Exploring the Branches: Hatha Yoga

hatha-yogaIn our last article, we looked at the key principles of Yoga, including a brief exploration of how each of the major branches is designed to cultivate & support those ideals.  In this and the next few articles, I’d like to share in greater detail the specific tools & techniques of each branch, starting with the most popular, Hatha or the Physical Branch of Yoga.


Recapping the Goals & Principles 

To begin with a quick recap, you’ll recall the Yogi’s observation that, underneath the distinct, ever-changing elements of our individual selves or prakriti which includes our bodies, thoughts & feelings, we all have a deeper, unchanging Self which the Yogis referred to as purusha or atman.   As opposed to the ever-changing “surface” of our lives, this true Self is always whole, always peaceful & always present.  By actively learning to connect with that timeless presence and to see the transient parts of ourselves for the conditional things they are, we can ultimately learn to navigate the waves of life with equanimity, ease & joy.  The Yogis then went on to note each of these goals can be developed through the four “major aspects” we humans all have in common: our bodies, our minds, our social self & our sense of spirit.  This leads us to the four major branches of Yoga, of which the physical branch or Hatha is the most familiar & with which we’ll begin, today.

“The Path of Effort” & Its Components 

As mentioned last time, the word hatha literally means “effort” or “exertion” and it is used to refer to the branch of Yoga that begins with our bodies.  These days, the term hatha is often used to refer to a more conventional approach to the poses as opposed to a more fluid or strength-based style such as vinyasa or “power yoga,” but technically all physical approaches are part of the Hatha branch.  Along with postures or asana, Hatha also traditionally incorporates several other components, including breath-work or pranayama, diet & fasting, cleansing practices or shat-kriyas, awareness of energy systems of the body or chakras & nadis, and – most important of all – meditation.  Let’s take a look at each of these, including how they fit into the two goals of Yoga mentioned above….

Asana or “Posture” 

Of course, when we think of yoga, we tend to think first & foremost of the poses – and rightly so, as they form the foundation for most of us practitioners.  That said, it’s worth noting they are a relatively small part even of the physical branch of Yoga.  The word we translate as “pose” – asana in Sanskrit – literally means “seat,” which is a direct reference to the fact that, for the Yogis, the primary purpose of our physical practice is to prepare the body for meditation.  Basically, they realized it is impossible to live a happy life without mindfulness, or a mindful life without meditation, and finally that it is hard to have a calm mind in a tense & unhealthy body.  Through the postures, we help our bodies become more calm & comfortable, which in turn allows us to better focus our minds.

Beyond this benefit, regular practice of asana helps us become more aware of the transient nature of the body and how our physical state influences our moods & thoughts.  This helps us avoid one of the most common pitfalls of Hatha, which is attachment to asana.  Simply put, while regular practice can help us be more healthful & calm, it’s important never to forget our bodies are material, which means with even the best diet & lifestyle, we’ll still have good days & bad days and of course ultimately pass away.  If we focus too much on trying to make our bodies “completely healthy,” we end up setting ourselves up for frustration.  On the other hand, if we approach asana mindfully, it can be a tool to see & accept the mutable nature of our bodies & minds, ultimately moving beyond them to connect with the peace beneath these ups & downs.  Then, even when our bodies are less at ease, we can still connect with & abide in that peace, experiencing contentment even when our bodies are not their best….

Pranayama or Breath-Work 

Of course, experienced yoga practitioners know breath can be even more powerful than asana – both for mental focus & over-all health.  The Yogis observed, as modern science has confirmed, that respiration has a profound impact on both our physical well-being and our mental & emotional equilibrium.  Through the formal breathing practices, or pranayama, students of Hatha learn to enhance energy, support immune function, reduce anxiety & build clarity.  Regular practice also helps us observe the subtle link between body, thought & feeling – again becoming more aware of the transient parts of the conditional self and better able to stay connected with the “true Self” beneath them.  For these reasons, in a future article, we’ll look in greater detail at the specifics & science of this powerful practice.

Diet & Fasting 

Along with posture & breath-work, Hatha classically includes awareness of the power of our food choices, as well as periodic breaks from eating or fasting.  Of course, we all know food profoundly impacts our health, but of course it also deeply affects our thoughts & feelings.  For example, we know certain foods make us sleepy or anxious or irritable – yet in spite of this, we often let our palates over-ride our wisdom.  The Yogis realized the more aware we are of this impact, the easier it is to make good choices.  They also saw our food choices reflect and have a profound impact on our world-view – for example, when we eat highly-processed & artificial foods, we feel less connected with our world and those around us than when we eat simple foods in their natural state.  Again, in a future article, we’ll look in greater detail at the Yogis’ insights in this area.  Until then, it is worth noting that by making better choices, along with periods of putting aside thoughts of food entirely (a process of course observed by faiths across the globe), we can dramatically improve our physical & mental well-being as well as our perspective on life.

The Shat-Kriyas or Cleansing Practices 

Related to asana & diet are the shat-kriyas, or “five rites” – five adjunct practices the Yogis designed to support the natural cleansing systems of the body.  While some of these, such as jala neti (the saline-water cleansing of the nasal passage), can be used regularly, the majority of the shat-kriyas were presented as more intense practices to be engaged in only periodically, when the natural channels of the body are in need of additional assistance.  While definitely potentially of benefit for those who are drawn to them, in our tradition we feel that even the most dedicated student of Hatha can live a healthy life just fine without them….

Nadis & Chakras 

In turn, related to the cleansing practices is the next element of the Hatha path which is awareness of the subtle energy systems & channels of the body, or what the Yogis referred to as the chakras & nadis.  The Yogis realized when energy is not moving smoothly through the body it is possible to develop not only physical challenges but also emotional & cognitive imbalances or blockages as well.  They went on to observe that this process can also work the other way around – that is, “stuck” patterns of thinking & feeling can gradually manifest as physical & energetic restrictions within the body.  By becoming more aware of & in touch with these systems, we can be more mindful of imbalances as they arise and in turn shift toward better choices, both in terms of lifestyle & mindset.


Finally, as mentioned before, the true cornerstone of Hatha and very much the “point” of the physical postures in the Yogic perspective is meditation.  Again, this often comes as a surprise to modern students, who frequently consider asana a form of “moving meditation” in and of itself.  But interestingly, the Yogis actually warned against thinking asana alone was sufficient to cultivate mindfulness.  Again, because our bodies are ephemeral, they realized even the best physical practice is limited, and if we’re dependent on it for our sense of peace, as our bodies “fade,” we’ll lose that peace & become frustrated.  For this reason, even such luminaries of the Hatha branch as Vasistha who gave us vasisthasana and Matsyendra who gave us our spinal twist urged their students not to let asana replace or reduce proper focus on meditation.  Of course, this doesn’t minimize the benefits of our physical practice, including improved mindfulness and greater capacity to live a healthy life, the Yogis simply urged us not to lose sight of this deeper & even more powerful tool that asana can help us develop.  Again, because of this importance, we’ll look at meditation in greater detail in an upcoming article.

Concluding Thoughts & Finding Our Own Balance 

So these are the traditional tools of the Hatha branch.  Again, practiced together, they allow us to build our ability to connect with our true Self while deepening our awareness of our natural tendency to misidentify with the transient aspects of our physical state, thoughts & feelings.  Of course, just like the branches of Yoga themselves, the Yogis emphasized each of the pieces of Hatha interconnect and lead to one another.  Therefore, just as the branches can be applied in the ratios & ways that serve us, so the elements of Hatha can be applied as fits our temperament: for example, some of us might explore asana with enthusiasm while having a more “relaxed” attitude toward diet, while others might have a simple asana practice with greater focus on breath-work or the chakras & nadis.  Again, by finding and honoring the pieces that suit us, we can grow more efficiently and with greater joy & dedication.  Next article, we’ll look in more detail at Jnana, or the Cognitive branch of Yoga.  Until then, wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”

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