. Hatha Yoga begins with purification processes, changes in diet and lifestyle, combined with Posture Practice. After Posture Practice has reached a level of mastery then it is Pranayama practice and Meditation practices of greater dignity and difficulty and other energtic practices of Mudra and Bandha are incorporated.
In Sanskrit terminology it is a process of Shatkarma, Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha.
All of this is considered preparations for advanced yogic practice, sometimes referenced as Raja Yoga, and ultimately for Self-Realisation. However there are other branches of Yoga such as Kriya Yoga or Tantra Yoga who also utilise similar preparations and the advanced techniques of Hatha Yoga. It is a tree of many branches. Some writings categorise Hatha Yoga as its own branch among the main branches of Yoga. In a future post I will explore ''types of Hatha Yoga'' to give more depth to this description.
Why Hatha Yoga?
There are other important commonly known texts related to Hatha Yoga such as the Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita. I have yet to explore these two texts and I am not an expert on Scriptures so I can only share what I myself have concluded from my studies on the Pradipika and on the Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita and when I have read modern translations of the Hatha Yoga Scripts and other modern texts on Yoga. From this exploration and my own practice experience I define Hatha Yoga as follows.
- Hatha Yoga is engaged in as a preparation for higher levels of meditation. Hatha Yoga Posture practice, whether dynamic (vinyasa) or held (asana) is to be practiced to prepare the subtle energy channels (Nadis) to hold and channel greater and greater amounts of energy in stillness (Pranic, Kundalini, other vital energies).
That is one main message of the Hatha Yoga Teachings that I take with me.
Another main message I take with me is that the:
- Hatha Yoga practice is a subtle energy practice through the physical body of which the preparation of the spine and the seat, for higher levels of Yoga, is the key. Therefore we know that accessing and liberating the spine is central (pun intended!) to the Hatha Yogic Practice.
Breath-Work and PranaYama for the movement of Prana is practiced to prepare the Breath-Body Channels (Physical and Astral) for Advanced Yogic Practices.
- The merging of breath and posture (either dynamic or still / held postures), through specific energetic channels of the Bodies is the very art and science of Hatha Yoga.
- To do all or any of the above Advanced Practices of Hatha Yoga, the preparatory practices need to get our Bodies* in shape for the comfortable seat and the centred spine. As a Hatha Yoga Teacher, this preparation is what I concentrate on in my teachings at YogaMonks. I also recommend practicing breath-work and asana/movement separately based on the above defintions. I will explore this more in future articles.
Now we know that we are on the first step of preparing for Hatha Yoga, that we are making shapes to prepare our bodies for the energetic alchemy of Asana*.
What happens if you google Hatha Yoga or Asana? You will get about 20 million results and so much of this are images of the shape of Hatha Yoga. Vinyasa Yoga is not far behind with 15 million results. Yet from all the above definitions of HY we know that it cannot only be a shape. If it were only a shape then we would have many multitudes of Self-Realised dancers, gymnasts and acrobats and indeed Hatha yogis.
Clearly we love the shape of Hatha Yoga. And why not? It is beautiful to see the shape of the postures in all the different bodies of people. Practicing the shapes can make us feel strong, agile, powerful and more. Mastering the shapes and movements of Hatha Yoga is no easy job. Spirituality is beautiful and physical and there is much to be enjoyed in Hatha Yoga, as in other sports and athletic fields of training, out of sheer beauty and eloquence of shapes and movements.
But let us not stop at the shape.
Modern Hatha Yoga teaching often dives straight into the posture and / or breath practices. There is little preparation of the practitioner prior. We modern yogis no longer necessarily follow the extensive preparations that are recommended for the opening of the subtle energy work that Hatha Yoga provides. I see no problem in old methods changing and adapting to the modern world as long as it is appropriate to the individual practitioners constitution.
Some might practice just for the physical well-being and fitness aspect and some might practice for the spiritual evolution of the soul. With everything in between. I do find that the level of entry of even the shape making of Hatha Yoga, the purely physical aspect of the practice, is in most offerings of Hatha Yoga, too high for most. A beginners practice is not really a beginners practice. Also I find that we might be losing the subtle energy experience aspect of the practice if we focus too much on the physical athleticism of the shapes of Hatha Yoga. There is a delicious combination, of physical and subtle energy and breath that we do not want to miss out on as Hatha Practitioners! As Hatha Yoga Teachers I believe it is our service to provide the pathway to that experience to the students.
If you ever tried a beginners Hatha Yoga or Vinyasa Yoga class and felt it was too hard, do not despair. Everything that I have written above is what makes Hatha Yoga an advanced practice. If we have agility/mobility/flexibility in our body we will easier get into the shapes of the postures, and that gives us a leg up (ha ha ha) in where we begin our journey, but it is not enough and certainly not a pre-requisite to begin a subte energy exploration of a Hatha Yoga practice. We simply need to prepare wisely and enjoyably and practice authentically from where we are today. For this, choosing a teacher and a method and beginning where it is appropriate for you gets you moving forward in your HY practice.
Let us not stop at the shape.
We may start at the shape, but let us not stop at it. Let us look beyond the shape to the energetic principles Asana practice invites us to discover. Let us put ourselves in a position where Asana can happen.
‘’You cannot do Yoga, Yoga does you” - YM-ism from the YogaMonks Method
Practicing Hatha Yoga
Some of us might see the shape and give up even before we start, and this is understandable. The mere shape making is daunting and overwhelming. That is where a real beginners practice or a preparatory practice for Hatha Yoga (like the YM Method) can be a good starting place.
In YM you are not attempting to make any Hatha Yoga shapes at all in the early years of practice, but instead move through shapes/vinyasas that work on the underlying alignment and energetics of the postures through simple accessible movements that help you get less stuck and unblocked. This subject of Hatha Yoga as a method to get unstuck/unblocked in our energy channels, I discuss in greater detail in my book on Yoga.
For most of us, myself included, the merging of breath and posture will first require some degree of mastery in breath and in posture first. Therefore the Hatha Yoga Practice that I feel most of us can begin with, is one where we practice breath-work and practice posture as separate practices.
“Wait, Mithila, are you saying that I must not do “inhale arms up”?.”
No, I am not saying that. You may do as many “inhale arms up, exhale forward bends” as you like as long as it is with ease. I advise caution in changing breath patterns without proper preparation of the practitioner (or the Teacher for that matter). It is doing breath and movement with ease that makes practice advanced. Then to add the energetic channels and their clearing and the flow of Prana in movement is another layer of complexity. It is the ease, or lack thereof, that shows us if we are going too far too soon.
For example: I do not recommend Ujjaji breathing with movement for beginners. I do not recommend any active conscious breath with movement, as I find there is greater ease in both breath and movement when movement is done with natural breathing and when we allow the movements to breathe us. So too it is easier to understand and get familiar with ones breath patterns when observing them without movements involved. All of this is relevant to a practice that is to be done daily or often. I do propose this different approach as a preparation for Hatha Yoga Practice (in no way unique as I know I am not alone in proposing this approach).
There is more to this story and if you are interested in the what, how and why of this subject and breath in movement specifically please read on about it in the Scrolls recommended below. I write more about my experience on teaching posture and breath combined and the why behind my philosophy of separating the practices in the beginning. All this and more in my book on Yoga. This may be of special interest to Yoga Teachers.
Why should you practice?
If we are drawn to the beauty and expressiveness of movement, we love our body’s way to hold our soul and spirit in the world, we love being in our bodies or simply wish to be more in our bodies than we are currently able, then the Hatha Yogic Path becomes a good choice for the seeker looking to find a practice.
If you are serious about spiritual evolution, self-study, growth, bettering your life, then Yoga Practice and Hatha Yoga Practice could very well suit you. It is a system of self-help, therapy, health and fitness along with all of its spiritual evolutionary benefits.
There are so many immediate benefits to a well-balanced beginners practice of Hatha Yoga that we need not be desiring Self-Realisation or any type of advanced yogic practice or posture to get on a journey of exploring our Bodies through the science and arts of Hatha Yoga. We do not need to consider ourselves religious or spiritual to begin a practice of Hatha Yoga. We just need an open mind to understand the what, how and why behind Hatha Yoga in its greater context of Yoga and its immediate philosophy about the magnificent system of energy that is human being. Yet all in due time. Just begin. I can guarantee that you will be changed through it and with no turning back :-D!
What type of Hatha Yoga should you practice?
Find a style of Hatha Yoga and a teacher that fits you. This might take some looking around until you find the right fit of both style and teacher. The right fit for you may change over time and practice as may the right teacher. Don’t give up at the first yoga class if it does not feel good. There are so many styles of Hatha Yoga you are sure to find a practice that complements your nature. If you find none, there may well be other types of Yoga (that are not Hatha Yoga) that suit you better. Explore. You will find something you enjoy, maybe even love.
I searched for 8 years before I found the YM Method through its founder Jon Monks and then I also met my Spiritual Guru in London all at once. Once I found my path of practice, both practicing and teaching and life itself became just better (understatement :-D). I hope it won’t take you that long to find your path of practice, but even if it does it will be worth the journey and effort.
Further Scrolls: YM Method
Hatha Yoga Schools and Styles