Hatha yoga, explained

written by The WellBeing Team

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There is a lot of confusion about what hatha yoga is exactly. The yoga class title “hatha yoga” is often used as a generic term for anything that isn’t ashtanga or Iyengar, and people who have done a little yoga often turn up at a new class saying they have done hatha, “You know, the easy one.” However, if you consider that the hard-edged, demanding and superlative teacher, Shandor, accurately calls his Yoga of the Shadow a form of hatha, you know hatha isn’t always easy.

Hatha may be considered generic in that it covers any yoga practice that includes the body and breath working together. So far, so good, despite this being a woefully inadequate, if somewhat useful, description. In the traditional view, hatha as philosophy and practice is aimed at the enlightenment of the body. As Gary Kraftsow says in his marvellous book, The Yoga Tradition, “The human body-mind is not what it appears to be: a limited, mobile digestive tube … We only need to relax or meditate to discover that this popular materialist stereotype is untrue, for it is then that we begin to discover the energy dimension of the body and the ‘deep space’ of consciousness.”

Hatha is a descendent of Tantra, an offshoot that broke away from the idea that the body is just a bag of bones, organs, nerves and cells contained within the biggest organ, the skin. By the 12th century there were several medical texts on hatha yoga, the Kukacandishvara-Kalpa being particularly ground-breaking. There was also the long-standing ancient understanding (albeit similar to the understanding of quantum physics) that the body is nothing but the singular reality, the omnipresent. Mircea Eliade, a religious historian and pioneer in research on both yoga and shamanism, observed the slow process of the body gaining an importance in the 20th century that it had never had in the spiritual history of India.

The ultimate purpose of hatha yoga is the realisation of God or enlightenment, right now, in this life, in a body made divine by this enlightenment. Hatha is designed to build an adamantine body to give us the strength we need to deal with this force of enlightenment, otherwise we might take in more than our cells can handle and burn out. If this sounds like a rather demanding and dangerous task and not at all like the classes at your local studio, be reassured: one of the most pleasant hatha classes I’ve attended was taught by a young man in Byron Bay who simply took us through the synchronised body and breath movements for an hour until we felt soothed and supple. This doesn’t mean he wasn’t aware of the deeper structure and subtle energy constructs of the discipline. Rather, he was teaching us from his own energy, without going into it all — and going into it all is quite difficult in a class where people have come for a gentle workout and relaxation.

The hatha yogi’s primary objective is to intercept the left and right currents in the body and draw this energy into a central channel in order to redirect the life force, which, in turn, moves the kundalini energy up the body. Esoteric? Yes, for some. Complicated? A little. Dangerous? Can be if not taught properly (there are yoga schools in the United States holding courses for people who have burned out their nervous system doing this). Is it useful? Do we need to play around with the life force in this way, pumping or drawing it up the body, to become enlightened? This is a key question. We should ask ourselves whether we want to become enlightened if it means risking what is often described as a sudden burst of electrical energy shifting up the body. Perhaps we could look at simpler, more gradual and more subtle ways, learnt over many years, and we could look for teachers who do not believe this “bolt from the blue” is necessary.

We can also ask ourselves if we believe this process is still relevant or whether yoga has moved on from the days of the ancients so that we now only have to approach this phenomenon in the subtlest of ways, perhaps even only as an intention of mind. Of course, you may not want enlightenment, whatever that is. You may prefer to use hatha for your general sense of wellbeing, health and flexibility. I teach one-to-one classes, for instance, where the word enlightenment just doesn’t come up. Since these classes are often for therapeutic purposes or to persuade a stiff body to open up, enlightenment isn’t even relevant unless it means shedding light on things; that is, knowing just how stiff you are and doing something about it.

I also teach hatha as a general class, at lunchtime for an hour only, to people of all standards and with various aspirations. If I started moving their energy around in this way, they could have some very difficult afternoons at the office. What this means — and it is the same with the corporate classes I teach elsewhere — is that I tend to work a hatha mix, using Iyengar for alignment, the gentle side of linked body and breath work from mainstream hatha and some of the breathing techniques and repetitions of viniyoga.

Any enlightenment, in these kinds of environments, I leave to the transformational effect of the body and breath working together and whatever level of my consciousness may permeate my students via my body and my voice. In workshops I may dwell a little longer on specific energy techniques, depending on who is participating, perhaps using sound and chants to open up the energy centres and channels.

Invisible energies

It is difficult for some people to imagine or relate to the invisible energies at work in the pursuit of enlightenment. If we can view the body itself as a shifting, self-replacing energy, we can start to realise that our perception of ourselves as a solid form is just that, our own perception, or, as the Buddhists hold, an illusion. We might then recognise the hatha yogi’s primary objective to intercept the main left and right energetic currents and draw a bipolar energy into a central channel. If we choose to accept with faith that there are invisible channels, we can use this belief to shift our state of consciousness from a heavy to a light one. Somewhat of a leap for many, but for others a practical explanation that hatha yoga is a thorough process where the body’s own life force is brought into play for the transcendence of the self.

In Australia, the enlightenment aspect of hatha is often ignored altogether. Many have veered towards caution; some have chosen not to go there at all. And that is perfectly acceptable. Classical yoga followers do not like this more cautious way, maintaining that it is not the real yoga and that if you leave out enlightenment you are only practising callisthenics or gymnastics. I understand their view and respect it, at the same time believing that you can work with whatever area of yoga you choose. It is a sacred discipline but it isn’t sacrosanct. As with everything in life, we always have choice.

If you want to delve into these mysteries, energetic transference must be treated with great respect, whether you fully believe in it or not. A client of mine, living in Los Angeles, had been doing a chakra meditation for five years, pushing her breath from energy centre to energy centre, having learned the technique one day, casually, from a teacher. However, what she had succeeded in doing was blocking her energy — not freeing it — and it was blocked just below the heart, being firmly rooted in the solar plexus, the reactive place of the mind, the good old reactive gut. As a result this area above the navel was as hard as rock. Her heart had closed down, her throat area (the centre of communication) was restricted and her brain was locked into a pattern of repeating the same habits. Instead of attaining the promised ecstasy, she was cut off from her emotions. In her 50s, she was wondering why her work wasn’t going anywhere, why her projects were solidifying rather than taking off. It took us three months of regular lessons to release this concrete-like block, to shift this misdirected energy, and for her to regain a sense of freedom.

A nurturing practice

One of Patanjali’s sutras says, “Joyful steadiness in the body free from tension and manifesting the infinite beyond duality is asana” (The Yoga Sutras II.49-53). With this, Patanjali suggests that sitting into our yoga and being a part of everything is what counts. Not too difficult to grasp but beyond where some want to go, preferring to stay with, at a stretch, sitting into their yoga and leaving non-duality and infinity to others. Also, Hatha is not about pushing through your physical limitations; it can be a supportive, safe practice using the muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints to bring about ease.

In all hatha, we see and work with the strong sense of burning enthusiasm called tapas. We must have a good sense of openness to be able to observe what is happening with us. We must be an observer to ourselves and our bodies and maintain a sense of vigour, discipline and truth to show us the way through our work. The times when I let my observer slip and I fall into laziness, my quiet sense of purpose about my yoga becomes blurred. However, when I keep a sense of orderliness and purity at the fore, my whole life is easier and my sense of humour is more naturally abundant and easily accessed. It isn’t that we always have to follow the straight and narrow, but that we notice, through yoga, the way we live.

In hatha, meditation is traditionally seen as visualisation, with contemplation, perhaps, of an object such as a deity or statue, the Absolute as the point of origin of the universe or the Absolute as light. I like to meditate on the breath, finding it a straightforward, very absorbing and quick way of silencing my thoughts. Most yoga practitioners don’t do enough meditation, shying away from sitting still, from going inside and from the awareness that is the very reason yoga is so good for us.

The classical manual on hatha is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which translates as Light on Hatha Yoga. It addresses asanas, cleansing practices and the life force and its regulation through breath control. Here there is plenty of work with the seals and locks (mudra and bandha) that monitor and control the life force in the body while kundalini is awakened. What is clear to us from this and other writings — many only beginning to be explored — is that hatha is meant to be a highly beneficial force and that we must dig deep into the material to fully understand what we are trying to work with.

I believe we are already quite far along the path of enlightenment so that all we may have to do is recognise this and allow enlightenment to surface. Perhaps by being aware of all the elements of our yoga practice (asana, focus, meditation, pranayama and pratyahara), we can just slip into our own place of enlightenment from time to time. How simple is that?

Some days I have a sense of this force, this enlightenment, this lifting of my consciousness, and I can feel the cells in my body, a vibration, a wonderfully vital sort of feeling. Other times, when I cut myself off from this, I believe that I am what I see: my body, my external appearance and my brain. And that is fine; there are a lot of pleasures I wouldn’t want to forgo in this state, such as going out and buying an exciting dress, a jazzy CD or a wicked French pastry. Having said that, I do most treasure the moments of high consciousness when the world is deeper, kinder, more beautiful, vibrant, luminous and inspired. To have these, to hold them in my heart and my consciousness, I need to nurture my yoga skills day by day. I think that for most of us hatha is a strong and nurturing process, one where we keep open the possibility that repeated work may transform us to the point where we are more alive to the life we have.


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The WellBeing Team