"Words cannot convey the value of yoga – it has to be experienced."
B. K. S. Iyengar
Hatha Yoga, based on the physical practice of postures, is the foundation of modern yoga as we know it. Widely appreciated for enhancing health, relaxation and peace of mind, it has spread all over the world – and back to India.
With its 900 years of age, the Hatha system of cultivating body and breath is a fairly recent branch of yoga. While classical yoga focussed on controlling the mind by overcoming the body and its senses on the path to liberation, the Tantra movement (500 AD) first cast a positive light on the body as divine manifestation and moved physical practice to the foreground. The first Hatha yoga scriptures appeared in the 12th century, and Svatmarama's ground-breaking "Hatha Yoga Pradipika" (14th/15th cent.) describes specific asanas as we practise them today.
In our modern era, dedicated yogis such as Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) put Hatha Yoga back on the map by adapting the practice to suit modern needs and opening it up for everyone, regardless of gender, race, or creed. Physical exercise such as gymnastics or martial arts, spreading to India in the early 20th century, also found its way into modern Hatha Yoga. Today, it continues to evolve as a living tradition and practical discipline.
The word "hatha" stands for two complementary energies in our body, "ha" meaning sun, "tha" moon. According to Hatha Yoga teachings, they flow through two energy channels (ida and pingala) running separately along the spine up to the head and uniting above the nose in the third eye. Merging and stabilising these two energies is said to bring about a state of harmony and an expansion of consciousness.
Another interpretation of the term "hatha" refers to the Sanskrit word for "force", thereby pointing to the potential intensity of applying one's own life force to gain liberation.
In Hatha Yoga, we move our body to better understand our physicality as well as all the other layers of our being: energy, mind, psychology, and ultimately, inner freedom. It can include postures (asanas), cleansing methods (shatkriya), breathing exercises (pranayama), energy practices (mudras, bandhas), sounds (mantras) and meditation.
While the word "asana" means "seat" and traditionally referred to sitting in meditation, it is now used for all physical postures in Hatha Yoga, strengthening, stretching and balancing the body in a holistic way – and preparing it for seated meditation, too. An asana should always be possess the two qualities "sthira" and "sukha", stability and ease. Working with the breath as a link between body and mind, yogis can calm their mental chatter and experience a state of being where body and mind are no longer felt to be separate, thus tasting a bit of non-duality and true freedom.
Every asana has specific effects which can often be experienced immediately. Postures opening the chest (such as Chakrasana or Urdhva Dhanurasana) can be refreshing and wake up the body's energy, while a forward bend (Paschimottanasana) tends to be calming. In the course of a well-structured Hatha Yoga class, asanas will be sequenced so as to regulate the energy for an overall harmonising effect on the body's health – most teachers therefore place forward bends after backbends, calming asanas after invigorating ones.
The Sanskrit terms for the asanas often refer to animals or gods. "Bhujangasana" is the name for a cobra, the posture resembling the coiling of a snake. "Hanumanasana" means doing the splits and evokes the monkey god Hanuman who out of devotion for the god Rama took a huge step from India to Sri Lanka to save Rama's wife Sita from the demon Ravana.
Following its huge popularity and modernisation in the West, Hatha Yoga has been changing – and returning to India in different shapes and forms. In urban India, yoga often resembles the practice as it is known in western countries. Even a so-called "traditional Hatha Yoga class" may well be centred on an entirely physical set of postures resembling a fitness regime.
All Hatha Yoga schools, such as Ashtanga Mysore Style, Iyengar or Sivananda Yoga, as well as newer Hatha styles, e.g. Vinyasa Flow, Anusara, Jivamukti, Bikram or Yin Yoga, can be found in India today.
And there are still many schools and institutes passing down the old wisdom from teacher to student as before. An Indian ashram, for example, is a crucial place for spiritual learning, which in itself can never be merely physical, but rather touches on every aspect of life. Throughout Indian society, the age-old practice of Hatha Yoga is still rooted as a living tradition.