For some, yoga is an integral part of their lives. Whether they attend yoga classes in a yoga studio or practise yoga at home, many aver that they do not feel their day is complete without dedicating time to their selected asanas and meditation sessions.

But yoga, in general, is so much more than postures and pranayama. It's a fully fleshed out doctrine; a lifestyle that impacts every aspect of these yogis' daily experiences. And, if we're talking about Hatha yoga, specifically, there is far more to the practice than initially meets the eye.

If you know anything about yoga, you know that the discipline has more than 5000 years of history. What you might not know is which lines it breaks along and the principles that guide each aspect of it.

So, let's explore the roots of Hatha yoga, understand how it differs from the spiritual aspects of yoga.

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What Hatha Yoga Represents

Since the earliest civilizations were established around five millennia ago, humans have sought the answers to deep philosophical questions; some societies through spirituality and others through science and rhetoric. Most embraced natural duality as a matter of course; references to light and dark, yin and yang, sun and moon appear in even the earliest writings.

When thinking of human spiritual development in that light, yoga fits right in.

Yoga centres on the balance between the physical and metaphysical; it's a discipline that draws on mental, physical and spiritual energy to gain insight and awareness of the self and the wider world.

Hatha yoga focuses on your body's voluntary and involuntary actions
Hatha yoga focuses on the physical, but not just on what your body can be made to do. Photo credit: daverose259 on VisualHunt.com

Hatha represents the physical aspects of yoga.

Its very name represents the melding of 'sun' and 'moon'; the two energies that, in turn, represent the feminine and masculine, heat and coolness, the physical and the mental. The practice of Hatha is the act of balancing these energy channels - called Nadi. When these opposing Nadi are in balance, the body's chakras open up to allow energy to flow.

You can read more about these and other aspects in our deeper look into the history of Hatha yoga.

Different types of yoga have their own methods for balancing energies and opening these channels. Tantric yoga draws heavily on mandalas and visualisations while Ashtanga yoga outlines eight 'limbs', a series of eight steps one must follow to attain enlightenment.

Hatha yoga has its principles too. Let's explore them now.

Principle #1: Shatkarma

Ashtanga's eight limbs compares to Hatha's six actions - the definition of Shatkarma.

These actions, called kriyas, are cleansing techniques designed to clear blockages that impede the flow of energy. They are apart from regular yoga practice and separate from asanas, pranayama and meditation. Indeed, they more resemble the concept of detoxing that so many new-age proponents embrace, albeit in a more natural way.

They are:

  • Dhauti: the cleansing of the stomach, done by swallowing a vomit-inducing substance like saltwater and then purging it from your body.
    • a more advanced form of this practice is called Vastra Dhauti, which involves swallowing most of a saltwater-soaked cloth, leaving just enough to pull the cloth back out.
  • Basti: essentially an enema but, instead of introducing cleansing saltwater into the rectum, the yogi drinks the saltwater and performs asanas until they feel the urge to void themselves. The process repeats until the ejected materials are clear
  • Neti: you may be familiar with using a Neti pot if you have allergies. The process involves tilting your head sideways and pouring saltwater into the upper nostril, holding it for a time and then expelling it. Repeat with the other nostril, tilting your head in the opposite direction
  • Nauli: a rather complex, four-stage manoeuvre that involves locking your abdominal muscles in a specific pattern: all at once, the left, the right, and the central muscles
  • Trataka: also called gazing, it represents a fixed focus on a specific point - a candle flame, maybe, or a stick of incense or even your thumb, held out at arm's length. You should hold your gaze for at least five minutes; more advanced practitioners may hold it for an hour or more. If your eyes water, as expected, you've completed this step; its purpose is to cleanse the eyes.
  • Kapalabhati: literally 'skull shining', its name is a bit misleading because it calls for forceful breathing rather than repeatedly polishing your head. Done properly, it involves forceful exhaling followed by a sharp, automatic inhalation. It's not uncommon to spend several minutes in this process.

You might have noticed that each of these steps address a specific area along the path of the chakras: the sinuses, the eyes, the oesophagus, stomach and lower digestive system...

These are not steps to take every day; if you did, they may harm rather than help you. Maybe once every three to six months would be advisable.

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Principle #2: Asana

Asanas are the most visible and renowned aspect of yoga. Asana translates to 'posture'; they are the yoga poses that you do during your yoga sessions.

Fundamentally, yoga asanas are meant to build and keep a strong, healthy body to help ensure that you won't feel discomfort or illness as you sit in contemplation - in other words, while meditating.

You'll notice that, while asanas work your back and core muscles, they primarily focus on working your limbs to build strength and flexibility. You might say that asanas provide balance to the practice of Shatkarma, which focuses primarily on your body's inner systems.

In part, the reason for that is because Hatha, in its original meaning, focused on the physical. That didn't mean only working your body; it meant all of your physical systems including digestive, respiratory and cardiovascular. However, when the physical 'broke away' from the central premise of yoga to become its own discipline, the body's inner workings became less of a factor in daily Hatha yoga practice.

To keep with Hatha yoga principles, you have to know all about Hatha yoga poses; not just how to adopt them but their purpose and which part of the body they're designed to work.

Cow Face is a standard Hatha asana that works your abs and spine while building flexibility
The Cow Face Pose is a typical Hatha asana that helps open your chest and abdomen while strengthening your spine and core. Photo credit: Andym5855 on Visualhunt.com

Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha

Today's yogic discussion seems to have boiled pranayama down to breath control. Indeed, it is often billed as focusing on the breath but that overly simple description doesn't hint at the depth and purpose of pranayama.

Breaking the word down: prana means 'vital life force' in Sanskrit; yama translates to 'gain control'. Thus, far more than the art of focusing or controlling one's breath, pranayama is a way to promote life energy.

Mudra means 'gesture'; they are not to be confused with asanas, which are postures. Mudras are specific moves made by specific parts of the body - hands, head, perineum and so on.

Perhaps the best-known mudra is Hasta Mudra; those done with the hands. Picture the middle-finger-to-thumb depiction of meditating yogis, for instance, or the nestling hands, palms-up, depicted in so many Buddhist paintings and sculptures.

Bandhas are intrinsic to pranayama and mudra. The word means 'lock' so, as you 'engage' such a lock, you are holding energy in a specific region of your body.

Jalandahara is the word for throat lock; Uddiyana locks your abdominals and Mula locks your perineum. 'Engaging' all three locks at once is called Maha. These locks do not stay engaged forever; their purpose is to focus energy on a particular area of the body as you conduct other yogic activities.

Locking energy also helps activate chakras, a fundamental function that makes Hatha yoga what it is.

Principle #6: Dhyana

Dhyana is meditation but this yogic concept, too, is often misinterpreted and misunderstood.

The purpose behind meditation is not to empty your mind, as so many seem to advocate, but to sharpen your focus. It's meant to be a combination of awareness and concentration. In the process of doing so, you should exclude intrusive thoughts.

Imagine you're sitting at your desk, cooking dinner or driving home from work. Are you wholly focused on the task at hand or are you thinking about what you'll do after work, what you should prepare alongside the chops and mashed, or how sweet it will be to finally lose the suit and tie?

And, of course, as soon as one thought intrudes, along come a slew of others: walking the dog, phoning your mum, is today the day to put the rubbish bins out?

This is why many yogis select a mantra - the world-renowned 'om', for instance, but you don't have to chant or intone. You only need something to focus on, perhaps your breath, slow and steady.

Granted, it will take a bit of practice to get good at this level of singular focus but, once you start building your powers of concentration, you'll have this principle nailed.

Mudha or gestures such as this hand gesture fill a specific purpose in yoga
This and other gestures are Mudha, the hand, head and other body movements that serve a specific purpose in Hatha yoga. Photo credit: Robert Bejil Productions on VisualHunt

Principle #7: Samadhi

Samadhi is a major achievement; it is a state of higher consciousness and bliss. Buddhists know Samadhi as the last step of the Noble Eightfold Path, the tenets that underpin their philosophy. Ashtanga yoga espouses the same principle; it is their eighth 'limb'.

Crudely defined, Samadhi is a trance. The mind becomes still and the self becomes a channel of awareness. Corporeal concerns - heat, cold, hunger and thirst are distant; it is this principle that allows yogis and gurus to endure extremes of temperature and sensation for extended periods.

If you are in a position to contemplate - not just the parts of the yoga lifestyle that mesh with your everyday life but a complete pivot to yoga philosophy, these are the principles you will follow.

Even if you can't wholly live such a life, though, you can incorporate these principles into your yoga practice.

Now, discover the importance of Hatha yoga...

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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.