Hatha Yoga is the physical practice of disciplining, purifying and directing one’s energies in preparation towards experiencing yoga.

The etymology of “Hatha” is understood in two ways. Literally it means “effort” or “force” where the approach to yoga begins with external or physical willfulness, in order to prepare for the advanced yogic practices.

The other meaning talks about harmonizing and unifying the ha and tha energies within the body. They represent the prana shakti (life force) and the manas shakti (mental force) and all philosophies talk about these forces. In the Samkhya philosophy of yoga they are known as purusha and prakruti; in tantra Shiva and Shakti; in taosim yang and yin; in physics energy and matter; in hatha yoga pingala and ida; in effect the harmony and unification of the duality of the masculine/hot/creative/sun energy and the feminine/cool/receptive/moon energy that is represented in everything in the universe.

Why Hatha Yoga?

Yoga or “union” is to experience oneness of everything in one’s consciousness. Attaining this state by intellectual self-control and meditation is very difficult. The hatha yoga gurus observed that even yama (self-control) and niyama (self-discipline) which are defined in Raja Yoga as the first two steps to enlightenment, cannot be achieved practically without a certain quality of the mind and personality. Hence they created a process to prepare the mind, by starting with the body followed by breath.

Hatha yoga starts with shatkarmas (cleansing processes), followed by asanas (special postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), mudras (gestures/positions which represent the psyche) and bandhas (locks for channeling energy). This process will purify the body, by releasing any blocks in the nadis (energy channels), activating the chakras (energy centers) along the sushumna nadi (central energy channel) and harmonise the ida (left) and pingala (right) nadis.

In simple terms if the nadis were to be understood like the flow of electricity, the ida is the negative force or the flow of consciousness, pingala the positive force or flow of life energy and sushumna the neutral force or flow of spiritual energy. Unless there is perfect health, these energy flows will remain unbalanced. By working willfully towards a healthy body, the energies flow freely and unify. When there is complete harmony between body and mind, a balanced state is achieved. This is Hatha Yoga.

In this state of balance the body is prepared to experience the higher dimensions of energy that advanced yogic practices will release.

History of Hatha Yoga

Hindu tradition believes that Shiva is the founder of hatha yoga and is referred to as Adiyogi. References of hatha yoga have been found in the ancient Indian texts of the Upanishads and Puranas dating back to the 6th century B.C. In the 11th century Yogi Gorakshanath compiled the Goraksha Samhita that popularized hatha yoga. Around the 15th century Swami Swatmarama composed the Hatha Yoga Pradipika which is a compilation of all the earlier texts and considered the most influential work. The Shiva Samhita is another compilation of asanas, mudras, and tantric practices believed to have been compiled by an unknown author around the 18th century and the Gheranda Samhita is another text of the late 17th century.

Elements of Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga defines the body as the gross physical body along with the tattwas (subtle elements), which are the nadis and prana (life force).

The six shatkarmas to be practiced at the beginning are neti (nasal cleansing), dhauti (internal cleansing), basti (cleansing of bowels), kapalbhati (frontal brain cleansing), trataka (concentrated gazing) and nauli (abdominal massaging). They purify the physical body and keep it disease free by balancing the doshas (constitution).

Next are the asanas or body postures. Patanjali prescribes asanas as sukha sthira, meaning comfortable and steady. There are 84 classic asanas listed in the ancient texts. These are not simple exercises. The gurus understood the mechanics of the body, studied the various forms in nature, and created postures to drive the energies in a specific way and called them yogasanas. Every asana brings about a change in the mind, emotion and consciousness when done in the prescribed format. Along with a healthy body, the process to unblock nadis and awaken the chakras begins.

Pranayama follows along with mudras and bandhas. Pranayama is the process adopted to control the mind by controlling the prana, and breath is used to control prana. Here ayama means ‘dimension’, hence the practice is to expand the dimension of prana. The mudras and bandhas help in manipulation of prana leading to an enhanced dimension of health and existence.

Practical Aspects

In today’s world, practicing yoga is mostly the practice of hatha yoga. Most yoga schools have devised their styles and added to the knowledge base over the years, but the ultimate goal remains the same.

A typical starting prayer for enlightenment and learning for the teacher and student:

Om sahanaa vavatu Sahanau bhunaktu
Saha veeryam karavaa vahai
Tejasvi naa vadhee tamastu maa vidvishaa vahai
Om Shaanti Shaanti Shaantihi

A hatha yoga practitioner needs to start with the shatkarmas, maintain diet and timing guidelines for the practice. One then starts the learning process with suryanamaskar and simple asanas, moving on to advanced practices. These asanas are picked progressively from groups of standing, sitting, relaxation, meditative, spinal alignment, balancing and inversion series, depending on the school of yoga.

Pranayama is introduced after the body is in a relatively healthy state and various combinations of puraka (inhalation), kumbhaka (retention) and rechaka (exhalation) are practiced. The most popular are nadi shodhana, bhramari, ujjayi and bastrika pranayama.The mudras such as hasta (hand), mana (head), kaya (postural), adhara (perineal) mudras and the bandhas (locks) are practiced alongside to gain mastery over them. Various prayers like the Gayatri mantra, Mahamrutyunjaya mantra, etc are recited to help with pratyahara (withdrawing inwards), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation).

Yoga as therapy is a big part of how it is practiced today. This needs to be practiced with discretion from a trained guru and to be viewed as more than a simplistic solution. The ancient gurus always stress that while we must aim to be free from disease, we must also attain freedom from bondage and the vagaries of the mind.

A typical closing prayer that talks about happiness and freedom for all:

Sarve bhavantu sukhinah
Sarve santu niraamayah
Sarve bhadraani pashyantu
Maa kaschit dukha abhaag bhavet
Om Shaanti Shaanti Shaantihi