What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha yoga is a branch of yoga that includes practices meant to bring both the mind and body into balance.
Similar to other branches of yoga, the goal of hatha yoga is to ultimately find union, a deep connection, with all that exists.
Many modern forms of yoga (e.g., vinyasa, Iyengar, ashtanga, yin) originated from the hatha yoga branch, so in fact most yoga practiced today is technically hatha yoga!
In an attempt to differentiate the various styles of yoga that are now available, the depth of hatha yoga is often misinterpreted.
When translated literally, hatha means force, which has resulted in some associating hatha yoga exclusively with postures. By only focusing on the physical practice that is part of the hatha yoga tradition, we miss out on some of the fundamental aspects that make hatha yoga so transformational.
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipka, one of the most well-known texts written on the tradition, hatha yoga includes asana (postures), kriyas (cleansing/purification practices), pranayama (breathing practices), mudras (gestures), and bandhas (energetic locks in the body), all culminating in samadhi (the experience of union).
As you can see there is much more to unfold in this practice than just postures.
So how can you start bringing more of the tradition and depth of hatha yoga back into your practice?
My Top Six Tips for Bringing Hatha Yoga Back to Your Practice
#1: Honour Your Physical Body
Various texts on hatha yoga outline anywhere from 15-84 postures which are said to be foundational to the practice.
These include seated postures such as virasana (hero’s pose), gomukasana (cow face pose), and padmasana (lotus pose) as well as more advanced balancing postures like mayurasana (peacock pose).
It is important to be aware that we all have tremendously different bodies and what may be easy for some of us can be quite challenging for others.
A wonderful way to honor your body is to support yourself through the use of props (e.g., block, bolster, blanket, strap) and to modify postures.
Props allow you to step away from the ego-mind, and they can both offer a support for your practice (e.g., by bringing the floor closer to you) or enhance it (e.g., allowing you to reach past our toes in a forward fold).
Props may even give you an opportunity to experience a posture that you may otherwise have thought was not accessible to you, over time allowing your physical practice to advance safely.
In yoga you should always adapt the postures to meet your body, not the other way around.
Over time, it is possible to develop bad habits in your physical yoga practice which can originate from a misalignment that was never corrected by a teacher or realized on your own.
In your physical body, without an awareness of what is happening, you may rely on the stronger or more flexible parts while failing to engage weaker parts.
The result is misalignment, poor energy flow, and often less than optimal breathing (e.g., if you keep your back rounded while sitting in a meditation posture).
From time to time, it can be useful to go back to basics and study individual postures so that you can correct these habits before they become injuries.
An important part of the practice of yoga is self-study, you should continue to exercise this more and more as your practice advances.
#2: Connect to Your Energy Body
Based on the teachings of the Taittiriya Upanishad (a sacred text containing philosophical teachings on yoga) there are five layers of koshas that make up our being – anamaya kosha (physical/food body), pranamaya kosha (energy body), manomaya (mental/emotional body) kosha, vijanamaya kosha (intellectual body), anadamaya kosha (bliss body).
While a regular, committed asana practice allows you to connect with the anamaya kosha, if you want to reach the state of union, which is the goal of hatha yoga, you must expand your awareness further.
The next stage of your awareness takes you to the pranayamaya kosha (the energy body).
One of the ways you can connect to this aspect of your being as part of your hatha yoga practice is through the use of mudras.
Hasta mudras are gestures or seals, made with the hands, which can help direct the flow of energy in your body.
You can incorporate hasta mudras as part of your pranayama, meditation, or even when holding postures (e.g., warrior II, mountain pose)
Here are a few mudras that you can try, including the associated energy they are said to invite in.
Your experience with these mudras may be different, so try them out and notice what arises for you:
- Anjali Mudra (gesture of divine offering) - Bring your palms to touch near your heart center, allow your thumbs to make contact with your sternum. This mudra invites in an equilibrium between the feminine and masculine, welcoming in a sense of balance (more on this in tip #3: Find Balance)
- Jnana/Gyan Mudra (gesture of wisdom) – Bring your thumb and index finger to touch, allow the other fingers to loosely be side by side pointing straight forward. Let your hands rest on your knees with the palms facing downwards. This mudra represents the joining of individual consciousness (represented by the index finger) and universal consciousness (represented by the thumb).
- Dhyana Mudra (gesture of meditation) – place your right fingers on top of the left ones, fingers pointing in opposite directions, bring the thumbs to touch. This mudra invites in concentration and aids with quieting the mind to turn inwards. It is a perfect addition to your meditation practice.
Other ways you can connect to your energy body are through awareness of the chakras and bandhas and integrating these into your practice.If you find yourself wanting to teach Hatha Yoga it is important to find not only trainings & mentors to help you grow but also choosing the right liability insurance to ensure peace of mind. beYogi protects instructors for over 450 wellness modalities including Hatha Yoga all in one policy. When making the next step in your yoga career, .
#3: Find Balance
Another definition of hatha, relates to the representation of ha as the sun and tha as the moon.
Hatha yoga is thus a joining or union of these two aspects of your being. The sun is traditionally associated with your masculine, logical, active nature, while the moon is associated with your feminine, creative, restful energy.
This interpretation invites you to bring your mind and body into balance by honoring both aspects as equals, and dissolving your preference of one over the other.
To bring more balance to your hatha yoga practice, honor both yin (feminine) and yang (masculine) qualities in your practice; see if you can even notice the union between both of these aspects in a single posture or sequence.
- In waterfall pose (a variation of viparita karani with the legs held in the air rather than resting up against the wall) can you find the balance between the strength needed to keep your legs lifted in the air and softness to allow yourself to find ease?
- During sun salutations can you maintain your alignment in each posture while smoothly transitioning from one to the next?
#4: Let Your Breath be Your Anchor
Pranayama (breath control/expansion) is an important part of a hatha yoga practice.
While it is typically a distinct exercise at the beginning or end of your yoga practice, it can be equally powerful to find additional moments to come back to the awareness of your breath, especially in a challenging posture or when you find your mind wandering.
A simple way to use the breath to enhance your practice and bring yourself back into the present moment is to become aware of the four parts of your breath – puraka (the inhale), antara khumbaka (internal retention), rechaka (the exhale), bahya khumbaka (external retention). Start by noticing these parts of the breath as you breathe naturally, without forcing or holding for longer than feels comfortable for you.
Notice where the breath flows with ease, and which parts are met with some resistance.
In Practice: You can further enhance your connection to your breath by using various breathing ratios.
For example, a breath ratio of 4-4-4-4 (sama vritti pranayama) can invite in balance, a longer exhale and a ratio such as 6-2-8-0 invites in more relaxation, whereas a lengthened inhale with a ratio of 6-2-4-0 can feel more energizing.
These ratios can also be used in conjunction with practices such as nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing).
#5: Stay for Savasana
Savasana (corpse pose) is the most important posture for your practice. It is the time that you will integrate all the work you have done; you should spend at least 5-10 minutes in this posture at the end of a class.
Traditionally asana was used to warm up the body for a meditation practice; once the body finds balance, the mind can follow.
Allow this to be the time for you to let your parasympathetic nervous system take control and find time to truly rest and digest - your thoughts, feelings, and emotions - and settle into more peace.
Modification: You can make this posture even more comfortable by adding in some restorative yoga elements such as placing a folded blanket underneath your head or a bolster underneath your knees.
#6: Commit to Your Practice
In this last tip we return to the original definition of hatha as force.
Rather than interpreting this to mean physical postures, we can re-interpret this as commitment to the practice. This sense of commitment also shows up in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali through the niyama of tapas (discipline).
If we commit to our hatha yoga practice and show up consistently, we can create the force and momentum needed to dissolve anything that is not serving us and return to our perfect balanced nature.
If you find yourself wanting to teach Hatha Yoga it is important to find not only trainings & mentors to help you grow but also choosing the right liability insurance to ensure peace of mind. beYogi protects instructors for over 450 wellness modalities including Hatha Yoga all in one policy. When making the next step in your yoga career, choose beYogi to support you.