Introduction to Hatha Yoga
Āsanas make one firm, free from maladies, and light of limb…Success comes to one who is engaged in the practice…by merely reading books on Yoga, one can never get success.
-- Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā
Hatha means “force” or “determined effort” in Sanskrit. It is the path of physical transmutation. The goal of Hatha Yoga is enlightenment through the disciplined practices of:
- Postures (āsana)
- Breath control (prānāyāma)
- Cleansing techniques (shodhana)
These practices encourage poise, balance, strength, concentration, inner stillness, perseverance, patience, self-acceptance, clear self-observation and a lightness about life.
A further interpretation cites that ‘ha’ means sun – which, metaphorically, is the sun of your body, or soul – and ‘tha’ means ‘moon,’ which symbolizes consciousness. The energy of the sun never fades, whereas the moon rises and falls each month.
Like the sun, our soul never fades, but the mind, like the phases of the moon, fluctuates. When the mind and body are brought into union, the mind becomes still. When the mind becomes still, the soul comes forth and radiates through the entire body. In Hatha Yoga, the aim is to unite the body and the mind.
Basic concepts in the practice of Hatha Yoga are:
- Focused attention
- Awareness of breath
- Building physical strength and flexibility
- Cultivating steadiness of practice, enthusiasm, and caution
- Honoring messages of the body
- Taking personal responsibility
- Cultivating patience
Gorakhnāth, an 11th century Indian sage, is often named as the traditional author of the first discourse on Hatha Yoga, now lost, and is called the founder of Hatha Yoga. The Goraksa-sataka, (Hundred Verses of Goraksa,) is a basic Hatha Yoga text and describes the six limbs of yoga:
- Āsana - physical postures
- Prānāyāma – breath control
- Pratyāhāra – withdrawal of the senses
- Dhāranā – one pointedness, or steadiness of mind
- Dhyāna - meditation
- Samādhi – dissolution of the ego
Later, between the 15th and 17th centuries, three major classical Sanskrit text on Hatha Yoga were all written. They are the Śiva Samhita, the Gheranda Samhita, and the Hathayoga Pradīpikā.
The Śiva Samhita – Shiva’s Compendium – is written as a dialogue between Lord Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction and renewal) and his wife, Pārvati, a Goddess in her own right. It is said that Shiva brought Pārvati to a lonely island to impart the mysteries of yoga, assuming no one would hear him. A fish near the shore, remaining still and motionless, overheard the entire discourse. When Shiva realized the fish had learned yoga he gave him divine form and the fish became Lord of the Fishes, (Matsyendra,) who later spread the knowledge of yoga. The text often alludes to the Tantras, and many say there is a distinct Buddhist influence throughout the work.
The Gheranda Samhita is a late 17th Century work and is considered to be the most encyclopedic of the three classic texts on Hatha Yoga. It includes chapters on: Āsanas (postures), Mudras, Pratyāhāra (restraining the mind), restraining the breath (Prānāyāma), contemplation (Dhyāna,) and Samādhi (liberation) and is unique in devoting an entire chapter to body purification techniques.
The Hathayoga Pradīpikā is most likely the oldest and most widely referenced text. Complied in the 15th c. by Hindu sage Swatmarāma, it describes not only physical practices but mystic entities and states of consciousness. The book is dedicated to Lord Adināth, another name for Lord Shiva, and explains the science of Hatha Yoga as a means to Rāja Yoga. Hathayoga Pradīpikā includes information about:
- Purification techniques (shatkarma)
- Physical postures (āsana)
- Control of the life force through the breath (prānāyāma)
- Energy centers of the body (chakras)
- Awakening energy of the spine (kundalini)
- Body locks or bonds (bandhas)
- Body actions (kriyas)
- Spiritual power (shakti)
- Subtle conduits of life energy (nādīs)
- Sealing postures, either with the hands or the whole body (mudras)
- The esctatic state where the practitioner is one with meditation (samādhi)
Many modern schools of Hatha Yoga draw from the school of Krishnamacharya, a yoga instructor and physician of Ayervedic medicine from southern India, who taught from 1924 until his death in 1989. His students include many of today’s most influential teachers, credited for popularizing yoga in the West: Pattabhi Jois, famous for the vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga style, B.K.S. Iyengar, who emphasizes alignment, sequencing, timings and the use of props, and Krishnamacharya's son T.K.V. Desikachar, who developed the Viniyoga style. Hatha Yoga in its many modern variations is the style that most people associate with the word "Yoga" today.
In his comprehensive sourcebook, Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar writes: “It is generally believed that Rāja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are different and opposed to each other, that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali deal with spiritual discipline and the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā deals with physical discipline. It is not so, for Hatha Yoga and Rāja Yoga complement each other and form a single approach toward liberation… Āsana brings steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. Āsanas are not merely gymnastic exercises; they are postures…the yogi conquers the body by the practice of āsanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit…By performing āsanas, the [practitioner] first gains health, which is not mere existence…It is a state of complete equilibrium of body, mind and spirit...Dualities like gain and loss, victory and defeat, fame and shame, body and mind, mind and soul vanish through the mastery of āsanas.”
Please visit the Hatha Yoga section on this site for further information on this path of yoga.
- B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (New York, NY: Schoken Books, 1966)
- Georg Feuerstein, The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2003)
- BKS Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, (New Delhi, India: Harper Collins India, 1995)
- H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, Honesdale, PA: Body and Breath, Inc, 2001)
Copyright Yoga Next, 2012.
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from Yoga Next.