Articles Spring 2013
Yoga (1) Hatha Yoga
(14th April 2014)
The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning yoke. It refers to a set of techniques harnessing man’s various forms of energy in order to integrate them in the best possible way. The particles ha- and –tha in hatha refer to the sun and the moon, symbolizing the polarity to be overcome. Unity is the goal. Yoga means union.
Yoga techniques are a gift of the Indian civilization to the world. Depictions of yoga postures were found in the ancient cities of the Indus civilization, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. Yoga is over four thousand years old. Coming from India, it has roots in its ancient Vedic religion. Within Hinduism, yoga is considered as one of the astik or orthodox philosophies.
There are various yogic paths, but their ultimate aim is one and the same. Raja or Royal yoga is stressing meditation above all. Karma yoga, the path of selfless action, can be practiced in daily life, in social action etc. Bhakti yoga is a path for mystiques establishing a loving relation with God. Jnana yoga aims at illumination through knowledge and insight. Hatha yoga transforms body and mind. It can also be considered as a part of the ashtanga or eightfold yoga path described by Maharshi Patanjali. Sounds and mantras are nada yoga’s tools. The main techniques used in hatha yoga are described below.
Throughout the world
More varieties developed, both in India and throughout the world. Tibetan yoga for instance, in connection with pre-Buddhist and Buddhist culture. Jains, Sikhs, Christians developed their own varieties. Sunni and Shia Muslim leaders are generally opposed to yoga. Sufi Muslims are more tolerant and some of their practices are close to yoga. In Chinese culture, ta-chi is based on similar principles as hatha yoga. Japanese Reiki is close too.
The best known yoga practice consists of postures called asanas. But not any posture is a yogic pose. It has to be a stable and comfortable one, so the yogi can stay in relative immobility in it for a while, while breathing correctly and with the appropriate concentra-tion. Asanas are practiced in series combining postures and counter postures, half pos-tures and complete ones, bending forward, backwards, to the left and the right, while sitting, lying on back or belly, standing… Many asanas are derived from animal postures. Asanas have Sanskrit names. An essential asana is shavasana or the corpse pose in which yoga nidra or deep conscious yogic relaxation is practiced. A safe, basic series of asanas can be found on Yogadarshan’s website.
Other hatha yoga techniques
Kriyas or dynamic exercises are preparing the body to enter a series of asanas. Surya- namaskara or the sun salutation can be practiced as a dynamic warm-up, but also as meditation in motion and that can be combined with prayer too. Pranayama is the science of breath control and the next step beyond asanas. The breath is looked upon as the bridge between body and mind – thoughts as well as emotions. There is a wide range of techniques ranging from pure breath awareness to extensive breath control. Mudra means seal, and a mudra is symbolic gesture sealing the energy in a certain zone. Mudras are used in classical Indian dance such as Bharatanatyam. A bandha is a forceful contrac-tion of a group of muscles in order to send the energy in a given direction. These are the main hatha yoga techniques. Basic information about kriyas, bandhas and mudras is on Yogadarshan’s website.
It is recommended to observe a moderate diet in conjunction with the practice of yoga asanas and other hatha yoga techniques. Specifics vary according to “time and clime”. Indian yogis will tend to be vegetarian if they are Hindu, but Buddhist yogis tolerate meat moderately. Outside India, one has to take several factors in consideration. What about your heredity? What climate do you live in? What season are you in? What’s your age? What’s your lifestyle, your profession? How is your health? What does your religion say? And so on. Moderation is the order of the day, balance. Listening to your body will help a great deal.
Using recreational drugs is generally not recommended in combination with the practice of yoga. This goes for tobacco, Indian “bhang”, marihuana or weed, alcohol, opium and other hard drugs. The exception being that a very small quantity of a drug can be used for ceremonial purposes. As the first Americans did, passing on the peace pipe. During Christian service, bread and wine are used. Likewise, during some Hindu festivals, a small quantity of marijuana is taken. In traditional areas or India, you can see sadhus or wandering men, some holier than others, smoke "chillums" along the road. These are all exceptions to the general rule: be careful and moderate with any drug. In small quantities it may cure you, or procure you some pleasure or benefit. In larger quantity or as an addictive habit, it becomes your worst enemy and takes away your liberty.
A moral code is at the foundation of any form of yoga. It consists of yamas and niyamas. The can be found on Yogadarshan's page about ethics. Obviously, someone who practices yoga in a different society, another country, having a non-Indian religion and so on, may have to adapt this set of rules or to add specific injunctions according to the society he or she lives in, and the religion she or he is following.
Selva Rajan Yesudian, a Christian yogi from India, was an early bird in introducing Europeans to hatha yoga. There are numerous yoga schools, both in India and across the world. The one founded by Krishnamacharya teaches vini yoga, meaning very carefully and precisely executed yoga, but they don’t use the term vini anymore. His disciple Pattabi Jois was the founder of the vigorous style called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. The first Westerner to get in touch with Pattabi Jois, was Belgian yoga pioneer André Van Lysebeth, in 1964. Van Lysebeth’s book Yoga Self Taught attracted many to Mysore where Jois was teaching. B.K.S. Iyengar was also a student with Krishnamacharya who later founded his own school. Swami Sivananda wrote about two hundred books in (Indian) English about many aspects of yoga, the Vedanta philosophy and spirituality. Some of his disciples like Swami Satchidananda and Swami Vishnudevananda founded schools and centres in the West, spreading Sivananda yoga. Swami Rama and his disciple Swami Veda Bharati founded the Himalayan Institute, and they have their own particular approach. There are many more schools and “styles”, but all are essentially one.
- Going through a varied set of dynamic kriyas develops the muscles in a normal and healthy way, increasing strength.
- Stretching and elongating groups of muscles makes you more supple.
- Some postures increase physical balance, all postures contribute to a better mental and overall balance.
- Asanas stimulate organs in the whole body. You can actually experience it after a while.
- Bending forward, backward, doing lateral twists... awakens the spinal column. It's very hard to underestimate the benefits thereof.
- The combination of dynamic and static practices releases tension!
- As there is no competition, there is no stress in yoga.
- The very nature of the postures is anti-depressing.
- Becoming aware of the breath, improving it, slowing it down, making it more com-plete... alternating stimulating, cooling, quietening types of breath enhance the quality of life.
- Yoga practices influence the capture, storage and distribution of the subtle energy called prana. This increases resistance and allows complete and balanced develop-ment.
- Regular practice helps regulate weight.
- Hatha yoga has a general preventive effect, lots of problems and pain can be avoided.
- Breathing well helps your heart to keep up.
- Pranayama, asanas and other practices increase self-control and self-confidence because you are relating differently to your body, and your mental attitude towards problems changes. Your will-power and the ability to endure pain may be influenced by it.
- Hatha yoga often creates curiosity and opens the gate to integral yoga encompassing moral values and spiritual aims.
The miracle of hatha yoga, is that it can be practiced at any age and in any state - in various forms and adapted doses of course. Yoga for children is playful. Practice for teenagers should avoid those postures that could hamper their further growth. An all round modera-te practice can benefit any adult between the ages of twenty and forty-five to fifty. Weak or sick persons must adapt the yoga practice to their condition, but providing they do, yoga can be a complementary therapy helping the treatment to be more effective. For those with strong and healthy bodies, there's no harm in going for more daring asanas and other practices. But this should never be done to show off, nor in a competitive fashion. Exces-ses should be avoided. As people age, a more mindful and careful approach is recommen-ded. Pranayama can be practiced at any age. Asanas can be adapted. Props like cushions, blankets, chairs etc. soften poses and make them more accessible. Yoga is rejuvenating and becomes a tool for anti-ageing.
These days, yoga is practiced in many different contexts on all continents and in many countries except for most Muslim countries. It is actually forbidden in some Muslim-dominated countries like Malaysia. Yoga can be useful at school for children, at the work-place to calm stress, in prisons, in hospitals and so on. It also makes sense to practice yoga alongside sports. Pregnant women benefit from particular postures, breathing and mus-cular exercises. After having practiced yoga regularly for a while you start to harmonize your body and mind. Progress is relative, but perseverance is essential.
The abovementioned techniques can be elements of the total or eightfold path consisting of:
1. Yamas: restraints;
2. Niyamas: observances;
3. Asana: posture;
4. Pranayama: breath control;
5. Pratyahara: withdrawing the senses from their objects;
6. Dharana: concentration;
7. Dhyana: meditation;
8. Samadhi is the name of the final goal as yogi’s see it: a state of oneness, fulfillment, unity of the self and the Self or man’s soul and God.
Sri Aurobindo was the first one to talk about integral yoga, combining elements of hatha yoga with other types of yoga. Swami Satchidananda Saraswati used the same term for his approach.
My personal path
Someday, I may write about the way yoga came into my life when I was fourteen, what I studied in India at the age of twenty and how I turned to different occupations for many years after that. I can tell how I returned to India much later, and also about my study at the Yoga Academy in Aalst, Belgium and at other schools. Finally, I could also share some experiences about teaching for over seven years now. I consider myself as a tool passing on what I gratefully received. I am forever indebted to my teachers in East and West and I thank them sincerely. I can only do my best, letting the "Greatest of all Yogi's" inspire me and do all the rest. Namaste.
14th April 2013.
To Labyrinto's page on yoga or to Summary Articles Spring 2013