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Hatha Yoga

A system, originating in India, that aims to improve, or at least maintain, the individual’s physical well-being. It is therefore a yoga that is concerned with physiology and “subtle physiology.”

The name is Sanskrit and is said by practitioners to derive from roots ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon.” They further claim that the syllable “ha” refers to the flow of breath in the right nostril (known as “sun breath”) while “tha” refers to the flow of breath in the left nostril known as “moon breath,” indicating its relation to the practice of pranayama usually translated “breath control.” Some Western scholars, however, state that hatha means “violence” or “force” and suggests that this form of yoga involves unnatural or forced physical postures and a forced withdrawal of the mind from external objects as well as abnormal methods of breathing. The latter betrays a lack of real knowledge of its practice.

Committed students of Ha˜ha Yoga need to be aware of the essentials of RAJA YOGA, namely the so-called “eight limbs” as described by Patañjali. These are: yama (restraints [from violence, etc.]), niyama([moral] observances), asana (posture), pranayama (control of the vital breath), pratyahara (withdrawal [of senses from the objects of sense]), dharana (unwavering concentration), dhyana (profound meditation), and samadhi (trance-like abstraction). An explanation of these terms will be found in the article on Raja Yoga. Although Patañjali defines asana merely as “that which is steady [or erect] and comfortable” (cf. Yoga Sutras, 2.46), Hatha Yoga has developed that “limb” into an elaborate system of postures.

During the twentieth century many Yogis traveled to the West spreading the teachings of Ha˜ha Yoga and established asrams (now usually rendered “ashrams”) in many countries where students could listen, learn and practice all aspects of this form of yoga. Yoga teacher training was initiated by such organizations as “The British Wheel of Yoga,” “The International Yoga Teachers Association,” “The Satyananda Organization” and “The Iyengar Method” to mention only a few. This yoga rapidly became popular in the West and a number of westerners traveled to India, visiting arams, sitting at the feet of Yoga Masters, sharing their acquired knowledge and writing books when they returned to their own country.

Asana. The term “asana” is of special relevance to this discussion. It refers to the physical postures. On first acquaintance these postures appear quite difficult and it is true that the padmasana or “lotus pose” is often impossible for some western practitioners. However, the beginner ought not to be discouraged by assuming that one has to so tie one’s body in knots because there are many modified versions of the poses and great benefit can be obtained by practicing with the individual’s physical limitations. Yoga can be taught to persons of all ages and even individuals having physical disabilities can benefit from the practice of this yoga. It has been stated that if one can breathe then one can practice yoga. There is an organization called “The Yoga for Health Foundation” in the United Kingdom which teaches yoga to people with disabilities.

In general classes, the postures are preceded by limbering the joints of the body. Then the postures are performed while the student concentrates the mind and the direction of the “life force” (prana) to the part of the body affected by the posture. Many of the postures are designed to cause a squeezing of the endocrine glands, thus when the student holds the pose and then relaxes there is an increase in the blood supply to that gland or organ.

Pranayama. This has been defined as “breath control.” In general classes, a few techniques of pranayama are taught, one common one being nadi shodhana (alternative nostril breath). This is said to have the effect of balancing the positive and negative energies in the body, bringing about a feeling of balance and equilibrium. The breathing techniques of yoga help to calm the emotions and lower the blood pressure and are particularly helpful in stress management. There are many books devoted to this important subject including Light on Pranayam by B. K. S. Iyengar and The Hindu-Yogi Science of Breathby Yogi Ramacharaka (Fowler, 1960).

Pratyahara (sense withdrawal). After completing a yoga asana session one should lie down in Savasana (the Corpse Pose) and relax the whole body, practicing the withdrawal of the senses and letting the whole body and mind become peaceful. This leads one to the state where one can concentrate on an object for meditation — this can be a word, a mantra, an idea or a physical symbol.

Meditation.Practitioners of this yoga are encouraged to meditate daily. See MEDITATION.

The overall result of the practice of a well-balanced Ha˜ha Yoga session is an pronounced feeling of well-being and relaxation.

Early theosophical writers such as Helena P. BLAVATSKY and Annie BESANT tended to write in critical vein about Hatha Yoga. In the main they were of the opinion that undue concentration on the physical to the exclusion or neglect of the spiritual might result in unbalanced development. While there was probably some validity in this point of view at the time they were writing, Hatha Yoga teachers have long since remedied this matter and now most include elementary meditation as part of their sessions.

Three important treatises on Hatha Yoga are: The Hatha-Yoga Pradipika (Light on the Hatha-Yoga), Gheranda Samhita (Gharanda’s Compendium), and Siva Samhita (Siva’s Compendium). These texts, as was Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, were written in a very terse and economical manner and therefore need comprehensive explanation by qualified teachers.

I.K.

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