What is Hatha-yoga?

What is Hatha-yoga? Another wonderful question; simple but often misunderstood. First, it is pronounced with a hard ‘t” sound; more like “hat-ta” than “ha-tha”. The use of “h” Sanskrit transliteration is meant to denote an aspirated vowel (meaning you exhale as you make the sound). Second, it should not be limited to meaning a particular form of modern asana practice. It is often incorrectly listed among the various methods of contemporary yoga practice when it should be the heading..

Hatha” may be interpreted in two ways. The first is figurative, as “Sun & Moon”; referring to the union of opposing forces within the body (prana/apana or ida/pingala). The second is as “obstinacy”; referring to the great effort involved in the practice. Hatha-yoga is actually a sub-branch of Pantajali‘s Ashtanga-yoga, which focuses primarily on the first four limbs (yama, niyama, asana & pranayama). Hatha-yoga makes use of physical practices in an effort to purify the physical and astral bodies: postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), energetic seals (mudras), physical/psychic locks (bandhas) and purification techniques (kriyas). If you are using any or all of the above mentioned means you are practicing Hatha-yoga. Thus, all the modern schools/methods of asana practice fall under the Hatha-yoga sub-branch.

Some of the key pre-modern Hatha-yoga texts include the Yoga Yajnavalkya, Gheranda Samhita, Siva Samhita and the Hathayoga Pradipika of Svatmarama. The great master T. Krishnamacharya taught all the above texts but found that, after the Yogasutras, the Yoga Yajnavalkya was the most important text. He found that the two samhitas were blended with Advaita Vedanta and that the Hathayoga Pradipika was mixed with Tantra and had plenty of contradictions. We should note that the Hatha-yoga traditions developed long after Patanjali’s system. Hatha-yoga was developed as a preparation for the path of Ashtanga-yoga. Even for Svatmarama, there is no Hatha-yoga without Ashtanga-yoga. As it is extremely difficult to control the mind, it makes good sense to start with the body. Hatha-yoga is a means to discipline the body in preparation to ultimately control the mind. As told to me very simply by my father: “Hatha-yoga was made so that the rishis could sit in meditation for ten to sixteen hours a day without having any physical problems”. Many great masters, including Krishnamacharya, have stated that poor health is an impediment to Yoga and so Hatha-yoga represents a methodical system for radiant health to aid us on our path. Let’s make use of it!

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