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What is Hatha Yoga-Full Comprehensive Introduction?


Although its often dismissed as a beginning practice or used as a misnomer for the physical postures, hatha yoga is a complete path in itself—and a powerful one, at that. “Salutations to Adinatha, who expounded the knowledge of hatha yoga, are like a staircase which leads the aspirant to the high pinnacled raja yoga.”

Hatha Pradipika This statement from the introduction to the Hatha Pradipika, together with the emphasis placed on physical beauty by the “Hollywood Yoga” schools, has led many sincere students to think of hatha yoga as the caboose on the train to moksha. Once they’ve learned the principal asanas, they feel like their tour of hatha duty is over, and that its time to move on to meditation.

It is true that working with the more subtle aspects of our being requires mastering the grosser levels first. It is also true that the external practices of yoga—those that work with body and breathe—directly address these levels. However, hatha yoga can become an extremely refined practice, and some even argue that it is a complete path in and of itself.

Swatmarama—who wrote the Hatha Pradipika (probably around A.D, 1400, although estimates van, widely)—specifically addresses this point: “[There is] No success in hatha yoga without raja yoga and no success in raja yoga without hatha yoga. One should therefore practice both of these well till complete success is gained.”

Hatha: Uniting Polarities The word “hatha” comes from the root words hakaram, meaning “sun” and tbakaram, meaning “moon.” “Yoga means to join or unite, so “hatha yoga” is the union of the sun and moon. In other words, it is the science of harmonizing the positive andnegative forces within the body, or balancing active and passive energies. This establishes vitality without tension or stress, andconfers stillness and equanimity without lethargy or sloth.

Hatha yoga practice harmonizes the body, breath, and mind. This is an exhilarating, holistic experience, one mirrored in moments of intense physical pleasure, in playing sports or music, or in deep absorption in a mental task. A consistent, thoughtful practice of hatha can make that experience of integration available to us consistently.

Over time, we can become so sensitive to our physical and energy levels of being that we may be able to head off potential sickness, or, should we fall ill, take steps to regain our health. Once we begin the practice of meditation, we still obviously require a healthy body. And we need physical health for more than survival and freedom from pain.

To progress beyond mere body awareness in meditation, we must be able to remain alert while the body is profoundly still and relaxed. This is no small attainment, but with the help of hatha, we can achieve it; we can learn to remain alert without drowsiness and energetic without physical tension. No other physical exercise brings these benefits.

Four groups of physical practices constitute hatha yoga; shatkriya, asana, pranayama, and mudra. Because each of these can be practiced according to ones capacity, they are effective for everyone.


Even those with physical limitations can benefit from these practices because attitude, breath, and internal awareness arc more important than external gestures. The observance ofyamaand niyamais also considered to be part of the system of hatha yoga, although these observances receive different degrees of emphasis in various traditions. Patanjalis Yoga Sutras defines hatha yoga as the first four rungs of the eight-limbed yoga system of raja yoga (yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama).

Although Patanjali devotes 15 sutras to yama and niyama, Swatmarama mentions them only in two. Yama and Niyama Yama and niyama are ethical guidelines for eliminating internal conflict and establishing harmonious relationships with others. They provide guidance about what ought and ought not to be done in order to keep ones spiritual path as clear as possible.

It is important to remember that these guidelines are not “commandments” to be followed in order to avoid the wrath of a righteous God, but commitments to self-discipline that enable ones practice to proceed smoothly.

The yamas are: ahimsa (non-harming): satya (non- lying); asteya (non-stealing); brahmacharya (control over sensual urges); and aparigraha (non-possessive- ness or non-greediness). The niyamas are: saucba (purity or cleanliness); santosha (contentment); tapas (simplicity or austerity); swadhyaya (self-study); and Isbwarapranidhana (surrender to God or surrender to the Truth), these are profound concepts, the meaning of which cannot be captured in one or two English words. The practice of yama and niyama is quite powerful.

We cannot do justice to these guidelines here, and so well leave them for another time and turn instead to the physical practices of hatha yoga, cleansing and purification the shatkriyas (or shatkarmas) are six cleansing practices prescribed to remove excess fat and mucus or phlegm… They help to purify the nadis—the channels through which prana circulates in the energy (pranic) body. These cleansing practices are also effective in cultivating an awareness of breathing, digestion, and elimination, as well as promoting overall vitality.

All hatha yoga practices have a therapeutic application, but the cleansing exercises are especially effective in restoring the body to health. Because modem life presents many challenges to well-being, the ability to eliminate toxins and remove waste from the body is critical.

The shatkriyas accomplish this without drugs or the aid of expert practitioners. The shatkriyas are neti, the nasal wash; nauli, abdominal churning; dhauti, a group of techniques for clean sing the digestive tract: ha-ti, the lower wash or cleansing of the colon; kcipulubhati, the cleansing breath; ami trataka, gazing, the cleansing exercises are used by beginning and ail vanced students alike.

The serious student returns to them again and again as he or she advances in practice, refining their use and learning more with each application, Asana—which is usually translated as “posture”—is what most people think of when hatha yoga is mentioned. Perhaps this is because asana is the most accessible aspect of yoga; the postures themselves and their results are easily visible.


The word asana comes from me root axan, which means easy. The primary goal of asana practice is to develop ease and comfort in the body. If the body is a source of distraction, pain, or discomfort, how can you meditate? If you cannot sit motionless without strain, youll have a hard time being successful in any endeavor—meditation, word processing, counseling, or even watching TV, discomfort, disease, weakness, and the inability to pay attention become obstacles not only to the higher practices of yoga, but also to the performance of family or professional duties, and even recreation.

Although the focus in asanas on the body, Swami Rama explains; “Those who are ignorant of raja yoga and practice only hatha, will in my opinion waste their energy fruitlessly.”  From the perspective of rajayoga, the goal of hatha yoga is to achieve a healthy body and a stable, comfortable meditation posture. You might say we are using the body to ensnare the breath and the mind and to gradually become aware of deeper levels of our being. Awareness leads to understanding, understanding to control, and control to mastery. As asana practice deepens, it leads to breathe awareness.

For example, we find Thai the breath significantly differs in the headstand, in me child’s pose, and in corpse pose. Students are taught to pay attention to their breath and learn to regulate ILS flow, especially because progress with postures comes more easily when one works with the breath. For example, relaxing and “breathing into” a posture expands the capacity to stretch. Asana can be difficult when you focus upon external success. If you have an aggressive, impatient attitude toward your practice, you will overstretch muscles and ligaments and experience pain or discomfort.

Asana has been somewhat cheapened in the modem world by the notion that the successful student is the one who touches the floor first, or who has the most flexible body. In fact, the student who is really progressing may be the one who cannot touch the floor, even after an eight-week class, but who practices daily, and slowly expands his or her capacity to feel, experiment, and observe with one- pointed awareness.

Pranayama is the process of learning to control the vital energy {prana) of the body, Pranayama uses awareness and control of the breath—the vehicle of prana—to control the nervous system and the pranic body, which pervades the physical body and is the link between the body and mind.

The breath has three phases—inhalation, retention, and exhalation—and each must be understood, carefully observed, and properly used. The process of cleansing and purifying the body, which begins with the cleansing practices and asana, continues on a subtler level with pranayama. Pranayama cleanses the nadis and, on the grosser level, strengthens the nervous system.

Without the preliminaries, pranayama practices are not effective and can even be injurious. Some authors compare the nervous system to a system of wires, anci prana to electricity. Although this is a crude comparison, it is somewhat useful. The cleansing and asana practices clear the energy pathways so that prana can flow freely and properly throughout the body, and increase the capacity of the nervous system to handle more energy. But if the nadis are impeded because the preliminaries have not been completed, then a vigorous pranayama practice can be potentially injurious.


For advanced pranayama practices, strict behavioral guidelines must be observed. Advanced practitioners minimize physical and mental disturbances by carefully regulating diet and other activities, for those of us who have jobs, families, and other worldly duties, these restrictions are impractical. But “householders” can also effectively practice pranayama, so long as they remain aware of the limitations and practice within them. Pranayama oxygenates the blood and energizes the body.

These practices eliminate waste, thus keeping the body and nervous system free of the burdens that waste creates. As vitality increases and begins to affect the entire body, the practitioner learns how to balance and properly direct this added energy. Finally pranayama leads to a state of vital equanimity in which the thought process can be clearly observed and controlled.

Just as with asana, injury results when one practices but while excessive asana practice may result in strained muscles, excessive or inappropriate pranayama practice may lead to serious energy disruptions. Most pranayama practices are completely safe, but the guidance of an experienced teacher is essential for the practice of breath retention.

Guidelines and restrictions are so essential for advanced pranayama practices that they are reserved for those who can practice under close supervision, usually in an ashram or monastery. Complete mastery of prana is achieved only by exceptional yogis who practice diligently.

They then become the light that guides the rest of us. Bandhas and mudras we practices that channel energy in the body very specifically and, potentially, very powerfully. Bandbos are “locks,” restrictive positions or muscle contractions that protect the body from injury by restraining the flow of energy.

The three bundbas most commonly taught are; uddiyana bandha, the abdominal lift; mula handha, the root lock; and julandhara bandha, the chin lock. These locks are learned individually and then applied alone or in combination as the various kriyas, pranayamas, asanas, or mudras require.

A mudra is an expressive gesture, l-or example, an open hand held upright indicates protection, and an open hand held downward with the thumb and finger touching signifies giving. A mudra is a combination of asana, bandha, and pranayama. Each asana is actually a mudra, an outward expression of inner energy and feeling.

The mudras that are emphasized in the Hutba Pradipika and other hatha yoga texts, when combined with bandhas and specific pranayama techniques can create powerful currents of energy within the body. Practicing advanced mudras requires proper preparation, training, and guidance from a competent teacher. These practices cannot be learned from a book.

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