Hatha Yoga is a popular branch of the Yoga science. It works first and foremost on the body assuming correctly that most of us tend to identify the self with the physical body and can therefore begin our journey to the spiritual self through this medium. Here we see a similarity to body-centered therapies in that the body is used as a means by which we can ‘clear’ ourselves in order to reach higher levels of understanding and consciousness. Advanced stages of Hatha Yoga aim then to transcend the body after intensive work on it has bought about a complete understanding of our relation to our physical form.
B.K.S Iyengar states that “Hatha Yoga teaches us to use the body as the bow, Asana as the arrow, and the soul as the target.” Furthermore he says: “It is a fact that not one has realised the soul without using the body, the mind, the intelligence and the consciousness as the means to realising it. When they are cultivated, they become refined and merge in the soul. This is divine absorption, the effect of Hatha Yoga.”
Hatha Yoga stems from the Tantric tradition and it marks a change from the older spiritual traditions of India which viewed the body as almost repulsive and a definite obstacle to Spiritual growth. The Kula-Arnaova-Tantra (an important Hindu work) states that “Without the body, how can the highest human goal be realised? Therefore having acquired a bodily abode one should perform meritorious actions.”
Hatha Yoga concentrates on the purification of the body. Asanas are the first stage of Hatha Yoga with the intention that they purify, control, and restructure the pranic (energy) flows. The increase in pranic flow will result in the release of toxins, a more supple body, and a higher state of consciousness. Once one has regulated the body through asana, Hatha Yoga then says pranayama can be practiced. Pranayamas will activate the built up prana to a higher frequency resulting in an even higher state of mind.
Asana (posture) and Pranayama (Breath-work) practices stipulated in the Hatha Yoga texts are used as a means to achieve self discipline and self control. The beauty of Hatha Yoga lies in the fact that it is the body and not the mind that we are trying to discipline. If we try and control the mind and get it to quiet down and behave we can very easily become discouraged and frustrated. The body we work on in Asana and Pranayama is not only a makeup of bones, muscles, and bodily systems but also includes the energy channels (Nadis) and the subtle psychic centres (Chakras). The basic premise behind Hatha Yoga is control and manipulation of prana. The body exists because of the existence of prana and every aspect of our being is related to it. This means that mind is directly related to prana and once we control the prana, the mind is automatically controlled. It is said in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika “When prana moves, ‘chitta’ (the mental force) moves. When prana is without movement, Chitta is without movement.”
Hatha Yoga aims to restore balance. If we break up the word, “Ha” represents ‘mind’ and “Tha” represents ‘prana.’ “Hatha” is the union of pranic and mental forces. This union is essential as we find that an imbalanced state leads either to physical disease (where the pranic force is dominant), or mental disease (where the mental force is dominant). Asana and Pranayama help to restore any imbalances caused by the fluctuations of mind and prana. This simple principle of harmony in Hatha Yoga is extremely effective.
If we confer health to one part of the body it will influence the rest of the body. As the effects of asana and Pranayama begin to influence not only the body but the mind and consciousness as well, then we become more in tune with our physical and spiritual worlds. A clear, flexible, uncontaminated body is the facilitator of those same traits in the mind. In turn, a clear uncontaminated mind maintains a healthy, positive body. Thus we see that the practice of Hatha Yoga creates positive loops of physical and emotional well-being.
There are said to be 72,000 Nadis in the body. The three most important Nadis are called ‘Ida’, ‘Pingala’, and ‘Sushumna’. ‘Ida’ nadi represents the Lunar current and those aspects of female energy. It represents the flow of consciousness and flows through the left nostril. ‘Pingala’ nadi is the solar current, the flow of vital energy. It is the male aspect and flows through the right nostril. We can now draw correlations and say that ‘Ida’ would represent the ‘Ha’ (mind aspect), and ‘Pingala’ would represent the ‘Tha’ (pranic aspect) of ‘Hatha’ Yoga.
‘Sushumna’ nadi is the neutral force representing the spiritual energy. When our ‘Ha’ and ‘Tha’ aspects are bought into a perfect union and balance then Hatha Yoga is achieved and the prana flows freely through the Sushumna nadi. Every single nadi runs through and converges at various centres in the body known as ‘chakras’. The aim is therefore also to purify these chakras in order to allow the prana in every single nadi channel to flow uninterruptedly. Every asana practice and pranayama technique is devised in Hatha Yoga with the purification of the chakras and nadis in mind. Awareness of this fact is important when doing any practice as the effects are often subtle but extremely potent.