Nowadays the variety of yoga styles is countless, from a calming and relaxing yoga form like Yin Yoga to an energetic and active style of yoga like Ashtanga Yoga. Different styles keep being invented according to the latest trends and people’s needs, likes and dislikes. One of the most traditional, popular and famous yoga styles is Hatha Yoga. But what is Hatha Yoga exactly? Hatha Yoga is the most ancient style of yoga, it is the foundation upon which the other yoga styles are built. It was practiced originally by monks who were meditating day after day and needed some gentle physical exercise to keep their body healthy. The classical hatha yoga asanas were developed with the purpose to stimulate the internal organs. Over the years, as Hatha Yoga became more and more popular, modern yoga poses were invented. Those modern postures work more on the external body like the muscles, with the purpose to become strong and fit. The practice of Hatha Yoga is characterized by the practice of asanas which are held steadily and comfortably for a certain duration. In this article you can read more about the actual origin and goal of Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga is part of Raja Yoga, one of the paths of yoga. In total there are four paths of yoga which, when followed precisely, can help a person reach the state of Samadhi or Liberation, the ultimate goal of yoga. The four paths are:
These four paths can be followed together or separately, according to one’s preferences.
Raja Yoga is the physical approach to Yoga, also known as Classical Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga (eight limbed yoga). The goal of Raja Yoga is to gain control over the body, the senses and the mind. In order to do that there are 8 limbs or practices: Yam, Niyam, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahar, Dharan, Dhyan, Samadhi. Through self-discipline, the body and the mind are tamed and purified of various diseases.
Like mentioned previously, Hatha Yoga is part of Raja Yoga. Hatha literally means “stubborn”. It is the stubborn practice of taming the body, the breath and the mind. Hatha Yoga consists of 6 practices: asana, pranayama, bandha, mudra, kriya and mantra.
Asana is the practice of yoga poses. According to the Yoga philosophy, 84 asanas are considered to be the main postures. Out of those 84, the most important are Headstand (Shirshasana) and Lotus (Padmasana). Asana, or Sthiram Sukham Asanam, means Steady Comfortable Pose. The purpose is to be completely comfortable in a yoga pose, without mental or physical tension. By forceful practice and repetition the body and the mind adjust to the poses and accept the tension. Only then the asana can have its maximum effect.
Pranayama means Expansion of Life force or Prana. In pranayam you learn to control the breath and the prana, the vital energy. By different breathing exercises you increase the capacity of the breath and the retention. Pranayama can also have a very suiting effect on the mind and the body. Once you learn to control the breath, it becomes easier to control the mind.
Bandhas, or locks, are mostly practiced during pranayama. The 3 locks (Mool Bandha – Root Lock, Uddiyan Bandha – Abdominal Lock and Jalandhar Bandha – Chin Lock) control the energies and pranas in the body.
Mudras are hand gestures. The most commonly practiced mudras are Chin mudra and Gyan mudra in which the tip of the thumb and index finger are touching and the palms are either up (chin mudra) or down (Gyan mudra). The body consists of 5 elements (water, fire, earth, air and space) and every finger represents an element. Combining those elements by touching the tip of the fingers can change the energies in the body.
Kriyas are cleansing exercises. The word kriya literally means “activity”. Hatha Yoga Pradipika defines 6 cleansing exercises (Shat Kriyas). When practicing Kriyas, you clean the physical body from its impurities and increase the overall health and wellbeing of the body. In order to be able to control the body and the mind, the body has to be fit and healthy.
Chanting and repeating mantras helps to purify the mind and bring the ego down. The less ego, the less the mind is distracted and the more you are able to control the mind and become aware of the Reality.