Hatha yoga is a popular system of yoga practiced throughout the world today. Practices incorporate the mind through meditation, the physical body through asanas, and breathing exercises through pranayama. Posture is emphasized during asana workouts. Of course, as with all yoga types, overall health is the goal.
Hatha’s beginnings are in India and predate most Western religions. Much of what we know and use today were outlined in Hindu and Buddhist texts. The knowledge has traditionally been passed down from guru to student or documented by swamis. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the oldest surviving text on the topic of hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga uses 6 basic exercises to promote health and well-being: postures (asanas), mudras (gestures), breathing (pranayama), meditation, purification techniques, and disciplines. There is only one other yoga form that focuses on these 6 basic tenets of practice: raja yoga. Raja, however, uses the asanas as a segue into meditation. As one’s experiences in yoga advance and develop, the benefits will start to appear. Losing weight, a happy demeanor, cheerful eyes, a sense of well being, hearing mystical sounds, controlling the subtle self, increase in the “fire in your belly,” and purification of the place where the subtle self dwells in us all (nadis) – all are signs of success when training in yoga.
It is not always easy to find a hatha yoga program that delivers this information to its students. Beginners do not often get the philosophy behind the poses they are instructed to perform, making the practice as a whole incomplete. The guru is responsible for the development of the student, but since so much emphasis is spent on the asanas and physical attractiveness, especially in the West, the other positive parts are overlooked or completely ignored
Asanas – Yogic asanas are a good way to increase and tap into prana, or power or vitality. These deliberate movements are derived from traditional yoga exercises that are thousands of years old. They provide an important sense of body placement and challenge the human body. Hatha yoga postures focus on stretching the body, elongating the muscles, and increasing flexibility. Some postures are more intensive than others, but the goal is to make them move in perfect harmony. Effective gurus can adjust the asanas to any person’s needs. Classes are an important component to any yoga practice, and it is highly encouraged for beginners. The sense of community, the study of the sanskrit language and methods of practice are of considerable value to new learners.
Pranayama – Can be best translated as “extension of life force.” The lungs and internal organs are strengthened through pranayama.The breath work is essential to the practice of hatha yoga. The nostrils, stomach (diaphragm), and heart are targeted during the workout. Air is inhaled and exhaled, held, and forcefully expelled. Bandhas allow energy to flow. Certain breathing exercises tap into this subtle energy builder, giving new meaning to the act of breathing. This form of air flow is commonly practiced in ashtanga yoga, as well. Kumbhaka is a common term used when referring to pranayama. It is often defined as the “voluntary cessation of breath.” The effects of successful pranayama practice are increased control of breath and powerful life energy.
Meditation – The ultimate in relaxation and therapy, meditation provides so much to the yoga experience. It has healing effects on the mind and body and is detrimental to improving the wellness of the practitioner. The psychological workout will assist in the other areas of the path. The state and height of the mind increase with practice. Complete meditation can result in samadhi, or a high level of concentrated meditation.
A Note on Mudras – Mudras are hand gestures are generally used in conjunction with pranayama. These movements can be remedies for stresses of daily life, common ailments, and diseases. The addition of mudras to a regular yoga regime offers a complete, pure workout.
A Note on Where Yoga is Practiced – Sometimes the place where one practices yoga must be moved or changed due to personal discomfort or a change of scenery. Retreats allow yogis and yoginis to meet with prestigious masters of yoga in order to learn new ideas or engage more completely in their normal routine. Retreats are often located in exotic destinations and based on specific types of yoga. Massage, workshops, and group therapy are often components of a yoga retreat.
Many yogis and yoginis went on to popularize yoga in the modern day. B.K.S Iyengar’s yoga school focuses on proper alignment with the use of props. Ashtanga yoga is a vigorous form of hatha yoga, and considered an advanced practice. Vinyasa yoga is a great variation, and it encourages the use of flowing transitions from one asana into another. The result is a flow that hones balance and all learning levels. Common vinyasa exercises are sequences such as the sun and moon salutations. Kundalini yoga is the yoga of awareness and is highly spiritual. Its aim is to attain bliss and the merging of individual consciousness with that of God consciousness (or universal consciousness). Kundalini’s physical and mental techniques are advanced. Hot yoga is usually done in a hot room (95-100 degrees fahrenheit) in 40% humidity. The drinking of water throughout the practice is recommended, and strength and flexibility are the main physical goals. Prenatal yoga is for pregnant mothers who want to continue their yoga practice. The poses are gentle and will not physically hurt the baby. The breath work exercised becomes very useful during labor. Sivananda is a type of yoga that centers around relaxation and a vegetarian diet. Pilates is not a form of yoga, but is very similar in its integration of breath and exercises to become physically fit. Finally, yin yoga is a kind of Chinese-yoga hybrid that focuses on deep and prolonged asanas and rituals.