In our times, when we speak about yoga, we usually mean physical yoga exercises or asanas. But this is only a small part of tantra yoga—practical, scientific teaching, the aim of which is spiritual growth. The word yoga, as well as the word religion, means the union of the human soul with the Universal Soul, i.e., the union of human being with God. Although yoga is a product of Indian civilization and has influenced all religions of that land, it is a practical spiritual science that does not belong to any particular region or religion. It brings positive results independent of your belief in its efficacy. We can confidently state that yoga is the technology of ecstasy.
Although the aim of yoga is spiritual perfection, it encourages a balanced, all-around development of human potential. We should use all the resources given to us for effective spiritual growth. Therefore, yoga contains in itself specific teachings that lead to bodily health and emotional well-being; it assuredly leads to intellectual, creative, intuitive and spiritual unfoldment. The yogi is a practical person. Therefore he does not consider his body an obstacle or a burden, a jail for his soul, which can be, even should be, neglected or rejected. Just the opposite, for a yogi the body is a temple of the Spirit, a temple which should be scrupulously maintained because, sooner or later, it will host the long-awaited Guest. So, as you might already suspect, this time we shall talk about one of the most important aspects of the spiritual path—physical yoga.
Hatha yoga is mostly yoga that prepares the body for the spiritual path via physical and breathing exercises, and asceticism. The word Hatha is a compound of the words Ha and Tha meaning sun and moon and refers to the principal nadis (energy channels) of the subtle body that must be fully operational to attain a state of dhyana or samadhi. Hatha yoga is the most superficial component of yoga, the one that is preoccupied merely with the means to the means. It prepares and conditions the body so that the mind can practice meditation more or less without obstacles. Hatha yoga, as a main rather than an accessory practice, is quite a tiresome and roundabout way to enlightenment. Most yogis in India do not pay too much attention to it, and frequently completely ignore it. They think, why perfect the body if it is already working well?
Hatha Yoga is what most people in the West associate with the word “Yoga” and is practiced for mental and physical health throughout the West.

Origins

Some traditions associate the origins of Hatha Yoga with Goraknath, a yogin of the 10th/11th century CE but the oldest surviving comprehensive text of Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Yogi Swatmarama. This work is nonetheless derived from older Sanskrit texts on Yoga besides Yogi Swatmarama’s own yogic experiences. It includes information about shatkarma, asana, pranayama, chakras, kundalini, bandhas, kriyas, shakti, nadis, and mudras among other topics.
Many modern schools of Hatha Yoga derive from the school of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught from 1924 until his death in 1989. Among his students prominent in popularizing Yoga in the West were Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, famous for popularizing the vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga style, B.K.S. Iyengar who emphasizes alignment and the use of props, Indra Devi and Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar who developed the Viniyoga style. Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, with the aim of making available the heritage of yoga as taught by Krishnamacharya.
Another major stream of influence was Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh (1887-1963) and his many disciples, including Swami Vishnu-Devananda – founder of International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, Swami Satyananda – of the Bihar School of Yoga, and Swami Satchidananda – of Integral Yoga, among others.

Concept

Traditional Hatha Yoga is a holistic yogic path, including moral disciplines, physical exercises (e.g., asanas (postures) and Pranayama (breath control)), and meditation. The Hatha yoga predominantly practiced in the West consists of mostly asanas (postures) and exercise.
Hatha Yoga is one of the two branches of Yoga that focus on the physical culture, the other one being Raja Yoga. Both of these are commonly referred to as Ashtanga Yoga, i.e., Yoga of eight parts (‘ashta’ meaning eight and ‘anga’ meaning limbs). The eight limbs are described below in detail. The main difference is that Raja Yoga uses asanas to mainly get the body ready for prolonged meditation, and hence focuses more on the meditative asana poses: Lotus Pose (Padmasana), Accomplished Pose (Siddhasana), Easy Pose (Sahajasana) and Pelvic Pose (Vajrasana); Hatha Yoga utilizes most of the asana poses. Similarly, Raja Yoga’s use of Pranayama is also devoid of extensive locks (Bandha).
Hatha represents opposing energies: hot and cold (fire and water, following the same concept as the yin-yang), male and female, positive and negative. Hatha yoga attempts to balance mind and body via physical exercises, or “asanas”, controlled breathing, and the calming of the mind through relaxation and meditation. Asanas teach poise, balance & strength and are practiced to improve the body’s physical health and clear the mind in preparation for meditation in the pursuit of enlightenment.
The Yoga of Patanjali is Ashtanga or composed of 8 limbs, Yama and Niyama, which are ethical obligations, Asana, Pranayama, which is breath control, Pratyahara, which is sense withdrawal, Dharana, which is concentration, Dhyana, which is meditation, and Samadhi, which is the experience of unity with God. The eight limbs are more precisely viewed as eight levels of progress, each level providing benefits in and of itself and also laying the foundation for the higher levels.

NOTE: In some schools of thought, only Raja Yoga is considered to be Ashtanga Yoga, and Hatha Yoga is thought to consist of six limbs focused on attaining Kundalini. In this scheme, the six limbs of Hatha Yoga are defined as Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Mudra (specific postures to help lock in the breath), Nadanusandhana (hearing of the eternal sound within the body), the whole process cultiminating in the attainment of Kundalini. Due to this, this version of Hatha yoga is also sometimes referred to as Kundalini Yoga.

Yama and niyama

Yama is a “moral restraint” or rule for living virtuously. Ten yamas are codified in numerous scriptures, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika compiled by Yogi Swatmarama, while Patanjali lists five yamas, and five niyamas (disciplines) in the Yoga Sutra.

The ten traditional yamas are:

  • Ahimsa: Abstinence from injury, or harm to any living creature in thought, word, or deed. This is the “main” Yama. The other nine are there in support of its accomplishment.
  • Satya: Truthfulness in word and thought (in conformity with the facts).
  • Asteya: No stealing, no coveting, no entering into debt.
  • Brahmacharya: Divine conduct, continence, celibate when single, faithful when married.
  • Kshama: Patience, releasing time, functioning in the now.
  • Dhriti: Steadfastness, overcoming non-perseverance, fear, and indecision; seeing each task through to completion.
  • Daya: Compassion; conquering callous, cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings.
  • Arjava: Honesty, straightforwardness, renouncing deception and wrongdoing.
  • Mitahara: Moderate appetite, neither eating too much nor too little; nor consuming meat, fish, shellfish, fowl or eggs.
  • Shaucha: Purity, avoidance of impurity in body, mind and speech.

Patanjali’s five yamas, or moral restraints, are ahimsa (non-injury), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence or chastity) and aparagriha (abstinence from avarice). He also lists five niyamas, or disciplines, which include shauca (purity), samtosha (contentment), tapas (asceticism), svadhyaya (study), and ishvara-pranidhana (devotion to the Lord).

Asanas (Postures)

Asanas are contemplative in nature and were originally intuited by yogis during meditation; the Kundalini naturally brings forth these postures or movements, called Kriyas, during deep meditation. These movements are meant to help to remove blockages (disease) in the causal, subtle, and physical bodies.
In the ancient author Patanjali’s work, Asana is classified as the third rung of 8 in the ladder of the practice of Raja Yoga.
Hatha yoga in the west primarily concerns itself with asanas or postures.

Pranayama (Breathing)

The words ‘Prana’ (life-force) and ‘Ayama’ (to prolong or regulate) make up Pranayama. Pranayama seeks to control & regulate the breath. In one variation, the Rechak (exhaled air), Poorak (inhalation) and Kumbhak (Retention during normal inhaling and exhaling) are the 3 parts of the breath that are regulated. Pranayama is practiced to develop mental, physical and spiritual strength. Though the beginner’s Pranayama is relatively harmless, safely progressing to more advanced practices requires the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher.

Health Benefits ascribed to Yogasana practice

Different asanas are recommended by practitioners to cure or prevent problems ranging from constipation to cancer. It is known to reduce stress and other mental worries.

Guidelines for asana practice

Listed below are traditional directions for performing Hatha Yoga.

A glass of fresh water should be taken before performing asanas.

  • Stomach should be empty.
  • Asanas can be performed 8 hours after a meal, 2 hours after a glass of milk and one hour after eating fruit.
  • Always perform asanas early in the morning. If this is not possible, the next best time would be evening around dusk.
  • Rich, left-over, very dry or hot, or too much food should be avoided.
  • Force or pressure should not be used while performing asanas.
  • One must not go out in the cold after performing asanas.
  • Lower the head and other parts of the body slowly; in particular, raised heels should be lowered slowly.
  • The breathing should be controlled and should always be through the nose. The benefits of asanas increase if pranayama is performed simultaneously.
  • If the body is stressed, perform Shavasana.
  • Asanas should be performed in a well-lit, clean and ventilated room. The atmosphere should be peaceful.
  • Light physical exercises, followed by yogasana, pranayama and meditation is the ideal sequence.
  • Yogasanas, especially inverted poses, are to be avoided during menstruation. In contrast, modern teachers do recommend Yogasana for relief from cramps during this period. Although it is traditionally taught not to invert against the flow, there is no medical evidence supporting the statements on the reference site link. The only condition that might be worsened by inversions during the menses is Endometriosis and even this is said to be unsupported medically.
  • During pregnancy, after the first 3 months, exercises that require lying on stomach are to be avoided. (Inverted poses should be avoided especially in the third trimester – This site recommends it for pregnancy – not too sure, clarification requested.). Seasoned yoginis (female practitioners) can invert the entire time during pregnancy. It is not recommended for new practitioners as they are not physically accustomed to the subtle adjustments necessary to align and lift against gravity – with the additional weight and pressure on the diaphragm, even if they have the ability to align, they might not be able to breathe effectively. Rule of thumb for pregnancy: “When in doubt, don’t.”

Hatha Yoga for Beginners (Asanas/Yoga Postures)

The following asana mini-sequence was specifically designed for the beginner. These simple, effective yoga positions (asanas) do not require a special diet or other restrictions. They should be practiced twice a day after meditation. (If you are too agitated to do the meditation first, you can do asanas before meditation as an exception.) Start gradually: at the beginning hold each asana two or three seconds and repeat it two or three times (instead of the usually designated 10 seconds and up to 10 repetitions). Then, every week do a little longer and more, until you reach the prescribed duration and number of repetitions. (You can add a second or two and a repetition or two each week.)
As a medicine that cures if taken only one tablet a day but can kill you if you take the whole bottle, meditation and asanas are better done a little every day regularly rather than a lot but once in a while. Yoga practice is a process—haste will not make it shorter. Mind, body, emotions do not change instantaneously. Usually the changes start to become a bit noticeable after about three months of regular practice. (Here is one more opportunity to work on patience.)
Remember to always follow the directions mentioned above.

1. Bhujangasana (snake pose)

Lie down onto your stomach and put your forehead on the floor. Position your hands on each side of your chest, palms down. Supporting your weight with your arms, imagine that someone is pulling you on your eyes to make your torso go up, and thus raise your head, neck, and chest (in this order), as if attempting to look behind you at your feet. Breathe in while going up, maintain the pose for 10 seconds holding your breath, reverse the whole procedure while going down, i.e., lower your chest, neck, head as you breathe out. Repeat 6-10 times.

2. Ardhakurmakasana (half-tortoise pose)

Get down on your knees and sit down on your heels. Extend your hands upward so that they touch your ears and join your palms together. Then while exhaling gradually bow down forward and touch the floor with your forehead and nose. Stay in the pose while holding your breath 10 seconds. Rise slowly while inhaling. Strive to keep your arms straightened and your buttocks on the heels all the time. Repeat 6-10 times.

3. Yogasana (Yoga pose)

Sit cross-legged on the floor. Clasp your left wrist with your right hand behind your back. Then while exhaling gradually relax so that your torso gradually drops until your forehead and nose touch the floor. Stay in the pose while holding your breath 10 seconds. Rise slowly while inhaling. Repeat 6-10 times.

4. Self-Massage

Thoroughly massage your face, scalp, neck, arms, shoulders, body and legs. Start with your face and end with your feet. Pay particular attention to joints. Do not use massage (or any other) oils. (Gradually your body will begin to secrete its own oils and make your skin healthier and thus better looking.)

5. Shavasana (corpse pose)

Lie down on your back, spread your legs and hands a comfortable distance from your body and turn your palms facing upward. Imagine yourself completely relaxed, free of tension—as if life force has left your body making it a corpse. (Or if you are uncomfortable with the image of death, imagine that you are lying on a little white fluffy cloud with sun gently caressing you with its loving warmth and taking all tension and worry away from you.) Duration: 2—10 minutes.

Sources: wikipedia, abhidhyan.org

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