What is Hatha Yoga?
The ancient hatha yoga texts (Yoga Yājnavalkya1, Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā2, Siva Samhitā3 and Gheranda Samhitā4) describe techniques and practices that have a universal benefit on the human body, energy system, mind and psyche. They are practice manuals, not theological treatises. This may explain hatha yoga’s popularity. It is open to all.
Many in the west see yoga simply as an exercise system. Yoga actually is far more expansive. It ultimately is a state where one experiences complete vitality, mental clarity, and joy (sat-cit-ānanda) where the deepest aspect of our personal self expands into what can only be described as divine consciousness. It is a natural condition not dependent upon anything external to us and connects us to all life with a feeling of love and empathy.
According to ancient tradition, there are four main paths to attain this state of yoga:
- Karma Yoga - transforming one's actions
- Bhakti Yoga - transforming one's emotions
- Jnāna Yoga - transforming one's intellect
- Rāja Yoga - transforming one's mind
In the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, it states that Hatha Yoga is “a ladder to those who wish to attain the lofty Rāja Yoga.”5.
It is also said that there can be no Rāja Yoga without Hatha Yoga and no Hatha Yoga without Rāja Yoga.
In Rāja Yoga, we understand that we are not our mind. There is something higher, more subtle which directs the mind to follow our greater intelligence. When we are diligent to stay connected to our deepest self, we can practice Rāja Yoga reducing the mind's fluctuations so we come to a natural state of divine consciousness.
While Rāja Yoga speaks of eight practical steps, it mainly refers to the practice of mental concentration where one makes an effort to maintain the mind focussed on an object, meditation where effort is no longer needed, and a state of absorption where one feels no separation from the object of focus.
However, as the mind behaves like a wild horse extremely difficult to rein in, it can prove difficult to start with mental concentration, so one practices Hatha Yoga to tame the mind until its refinement through Rāja Yoga becomes possible.
Due to our strong identification with the mind, we have a tendency to forget our deepest self and become a slave to the mind allowing its desires and thoughts to influence our emotions and behavior. Imagine, for instance, that you fixate on an unfulfilled desire that produces feelings of frustration and anger. This fixation agitates the breath and seizes power over you. No clear thinking can take place. One reacts impulsively in a way that we know does not bring the best outcome. Instead, it brings us into trouble.
If we are powerless to move on from anger-producing thoughts using Rāja Yoga, we can intercede with the breath using Hatha Yoga to bring the mind into its proper relationship with our deepest self. In a way, Hatha Yoga is the suggestion to take ten deep breaths before acting.
With Hatha Yoga, we work indirectly on the mind by focussing on the purification and channeling of life force energy (prāna) within our energy system, the prānāmāya kosha.
A Focus on Prāna
© 1972 Sri Ramamurti Mishra
The life force energy Prāna exists everywhere both within and without the body. External sources include the sun, air, water, food, walking barefoot on the earth, and uplifting social contact.
Within one’s energy system, Prāna circulates in 10 principle ways, 5 of which are considered important with two (prāna & apāna) most important:
- prāna – upward flowing energy associated with inhalation
- apāna – downward flowing energy associated with exhalation and expulsion (reproduction and elimination)
- samāna – digestive energy governing assimilation and absorption
- udāna – energy centered in the throat governing expression and communication, also involved with the upward flow of kundalinī.
- vyāna – systemic energy throughout the body governing circulation
Prāna flows through energy channels (nādīs). The ancient hatha texts claim there are 72,000 nādīs but consider 3 most important (idā, pingalā, and sushumnā).
The upward flowing prāna is represented by the “ha” in “hatha”. It is associated with the pingalā nādī along the right side within the spine terminating at the right nostril. The downward flowing apāna is represented by the “tha” in “hatha”. It is associated with the idā nādī along the left side within the spine terminating at the left nostril. Often, these two nādīs are depicted as spiraling and intersecting at six points - the main energy centers or chakras.
When the brain’s creative right hemisphere is dominant, the left idā nādī is more active. Air flows more readily through the left nostril. When the brain’s analytical left hemisphere is dominant, the right pingalā nādī is more active. According to Swara yoga6, either idā or pingalā is more active every 90-120 minutes.
While these energy currents alternate, we experience the concepts of time, space, and ego. However, the great rishis of hatha yoga discovered that through purification of the nādīs (nādī shodhana) and concentration (dhāranā), we can equilibrate the nādīs' flow where the currents no longer alternate. The prāna and apāna forces flow together through the sushumnā nādī directly between idā and pingalā and are retained there through bandhas and mudrās in a way where the energy is intensified until it sparks the awakening of the spiritual power of kundalinī shakti which leads to an ecstatic state of transcendence. There is no longer the feeling of time, space and ego. One enters a state of eternity, infinity, and divine consciousness.
Awakening and Rise of Kundalinī
The aim of Hatha Yoga is this joining together of prāna and apāna within the sushumnā nādī. As one advances, the yoga postures and sequencing remain the same, but the hatha yogi takes on a deeper, more intense inner focus within the energetic realm.
Where nādīs cross are hubs or vortexes (chakras) of energy. While the ancient texts claim there are 72,000 nādīs, there are even more chakras with seven chief chakras aligned vertically within the sushumnā nādī at points where idā and pingalā are said to intersect.
Some say that kundalinī rises within the sushumnā. Others say that it is “burnt” allowing the conjoined prāna-apāna to rise. In either case, internal blockages or knots (granthīs) of vitality (Brahmā granthī), emotion (Vishnu granthī), and thought (Rudra granthī) are dissolved as this energy rises through the main chakras. It is a union depicted symbolically as a marriage between Sakti (pure energy) who journeys from the base of the spine and Siva (pure consciousness) who resides at the crown of the head (the Brahmarandhra).
Working with the energy system brings tremendous power. Before starting, the hatha yogi abides by certain ethical restraints (yamas) and ethical observances (niyamas) to ensure that this power is deployed in a beneficial manner both for the practitioner and the world. They are also the first steps toward adhering the mind to the will of our deepest self.
Then, the hatha yogi practices:
- kriyās - purification techniques
- āsanas - yoga postures
- prānāyāma - breathing techniques
- mudrās - energy seals
- bandhas - energy locks
- pratyāhāra - directing the senses inwardly
- dhāranā - concentration
- dhyāna - meditation
- sāmādhi - absorption
While hatha yoga describes an almost mechanistic approach to the awakening and ascent of kundalinī, all forms of yoga (karma, bhakti, jnāna) have a signifcant influence over kundalinī shakti. For instance, cultivating the feeling of unconditional love in bhakti yoga naturally awakens kundalinī without the practitioner’s focus on it.
While yoga asanas make one strong and flexible and balance the endocrine and nervous systems, the hatha yogi views āsana in terms of nādī purification to facilitate the joining of prāna and apāna in the sushumnā for its subsequent rise.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipikā mentions 84 postures with eight most important. The eight are mainly seated postures that allow the yogi to remain stable and comfortable to carry out the higher hatha practices of prānāyāma, pratyāhāra, concentration and meditation.
The ancient hatha texts also mention other postures found in contemporary yoga: the sitting forward bend posture paschimottanāsana, the backward bending “bow” posture dhanarāsana, the arm balancing “peacock” posture mayurāsana, and the spinal twisting posture matsendrāsana.
As one progresses in hatha yoga, one’s inner life takes on a richness that draws the senses inward (pratyāhāra). Together, the senses concentrate the mind where it begins to discern inner sound vibration (nāda). This focus is delicate and transforms our state of consciousness. From it, our mind approaches pure silence where the expansion into divine consciousness can take place.
For this reason, we do not play music in our courses. External stimuli, no matter how pleasant, conflict with the intensification and deepening of this subtle inner focus. A mind oscillating back and forth between internal and external stimuli is not concentrated enough to settle deeper into higher meditative states. From the Raja Yoga Sutras:
Commentary: The seeker should focus his mind on one specific object of concentration. If he jumps from one to another, steadiness of mind can never be developed. Not only must concentration be focused on one object alone during any given sitting. This is the only way to gather the rays of mind and to perfect one-pointedness.
That said, when music becomes the mind’s solitary focus, like in Nāda Yoga, it guides concentration toward meditation. In Nāda Yoga, one consciously listens to musical notes in the Indian scale which resonate on a vibratory level with the chakras. One also repeats mantras which are sound vibrations that protect the mind (manas=mind, tra=protect). Mantras quell indiscriminate thought activity and bring us closer to that mental silence conducive to meditative states.
Hatha Yoga Lineages
Sivananda Yoga, Ashtanga vinyasa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Vinyasa Krama are four systems of Hatha Yoga taught at La Source. Each system has developed through a specific lineage: the first through Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh by his disciple Swami Vishnudevananda and the last three through Krishnamacharya of Mysore by his disciples Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar and Srivatsa Ramaswami respectively.
When you come to any of our hatha yoga courses, they will include the structured posture sequence of that specific hatha system. Some will include prānāyāma breathing exercises. Others may not include prānāyāma as a stand-alone practice but will focus your attention to the breath to regulate the prāna and to intensify concentration. Some teachers may include meditation.
There are many more Hatha Yoga systems which are either named after the master of that hatha system or after a yogic concept to set it apart.
Where you find classes generically named “hatha yoga”, the teacher is either not certified through a specific lineage or is certified but chooses not to adhere to that lineage’s structured sequencing of yoga postures. The teacher may wish to come up with his/her own sequence of the classic postures or create a sequence that will suit the specific needs of the students.
The Yogi’s Vocabulary
- Karma Yoga
- Bhakti Yoga
- Jnāna Yoga
- Rāja Yoga
- Hatha Yoga
- Idā – Pingalā -Sushumnā
- Yoga Yājnavalkya, commentaries by A.G. Mohan
- Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, commentaries by Swami Muktibodhananda
- Siva Samhitā, commentaries by Srisa Chandra Vasu
- Gheranda Samhitā, commentaries by Srisa Chandra Vasu
- Hatha Yoga Pradipikā, commentaries by A.G. Mohan
- Swara Yoga, Swami Muktibodhananda