What is Hatha Yoga?
Do you ever wonder what the ancient principles of yoga are? What is yoga really about? And what is the difference between modernized yoga styles and traditional Hatha Yoga? Yoga is becoming more and more widespread over the world. As yoga has so many benefits, the increasing popularity of yoga can be seen as a positive development. However, this development goes together with a change in the practice of yoga. The emphasis is shifting from holistic practice to more yoga-inspired exercises.
This blog gives you an overview of the underlying philosophy and the traditional practice of Hatha Yoga.
The Four Paths of Yoga
In order to understand what Hatha Yoga is, we need to first understand the four paths of yoga.
As you might know, the ultimate goal of traditional yoga is not to increase flexibility and strength. At the core, yoga philosophy focuses on achieving self-realization. Self-realization can be described as the state in which you are free from the illusions of the material world, thereby understanding the true core of your existence (the true Self).
To fulfill this goal, the scriptures offer four yogic paths. Each is a non-sectarian practice suitable for humans having various personalities, possibilities, and capabilities. You may follow one or several of these paths to reach the goal of Self-realization.
- Raja Yoga: The path of control. In this practice, you bring body, mind, and breath under control to let go of ego and realize the Self. Hatha Yoga, including the practice of asanas, is a part of Raja Yoga.
- Jnana Yoga (Gyan Yoga): The path of knowledge. In this practice, you surrender your ego through acquiring knowledge, which removes ignorance and illusion and leads to understanding the reality of the Self.
- Bhakti Yoga: The path of devotion to the Divine and purity. This is the path of surrendering your ego to whatever is your perception of Divinity and completely sattvic (pure). In this way, you start to realize the reality of the Self.
- Karma Yoga: The path of selfless duty. When you follow this path, you do your duty to the best of your abilities, without attachment to results or rewards. This helps you let go of your ego and leads to Self-realization.
The eight limbs of Raja Yoga
Raja in Sanskrit means ‘control’, referring to the practice of yoga in which we work on controlling our mind through controlling our body and breath. Raja Yoga is based on the Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali. One of the chapters describes the eight-limbs path of yoga to control body, mind, senses, habits, and desires to attain “kaivalya”, ultimate awareness or ultimate liberation.
The first limb of this path consists of moral and ethical guidelines, the Yamas. The Yamas describe principles such as non-violence, truthfulness, and control over impulses. The second element, the Niyamas, focus on developing positive disciplines in order to progress on the yogic path. These positive disciplines include purification of both body and mind, contentment with the things you have, self-discipline, self-study, and devotion to the practice.
Building upon the first two limbs, the practice continues with six limbs:
- Asanas or physical exercises to purify the physical body,
- Pranayama or breathing exercises to purify the energy body,
- Pratyahara or sensory withdrawal to calm down the senses,
- Dharana or concentration to bring the control the mind,
- Dhyana or meditation, to observe the self,
- Samadhi or deep connection with self to become free from illusion.
Birth of Hatha Yoga
As mentioned above, the first two steps of the eight limbs are focused on the cleansing of the character. And, according to the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, only when one’s nature is purified; one could start with practicing asanas.
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 call it their ‘Stubborn’ practice of Yoga. This naga 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 advises to start 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. Hatha literally means ‘forceful’ or ‘stubborn’ referring to the early Indians who believed that its practice was challenging and by forcing it, spiritual liberation was achieved.
The purification of the body and mind are 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.
Swami Sivananda simplified Hatha Yoga
In pre-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 can improve their physical and mental health. Swami Sivananda coined the idea of five practices of yoga without explaining the philosophical aspect of yoga. Together, these points guide us toward a balanced and yogic lifestyle:
- Proper exercise: a healthy body is necessary for balance in the mind. Asana or 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.
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)
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.
About the Author
Ram is Founding Director of the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams India and The Netherlands. Within the last 10 years, the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams have become renowned internationally for their professional yoga teacher training courses in India and Europe, and have up to present trained over 4000 yoga teachers from all over the world. Ram is the lead teacher of the 200-hour yoga teacher training course in India and the Netherlands and the author of the extensive book: Hatha Yoga for Teachers and Practitioners – A Comprehensive Guide for Holistic Sequencing.