Now, this is not a final explanation of Hatha yoga. I’ve compiled this definition from a variety of sources, including my text from yoga Teacher Training, conversations with yoga teachers and mentors, and books and other resources. There are vast numbers of texts and experts out there who may say the exact same thing – or who may say something slightly different. For example: in The Heart of Yoga, Desikachar lists Mantra yoga as another path of yoga beside Raja, Karma, Hatha and the others. To me, practicing mantra can be another part of the Hatha yoga path as well. So – while not every explanation is going to be exactly the same, most of them all point toward these same essential explanations. So, that said, here is a description of Hatha yoga as I understand it …
“Yoga” is a practice that an individual undertakes as a means to achieve … well, something – usually inner peace, unity of self, unity with the Divine, to decrease disillusionment, release from suffering, liberation from samsara, etc. Most yoga tends to center around the writings of Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra, generally considered the definitive text on yoga.
There are many types, or Paths, of yoga:
- Jnana yoga – the search for real knowledge; the yoga of Wisdom
- Bhakti yoga – service to a power greater than ourselves; the yoga of Devotion
- Karma yoga – searching for truth through our actions, being ultimately detached from the final results because we know that we are not actually in complete control; the yoga of Action, or sometimes the yoga of Service to Others
- Raja yoga – an all-encompassing view of yoga; includes the belief that there is a God or King (Raja), which can be either a third Divine entity, or a god-like source within ourselves; Raja yoga is a variety of practices that help us find and/or accept this King; the yoga of the King
- Kriya yoga – a very practical yoga, not often heard in North America, and can be slighly confusing as to why it is different from the others (in fact, even I am confused by it); specifically, Kriya yoga focuses on three practices: tapas – the process of inner cleansing, keeping physically and mentally healthy, svadhyaya – self-inquiry, leading to a gradual discovery of who/where/what we are, and isvarapranidhana – placing value on the quality of the action not on its fruits, and/or surrending to a higher power (these three practices are also part of the 8-Limbed Path of Hatha yoga); the (other) yoga of Action, or the yoga of Progress
- Hatha yoga – practices concerned with opening the flow of prana and maintaining the free flow of prana within the body (note: prana is, essentially, the life-sustaining energy that flows through all living things; it is closely linked with the breath); losing prana leads to disillusionment, restlessness, disease; maintaining prana “brings about inner peace and happiness” (p. 138); Hatha yoga can be understood as part of Raja yoga; it is the yoga of the Sun (ha) and Moon (tha), yoga of Balance
This is what we in the United States are the most familiar with – yoga classes that focus on asanas, or physical postures. Sometimes classes will include other aspects, such as pranayama (focus on and control of the breath), mantra (chants), or meditation. Under the path of Hatha yoga are many branches and traditions. For example:
- Hatha yoga – focuses on creating unity (yoga) between ha (the ida nadi*, cool energy of the moon) and tha (the pingala nadi, hot energy of the sun) – that is, seeking balance; “Hatha yoga” is frequently used as a general term to describe a class where the teacher does not focus completely on one of the following styles, sometimes incorporating elements from multiple ones
- Kundalini yoga – focuses on the concept of kundalini, which is defined as either: a strongly-seated obstacle blocking the ideal flow of prana, or a large store of positive energy that usually remains dormant, depending on the text/tradition you follow
- Tantric yoga – focuses on techniques, connections, and relationships of the body and the universe; tantric yoga actually predates Hatha yoga – Hatha yoga is essentially a branch of tantric yoga
- Iyengar yoga – focuses on proper alignment of the physical body
- Power yoga – tends to focus on postures requiring a lot of muscle-work; more rigorous and strength-building
- Vinyasa yoga – tends to be more fast-paced; classes typically include quick-moving, repeated sequences focused on connecting these movements with a strong breath (Shiva Rea has a good article about it in Yoga Journal’s online archives)
- Ashtanga yoga – a form of Vinyasa yoga, focusing on moving through pre-determined sequences with the breath as guide; it is its own system of yoga, where practitioners follow one of six “series” (varying degrees of difficulty) of the same sequences
- Viniyoga – focuses on the five practices relating to the koshas (the five layers of the human body):
- asana – physical body
- pranayama – energetic/prana body
- mantra &/or mudra – mind body
- meditation – wisdom body
- prayer &/or ritual – bliss body
- Anusara yoga – focuses on the heart, and the artistic expression of the divine grace in all individuals
- Restorative yoga – focuses on restoring the physical, mental, and emotional bodies, through use of props for complete support
- etc …
In general, the Path of Hatha yoga emphasizes three main practices that parallel the Three Stages of Life:
- Youth – Asana (physical postures)
- Middle Age – Pranayama (breathing exercises)
- Maturity – Dhyana (meditation)
According to Desikachar, Hatha yoga differs from other paths of yoga in that it focuses on the physical and energetic bodies – for example, including the chakras and the intention of balancing the flows of energies that spin these chakras.
Furthermore, many traditions under Hatha yoga teach a set of guidelines called the Eight-Limbed Path, which is a means to samadhi (or complete connection). These traditions include the Viniyoga of T. K. V. Desikachar, Iyengar yoga of B. K. S. Iyengar, Ashtanga yoga of Pattabhi Jois, Vinyasa Krama yoga of Srivatsa Ramaswami, and Restorative yoga of Judith Lasater.
- 1. Yamas (“Restraints”)
- i. Ahimsa (non-violence)
- ii. Satya (truth)
- iii. Asteya (non-stealing)
- iv. Brahmacharya (behavior befitting a student)
- v. Aparigraha (non-grasping)
- 2. Niyamas (“Constraints”)
- i. Saucha (cleanliness)
- ii. Santosha (contentment)
- iii. Tapas (austerity, zeal, or heat)
- iv. Svadhyaya (self-study)
- v. Ishvara-pranidhana (surrender to “God”)
- 3. Asana (postures)
- 4. Pranayama (extending the breathe, or the infinite energy that permeates all things)
- 5. Pratyahara (withdrawal/withholding of the senses)
- 6. Dharana (holding/maintaining concentration)
- 7. Dhyana (meditation)
- 8. Samadhi (joining of consciousnesses, enstasy)
Within this context, the yoga that I teach is definitely Hatha yoga, with strong elements of Viniyoga. I tend to focus on integration of breath and movement, so as to bring the mind in line with the body. Once the mind and body start to align, the student starts to find “proper alignment” of the body within themselves. My personal practice of yoga over the last eight years has also included elements of Iyengar, Anusara, and Vinyasa; hence, I also call upon these traditions to inform my own teaching.
My classes and sessions are designed to meet the needs of the group that I am working with at that time – hence, some classes/sessions are more focused on awareness of the body, others are more focused on strength-building, still others are more focused on pranayama and/or meditation. The three stages of life highly influence how I design my classes around my students – as well as the particular, unique life situations of each student (because not everyone needs the exact prescriptions given by the three stages platform!).
I hope that this helps answer some of those questions of “what is ‘Hatha’ yoga,” and “what type of yoga do you teach?” Contact me, or subscribe to the blog, or come to a class to learn, discuss, and practice more!
*Nadi is an energy channel flowing through the body; ida nadi is the cool energy channel, passing through the left nostril; pingala nadi is the hot energy channel, passing through the right nostril; both ida and pingala cross the spine several times, creating the chakras; the susumna channel runs straight up the spine, through the chakras
Desikachar, T. K. V. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. 1995. Inner Traditions International: Rochester, Vermont.
© Percolate Yoga, October 2013