One of several yogic traditions, hatha yoga refers to the ancient
Hindu practice of static physical exercise used to develop
physical, physiological, psychological, and spiritual aspects of
the self. Unlike the active movements of Western gymnastics,
hatha yoga utilizes stationary postures called asanas. Practice of
the asanas is said to encourage physical well being, mental discipline,
and spiritual growth.
As hatha yoga has been practiced for at least 5000 years, its
actual origins are difficult to determine. Its recent resurgence
may have been a reaction to the emergence of modern science
in India during British occupation in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. The Yoga Research and Education Center proclaims
the most important influences on the revival of this practice
are Sri Krishnamacharya, teacher of B.K.S. Iyengar, K.
Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar. Still others point to the
careers of Yogi Madhavdas and Shyam Sundar Gonswami, who
co-founded an ashram near Guzrat in Western India. There,
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Hatha Yoga
they trained two important students Sri Yogendra, who introduced
hatha yoga to the West, and Swami Kuvalayanand. Most
of their students established schools in Bombay, and almost all
modern practice of hatha yoga can be traced to people trained
by either of these two men.
British scholar Henry Thomas Colebrooke wrote the first
essay on yoga in 1805. Yet it took nearly four decades for hatha
yoga to enter mainstream America in 1947 through yogini
Indra Devi, who is dubbed The First Lady of Yoga. However,
yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar is thought to have trained the majority
of current American hatha yoga teachers.
The Sanskrit syllable ha indicates the sun and tha the moon.
The yoga or union of the sun and the moon is through
pranayama, believed to be the subtle vitality of breath. Pranayama
is induced by actual practice of the asanas and also by special
breathing exercises and cleansing techniques. Hatha yoga
is based upon balancing the opposing forces that exist naturally
within our bodies. Back bends are followed by forward bends
while contractions precede extensions. Through this balance of
opposites the sun and moon of hatha yoga are joined in union.
Good physical health, rather than being the goal of hatha
yoga, is regarded as one of several important steps toward spiritual
development. Thus the traditional hatha yoga treatises insist
upon yama (abstinences) and niyama (observances) as an essential
companion to yoga practice. Examples of yama and
niyama include non-violence, not stealing, truthfulness, restraint
from sexual impropriety and greed, observance of purity,
austerity, religious study, and divinity. Without such observances
hatha yoga becomes merely a form of physical exercise.
Of the theoretical 84,000,000 asanas, 84 are said to be the
best, and 32 the most useful for good health. The asanas often
incorporate the postures of animals (cow, peacock, locust, lion,
etc.), plants, (tree, lotus), and tools (plow, bow). An asana is considered
mastered when the yogi can maintain the position without
strain for three hours. Asanas develop flexibility in associated
muscle groups, and affect the tone of veins and arteries,
particularly through inverted positions such as the yoga
shoulderstand or headstand. Many asanas help develop maximum
flexibility of the spine through a series of backward and
forward bending positions at different points of gravity. Asanas,
are also claimed to improve the function of the ductless glands,
internal organs and the nervous system through persistent gentle
The mastery of basic asanas and associated cleansing techniques
prepares the yogi for meditative positions, while the ensuing
practice of mental concentration invites the desired detachment,
which enables the meditation itself. When associated
with special breathing techniques, the subtle current of the
body (termed prana) flows through the nerve channels, culminating
in the arousal of latent energy called kundalini. Kundalini
is often depicted as a coiled snake resting at the base of the
spine. The task of the yogi is to induce the kundalini energy to
flow up the spine to a subtle center in the head, resulting in a
mystical or transcendental experience.
There are several schools of hatha yoga which students may
follow. They include Iyengar yoga, founded by B.K.S. Iyengar,
which is known for precision, of the asanas and the use of props
(chairs, belts, weights, etc.). Another school is ashtanga yoga,
developed by K. Pattabhi Jois, which might be the most physically
demanding school of yoga, focusing on intense vinyasa (a
steady flow of connected asanas). Integral yoga, founded by Sri
Swami Satchidananda, integrates various forms of yoga to benefit
the whole person, emotionally, spiritually and physically.
Other schools of yoga and their founders are the Yoga College
of India (Bikram Choudhury), and Sivananda Yoga (Swami
As hatha yoga classes have become widespread and commonplace
in the west, yoga practitioners face increased pressure
to institutionalize. The Yoga Alliance, for example, is encouraging
hatha yoga instructors to standardize training for
teachers, in an effort to raise the professional level of the yogic
community. The Yoga Alliance can be reached at 234 S. 3rd
Ave., West Reading, PA 19611.
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