Hatha yoga has become a popular form of exercise throughout many parts of the world. Its easy accessibility and focus on health and well being has allowed it to play an important role in counteracting the many negative effects of a rapidly changing world. This article will help you understand why this style of yoga has become a primary source of positive physical and mental health for so many by taking a brief journey into its origins, then looking at what hatha yoga is and how it can play an important role in your life.
The Origins of Hatha Yoga
Hatha yoga has changed a lot since its conception. When it was created, it was a total life philosophy that incorporated how we relate to our world, to ourselves and how we can attain inner peace. Most agree that the original writings were Patanjali Maharishi’s yoga sutras, 196 sutras (aphorisms) written in Sanskrit in around 400 AD. In his work, Patanjali describes hatha yoga as consisting of eight limbs, or disciplines, and referred to it as the eightfold path. Other texts over the years have referred to hatha yoga, but Patanjali’s sutras are the most recognized.
Two well-known schools of yoga were derived directly from Patanjali’s sutras: the schools of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught in India from 1924 until his death in 1989, and Swami Sivananda, who died in 1963. Today’s modern styles, including ashtanga, iyengar, yin, power, vinyasa, restorative, jivamukti, kundalini, moksha and bikram, have these two teachers as their origins.
Most students are unaware of Patanjali’s sutras, preferring to have yoga serve a more pragmatic function in their lives without having to delve too deeply into its history or philosophy. Modern day hatha yoga has adapted to this demand, with studios that cater to peoples’ busy schedules by offering most or all of their classes on a drop-in basis and spending much more time on yoga as a physical exercise, and less on the other aspects. But for those who are serious about making yoga a part of their lives, the eight limbs provide the pathway.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The eight limbs of yoga form a moral or ethical code to help us live happier, more meaningful lives. They are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Here is how they are defined:
1) Yamas focus on how we relate to others. They are expressed as five moral constraints:
- Ahimsa (non-harming)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Bramacharya (moderation)
- Aparigraha (generosity)
To understand a more practical application of a three of these yamas (Ahimsa, Satya and Aparigraha) check out David’s blog series called Sacred Principles of Yoga, Parts I, II and III.
2) Niyamas are how we relate to ourselves. They are expressed as five observances:
- Sauca (purity)
- Santosa (contentment)
- Tapas (self discipline)
- Svadhyaya (self study)
- Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to the divine)
3) Asanas are the postures practiced in yoga. These yoga postures help us to develop discipline and concentration and are meant to help us master the body in order to sit still for long periods of time in meditation.
4) Pranayama are breathing techniques that are designed to control the prana or vital force, helping us feel alert, self-aware and calm. You can practise some yoga breathing exercises on our site here.
5) Pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses, a conscious effort to draw awareness away from the external world, away from distractions. This internal focus allows us to see our internal processes, such as cravings, emotions and resistance.
6) Dharana is concentration. After removing ourselves from outside distractions, the mind can be focused on a point, idea or object.
7) Dhyana is uninterrupted awareness. Whereas dharana is one-pointed attention, dhyana is being fully aware or mindful without focus. The experience is one of wide-open consciousness, effortless and calm.
8) Samadhi is a profound interconnectedness with all living things. It is also referred to as enlightenment.
It is through the constant practice of the eight limbs of hatha yoga that one may realize our true existence, samadhi, the realization that we are not separate from our surroundings, or that we are all connected by a universal consciousness. For most students, the most challenging aspect to fully realize is that samadhi does not ultimately arise through hard work. Samadhi arises from a clear understanding of what it means to commit yourself to an experience that is completely the opposite – surrender. Hard work is required to initially be on the path, but it is through letting go that we realize our true nature.
It’s also important to note that with the exception of the last three, the eight limbs of yoga do not need to be practiced in any particular order. They are also all interconnected, non-exclusive and each helps cultivate the development of the others.
What is Hatha Yoga Today?
Hatha yoga in the western world now means something very different than what it did when Patanjali wrote the sutras, or even when BKS Iyengar was a young student. Our fast-paced society has forced yoga to adapt by shifting the focus to large class sizes, aerobic-style yoga and studios that almost exclusively teach drop-in classes (so virtually anyone can attend). This makes it difficult for instructors to build into their classes anything that requires more than one class to teach, since new students are showing up each week. It also pressures teachers to teach mostly asanas, since the majority of people seek stress reduction through the physical practice.
When you go to a hatha yoga class today it is generally understood that it will be a fairly gentle, basic yoga class that is at a relatively slow pace and might incorporate pranayama or meditation. The one unusual characteristic of hatha yoga that makes it different than other styles is that, because of its origin, it still embodies the eight limbs, and therefore has an incredibly broad definition. There is massive variation in what a teacher can offer within a hatha yoga class, which can be a blessing and a curse from the perspective of the student, and makes it much more important to try a number of classes before settling with one instructor.
So hatha yoga, which was once considered to be the mother of all other styles, is now seen in the west as their sibling. All yoga styles that you are aware of – iyengar, ashtanga, vinyasa, kundalini, power, sivananda, yin, viniyoga, restorative, moksha, kripalu, forrest, jivamukti, anusara and bikram – come from what was once a complete life path and moral code called hatha yoga. However, in today’s society hatha yoga is just another style.
Where can I try Hatha Yoga?
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even with the dumbing down of the original teachings, hatha yoga still serves a crucial role in today’s society and adaptation has been a necessary part of its success. Also, you can still learn all you want about the eight fold path and apply it to your life in the way that feels right to you.
As a teacher of hatha yoga, I have felt that its deep history and its broad definition in the west can be empowering. I end up feeling challenged to deliver the eight fold path in a way that feels sincere and connects with my students in a meaningful way. It allows me to incorporate what I learn from other teachers, making each class its own unique experience, and allowing me to evolve as a teacher as my students progress.
If you are looking to try a hatha yoga class and you live in the city you will most likely be able to find something nearby. They are popular and are offered in many studios. If you have a mat and space in your home, you could try one of our many hatha yoga classes online. Here are a few great classes taught by our teachers:
Hatha Yoga for the Spine with Sarah-Jane Steele (Subcriber-only class)
Have fun and see you on the mat!