This article is the second in a series of seven articles explaining all about the yoga tree and its 6 branches. This article addresses the first branch of the yoga tree – Hatha yoga. Catch up with the first article here.
The Yoga of the Body
In the west, the primary form of yoga that most people know about and practice is Hatha yoga, which includes the practices of asana, pranayama, and meditation, among others. Hatha yoga is the yoga of the body. It is the vehicle of transformation and transcendence using physical discipline.
All forms of physical yoga are classed as Hatha yoga in terms of the Yoga Tree. So, whether you practice Iyengar yoga, vinyasa flow, Ashtanga yoga, yin yoga, or any other form of asana sequencing, you are practicing Hatha yoga.
Ha means ‘sun’ and Tha means ‘moon,’ and so Hatha yoga means to practice with the forces of the sun and the moon. It is this force that forms the basis of the Hatha yoga path of transcendence.
By exerting physical and mental force the yogi can transform the body and the mind, cultivating the Yoga Deha (the yogic body). This is done by practicing the elements listed above. Cultivating the Yoga Deha by purifying the body and practicing asanas and pranayama brings health, longevity, vitality, and keeps the yogi free from disease.
The philosophy behind this is that illness and poor health serves as a distraction from meditation and spiritual development, so if the body is pure and healthy, the mind is free to concentrate on meditation, which is the way to enlightenment.
It is through the path of radiant health that the Hatha yogi harnesses the mind and can transcend the mundane existence and achieve liberation from the trappings of the ego. Through unhindered meditation the yogi can unite with Divine source energy and the higher self and thus achieve Moksha, or liberation.
Hatha Yoga Practices
Hatha yoga incorporates all of the practices that correspond to the body:
- Shat kriyas (yogic cleansing – Trataka, Neti, Kapalabhati, Dhauti, Basti, and Nauli)
- Bandhas (energy locks)
- Mudras (gestures)
- Mantras (sacred chants)
“Joyful steadiness in the body free from tension and manifesting the infinite beyond duality is asana.’ – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutras II – 49-53
According to Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, the practice of asana was primarily to make the body comfortable during meditation. It is summed up in the sentence: ‘Sthiram sukham aasanam,’ meaning ‘a comfortable and steady position.’
However, it was discovered by Hatha yogis that along with flexibility, asanas created alignment in the energy channels and opened the psychic centers of the body, enabling them to gain better control over their mind and prana. It is through this discovery that asana practice became a primary access point to heightened awareness and is the reason why asana comes first in classical Hatha yoga texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
There are around 35 asanas that clear the main seven chakras, and the remaining asanas work on clearing the nadis (pranic channels). For example
- Muladhara chakra – Malasana
- Svadhisthana chakra – Natarajasana
- Manipura chakra – Chakrasana
- Anahata chakra – Ustrasana
- Vishuddha chakra – Sarvanghasana
- Ajna chakra – Balasana
- Sahasrara chakra – Sirsasana
“Within asana, pranayama is the release of inhalation, exhalation, and transition until they become unhindered and subtle through exhaustive interpenetration until the duality of the breath is transcended, uncovering the inner light and readying the mind for meditation.”– Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutras II – 49-53
Prana means ‘vital life force energy.’ Yama means ‘to control.’ So the word pranayama means ‘energy control.’ How do we control our energy? Through controlling the breath. The breath is the direct link to prana.
The breath has four parts:
- Pooraka – inhalation
- Antar kumbhaka – internal breath retention
- Rechaka – exhalation
- Bahir kumbhaka – external breath retention
The practice of pranayama clears the flow of prana through the nadis. It balances the nervous system and strengthens the lungs so that the most important part of pranayama – kumbhaka (breath retention) can be performed for longer.
It is said that during kumbhaka we glimpse the true nature of reality and feel the deep peace that is our higher self. We are connected to divine cosmic consciousness and in those moments of stillness we can peek at what it feels like to attain union and liberation.
The Shat kriyas are yogic cleansing practices to rid the body of toxins and stagnant energy. This prepares the body for pranayama and meditation.
Kapalabhati is also known as ‘shining skull breath’ or ‘breath of fire.’ Shining skull breath because that is its literal translation: kapala means ‘skull’, and bhati means ‘shining’. This reflects the way that this pranayama energizes the brain and improves circulation to the head area. It is sometimes called breath of fire because it generates heat within the body, which has an energizing, cleansing, and detoxifying effect. It also cleanses the nasal passages and soothes the respiratory system. Kapalabhati also cleanses the blood by expelling carbon dioxide and increasing oxygenation. Kapalabhati is also beneficial for the digestive system and toning the abs.
How to practice Kapalabhati:
- Begin by sitting upright so that your spine is straight and your shoulders relaxed. Close your eyes.
- Close your mouth; this practice is done entirely through the nose.
- Inhale fully and empty the lungs on the exhale.
- Inhale fully and pull in your abdominal muscles quickly and forcefully so that the air is forced out of your nose. It is a fast and sudden movement; you snap your abdomen in and release, snap in and release.
- The emphasis is on the forceful exhale; the breath naturally flows back in on the rebound when you release the abs.
- You don’t have to go too quickly when you are just starting with the practice. Go at a pace that allows you to practice correctly. If you become out of breath, it means you are going too fast before you are ready. Stop the practice, take a few breaths to recover, and start again at a slower pace.
- This practice is much easier to learn through watching, so check out the video below for a visual demonstration.
Trataka is also known as candle gazing. This practice has been used for centuries by yogis to connect with the Ajna (third eye) chakra, increase focus, concentration, and awareness, and increase psychic abilities and intuition.
Place a lit candle in front of you at a comfortable distance (three to four feet), in line with your eyes. Fix your gaze on the mid-point of the flame without blinking or blurring your vision. Your eyes will water a little, which is part of the practice. After a while, when your eyes feel like they are straining, and it is hard to maintain focus on the flame, you can close your eyes.
You will see the image after you close your eyes, and you can instead focus on this after-image of the dancing flame. Try to maintain a dedicated awareness of the image, when your thoughts wander, bring them back to the practice. When you are ready to end the meditation, gently open your eyes.
Jala means ‘water,’ and Jala neti is the practice of flushing water through the nostrils fort purification. It cleanses the nasal passages ensuring clear and even breathing. Neti helps issues related to colds, flu, allergies, and sinusitis, and also protects the nose from irritants. Pure water is added to a neti pot – a small pot with a spout. The head is tipped to one side over a sink or bucket and the water is poured into one nostril, where it travels through the sinuses and out the other side.
Dhauti kriyas cleanse the upper intestinal tract and stomach. There are three types; Jala dhauti (salt water cleansing), Vastra dhauti (cleansing with a long thin cloth) and Danda dhouti.(a rubber tube called ‘danda’ is used with salt water). Dhauti is on the more extreme side and unless you have a serious case of food poisoning or something similar I wouldn’t recommend it. If you did want to try, then you must seek the help of an experienced teacher.
Nauli is also known as abdominal churning. It massages and strengthens the digestive organs by physical manipulation. The abdominals are contracted and then rolled. Nauli helps boost digestive fire and remove toxins and impurities from the digestive system.
Basti is the term for a yogic enema. It is the cleansing of the colon and rectum. Traditionally river water would be sucked into the anus and then expelled. These days you can buy home enema kits that are safe and comfortable to use or visit a qualified colon hydrotherapist.
Bandhas are energy locks. There are three bandhas – Moola bandha (root lock), Uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock), and Jalandhara bandha (throat lock). These locks seal in the prana so that it can be utilized inside the body.
Mudras are hand gestures that create different types of energy. Each digit relates to one of the five elements.
Thumb – The fire (Agni)
Index finger – The air (Vayu)
Middle finger – The ether (Aakasha)
Ring finger – The earth (Prithvi)
Small finger – The water (Jala)
Together these represent the fact that we are part of nature and the universe and performing mudras can bring all of the elements inside us back into balance.
Mantras are ancient sacred sounds that represent the energy of the universe. There are mantras for all different types of practice, including mantras for clearing the seven primary chakras. They are as follows:
- Muladhara – LAM
- Svadhisthana – VAM
- Manipura – RAM
- Anahata – YAM
- Vishuddha – HAM
- Ajna – SHAM
- Sahasrara – AUM
Mantras have the ability to cleanse our energy field and connect us with universal source energy. They calm and protect the mind from negative influence. Positive affirmations and words are made up of energy. Energy has the ability to change the structure of water, as the famous experiment by Dr. Emoto showed. We are 70% water and so the ability for sound to positively or negatively change the structure of water makes a big difference to our physical, emotional, energetic, and spiritual health. This is why chanting mantras is such a powerful practice.
Meditation is the main purpose of Hatha yoga. Hatha yogis cleanse and strengthen the body so that they have a clear mind for meditation. They practice asanas so that the body is flexible and comfortable in meditation for extended periods of time.
Meditation can be both wonderfully simple and extremely complex. It can be as simple as sitting quietly and focusing on your breath. Over time, as you get more used to focusing your mind on one thing, you will be able to practice more complex and contemplative forms of meditation.
Regular meditation practice is necessary in order to become in control of the mind and the thoughts. The mind is naturally like a monkey, swinging from thought tree to thought tree, never sitting in one place for long. Through meditation we can calm the monkey mind so that we are able to consciously and purposefully direct the focus.
A simple meditation for beginners is mindfulness of breath meditation. This is a Buddhist mindfulness practice that has been performed for thousands of years. Garavavati from the London Buddhist Centre explains the mindfulness of breathing meditation step-by-step:
Hatha yoga is the yoga of the body. It involves creating transformation and transcendence via consistent physical discipline and practicing asanas, pranayamas, yogic cleansing techniques, energy locks, mudras, mantras, and meditation. Hatha yoga is one of six branches of the yoga tree – six different paths to Moksha (liberation).
As always, if you have any questions on Hatha yoga, the yoga tree, or any other spirituality or personal development topic, let us know in the comments below, or post them in our Sacred Circle forum – a free online collective of spiritual truth-seekers and visionary female warriors. We would love to connect with you there!