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. It 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. Early haṭha consolidated a vast spectrum of techniques, broadly focused upon the containment of vital 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.
Haṭha yoga welcomed practitioners from all walks of life and consequently grew in popularity, attracting followers from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim and Sufi communities. One of the earliest illustrated haṭha manuals is a Persian text called the Baḥr al-ḥayāt - Water of Life (1602.)
From the 15th to 18th century, haṭha yoga enjoyed widespread popularity and a variety of Sanskrit manuals were composed during this period.
Although interest in haṭha yoga declined in nineteenth century, 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 across the globe and a variety of styles and interpretations have emerged. Many of the earlier, more esoteric elements of 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 become an iconic symbol of yoga.
Below are some of the key components which comprise the method of haṭha yoga:
Kriyā - purification
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. Haṭha yoga prescribes 6 types of purification technique, which are known as śatkarma.
Āsana - posture
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 - postures 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.
Mudrā & Bandha - containmentMudrā
A mudrā is a symbolic gesture or energetic seal that is 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 mudrā 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 shoulderstand were originally classified as mudrā, 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 powerful tool for deepening physical awareness, re-aligning consciousness and containing vital energy.
Prāṇāyāma - breath regulation
Prāna means 'that which animates' and refers to vital energy. Yāma means to restrain and āyāma to 'un-restrain or expand/lengthen'. Our primary source of energy is the air we breathe. 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 calm and tranquil mind. It is an excellent prerequisite for meditation and other spiritual practices.