"Do you do yoga?"
This simple question, phrased along the lines of 'do you do housework?' or 'do you go to school?', is not that easy to answer. We all know what housework is: washing up and hoovering, keeping the laundry piles in check and making sure that the house doesn't get overrun with dust mites. Similarly, going to school means you are enrolled in a course of study, probably at a facility for learning. Although, these days, going to school may also mean taking online courses. So, those questions are easy to answer. You either do or don't do housework; or you may do some but not all of it - in which case, you still do housework. As for school, you're either enrolled and attending or not. What does 'doing yoga' mean? Is it the simple act of repairing to a gym or yoga studio a couple of times a week to position yourself in remarkable ways and enjoy a bit of meditation? Or does it mean the whole yoga lifestyle - everything from being vegetarian/vegan to following all of the steps towards enlightenment? What? There are steps? And what kind of yoga are we talking about? There are many types, from the mystic physiology of Tantric yoga to the light-hearted Baby'n'Me yoga; from the Hot yoga that Dave and Posh routinely take part in to therapeutic, restorative yoga... If we kept going, the topic would get overwhelming and the questions would never end so let's talk about the most commonly-practised type; Hatha yoga.
The Importance of Hatha Yoga
The Bard was quite correct when he wrote "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" but his logic would be flawed when it comes to yoga. That's because there are so many different types of yoga:
- Iyengar yoga
- Yin yoga
- Power yoga
- Hot yoga
- Bikram yoga
- Vinyasa yoga - sometimes called Flow yoga
- Ashtanga yoga
- Kundalini yoga
- Jivamukti yoga
- Corrective and Restorative yoga
And that's just 10 of the more renowned types of yoga; there are many more. Each has its own principles and driving philosophies, its own ways of practice and legions of devotees. Still, regardless of what type of yoga you practise, every type of yoga is fundamentally Hatha yoga. Yoga's earliest records, dating back some 5000 years, show it to be an all-encompassing discipline that addressed the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of human life. As knowledge grew and societies evolved; as people developed a deeper understanding of the human experience, so yoga evolved. And then, something completely unexpected happened. The facet of yoga that addressed the physical aspects broke away to become its own discipline. That facet was/is called Hatha. It governs everything physical, be it internal concerns such as heartbeat and digestion, or external - how the body moves and works. Exploring different types of yoga, you'll find many of the same asanas and principles, such as meditation and emphasis on breath - pranayama. Some asanas may have different names or, conversely have the same name but are executed differently from one type of yoga to the next. Nevertheless, whether you're sweating it out in a Bikram yoga studio or getting in touch with your spiritual side by practising Kundalini yoga, you are a student of the most important type of yoga: Hatha yoga.
The History of Hatha Yoga
Nobody knows exactly how far back into history yoga tracks; keeping a written record of anything is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. However, for as far back as there are records, roughly five thousand years, the practice of yoga features. Those early records outline yoga as a 'whole' discipline, meaning it addresses every aspect of the human condition: spiritual, mental and physical, for the purpose of understanding and connecting with cosmic energy. The physical aspects of yoga were headlined Hatha - pronounced 'hat-tah', rather than 'hah-tha'. This is an important distinction because the latter pronunciation signals violence and sadness while the correct one represents force and persistence. The Sanskrit script used to write those different intonations support that distinction. The correct pronunciation is written हठ, with one ideogram representing the sun and the other, the moon. These are elements associated with yogic doctrine. By contrast, the incorrect pronunciation is written हथ, which means killing, slaughter or striking a blow. Those are decidedly not yogic elements. Yoga - which means 'to unite', remained a combined discipline until roughly 600 years ago, during the Post-Classical yoga era. Tantric yoga emphasised the physical aspects of the discipline, which caused somewhat of a split in the overall philosophy. It's then that Hatha became a separate and distinct yogic practice. The history of yoga is broken into four eras. We touched on the Post-Classical era; now learn more about how Hatha yoga evolved and distinguished itself from other yogic practices throughout history.
The Principles of Hatha Yoga
To the uninitiated, Hatha yoga - indeed, any type of yoga might look like just a random set of poses that, after you're done executing them, leave you strangely relaxed yet invigorated. If you're doing yoga purely for the physical benefits, that might be enough information for you but, if you want to adopt the yoga lifestyle, you'll surely get much deeper into the practices and philosophies that underpin Hatha yoga. Interestingly, while performing asanas is an integral part of yogic practice, it's not the discipline's first principle. Shatkarma is. This word translates to 'processes' or 'actions'. It represents a collection of... well, actions that Hatha yoga devotees (should) engage in every few months. They might be compared to today's much-touted detoxes but only loosely. They are in no way similar in practice. For one, there is no fasting involved, like other popular regimes. However, there is ingestion - not of some high-priced, mystery concoction but of saltwater. In fact, saltwater is integral to three of the six Shatkarma. Asanas are Hatha yoga's second principle. No need to go into much detail here; we'll talk more about asanas later in this article. Pranayama is another concept you might be familiar with if you've practised any yoga. It's often described as focusing on the breath but that image is inaccurate. Pranayama is more about expanding your life force than monitoring your breathing. Mudra and Bandha are about channelling energy and keeping where you need it in your body; your yoga instructor may have demonstrated hand gestures and instructed you to flex your abs - while meditating, for instance. Those are Mudra and Bandha, respectively. Meditation is the sixth Hatha principle. Not the 'empty your mind' type of meditation that invariably leads to unwanted thoughts creeping in but the hyper-focused awareness of the current moment and yourself in it. The seventh principle is the one that draws gasps of awe whenever there is any type of yoga demonstration. To find out what it is and how to master it, you should refer to our companion article.
Hatha Yoga Poses
Hatha yoga postures usually have two names: their Sanskrit one and a corresponding one in English. Keep in mind that these names aren't necessary exact translations or, if they are, they may convey a meaning different than intended. Take Sukhasana, for example. Its English name is Easy Pose. That doesn't mean that it's easy to adopt or maintain; the original intent of the name was that you should only hold it for as long as it is easy for you to do so. Sukhasana involves sitting on your yoga mat with your legs crossed in near-tailor fashion, meaning that your ankles do not stack onto one another; it is a more open position in which your feet rest one in front of the other. Also, the entire (outside) length of your legs should rest on your mat, including your knees. You can see that, for some, this would be a difficult posture to assume, let alone hold for any measure of time. That's why it's not exactly Easy Pose; more like As Long As You Can Hold It With Ease pose. Usually, Hatha yoga asanas draw their names from nature and common sights. That is why so many asanas have animal names: Monkey Pose, Pigeon Pose, Peacock Pose and Cobra Pose, among them. Landscape-themed asana names include Mountain Pose and Tree Pose - arguably the most renowned of all yoga poses. You might wonder about the Warrior Poses, though. Isn't yoga supposed to be the discipline of non-violence? The Warrior Poses are a contact point between the practice of yoga and Hindu spiritual beliefs. These poses commemorate the deeds of warrior Virabhadra - the Sanskrit root name of the three Warrior asanas. This warrior was a fierce incarnation of the Hindu god Shiva - and one of yoga's most iconic postures. As you learn more about Hatha yoga and these asanas, you should make it a point to know both the Sanskrit and English names for each asana because your yoga instructor may use either - or both, in class. Besides that, as demonstrated with the story behind the Warrior pose name, they make for a fascinating study!
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