Hatha Yoga is a system of Yoga introduced By Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India and compiler of the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP). In this treatise Swatmarama introduces Hatha Yoga as a preparatory stage of physical purification exercises, which the practitioner undergoes for what he calls the higher practices and experiences of meditation
Hatha Yoga is one of two branches of Yoga with the other being Raja Yoga. Hatha focuses more on the physical aspect of yoga as a way into the mental, whereas Raja yoga focuses almost exclusively on mind alone. The main difference is that Raja Yoga uses meditational postures only in its practice, but Hatha Yoga uses them and many other types of postures and exercizes, which prepare for meditation and also keep the body healthy and vital. Swatmarama saw the problems of forgetting about the body and also the great potential in using it through techniques of Hatha Yoga.
Yoga means a complete and harmonious unity and Hatha is the Sanskrit term for Sun & Moon – Ha means Sun & Tha means Moon. The sun and moon represent the 2 opposite but complementary forces in the world of nature. We can equate them with masculine and feminine, yin and yang, positive and negative, heaven and earth or mind and body, which also represent the ever present duality of life. Hatha yoga is the practice of purifying and balancing these two primal forces, the body and mind and bringing them into a more harmonious and unified relationship with each other. The experience of improving this inner unification is a relaxed physical and emotional well-being and sense of wholeness.
Hatha yoga was originally a set of purification practices called the six shatkarmas, but later absorbed the practices of Astanga Yoga and the 8 limbs to become the huge and comprehensive system it is today. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Hatha yoga does not lay to much emphasis on the first 2 of the 8 limbs, which are the yamas and niyamas dealing with certian rituals of self discipline and social morality; he instead goes straight into the third limb (asana) and the following 5 limbs that follow it. So with asana practice being the third step in Astanga yoga, it is actually the first step in the original Hatha Yoga. Many authors believe this omittance was more a reaction to the Buddhist element at that time period, which focussed purely on the mind, ethics and moral codes of conduct to bring oneself under control.
So there was deep meaning to why Swatmarama did not focus so heavily as other systemas did on the first 2 limbs. Swatmarama saw that different cultures had different values and that beliefs would often change with more life experience, that people were all at different levels of development and so what was right for one was not so for another. He also personally experienced the difficulty of trying to control the mind, without purifying and preparing the body first. He said if we learn to discipline the body through the enlightened science of hatha yoga, the mind and its negative tendencies would come under control and be reduced spontaneously. Swatmarama saw that the deepest desire of human beings, in fact all living things was to be happy. He put forward the question ‘why can we not fulfil this natural desire’ and he answered with his well written lengthy treatise the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Swatmarama thought that many people were largely unconscious of their reality, their spiritual totality and that part of the unconscious remained out of touch and control for them. Unaware of its own divinity and inner treasure, like a plant uprooted from its native soil, the weakened ego was then driven forward, searching endlessly, sometimes mistakenly towards food, people, places and things to satisfy and bring quiet to a mind of constant craving. He offers Yoga as the solution to become whole, happy and self realised.
His treatise on Hatha Yoga with a natural common sense does not reject the first 2 limbs (yamas & niyams), but neither does it overemphasise them, because through experience he realised that both steps would develop naturally through the practice of yoga asana and pranayama. Hatha yoga basically uses an indirect approach to the first two steps. It views that our true nature is essentially good and that by training the body and purifying the prana through various yogic purification practices, the mind will become clear, natural and free from anxiety. With this being our true natural state, the experience of being contented, living right, honestly and being thoughtful of others (objectives of the first 2 limbs) would spontaneously arise without forcing it through a mental training that often induced a conflict before the subtle energies had been harmonized. This inner conflict had made people throw up their hands in frustration and give up, but the practice of Hatha yoga now offered a way to ease this supression and thereby to keep them on track, on the path. Also many people could not sit for long periods in the meditation postures without having the necessary flexibility and strength of body to do so. Therefore Hatha yoga became very popular with the general public due its total accessibility for them.
Hatha yoga in particular is quite unique in comparison to many other schools of meditation and spiritual training, because of this indirect approach to treating the body and developing the mind. Swatmarama understood the inter-dependent relationships between the body and mind, and the conflict that could arise in applying such discipline and self control, without controlling and purifying the vital energies of the body beforehand.
The practice of Hatha yoga is built upon a science of prana (vital energy of the universe) where both body and mind are seen as aspects of the same vital prana. Prana is the all pervading medium of both and so once it is balanced, the psyche is then balanced and concentration is also made stable. Although we often separate our being into a physical (visible) and psychic (invisible) parts, they are in fact an aspect of one energy source called prana. We might say that asana will heal the body, pranayama purify the prana & meditation cure the mind for convenience and because they have a particular focus on those parts, but they each affect the whole being and are usually practiced in that order as steps leading into each other for the most benefit.
8 Limbs of Yoga
1 – Niyama – Self discipline (contentment, simple living, self study)
2 – Yama – Values in relation to others (non violence, truthfulness)
3 – Asana – Yoga postures and exercise
4 – Pranayama – Controlled breathing and expansion of vitality
5 – Pratyahara – Withdrawal of senses from external stimuli (retreat)
6 – Dharana – Single minded concentration (mindfulness in everything)
7 – Dhyana – single pointed absorption (meditation) into the source
8 – Samadhi – The goal – Self realization – Bliss – God consciousness
Yoga is a state of mind; an enlightened state of mind and the practices are the steps taken to achieve this liberation from suffering