An introduction to haṭha yoga
haṭha (pronounced 'hut-huh') ~ force/forceful
- indicates an energetic quality of the effects of the practices. Haṭha is often associated with the reconciliation of solar and lunar energies within the subtle body, which is a central theme of the practice. 'Ha' represents the principle of the Sun and 'Ṭha' the principle of the moon. Haṭha yoga is renowned for its numerous physical practices and is the root tradition from which most modern styles of yoga originate.
What is haṭha yoga ?
Haṭha yoga is a path of physical transformation & spiritual emancipation in which the body is utilised as a tool towards the goal of 'mokśa' - liberation. Haṭha yoga originally developed in the 9th -10th century and was a synthesis of Tantra and Asceticism, that consolidated a vast spectrum of techniques broadly focused upon: containment of subtle energy and the awakening of potent spiritual energy - ‘kuṇḍalinī śakti.’ The pioneers of haṭha yoga were ascetics living on the fringes of Indian society. Initially, their teachings were transmitted orally, and then from the eleventh century were recorded in sanskrit texts.
Although interest in haṭha yoga declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the twentieth century heralded a new renaissance in which innovative teachers such as T. Krishnamarcharya, Swami Kuvalayananda and Swami Sivananda combined haṭha with Pātañjala yoga, Neo-Vedānta and Tantra.
Today haṭha yoga enjoys widespread popularity accross the globe. A variety of styles and interpretations have emerged and many of the the earlier, more esoteric elements of the the practice have been discarded in favour of an approach based upon wholeness, health and well being. The 'āsana' - postures from the haṭha tradition have today become a iconic symbol of yoga.
Kriyā comes from the sanskrit root ‘kr’ meaning ‘to do.’ When the ‘ya’ is added to make 'Kriyā’, it means ‘action', 'deed', or 'effort.’ Kriyās are specific actions performed in order to create the right internal conditions for yoga to be experienced. Within the context of haṭha yoga, krīyās are physical inner cleansing techniques that clear excess mucus, rebalance doshas, stimulate internal organs and re-vitalise the energetic body. There are three broad categories of Krīyā: Vari Sara - cleansing with water; Vata Sara - cleansing with air; and Agni Sara - cleansing with fire
Within these categories, traditional haṭha yoga prescribes 6 types of purification techniques known as 'śatkarma'.
'Āsana' derives from the root word 'as' meaning 'to sit' or 'to abide in.' Originally the term āsana was used to denote a seated position, established as a basis for meditation practice. A variety of predominantly seated asanas are found in early commentaries of Patañjali's Yoga sutra. In the later tradition of haṭha yoga, a wide variety of non seated āsana were developed in order to keep the body strong, supple and flexible and also to prepare the body for the awakening of powerful spiritual energy called ‘kuṇḍalinī śakti.’ Within haṭha yoga, the term āsana first came to be associated with its popular interpretation today - 'posture.'
Although mediaeval Hatha texts allude to vast numbers of postures and 84 classic asana, most describe or list a handful those asana and ‘Mudra’ (energetic seals) that were considered to be particularly important.
Mudrā & BandhaMudrā
A mudrā is either a symbolic gesture or an energetic seal, used to contain and manipulate subtle energy called prāṇa. A variety of 'Hasta' - hand mudrā originate from Tantra and were traditionally used to invoke an array of Deities and celestial beings. In asceticism and haṭha yoga a variety of more physicalised mudras were developed to contain and direct the flow of subtle energy and induce longevity and expanded states of awareness.
For example, inverted postures like headstand and shouldertand were originally classified as mudras, and were renowned for their revitalising health benefits.
The concept of Bandha has been likened to the 'damning of a river' and refers to physical and energetic locks engaged used in order to preserve, contatin and redistribute the flow of pranā (energy) within the body.
There are three principle bandhas: 'mūla,' 'uḍḍiyāna', and 'jālandhara' located respectively in the perineum, abdomen and throat.
The bandhas are often utilised in conjunction with āsana & prāṇāyāma and are a power tool deepening physical awareness, re-aligning consciousness and containing vital energy.
'Prāna' means life force or energy and 'āyāma' is the practice of lengthening or extending. Our primary source of energy is the air we breath. Therefore a useful translation of prāṇāyāma is 'the regulation of the breath.'
Broadly speaking, prāṇāyāma is the science of breath control. Mind and breath are intimately connected and the breath can be readily utilised as a tool for consciously calming the mind, altering consciousness and expanding awareness. In haṭha yoga, there are a number of specific prāṇāyāma methods utilised for a range of purposes such as:
- Integration/reconciliation of positive and negative mental polarities
- Cleansing and purification the nervous system and energetic pathways
- Extension and containment the life force - prāna in the body
- Calming the mind and preparation for higher stages of meditation
- Increased longevity
Regular prāṇāyāma practice improves respiration and helps to establish a healthy body & a calm and tranquil mind. It is an excellent prerequisite for meditation and other spiritual practices.