What is Hatha Yoga?

Hatha Yoga is what yoga is popularly thought to be. 'Hatha' literally means 'force' in Sanksrit therefore Hatha Yoga means 'forceful yoga'. It is the exercise part of yoga and is the third step of Ashtanga Yoga called 'asana' as decribed in What is yoga section.

Hatha Yoga holds its own place as an independent subject which was initially compiled into a system by the great yogi Swami Svatmarama who wrote the extensive manual entitled 'Hatha Yoga Pradipika' around 1350 AD. Since then Hatha Yoga has evolved into many branches under the hands of many teachers and students who have taken the original form and molded it into specific systems. Not all these systems of Hatha Yoga can be considered good and some of them are downright pretentious and non-traditional and some even dangerous. To be safe you might want to stick with the traditional systems of Hatha Yoga which came from a few of the great masters of Yoga from India. Some of these great teachers are B.K.S Iyengar, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, T. Krishnamacharya and perhaps a handful more. A lot of the greatest teachers of today have either studied directly under these masters or studied under their disciples. I received personal instructions from the revered Dr. V.S. Rao, Director of the High Tech Yoga Institute, Lowell, MA (http://high-techyoga.org/) who was a disciple of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India.

Hatha Yoga consists of many yoga postures (called 'asanas') which benefit various parts of the body. Hatha Yoga is meant to be gentle, which basically means that you should be gentle with yourself during practice. Hatha Yoga is NOT a 'do this exercise for that problem' type of system. Hatha Yoga is a holistic system - which means, yoga treats the body as an integrated system. A good practice always consists of a set of asanas which should be practiced regularly. True, some asanas are good for targeting particular problems like, Bhujangasana for back problems, but that only means 'do the specific pose more than the others'.

So what are the benefits of asanas? To truly understand the benefits of Hatha Yoga one will need to discard the mindset that yoga is just exercise. Hatha Yoga is not just about muscles, joints and ligaments. Hatya Yoga is about, the nerves, the internal organs like the liver, the toxins, the immune system - basically the whole body. When you understand and absorb this concept, you will really benefit from Hatha Yoga. So how can asanas provide benefit to the whole body as a system? Below are some facts about Hatha Yoga that will make this clear.

Benefits of Hatha Yoga

  • Stretching the muscles relieves tension in them and helps prevent future injuries. Stretching muscles also relieves existing pains like lower back problems and leg pains. All asanas in yoga require one to hold the pose for at least 30 seconds with awareness - the holding of the pose helps the body to 'learn' the position and adjust to it and the awareness makes prana (life force) to flow to that part thus promoting healing and removing toxins.
  • Many yoga asanas (like Ardha Matsyendrasana, Jathara Parivarthanasna) also achieve the task of squeezing the internal organs and then releasing them when one comes out of the pose. This causes the impure blood to be emptied out from the organ and fresh blood to flow into it. This helps remove toxins embedded deep within the organ.
  • Some asanas work against gravity (like Salabhasana, Veerabhadrasana, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana) thus strengthening the muscles.
  • Many asanas in Hatha Yoga deal with stretching and strengthening the spine. In Yoga the spine is considered one of the most important organs in the body since it is the home of the nervous system. A flexible spine ensures the efficient operation of the central nervous system and also prevents spinal disc related problems that have become so common today.
  • The subtle effects of asanas is not very apparent. According to yoga and Chinese medicine, our body consists of energy channels through which prana flows to the various organs. Yogic asanas clear up these channels thus enabling the unhindered flow of prana. This helps to cure chronic problems like allergies, ashtma and hypertension. That is why, after several months of regualr practice, many such chronic problems dissappear.
  • Inverted poses (like Sirsasana, Sarvangasana and Adho Mukha Svanasana) hold a place of their own in yoga. These asanas are unique to the field of yoga and are the panacea for a host of diseases and chronic health problems.

Hatha Yoga should be performed under the guidance of a knowledgeable yoga teacher only. Performing a posture incorrectly can lead to injury, sometimes severe injury. A good yoga teacher will gauge the capacity of the student and instruct accordingly. Therefore do not try to learn Hatha Yoga from a book or video, except for the simplest yoga routines. Many videos are available which demonstrate simple yoga postures which can be very beneficial. I have personally found the videos of Rodney Yee made with Gaiam very good and simple. Many of the postures taught by Mr. Yee on these videos are easy to learn at home and harmless.

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