hatha yoga cosmos

The Deeper Essence of Hatha Yoga

Seeing weird positions and poses, if not all, most of us would immediately think about Yoga. That’s how most of us see yoga – a physical exercise that involves stretching, bending, proper breathing, and meditation. While many enjoy this low-intensity exercise, the essence of yoga is deeply rooted in its religious origin. Today, we are going to discover more about it as we download the vast expanse of Hatha Yoga to ourselves.

Quick Throwback: Yoga and it’s Origin

Yoga has been present since the Age of Antiquity with the earliest records can be dated as far as 1st Millenium BCE. As the society of the Indus Valley Civilization began to flourish, humans in that era have begun to have enlightenment about oneself and to have consciousness about deities, cosmos, supernatural phenomena, and awareness about what happening within oneself and to his surroundings. This consciousness leads to people creating tenets, coding of laws, establishing beliefs that would, later on, turn into a religion.

Religion? What does it have to do with yoga? Turning the pages of history, the roots of yoga are heavily clinched to India’s Hinduism. The oldest sacred text which is the Rig Veda recorded the first usage of the term yoga which was coined from the Sanskrit word Yuj that translates to being enjoined or to be in a union.

Patanjali, who is considered to be the Father of Yoga, has made the practice of yoga systematic by writing a Sanskrit Epic called Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. On this epic, Patanjali coded the tenets and the belief system that has the ultimate goal of reaching enlightenment or “Samadhi” as they called it. In ancient times, it has been always the aim of men to grasp supernatural powers, heraldry, and divinity the reason why ancient Indus Valley people wanted to be in union with the divine.

Eventually, the practice has become widespread as it was being passed by one person to another and from one generation to the next. With many people practicing yoga beliefs, it became a movement, and schools of thought have risen everywhere else in the Indian subcontinent. Even in the time of Alexander the Great during their conquest, his scholars have taken notice of the yogins of that time who are seen doing unusual body positions, lying naked, and being motionless for long periods.

Evolution always plays its part in human civilization. Societies have changed, new norms have arisen, and that also means religions have evolved as well. In the times of the Middle Ages, a new branch of Hinduism based on the Shiva sub-tradition has been founded by Matsyendranath and they called it Natha Sampradaya.

The belief system lies in the idea of self-perception, enjoying a life of peace and joy. From this belief system Hatha Yoga was born.

With the efforts of the Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda, yoga practice has been brought to the western soil through the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions. This conference was very instrumental to the widespread reception of yoga across the United States and Europe. Vivekananda has been advocating for a better study on human development relative to the wake of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time in India, Hatha Yoga has started to spread like a wildfire with yogins Krishnamacharya and Sivananda spearheading the movement, putting up several Hatha Yoga school of thoughts across the country.

Understanding Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga is just one of many branches of Yoga that have been born on a spiritual belief focused on living a peaceful, joyous, and self-aware living. The Sanskrit word Hatha has the translation of “force” the reason why Hatha Yoga has a lot of focus on physical techniques.

Both Hinduism and Buddhism have yoga incorporated into their rituals. These religions also celebrate Matsyendranath, the founder of Natha Sampradaya, as their saint both in Hindu and Buddhist tantric, as well as on all Hatha Yoga schools. Texts such as Amṛtasiddhi, which is part of the Buddhist tantra, is the oldest record about Hatha Yoga while the first written of the term Hatha is from Vajrayana Buddhists.

Even though yoga has been incorporated into different traditions of religions, the goal of the practice remains the same. These can be seen from many of the earliest references about Hatha Yoga.

Beginning of Hatha Yoga

Siddhis or supernatural powers, like levitation, and Mukti, or spiritual liberation, has been one of the primary goals of the early practice of Hatha yoga. 11th Century texts such Amṛtasiddhi, a Shaiva text, are said to have codified the practice of Hatha yoga. The said text was written by Tantric Buddhists which was mainly derived from the teachings of Shiva. In this text, preserving Bindu (vital energy) in the head by practicing bodily postures and breathing exercises are thought here.

Dattātreyayogaśāstra highlights the practice of the eight mudras which is a set of positions of hands and fingers to help channel the energy. Vivekamārtaṇḍa references to Dattātreyayogaśāstra with the mudras with the incorporation of six chakras and the practice of “fire yoga” to raise Kundalini. There are many more texts that were written from these codes varying on which part of the teachings were highlighted.

The practices stated in these texts are aimed to raise and conserve Bindu (semen – for women, rajas is menstrual fluid) which are considered to be the physical essence of life. They also call this the nectar of immortality or amrta. The techniques stated in the texts sought to reverse the draining process of these physical essences or to have the Bindu forced to go back up through breathing control via central energy channels.

Evolution to Classical Hatha Yoga

In the 15th century, soteriological discourses in India have lean towards non-duality thus, evolving the study and practice of Hatha Yoga. Hathayogapradikipika was written by Svātmārāma and became the most influential text on Hatha Yoga practice. It contains some of the 35 siddhis and details about:

  • Shatkarma – Six acts of Self-Purification, removing gross impurities in the body in preparation to main yoga exercises that will eventually lead to spiritual liberation.
  • Asanas – 15 body postures were listed in the text.
  • Pranayama and Kumbakha – Proper breathing and breathing retention.
  • Mudras – Practice of internal energy channeling.
  • Meditation, Kundalini, Chakra, Nadanusandhana – Topics on mental focus, stimulation, centers of energy, and concentration on inner sound.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika is compiled into 4 chapters with 389 shlokas (verses) which talk about the proper environment for practicing yoga, the ethical duties of yogins, different asanas, spiritual growth through meditation, pranayamas or breathing exercises, and mudras and its benefits.

Hatha Yoga on Modern Era

Modern Hatha yoga that has been received in the western culture has dropped most of the religious relevance of yoga since for the most of these different branches of yoga, Hatha yoga has been the most open and non-sectarian does, can be practiced by whoever regardless of race, creed, gender, or caste. This, however, has become an annoyance to the ruling Hindu and Muslim elites that in the 18th and 19th centuries, people who practice Hatha yoga were persecuted. This ended the long history of religious tolerance.

Even until the time of the British Raj, the negative impression on Hatha yogis remained. This by-product of the persecution might have led to spark Swami Vivekanand to make a distinction between physical practice of Hatha Yoga and the higher spiritual form of Raja Yoga which he brought to the table of the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religion.

modern hatha yoga

Modern Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga gained prominence in the west as many of the westerners appreciated the percepts that Vivekananda brought. But thanks to T. Krishnamacharya who founded a school of thought and trained many yogins from 1924 until his death. He incorporated yoga asanas to gymnastics, focusing mainly just on the physical side of yoga with the drawbacks of dropping most of its religious or spiritual relevance. The school Krishnamacharya built have been the ones who became well know in the west.

Some of the notable people who popularized yoga to the west are K. Pattabhi Jois, famous on the energetic yoga practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga; and, B.K.S. Iyengar, known for emphasizing alignment and introducing props for Iyengar Yoga.

Practicing Hatha Yoga

Today, we know Hatha Yoga as mere physical exercises that have a lot of health benefits, very far from its traditional religious origin. Despite this, there are some religious beliefs that have relevant health effects remained in the system of practicing Hatha yoga.

The foundation of the Hatha yoga practiced today lies on the goal of being a successful yogin, as it was written in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, is characterized by having utsaha (enthusiasm, fortitude), tyaga (solitude, renunciation), jnana tattva (essence for knowledge), dhairya (patience), nishcaya (resolve, determination), and sahasa (courage). These characteristics are very beneficial to one’s self regardless of you religious stance.

From these foundational tenets of modern Hatha yoga, the watered-down percepts were then applied to physical goals and practices. As we know it today, Hatha Yoga can be done as plain and simple doing the asanas or the body postures. In India, the religious and spiritual aspects of Hatha Yoga are, of course, still practiced today.

Here are the targets that a yogin today should practice:

Mitahara – Proper Diet

Controlled or measured diet is vital towards the success of practicing Hatha yoga as stated in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. According to the text, a person’s food intake and eating habits have effects on balancing the body. It is also said that eating is a form of devotion to the temple of the body that is why it is taught that one should only eat when he or she feels hungry and must not overeat.

Shatkarma – Proper Body Cleansing

While in today’s science, we have a better knowledge of hygiene, Hatha yogins too have their own sense of cleansing which ranges from water washing to some odd practices like ingesting cloth to cleanse the stomach. Shatkarma explains the process of doing bodily cleansing as preparation for doing yoga.

Pranayama – Proper Breathing

Derived from the conjunction of two Sanskrit words “prana” which means breath, and “ayama” which means extending, stretching, or restraining, Pranayaman is a mainstay practice in Hatha yoga that is believed to have effects on balancing and cleansing the body.

Asana – Proper Posture

Hatha yoga that we know today is predominantly the yoga asanas or body postures. These poses are typically inspired by everything that you can see in nature such as plants, animals, and other natural sightings which are done to be somehow in harmonious union with nature itself.

Body poses are though, to begin with, and beginners would usually fail to stay on a pose for a long period. But as one repetitively do the poses, the aim to have lesser to no effort at all in doing the poses are achieve and the process does promote toning of muscles, flexibility, and balance. Asanas are usually done in conjunction with pranayama.

Kundalini

This practice of conserving and preserving the Bindu (seminal fluid) through body poses and breathing is one of the goals in Hatha yoga since it is believed to be the vital energies. As Hatha yoga evolves, the goal shifted towards accessing “amrta” or the nectar of immortality which has been said to be stored up in the head.

Meditation

According to the texts, meditation is the final stage of doing all the said practices above which would then lead to the ultimate enlightenment of a yogin.

Benefits of Hatha Yoga

Since western yoga is focused more on the physical aspects and dropping its religious significance, yoga has been studied and thus proven to have health benefits to anyone who practices it.

According to the study of the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, practicing yoga enhances emotional health, helps with stress management, and reduces the levels of anxiety and depression. NCCIH also found that practicing Hatha yoga improves sleep quality, eases menopausal symptoms, and has healthy effect on the eating habits of a person doing yoga.

Evidently, with all these asanas or body poses, doing yoga improves balance, relieves back pains, enhances flexibility, and so much more.

Hatha Yoga for All

Thanks to the generosity of the forefather of yoga for opening up this exercise not only for Hindus and Buddhist followers but was made available to everyone who desires to improve personal well-being. Hatha yoga is a great physical exercise and considering the goals derived from the tenets of its religious origins can also be helpful towards improving self.