Hatha Yoga is a branch within Raja Yoga. It is also called the “yoga of control” and is one the of the four paths of Yoga. It has been developed based on the principles of Raja Yoga. The goal of Hatha Yoga (like Raja Yoga) is Samadhi. Samadhi to put simply is a state of freedom from attachments, ego, and the illusions of the sensory (& material world). When you initially reach that state, it is temporary, and gradually it becomes permanent.
In Raja Yoga, there are eight parts (also referred as eight limbs). It begins by first purifying your habits and nature. They are referred to as Yama and Niyama. This involves reaching a state of pure & non-violent existence. Once you master these, you need to prepare your body for intense meditation, which is when Asanas & Pranayama come in.
Hatha Yoga focuses on Asanas and Pranayama (yoga poses and meditation) and a large part of Yoga that we see today in the form of Yoga poses and asanas are essentially Hatha Yoga. The turning point in the evolution of Hatha Yoga came from Hatha Yoga Pradipika (which means an illustrative book on Hatha Yoga), which mentioned details of Asanas or Yoga Poses. Over centuries, Hatha Yoga has evolved into a detailed practice, which details out yoga asanas / yoga poses for each chakra (or energy center) of your body. It is meant to keep your internal body and mind in balance.
Hatha Yoga when practiced regularly has numerous health benefits including helping with the nervous system, circulatory system, lymphatic system, spine & joints, metabolism, and internal organs. It can help with blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and many other lifestyle related diseases. However it should be done under proper counselling and guidance. This article details out all aspects of Hatha Yoga and helps provide a comprehensive understanding of Hatha Yoga.
- Goal of Hatha Yoga
- The Meaning of Hatha Yoga
- Hatha Yoga & Asanas / Poses
- History of Hatha Yoga
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika
- Importance of a Guru / Teacher in Hatha Yoga
- The evolution of Yoga Asanas / Yoga Poses
- 5 Key concepts and objectives
- Healthy Living through Hatha Yoga
- Hatha Yoga and Health Benefits
- Hatha Yoga and 7 Chakras
- Preparing for Hatha Yoga
- Avoiding injuries while doing Hatha Yoga
- The building Blocks for a holistic Hatha Yoga Practice
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Hatha Yoga
- Other Related Topics on Yoga
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Yoga
Goal of Hatha Yoga
The main goal of Hatha Yoga is to purify the mind and the prepare you for further spiritual practices. Being and staying healthy (mentally and physically) is a central concern in Yoga. An unfit body & mind cannot meditate. You will need a healthy body and mind to progress spiritually.
The Meaning of Hatha Yoga
The word Hatha means “stubborn”, or “forceful”. Hatha Yoga means the forceful practice of yoga. It is a discipline you practice to purify and control your body. As a result, you gain control over the mind as well. When you stubbornly stick to the practice, you will cultivate power and overcome fears and other mental interferences. For instance, when you first learn to do the headstand, you will have your fears, and doubts. As a practitioner of Hatha Yoga, you glue yourself to the goal, stubbornly devoted to learning the pose. Your mind will keep telling you that it is difficult, yet through stubborn and forceful action, you will be ready and comfortable with the asana.
Hatha Yoga and Asanas / Poses
According to the Raja Yoga tradition, you must first purify your nature and habits. This involves returning to a pure and non-violent existence by observing and cultivating moral observances and habits. These aspects fall under Yama and Niyama in Raja Yoga (compiled by Patanjali). Once you master these can you proceed to the practice of asanas, pranayama, and meditation (Also read What is Asamprajana Samadhi? The eight limbs of Yoga). According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, though, you should start with the physical practices first.
For this reason, the main practices of Hatha Yoga are asana and pranayama. Their main goal is to purify body and mind and prepare you for further spiritual practices. In the previous chapter you have seen that you can practice the asanas independently of any philosophy. Further down the road, you will also learn how and why the practice of asanas can be done to achieve maximum physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. Being and staying healthy is a central concern in Yoga. This is because when you have a healthy and strong body and mind, you possess the greatest vehicle for spiritual development. Other practices within the Hatha Yoga traditions—such as mudras, bandhas, shat kriyas, and mantras – were all developed as supplements to the practice of postures and breath control.
Forcefully Practicing vs. Practicing Forcefully
Patanjali‘s definition of Yoga Asana practice is – Sthira sukham asanam. It literally means “asana is a steady and comfortable post”. Only in an effortless and comfortable posture can you merge your mind with the infinite.
You practice each asana in the best manner when you ease in to it with least physical & mental effort. This helps you remain in sync with your own nature and flow of energy around you. In Hatha Yoga, your body is in a restful and regenerative state where you are acting in harmony with the nature.
You might feel that this is contradictory to the forceful practice define earlier. How can something that is forceful require least effort?
There is a difference between forceful willpower to practice vs. practicing forcefully. Stubbornly dedicating yourself to the practice, overcoming your mental blocks is the stubborn dedication you need.
In essence, Hatha Yoga is about stubbornly finding a balance between ease and force.
History of Hatha Yoga
Today many people tend to associate all yoga with the term Hatha Yoga. This is rightly so in the case of the term yoga asanas, because the practice of yoga asanas has indeed become more systematized and accessible through the development of Hatha Yoga. There have been many, though, who have attained the state of yoga without practicing Hatha Yoga. Furthermore, the practice of yoga asanas existed long before the various practices that belong to Hatha Yoga were defined in writing. Sanskrit texts ranging from the 11th century AD to the 13th century AD mention mudras and bandhas that would appear later in Hatha Yoga texts.
The Goraksha Shataka (13th – 14th C. AD) proclaims that there are 8.4 million postures, as many as there are species of living beings on this planet. According to Goraksha, the author, 84 of these postures have been selected by Lord Shiva as the main ones. Two of these, Siddha Asana and Padma Asana, which are later on included in the Hatha Yoga tradition as well, he considers to be of the highest importance for meditation. It is for this reason that he describes them.
The Shiva Samhita (1500 AD), mixes philosophy with specific practices. It also speaks at length about the chakras (centers of spiritual power in the subtle body) and nadis (subtle channels in your body that transmit energy) systems. The work mentions only four asanas, but many mudras and pranayama techniques.
All these texts written between 1100 and 1500 AD either mention Hatha Yoga by name—without explaining any techniques—or they describe mudras, bandhas, and a few asanas but do not call these techniques Hatha Yoga.
The turning point in the definition of physical yoga practices is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (which translated means Illuminating Hatha Yoga or Light on Hatha Yoga).
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
It is one of the first texts that compiles all earlier works under one umbrella. It defines asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas, kumbhaka (breath retention). It also discussed the shat kriya (six inner cleansing practices) that are characteristic of Hatha Yoga. It also emphasizes on the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. The book refers to the tradition of postures originating from sages. However it is not an extensive guide. It simply provides basic information on the topic.
It also emphasizes, as does the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the importance of asanas for physical well-being: It is the first limb of Hatha Yoga and asanas are therefore described first. Asanas should be practiced for steadiness of posture, health and lightness of body.
It’s revival in the modern day can be attributed to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who propagated Hatha Yoga in the 20th century. He is considered to be an influential modern day Yoga Guru also at times referred to as the “father of the modern day yoga”.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written in the 15th century AD by Swami Svatmarama. It is a compilation of around 20 texts, including the ones mentioned above. It is among the most influential of three surviving texts on Hatha Yoga. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the first available text on yoga to name and describe non-seated asanas.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika merely refers to the rich traditions of postures originating from the sages and then goes on to mention and describe only 15 asanas. Eight of the 15 asanas are varieties of sitting or lying postures, and seven are non-seated positions. The verses describing asanas are derived from a variety of earlier texts (These earlier texts are the Dattatreyayogasastra, the Vivekamartananda, the Vasisthasamhita, the Yogayajnavalkya, and the Sivasamhita). No source text has yet been identified, however, for three of the seven non-seated asanas: Uttanakurmasana, Dhanurasana, and Matsyendrasana.
Importance of a Guru / Teacher in Hatha Yoga
Although the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is known as the ultimate textbook on Hatha Yoga, it is important to know that it is not an extensive guide to Hatha Yoga. It simply intends to provide basic information on the topic. In his book Swami Svatmarama stresses the importance of an experienced teacher from whom the proper practice of Hatha Yoga should be learned. Without the guidance of the teacher, these exercises cannot be utilized to their full potential. Svatmarama emphasizes that the true meaning of yoga cannot be gained by merely reading textbooks. It must rather come from personal experience gained under the supervision of a guru.
The evolution of Yoga Asanas / Yoga Poses
Some of the first references to yoga can be found in the Vedas, a collection of mantras that seers cognized thousands of years ago. The Svetasvatara Upanishad (500 – 400 BC) offers some practical advice on how to practice yoga. It describes the most conducive environment; how to breathe; and how to keep the body in a straight posture by holding the chest, neck, and head erect. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes asana as “a posture” to be practiced prior to attempting pranayama or meditation. He provided the first reference to the term asana as we understand it today. Today many people tend to associate all yoga with the term Hatha Yoga. The Shiva Samhita (1500 AD), mixes philosophy with specific practices. It also speaks at length about the chakras (centers of spiritual power in the subtle body) and nadis (subtle channels in your body that transmit energy) systems. The turning point in the definition of physical yoga practices is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (which translated means Illuminating Hatha Yoga or Light on Hatha Yoga). The Gherand Samhita was the first book to really lay out the details of the entire Hatha Yoga system. It states that there are 8.4 million asanas. This is as many as there are species in the world. Only 84 of these asanas does it deem to be superior. And a mere 32 are said to be sacred in the world of mortals. Hatha Ratnavali, the first book on yoga to actually list 84 asanas. It was written by Srinivasa, a yogi from South India. It dates from the 18th century. The text is strongly influenced by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The list of 84 asanas begins with Siddhasana (Accomplished Pose) and ends with Shavasana (Corpse Pose). It mentions 84 asanas, but describes, in all, only 36. Another text, the Jogapradipika, written by Jayatarama of Vrindavan in 1737, is the only other pre-modern text known so far that also names and describes 84 asanas. The names of the asanas, though, differ considerably from those listed in the Hatha Ratnavali. It’s revival in the modern day can be attributed to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who propagated Hatha Yoga in the 20th century. He is considered to be an influential modern day Yoga Guru also at times referred to as the “father of the modern day yoga”.
5 Key Concepts and Objectives
- Yoga leads to control of your body, mind, and senses, and its final goal is self-realization.
- Yoga is non-sectarian and open to anyone and everyone.
- As practitioners it is our complete free choice to pick any path, any technique, any method as long as it serves us and leads us toward a more conscious and healthy existence.
- To reap the full and intended results and move toward the final goal (if you wish to), yoga should be practiced humbly, with dedication, and under the supervision of a teacher.
- The practice of yoga asanas is highly beneficial for physical well-being, making the body strong and healthy in preparation for further spiritual practices.
Healthy Living Through Hatha Yoga
According to yoga philosophy, health is the balance and proper functioning of all physical, mental, and energy systems. Asanas were conceived in ancient times to promote holistic health by stimulating and balancing the internal body systems and maintaining homeostasis. As yoga became popular, the focus of the practice started to shift. As a result, some of its original principles began to become diluted.
The original purpose of yoga asanas was to keep the internal physical body and the energy body healthy and in balance. Asanas were specifically developed for this reason. These days, though, yoga practices generally focus on toning and stretching the musculoskeletal system.
It is important to remember that the changes in bodily appearance through regular practice of yoga asanas are side effects and should not be mistaken for the main goal. The main difference between a Hatha Yoga practice and a modern yoga asana practice is how the asanas are performed.
Classically, asanas are defined as steady, comfortable, poses. As soon as the asanas are performed in a dynamic way, without steady holds, we enter the realm of modern asana practice. Ancient scriptures define asanas with the words sthira sukham asanam, which defines the state where body and mind are steady and comfortable in a pose.
To sum it up, an asana practice according to Hatha Yoga principles aims to keep the internal body healthy and in balance rather than focusing on weight loss, toning, and shaping the exterior physical body and performs asanas with long, comfortable, and steady holds, rather than in a vigorous or dynamic manner.
Hatha Yoga and Health Benefits
Read the full chapter on Hatha Yoga Health Benefits
Hatha Yoga has tremendous benefits on the mental and physical health of an individual. We’ll see how the practice of Hatha Yoga helps your nervous system, circulatory system, respiratory system, lymphatic system, metabolism, spine & joints, and the internal glands.
A regular practice of Hatha Yoga can keep you away from many lifestyle related diseases that are becoming a common occurrence these days. It can also help you in dealing with stress, anxiety, and overall can help you realize your true potential.
Hatha Yoga and the Nervous System
Your autonomic nervous system consists of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Your sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for action. It is famous for its fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the rest and digest mode for your body. It counterbalances your sympathetic nervous system, restoring your body to a state of calm. Only one of these two subsystems can be active at a time. The balance between these two systems is of utmost importance. In a healthy person, the transitions between the two systems are regular, smooth, and swift. Apart from external and psychological factors, the sympathetic nervous system also gets activated by using your muscles or breathing more heavily. Hatha Yoga practice—with steady and comfortable postures and calm, conscious breathing—will bring you into resonance with your parasympathetic nervous system. In this state the proper functioning of all your internal organs and glands is ensured. They will receive an abundant blood supply. Through the calm and mindful practice of Hatha Yoga you can re-establish healthy breathing patterns and learn to relax. By learning to relax and consciously experiencing relaxation, you can recognize early signs of stress in your daily life and learn to respond more calmly and consciously.
Hatha Yoga and the Circulatory System
The heart is the most important organ of the circulatory system. Hatha Yoga offers a proven, effective cure. Continuous slouching, for instance, can chronically compress your internal organs between the heart and large intestine. This obstructs blood circulation because the channels of blood flow tend to collapse. When this happens, the blood cannot properly carry out its functions of supplying tissues with oxygen, hormones, nutrients, and enzymes. Hatha Yoga poses, though, help to increase blood circulation, especially in areas prone to sluggish blood flow.
Hatha Yoga and the lymphatic System
The lymphatic system plays important roles in detoxification. It removes wastes and toxins while maintaining your body’s immunity against pathogens. It does this by circulating lymph—a transparent fluid containing white blood cells and proteins. The breath is a lymphatic pump in itself. Conscious breathing helps direct lymph through the deep channels of the chest. Yoga asanas work in three ways to increase the flow of lymph and relieve lymphatic congestion. Yoga asanas work in three ways to increase the flow of lymph and relieve lymphatic congestion.
- Inversions reverse the effect of gravity and drain lymph and used blood from your legs.
- Twists (as well as forward, backward, and side bends) stimulate the flow of lymph up through the core of your body.
- Contracting and releasing large muscles move lymph through your body. To eliminate toxins is one of the key qualities and purposes of Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga and Respiratory System
Proper oxygenation of your cells is another important aspect of good health. Cells need oxygen to generate energy. To get enough oxygen to your cells, you must improve the blood’s absorption of oxygen. Research has shown that deep breathing into the lower part of the lungs increases this oxygen absorption. In Hatha Yoga, the lungs’ capacity to absorb oxygen and the blood’s capacity to distribute oxygen optimally improve. In conventional exercises or vigorous asana practice, even though the respiration rate increases, the oxygenation of the cells is less efficient, causing us to breathe even more rapidly in attempting to provide enough oxygen. Thus, breathing patterns and exercises that focus on exhalation and retention have the inherent quality of activating the parasympathetic nervous system. They therefore have a calming and rejuvenating effect on your body and mind. When your body and mind are at ease, you breathe (one inhalation and exhalation) 13 to 15 times per minute. Whenever your respiration increases due to physical or mental stimulation, the flow of blood and other vital fluids increase as well. This in turn increases neuromotor activity. And neuromotor activity causes your body to utilize more energy. Subsequently, you need to absorb more glucose through food.
Metabolism and Hatha Yoga
The biggest myth about Yoga is that it stimulates the metabolism and causes weight loss. In fact, the intention and the effect of Hatha Yoga prove to be the exact opposite. This metabolic rate differs from person to person, and these calories are the absolute minimum amount of energy that your body needs to stay alive and to execute all involuntary activities such as digestion, respiration, circulation, waste removal, and temperature regulation. The secret of weight loss or maintaining an ideal weight has nothing to do with a fast metabolism, but with mind and psyche. The regular practice of asanas affects the mind and desires. These in turn help to curb overeating and stress-related eating. Furthermore, slowing your metabolism through calorie restriction can possibly protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. It can even help you live longer. Thus, combining Hatha Yoga, which has been shown to decrease the metabolism, and a calorie-restricted diet, seems to be a formula for better health and longer life.
Hatha Yoga – Spine & Joints
Yoga keeps your spine young. And you are only as young as your spine is flexible. These are common statements in the yoga world. They are supported by science. According to medical studies, yoga can slow down the deterioration of spinal discs. Practicing asanas can prevent arthritis, which is the wear and tear of joints in the back, neck, hips, fingers, or knees. In a healthy joint, a well-lubricated lining of cartilage covers the ends of bones. This cartilage gets worn down most commonly by sports injuries, poor body posture, or dysfunctional movement patterns. Yoga asanas bring awareness to formerly unconscious postural habits. Hatha Yoga’s varied movements keep your spine as well as joints well-lubricated. As a result, you remain younger, stronger, and more flexible. In conventional exercise, the variety of movements is less, and more often than not these movements are neither gentle nor very controlled. Therefore the joints experience wear and tear, and the aging process of your spine is not slowed down. Dynamic and vigorous asana practices are in this case better for your joints and spine than conventional exercise. They provide a large and varied range of motions for your spine and joints.
Hatha Yoga & the internal Organs
To keep the body in a state of holistic health, the ancient yogis believed that they needed to stimulate and balance the functions of the internal organs and specifically the end crine glands. They did so with the practice of yoga asanas designed to directly influence the endocrine system. Asanas’s influence this system in three hypothesized ways. They induce the squeeze-and-release effect in the body, which intensifies the circulation to specific parts of your body. Try squeezing your hand tightly for 20 seconds. As blood is pushed out, your hand becomes pale. As you release your grip, freshly oxygenated blood rushes into your hand through the arteries. A similar effect takes place in all asanas. Asanas also stimulate local nerves subsequently stimulating body’s own regulatory functions. Your body constantly works to negotiate and balance external and internal disturbances. Finally, asanas increase specific blood circulation in your body. A Hatha Yoga practice may have a similar effect on the viscera as do the gentle palpitations and manipulations during Visceral Manipulation. When you practice asanas, there is a lot of movement, compression, extension, and rotation in your trunk. By bringing movement to the fascia in the trunk you remove restriction and activate your body’s self-correcting and self-regulatory system.
Hatha Yoga and the 7 Chakras
According to yogic philosophy, human beings have three bodies. All of them are interconnected via the vital life energy: prana. The three bodies are the physical body, the energetic or so-called astral body, and the spiritual body (or soul). The physical body in its entirety is connected to the energetic body, and furthermore every body part individually is associated and connected with an astral counterpart. As we know, asanas work on the physical body in various ways. They ensure and enhance homeostasis. They do so by bringing your body into a parasympathetic state. Further, the practice of asanas exerts an immediate effect on internal glands and organs, increasing and balancing their functions. Also, asanas influence and stimulate the astral body. An important aspect of the astral body is the chakra system of energy centers.
In yoga, we focus on the seven major chakras. These exist along the line of your spine. Each one connects to its specific gland and organ of the physical body, as well as areas of the mind that influence personality. The astral body also includes about 72,000 astral energy nerves: nadis. The three main nadis—the Sushumna Nadi, the Ida Nadi, and the Pingala Nadi—coincide with the spinal column. And each asana balances the function of its corresponding chakra, organ, and gland and of the whole body.
The seven chakras and their physical and mental properties
Crown Chakra / Sahasrara Chakra
Sahasrara means “thousand.” The Sahasrara Chakra resembles a so-called Lotus with a thousand petals located at the crown of your head. This chakra is referred to as the Crown Chakra and is considered to be the centre of spirituality, awareness and enlightenment.
Third-Eye Chakra / Ajna Chakra
Ajna means “foremost,” and the sixth chakra, the Ajna Chakra (pronounced “Agya”) is located about 4 inches behind the eyes, at the center of your head. It is also known as the Third-Eye Chakra. This is the center of perception. In the physical body, the Sahasrara and Ajna Chakras correspond with the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the pineal gland, located in the brain, as well as the eyes, ears, and the nose.
Throat Chakra / Vidhuddha Chakra
Vishuddha means “especially pure,” and the fifth chakra, the Vishuddha Chakra, is located at the base of the throat. It is the center of communication, sound, and the expression of creativity via thought, speech, and writing.
Heart Chakra / Anahta Chakra
Anahata means “unstruck” or “unhurt” and refers to non-attachment. The Anahata Chakra or the Heart Chakra is located in the center of the chest, near the heart. It is associated with the element air.
Solar Plexus Chakra / Manipura Chakra
Manipura literally translates as “place of shining gem” and is the name of the third chakra, the Manipura Chakra, located at the solar plexus (between the belly button and bottom of the rib cage). The Manipura Chakra is related to the fire element in your body. Ego, energy, will power, aggression, and intellect are the qualities of this chakra, which often is referred to as the Solar Plexus chakra.
Sacral Chakra / Svadhisthana Chakra
Svadhishthana means “dwelling place of the Self” and is the name of the second chakra, the Svadhishthana Chakra, located at the lower abdomen, four finger breadths below the belly button. This chakra is also known as the Sacral Chakra and governs sexuality, desires and pleasures.
Root Chakra / Muladhara Chakra
Muladhara means “root support,” and the first chakra, the Muladhara Chakra, is located at the base of your spine. Muladhara is considered the foundation of the “energy body” and is also referred to as the Root Chakra. Kundalini awakening begins here, because it is the base from where the three main nadis—Ida, Pingala, and Sushumna—emerge. It is the most instinctual of all chakras.
7 Chakras and their corresponding yoga poses / yoga asanas
|Element||–||Energy & Matter||Space||Air||Fire||Water||Earth|
Ardha Matsyendra Asana
|Yoga Pose||Yoga Headstand||Yoga Headstand||Shoulder stand|
|Half Bridge Pose|
Easy Cow Face
|Seated Forward Bend|
upward plank pose
Lord of the Fishes Pose
|Easy Crow Pose|
Preparing For Hatha Yoga
A holistic asana practice is a balanced practice because it creates harmony between the physical, mental, and energy bodies. A balanced practice should always be comprised of several key elements, and benefits greatly from a conducive setting.
Time for ideal practice
The ideal time is either at dawn (also called brahma muhuratha) or dusk (sandhya). Although one can practice when one is not feeling sleepy or tired. Also, it is preferable to not eat 2 hours before you practice.
The place for practice should be well-lit, distraction free, ventilated, and clutter-free. The place should also give you a feeling of calm and should not be noisy. In essence the energy of the place will affect your practice.
It is important to ensure that you maintain the proper temperature while you are practicing. If it’s too cold, the muscles won’t be warmed up properly. Similarly, if it’s too warm, your muscles will loosen can push beyond their limits. It’s also important to maintain proper clothing depending on the environment you are in.
Traditionally asanas have been practices wearing only a strip of linen or cotton tied around the hips and genitas. Ideally, it’ll be good to wear natural fabric and for you to feel comfortable and relaxed.
Asanas should not be practiced when you are unwell or are feeling fatigued. Practicing in such scenarios can lead to injury. Asanas should also be practiced preferably once you have emptied your bowels.
According to Patanjali, asanas should be performed when your mind is free from desire, anxiety, anger, or fear. Practicing on an unstable mind may not help. For a fruitful practice, you should train your mind to let go of any emotions and thoughts.
Avoiding Injuries While Doing Hatha Yoga
Be mindful of your body and do not over-stretch. At times in a state of excitement, you can over stretch and that can lead to injury. Be very careful. While it is important to step out of the comfort zone, it is important to avoid injury. It can be done through the following principles
Principle of individual differences
Not two people are alike. There is no single ideal alignment and duration of an asana that’ll be natural and beneficial for everyone.
Expanding the comfort zone
Gradually the physical conditions of your body improve through optimal overload. In Hatha Yoga, doing your pose for a longer duration for instance can provide greater than normal stress. It can also be improved by increasing the complexity of the pose or the asana. However it is important to note that it has to be gradual. Therefore you need to be mindful of the load that is being applied to your body and gradually increase it. Overload is only effective when your body experiences a challenge but still retains the control.
It gets better not easier
Your body has a great ability to adapt. As the complexity of asanas increases, and through repetition your body adapts to the overload. This way you will continue to improve in strength, flexibility, balance, and stability. If you however stop doing yoga, or take a break from your regular practice your levels will come down again.
The importance of rest
Rest is vital in the practice. It’ll help your body adapt, repair, and grow itself. The gradual overload along with rest can help your body adapt quickly and become stronger and more coordinated. When the tissues rest, they repair themselves to be stronger than before. Again keep the first principle in mind – The rest you’ll need is different and will vary.
The Building Blocks For A Holistic Hatha Yoga Practice
The five fundamental building blocks for a holistic Hatha Yoga practice are
- Conscious breathing
- Proper warm-up
- Steady, comfortable poses
- Proper sequencing of Asanas
Once your begin your practice, each session will start with a short initial relaxation. Lying down in a corpse pose, you’ll have to focus on yoru breath and consciously relax each part of your body.
Before starting any asanas, you must first warm-up your respiratory system and tune your mind and intention in to the present moment.
Step 1: Relaxing
No yoga is complete without sufficient relaxation. You should practice relaxation before beginning your session, while performing each asana, and at the end of your session
Relax before practice
Your practice starts with initial relaxation. Lie down in the corpse pose for 5 minutes prior to focusing your attention to your body and breathing. Furthermore, it’ll help you tune your mind for the upcoming practice
Relax your body through the practice
A yoga posture should be steady and comfortable (Sthira – sukha – asana). Your body and mind both should be relaxed. The relaxation poses are generally practiced for 30 seconds to 60 seconds between sets of asanas. Again, you should do what works best for you. They are meant to prevent your body from triggering the sympathetic nervous system. If a particular set of asanas are proving to be slightly challenging, it is recommended that you increase the relaxation time or all additional relaxation moments.
Relax after practice
A final relaxation at the end of your practice enables your body and mind to fully integrate the changes that have taken place during the session. It also aids in healing and repairing your body.
Following is he list of relaxation poses / asanas that you can do for relaxation before, during, and after a yoga session.
- Shavasana / Corpse pose
- Supta Baddha Konasana / Sleeping Bound Angle Pose
- Shashankasana (Balasana) / Child’s Pose
- Khagasana / Hare Pose
- Makarasana / Crocodile Pose
- Sashtang Pranam Asana / Prone Prayer Pose
Step 2: Right Breathing
Regular and conscious breathing is an important factor in the holistic practice of asanas. Breathing should be calm & effortless, which heps your body to stay in the parasympathetic state. During the asanas, the focus should be on diaphragmatic breathing, such as abdominal breath or full yogic breath. Starting the practice with some conscious breathing and breathing exercises helps to establish the mode of abdominal breathing pattern for the duration of the practice.
During most of the asanas and exercises in Hatha Yoga we maintain abdominal breathing. This is the most natural and effortless way of breathing. During some asanas in which the chest is expanded, such as the cobra pose, cow face pose, or camel pose, you can also practice the full yogic breath, which is deep diaphragm breathing aiming to use the full lung capacity. Practicing the full yogic breath in chest openers provides a gentle workout for the lungs while at the same time deepening the pose.
While striving to hold the poses, you should avoid holding your breath. It is helpful to inhale with all the extensions and exhale with all the flexions. Breathing in with extensions helps stretch your intercostals and abdominal muscles while lengthening your body. Breathing out with flexions helps relax your intercostal muscles while engaging your core and abdomen and bending your body forward.
Before you start your asana practice, warm up your musculoskeletal system with sun salutations and some alternative exercises. Before that warm up your respiratory system with two breathing exercises – Kapal bhati (skull shining breathing) and Anulom Vilom (Alternate nostril breathing).
Step 3: Warming Up Properly
A proper warm-up is essential to prepare for asana practice and also to prevent injuries. Sun salutations or surya namaskar are commonly practiced warm-up that primarily warms up the central nervous system and subsequently the major muscles and joints. The fluid and dynamic movements of the sun salutation, though, should be confused with asana practice. Since the Sun salutation or surya namaskar is performed dynamically it does not give the same benefits as steady asanas.
Traditionally the surya namaskar or the sun salutation is performed with you back towards the rising sun, your spine and spinal cord warmed by the sun’s heat. Each movement of the sun salutation or surya namaskar proceeds in coordination with breathing: each motion connecting to an inhale, an exhlare, or a retention. With a calm and contemplative mind, you should continue the sun salutation only until you begin to perspire. Engaging a vast variety of muscles & joints, warming up your spine and spinal cord, regulating the breath, and focusing the mind, doing the sun salutation is effective and should be repeated a minimum of six rounds.
A proper warm-up takes between 10-20 minutes. How long you need to warm-up depends on various factors: the temperature of the room, your general physical condition, your previous activities, age, injuries, or any other health conditions. Generally, the older you grow the longer you might need to warm-up. So after sun salutations, other warming-up exercises such as leg raises and dolphin can be added for variety.
It is important to remember that warming up always has to start with small, gentle movements. Initially, you should not even come close to your normal range of motion that you have when you are warmed up. Also remember that stretching with the goal of increasing your flexibility can be done safely only after you are completely warmed-up. Only after several minutes, as you start to feel your body temperature, should you increase the speed and range of motion. In the course of the warm-up the intensity of the exercises has to go up. This can be done by increasing the speed, range of motion or force.
- Surya Namaskar / Sun salutation
- Double leg raises
- Dolphin pose
Step 4: Steady and Comfortable Poses
Once your body is warmed up, the practice of asanas or poses can begin. As explained earlier, holding the asanas / poses in a steady and comfortable manner is essential in Hatha Yoga. The duration can be increased in relation to your progress. With regular practice, your ability to stay in a pose with ease will continue to develop. This being said, it is of course part of your journey to challenge yourself, to stay longer, go further, or increase complexity. Your efforts should however not lead to you feel breathless, in pain, or with an unwell feeling.
A steady pose does NOT mean static or rigid. Even though the outer form of the pose or asana may look still, your inner experience should become an experience of confinement or rigor. As we have learnt earlier when walking about the effect of Hatha Yoga on our body’s fascia: movement and life go hand in hand. So even though you are holding an asana steadily, you remain aware of the different directions of energy necessary to maintain the pose. You remain alert to the the effects of the pose on your body and breath. As the asana is held, within your body there is a conscious and active process that brings you deeper into the pose or in other cases close to the full expression of the pose. So even though you may look still, internally you are engaging and expanding in all directions, using your breath and consciousness to stay in the realms of ease and effortlessness.
In a balanced yoga asana practice, it is important to include forward bends, backbends, inversions, side bends, twists, and balancing postures. It is also important to sequence the practice in such a way that all of these elemtns are included and especially that the forward bends and backbends are well-balanced, taking into account their intensity and duration. This helps to create and maintain flexibility of your spine.
Often, students with chronic lower-back pain do not like to backbends such as Cobra pose and Bow pose. They prefer doing forward bends because they experience immediate relief. However, chronic lower-back pain is often caused by a weak core and weak lower back muscles. By strengthening and stretching these muscles as well as working on core awareness & strength, while maintain a balanced ratio of forward and backward bend, many cases of chronic back pain can be relieved.
When considering the effects on the internal organs and endocrine system, the principle of counter-poses is equally important. Some poses provide extra benefits when done in a specific order. Some poses exert a strong pressure on a specific body part, and the squeeze-and-release effects on that part if amplified by proper order of poses and their counter poses. For example, upward plank pose becomes more effective if performed directly after a forward bend such as seated forward bend.
Step 5: Sequencing of Asanas
When referring to the art of sequencing yoga asanas, it should be done in a comprehensive and consistent way, without becoming rigid and choregraphed. We should practice asanas in a manner that reflect the core principles of Hatha Yoga: Following laws of nature, principle of minimal action. We should aim to design sequences that create the most natural and effortless flow of prana through your body. The sequence of yoga postures works from the crown chakra downward. This replicates the downward-descending, purifying element that purifies and stimulates your body. In doing so it creates space and possibility for astral energies, such as kundalini shakti, to rise upward.
Following the principles of natural order, on a physical plane we stimulate the nervous system in an organic and holistic way: starting with the braing and spina cord. They together form the central nervous system, which manages the entire body. By stimulating the central nervous system, we subsequently activate the peripheral nervous system. So starting with the crown chakra and moving along the spinal cord in a downward patter, we attempt to activate the complete nervous system in a systematic manner and in a way requiring least effort.
Another natural downward movement is excretion. One of the main purposes of asanas is to purify the body. One of the most effective ways to do so is to ensure the proper elimination of toxins on physical, and subtle levels. Improper elimination is usually caused by sluggishness and stagnation. These lead to accumulated toxins wastes, which in turn create imbalance and disharmony in the physical and astral bodies.
A yoga asana practice according to Hatha Yoga principles follows the downward movement of apana prana. Apana is considered to be the second-most important of the five vayus, or types of prana in Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda. Vayu is a Sanskrit word that means “wind” and refers to the different movements of prana (life force) through the body. Apana Vayu is responsible for regulating the outward flow of prana from the body. Yogis in ancient India who developed yoga asanas / poses were convinced that maintaining equilibrium in the body results in good health. The first step towards this is making sure that your elimination processes work smoothly.
The practice of Yoga asanas according to Hatha Yoga principles is structured in a manner that the chakras and their corresponding asanas and glands in the physical body are stimulated in a top-to-bottom sequence. This ensures holistic activation of the entire body and proper elimination of wastes and toxins.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on Hatha Yoga
What is Hatha Yoga?
Many people tend to associate all yoga with the term Hatha Yoga. This is rightly so in the case of the term yoga asanas, because the practice of yoga asanas has indeed become more systematized and accessible through the development of Hatha Yoga.
Which Yoga is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha Yoga is a practice, which focuses on Yoga asanas and Pranyamas. It has a greater emphasis on poses and meditation in Yoga. Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a seminal work on Hatha Yoga, which elaborates on the practice of Hatha Yoga. In the eight limbs of Yoga, Hatha Yoga focuses on the third and the fourth limb loosely i.e. Asanas and Pranayama. The main goal of Hatha Yoga is to purify the mind and the prepare you for further spiritual practices. Being and staying healthy (mentally and physically) is a central concern in Yoga. Today many people tend to associate all yoga with the term Hatha Yoga. This is rightly so in the case of the term yoga asanas, because the practice of yoga asanas has indeed become more systematized and accessible through the development of Hatha Yoga.
How is Hatha Yoga different from other Yoga?
Hatha Yoga can be considered a part of Raja Yoga (path of control), which is originally mentioned in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras mention 8 limbs of Yoga. However Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras don’t mention details on the the third and the fourth limbs of Yoga i.e. Asanas and Pranayama. These are the 2 aspects that Hatha Yoga focuses on. The purpose of yoga asanas is to keep the internal physical body and the energy body healthy and in balance. Hatha Yoga Pradipika written in the 15th century AD by Swami Svatmarama is a compilation of around 20 texts that describe asanas in detail. There’s a greater emphasis on poses, and Meditation. Most modern day Yoga including the Sun salutation (Surya Namaskar) are a part of Hatha Yoga. While Hatha Yoga emphasizes, as does the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the importance of asanas for physical well-being: It is the first limb of Hatha Yoga and asanas are therefore described first. Asanas should be practiced for steadiness of posture, health and lightness of body.
Is Hatha Yoga Good For Beginners?
Yes. Hatha Yoga helps in steadiness of posture, health and lightness of body. It aims to aims to keep the internal body healthy and in balance. However it’s recommended to be done under the guidance of a teacher to reap it’s full benefit.
What is the Hardest Type of Yoga?
There is no hard type of Yoga. The meaning of Yoga is “union with the divine”. It’s meaning as stated by the Yoga Sutra compiled by Patanjali is the cessation of mental activities also referred as Chitta-Vritti-Nirodaha. There are many ways through which you can achieve this state. You can achieve it through Raja Yoga (path of control), Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion), Karma Yoga (path of selfless service), or Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge). Hatha Yoga is a part of Raja Yoga. However it has evolved through different scriptures and also provides a way to achieve the state of union with the divine.
What is Hatha Yoga Good For?
Hatha Yoga has numerous mental and physical health benefits. With today’s busy and stressful lifestyle, most of us receive little benefit from stimulating the sympathetic nervous system through vigorous exercise. Some elements within a Hatha Yoga practice promote rest and rejuvenate your system, and others raise your heartbeat, challenge you, and bring you into a sympathetic state. This is one reason Hatha Yoga is so important for your body. By consciously relaxing from the sympathetic nervous system into your parasympathetic nervous system during Hatha Yoga, you effortlessly begin to accomplish these transitions. Through the calm and mindful practice of Hatha Yoga you can re-establish healthy breathing patterns and learn to relax. By learning to relax and consciously experiencing relaxation, you can recognize early signs of stress in your daily life and learn to respond more calmly and consciously. Through this natural growth, you will gain relief from stress and stressful situations. This is important both for mental health and for physical well-being. Hatha Yoga also helps oxygenate your body, improves circulation system, helps in detoxification, and helps in reducing stress.
Does Hatha Yoga tone you body?
Yes. It is important to remember that the changes in bodily appearance through regular practice of yoga asanas are side effects and should not be mistaken for the main goal. The original purpose of yoga asanas was to keep the internal physical body and the energy body healthy and in balance. These days, though, yoga practices generally focus on toning and stretching the musculoskeletal system. Ancient scriptures define asanas with the words sthira sukham asanam, which defines the state where body and mind are steady and comfortable in a pose.
How many poses are there in Hatha Yoga?
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika refers to the rich traditions of postures originating from the sages and then goes on to mention and describe 15 poses. 8 of the 15 poses are varieties of sitting or lying postures, and seven are non-seated positions. However there are many asanas according to various chakras in the body. However multiple texts and scriptures have gone on to add multiple asanas and presently there are many poses including multiple variations of these poses.
The Gherand Samhita, assigned to the 17th or 18th centuries, was the first book to really lay out the details of the entire Hatha Yoga system. It states that there are 8.4 million asanas. Only 84 of these asanas does it deem to be superior. And a mere 32 are said to be sacred in the world of mortals. Along with 32 primary asanas, it describes many forms of pranayama, 25 mudras, bandhas, and shatkarmas (internal cleansing) techniques.
Other Related Topics
The Basics of Yoga
Yoga is often seen as a way to get physically fit through postures and breathing exercises. However, there’s much more to Yoga than asanas or breathing exercises.
Yoga is one of the 6 philosophical schools of Hinduism. These include Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. The practice of yoga has been thought to date back to pre-Vedic Indian traditions; possibly in the Indus valley civilization around 3000 BCE.
Yoga is cessation (nirodha) of the activities (vrittis) of mind (chitta) according to patanjali’s definition in the 2nd sutra in Yoga Sutras. Vrittis refer to any sequence of thoughts, ideas, mental imaging or cognitive act performed by the mind, intellect, or ego. The mind & body are one and a part of nature (prakriti), and the soul is separate.
Raja Yoga is the path of control. In this practice, you bring body, mind, and breath under control to let go of ego and realize the self. Hatha Yoga, including the practice of asanas, is a part of Raja Yoga.
To accomplish the goal of Yoga, the means prescribed by patanjali is to still the states of mind, thoughts (vrittis) through meditation (keeping the mind fixed on any particular object of choice without distraction). You may be wondering of how all of this is working.
It works in 3 stages.
Mind to attain an inactive stage: Through sheer power of concentration, the mind can attain an inactive state where all thoughts are non-active. In this inactive state, the mind is not cognizant of anything. It does not mean unconsciousness.
Consciousness to have no choice: When there are no more thoughts or no awareness, the consciousness has no choice but to become aware of itself. It’s like a beam of light reflecting back from a mirror. The light has no choice but to become aware of itself.
Self-realization: Awareness can now only be aware of itself. This is the point of self-realization or the ultimate state of awareness, which is the final goal of Yoga.
The path of devotion to the Divine is Bhakti Yoga. This is the path of surrendering your ego to whatever is your perception on divinity. Through complete surrender, you start to realize the reality of self.
Bhakti-Yoga is a real, genuine search after the Lord, a search beginning, continuing, and ending in love. One single moment of the madness of extreme love to God brings us eternal freedom.
Frequently asked Questions On Yoga
What is the Goal of Yoga?
Yoga is cessation (nirodha) of the activities (vrittis) of mind (chitta) according to patanjali’s definition in the 2nd sutra in Yoga Sutras. Vrittis refer to any sequence of thoughts, ideas, mental imaging or cognitive act performed by the mind, intellect, or ego. The mind & body are one and a part of nature (prakriti), and the soul is separate. Read More on the Goal of Yoga
What are the eight limbs of Yoga?
- Yama (Abstentions, moral restraints such as truthfulness, non-violence, etc.) – This deals with how you deal with others. If your goal is to remove consciousness with identification with body, you have to stop pandering to the grosser urges of the body including violence, sexual exploitation, deceit, theft etc.
- Niyama (Cleanliness, contentment, austerity, devotion to god) – This deals with cultivating your lifestyle. Once the more destructive urges are curtailed (Yama), consciousness can be turned inward towards refinement.
- Asana (Stretches, postures) – This is in preparing the body to sit for prolonged period of meditation.
- Pranayama (Breath control) – In this stage you are focusing on stilling the mind. You do it through fixing the mind through breath control. By regulating the breath, the mind too (focused on it), becomes regulated/quiscent.
- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of senses) – The process deepens and there’s a withdrawal of senses including sound, sight, taste, smell, & touch.
- Dharana (Concentration)
- Dhyana (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Full meditative absorption)
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama is not, as many think, something about breath; breath indeed has very little to do with it, if anything. Breathing is only one of the many exercises through which we get to the real Pranayama. Pranayama means the control of Prana.
Read more in detail about Pranayama.