I began my yoga journey at the age of eight years at my school. Apart from Veda classes we also had Hatha Yoga asana classes every morning with our Guruji. Our Gur ji was a traditional teacher from a respected priest cast. Over the next eight years, I had lessons from him. His classes were strict and challenging and followed the classical Hatha Yoga tradition and syllabus.
When, in 2007, I came to Europe I was surprised to see that Hatha Yoga was considered to be a soft and easy style of yoga and in fact, there is a Western version of Hatha Yoga being taught as Classical Yoga.
In this blog, I aim to explain the principles of ancient Classical Hatha Yoga. This blog will give you an overview of the underlying philosophy and the traditional principles of Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga Definition
Hatha in Sanskrit literally means ‘stubborn’. So Hatha Yoga practice means the stubborn practice of yoga, without the interference of the five senses and the mind. Generally, people think of Hatha Yoga only as asana practice. But it is the austere practice of asana, pranayama, dharana, and dhyana to achieve the sublime state of samadhi. In samadhi the yogi becomes free from the illusion of form, time, and space. Asana is just one of the six practices in this path.
Hatha Yoga originates from Raja Yoga. It is the simpler version (without Yamas and Niyamas) of Raja Yoga. In simple words, you can say all the yoga poses and pranayama exercises can be classified as Hatha Yoga. So if you practice any yoga asanas or pranayama exercises you are practicing Hatha.
It is interesting to know that some teachers explain Hatha as Ha (sun) + Tha (moon) yoga, because of the fact that Hatha Yoga helps to purify our solar (Pingla) and lunar (Ida) channels.
Tools in Practice
- Asanas – to gain control over the body
- Pranayama – to gain control over the breath
- Mudra – to manipulate and stimulate pranas (subtle energies)
- Bandhas – to stimulate chakras (energy centers)
- Kriyas – to purify internal organs
- Mantras – to control the mind
History of Hatha Yoga
Around the early 15th century, some yogis from the Natha lineage did not want to wait so long and began practicing asanas before mastering Yama and Niyamas. As the mind was not ready for further practice they had to work harder. They called it their ‘stubborn’ practice of Yoga. These Natha Yogis kept practicing the asanas until they mastered them. This way of practicing Raja Yoga, not following the strict order of first mastering Yamas and Niyamas, was named ‘Hatha Yoga‘.
Swami Swatmarama, a 15th-century sage compiled Hatha Yoga Pradipika and briefly described six limbs of yoga to achieve Samadhi without the long process of the first two steps of the Yamas and Niyamas. Hatha Yoga is also known as Shatanga Yoga (six limb yoga).
Swami Swatmarama advised starting with the physical practices at first because most people will find it easier to master the mind through the body, than purifying their character, habits, and mind directly through the observance of the Yamas and Niyamas.
Hatha Yoga, therefore, focuses primarily on the purification of the body as a path that leads to purification of the mind. The purification of the body and mind is essential also to be healthy. Being and staying healthy is a central goal in yoga because only then will you possess the best vehicle for your further spiritual development.
Six Principles of Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga is the six-limb yoga (Shatanga Yoga). These six limbs are:
- Asana – steady comfortable state of body and mind
- Pranayama – expansion of capacity to retain prana
- Pratyahara – withdrawal from the sensory input
- Dharana – bringing the mind to one single point
- Dhyana – observing the self
- Samadhi – becoming free from Maya
So the first two limbs of Raja Yoga; Yamas & Niyamas are excluded in Hatha Yoga.
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The popularity of Hatha Yoga
In ancient times, Hatha Yoga was considered a secret and sacred practice. Only the monks and the male children of the priest cast could learn and practice it. Therefore, common people thought of it as some secret magical practice. Many mystical stories were told about yoga practices. Hatha Yoga gained popularity in India in the 15th century when monks began to demonstrate asanas in public events. But it came into the limelight when the British photographers published photos of monks performing dangerous postures in Western magazines at end of the 18th century.
This made the spiritual seekers of the West curious and ignited a fascination with mystical eastern practices. Many people visited India to learn yoga and meditation. But the popularity of yoga got a boost when some masters visited the West and taught these yoga asanas to their Western students.
In the mid-20th century teachers like Indra Devi, B.K.S Iyengar published books that sold in millions, bringing the popularity of Hatha Yoga to the masses.
Benefits of Hatha Yoga
There are numerous benefits of Hatha Yoga discovered by scientists and researchers. Many reports can be found in our book. I am mentioning some primary benefits below.
Some of the benefits of Hatha Yoga on the physical body are:
- It improves mobility in the joints.
- It improves flexibility in the connective tissue.
- It stretches the fascia and improves its condition.
- It improves metabolism.
- It improves the functioning of all body systems.
- It stimulates cell repair and regeneration.
- It improves blood flow in the spinal cord and brain.
- It rejuvenates the ligaments.
- It helps to stimulate the lymphatic system and cleanses the body.
- It improves the overall range of motion of the body.
- It improves energy levels.
- It improves the function of the lungs and heart.
- It brings balance to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.
Some of the mental benefits are:
- It helps to calm down the senses.
- It helps to improve concentration.
- It sharpens the focus.
- It brings balance to the emotions.
- It relieves anxiety and depression.
- It removes mental fatigue.
- It stimulates creativity.
- It stimulates learning facilities.
Swami Sivananda & Hatha Yoga
In per-independence India, yoga asana practice was seen as the practice only for ascetics and monks. In 1936, Swami Sivananda wanted to make the practice of Hatha Yoga more accessible for common people. So that they could improve their physical and mental health. Swami Sivananda taught a simple yoga asana sequence, popularly known as 'Rishikesh sequence’, with relatively short holds and simplified postures.
Swami Sivananda coined the idea of five practices of yoga without explaining the deep philosophical aspect of yoga. Together, these points guide toward a balanced and yogic lifestyle:
- Proper exercise: a healthy body is necessary for balance in the mind. The practice of yoga poses with steadiness and ease, is a suitable way to work on strength, stamina, and flexibility. While practicing according to the ancient principles, we simultaneously also (re-)balance the nervous system.
- Proper breathing: the mind can be controlled through conscious breathing. Therefore, yoga practice includes a broad range of breathing techniques. When mastered, the breath is full and effortless.
- Proper relaxation: it is important to relax the body regularly, allowing it to restore from the effort. Relaxation does not only include the body, but also the senses.
- Proper diet: healthy nutrition is necessary to provide the body and mind with energy. It should be enough, but not disturbing or harmful. The yogic diet is mostly vegetarian, as this can be produced without unnecessary violence.
- Positive thinking and meditation: the way we think affects our state of mind. Therefore, the practice of positive thinking and meditation is very important to cultivate balance in the mind.
What to expect in a Hatha Yoga class?
Generally, a Hatha class lasts 90 minutes. The class is divided into four sections.
- Breathing: First part of the class is about breathing exercises. You will do the two most important breathing exercises; Kapalabhati (forceful exhalations & Anulom Vilom (alternate nostril breathing).
- Warm-up: Second part covers warm-up exercises for the whole body. You will start with Surya Namaskar and then dolphin and leg raise. Surya Namaskar provides a full warm up to the spine as well as all the large muscle groups.
- Asanas: The third part will cover from 12 - 15 yoga asanas in the traditional sequence. You will hold the poses from the duration of 1 minute to 3 minutes depending on your capability. Every now and then there will be short relaxations in between the poses.
- Final Relaxation: This is the most calming part of the class. Here you will get 15 minutes deep relaxation which may put you to sleep.
What are the common props in Hatha Yoga?
Sometimes props are used in a Hatha Yoga class. They can help to make the pose accessible or make it safer. Common props are:
- Meditation cushion
- Yoga block
Can everyone do Hatha Yoga?
No, even though it is an extremely beneficial style of Yoga. There are some people who should not attend a regular Hatha Yoga class (they might find great benefits in an adapted Hatha Yoga class though!). In my experience the following group of people will find Hatha Yoga too challenging and will find more benefits in some gentler form of yoga-like Yin Yoga or Chair Yoga.
- Very senior citizens.
- People going through extensive injury recovery.
- People with neck or spinal injury.
- People with severe knee issues.
How Hatha Yoga is different from other styles?
Hatha Yoga is an ancient yoga practice, there are many differences with other modern yoga styles:
- In Hatha, asanas are held steady for a duration of 1-5 minutes. Most of the modern styles are dynamic and hold poses only briefly.
- In Hatha, the metabolism decreases compared to other yoga styles.
- In Hatha, asanas focus is on internal organs and the spine whereas in other styles focus is on muscle groups and joints.
- In Hatha, the body goes through less wear and tear compared to other styles.
- In Hatha, less oxygen is required as compared to other styles.
- In Hatha , stillness of body and mind is given more importance than movement.
Top Hatha Yoga books
There are many books available on the topic but the most popular books are:
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Pancham Sinhh
- Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Swami Satchindananda
- Hatha Yoga for Teachers & Practitioners by Ram Jain & Kalyani Hauswirth Jain
- Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnu Devananda
Best Hatha Yoga Poses
There are 84 traditional Hatha Yoga poses. The most popular poses are:
- Shirshasna - Headstand
- Sarvangasana - Shoulderstand
- Halasana- Plough Pose
- Matsyasana - Fish Pose
- Gomukhasana – Cow-Face Pose
- Paschimotthanasna – Seated Forward Bend
- Bhujangasana – Cobra Pose
- Mayurasana – Peacock Pose
- Natrajasana – Dancer's Pose
- Vrkshasana - Tree Pose
Guidelines for your holistic Hatha Yoga practice
How can you translate these principles into your practice of Hatha Yoga asanas and reap the maximum benefits from this ancient science? One of the foremost (and nowadays unfortunately often forgotten) principle is the principle of sthira sukham asanam. This definition of asana states, that an asana is a pose in which you experience both comfort and stability in each pose.
We are often told, in our modern practices that asanas need to be practiced with a goal in mind. We are told that we need to be deeper in a posture, or we need to perfect our balance poses. But when we understand the ancient science of Hatha Yoga we understand that we must return to the most basic of all yoga instruction “Sthira sukham asanam” or “asana is a steady and comfortable pose.”
This seemingly simple phrase is not only about how we should practice our asanas, but it is also about how we can move through life. We need to be steady in our intention, both in our practice and our lives, and we need to be comfortable with who we are. This could be the greatest gift that yoga has to offer the world right now: the possibility to be comfortably at peace with who we are and our place in the world. It is only from this place of acceptance that equanimity and compassion can grow.
In order to achieve comfort and ease in a pose, it is important to adjust your practice to your abilities. In terms of strength, this means you can increase the load step by step. The same applies to flexibility. Therefore, each pose consists of different steps and options. When you can hold a pose for a longer period of time, you can proceed to a longer duration or to the next level of difficulty. This makes Hatha Yoga a gradual process of transformation.
The principle of non-violence (ahimsa) in Hatha Yoga
Also the philosophical principles from the Yamas: ahimsa, or non-violence is beautifully reflected in such a transformative way of practicing. You should practice in such a way that you do not harm yourself. Instead of focusing on the shape and forcing your body into the pose, it is better to notice where your body is still sufficiently comfortable. Practicing in the long term, with patience, may get you to the point where you are comfortable in a more advanced pose. But remember: this advanced pose is not the goal!
In conclusion, contrary to the image of yoga that dominates today, yoga is not solely about the poses. Its roots can be found in ancient philosophy, which focuses on self-realization. When practiced accordingly yoga should lead to mental, physical and spiritual balance. Ultimately, Hatha Yoga is a discipline that aims to cultivate insights into the true Self.