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Hatha Yoga

By Scott Shaw

Hatha Yoga has become the most identifiably branch of Yoga, particularly in the Western World. This is the limb of Yoga where the participants perform exacting physical movements in order to enhance health, longevity, mental and physical balance.

Hatha Yoga literally translates from Sanskrit as, “Force Yoga.” Hatha Yoga is more properly referred to as Hatha Vidya, however. Which means, “The Science of Hatha.”

The Foundations of Hatha Yoga
The roots of Hatha Vidya can be traced to the ancient Tantric cult of Kaya Siddhi. Within this sect it was taught that through the practice of precise physical postures, magical powers or Siddhi would come to be possessed by its practitioners. Varying forms of Hatha Vidya gained additional merit, in the ancient period, from the worshipers of the Hindu God Shiva. This group used Hatha Vidya to not only gain mystical powers but to refine their bodies to the degree where they could personally commune with Shiva.

The individual who is credited with formalizing Hatha Vidya is the legendary, Gorakshanatha. He is believed to have been a ninth century C.E. sage from the Punjab region of India.

From a historic perspective, it must be understood that Hatha Vidya was considered, and is still considered by some, to be a degenerative form of Yoga. This is because of the fact that it emphasizes that a Yogi place his focus upon the physical body. The physical body is something that most schools of Yoga have attempted to transcend. None-the-less, as the centuries have progressed Hatha Vidya has come to play an integral role in the overall dissemination of the Yogic philosophy. In fact, Hatha Vidya historically became integrated into several limbs of the more established branches of Yoga. This occurrence was in no small part due to the works composed by the great Indian Sage, Patanjali.

Patanjali
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali it is detailed that Hatha Vidya is an integral element of Raja Yoga. As Raja Yoga is a limb of Yoga focusing predominately upon meditation, the techniques of Hatha Vidya are commonly performed prior to formal seated meditation—as they are understood to bring the body and mind of the practitioner into harmony with one another. Thus, the ability to enter into a meditative mindset is substantially heightened.

Many modern individuals enter into the practice of Hatha Vidya because they are told by their doctors that their blood pressure is too high or that their heart rate is accelerated due to the toll which is being placed upon them by the stressful condition which they are encountering in their daily lives. Others are guided to Hatha Vidya because they are experiencing the ravages of aging and wish to realign themselves with a more youthful and energetic body. Whatever the reasoning, any individual who becomes involved with Hatha Vidya will come away with not only a reenergize body but a calmer mind, as well.

It must be understood, however, that though the physical and mental benefits of Hatha Vidya are self-evident to anyone who becomes a practitioner, the intended purpose of Hatha Vidya is not simply physical wellbeing. Hatha Vidya is designed to purify the body of the practitioner to the degree that it may become a suitable vehicle for Self Realization.

The Four Elements of Hatha Vidya
Hatha Vidya is made up four elements:

1. Asana, The Physical Postures.
2. Pranayama, Breath Control.
3. Mudra, meaning ‘Seal’ made with your body.
4. Bandha, meaning ‘Bond’—to lock energy into your body.

Hatha Vidya Trainning
A basic course in Hatha Yoga will commonly guide you through a process where you begin by performing the physical postures, then the pranayama techniques, followed by a short period of meditation. As the use of Mudra and Bandha is commonly only employed by individuals whose life is focused upon the cultivation of Siddhi, “Spiritual Powers,” or geared towards Samadhi, “Enlightenment,” the final two elements of Hatha Vidya are rarely taught to the modern practitioner. This is in no small due to the fact that most teachers of modern Hatha Yoga do not possess the subtle understanding required to delve into these more advanced realms of Hatha Vidya.

Asana
There are an untold number of modern schools of Hatha Vidya which have evolved over the past century and have devised literally thousands of physical postures which they use in association with Hatha Vidya. Each of the asana assigned by the individual schools are believed to activate a specific level of energy in the human body. Though these asana may be of value to a specific sect of Yoga, there are a prescribed set of ancient asana, which were devised centuries ago, to bring about exacting body and mind unification. These will be the ones detailed.

Understanding Hatha Yoga
It is essential to remember, when you begin the practice of Hatha Vidya, you must do nothing to hurt or damage your body. Hatha Vidya is not an exercise, in the traditional sense of the word. Thus, you are not competing with anyone else or proving to yourself how fast or how far you can stretch.

When performing Hatha Vidya, allow yourself to consciously perform each asana in the most natural manner possible. Never force any movement.

In addition, Hatha Vidya is not aerobics. Therefore, practice each movement slowly and precisely. Meditatively experience your body making each move as if it were the first time you have ever encountered physical movement.

Remember, Hatha Vidya is a meditative practice that utilized physical movement. Embrace this understanding and you will come to master this branch of Yoga.

Beginning Hatha Yoga
Begin your Hatha Yoga practice session by sitting down in a comfortable cross-legged position. Close your eyes for a few moments and begin to take conscious notice of how your body is feeling. Do you detect any areas of stress or muscle tightness? If so, move that part of your body around a little bit. With this movement, experience the added blood circulation traveling to that region of your body.

Once you have isolated and provided circulation to any tense areas, slowly move your neck around in a circular fashion. Feel any tension that it may posses being released.

When you have consciously completed these actions, being to center yourself. Let your body and mind know that you are entering into a period of spiritual purification.

The focusing of your mind is readily accomplished by consciously taking in a deep breath. As it is released, slowly chant the Mantra, “Om.” With the completion of your exhalation, take in a new breath. As it is released, again, chant, “Om.” Do this for a few moments until your feel that you are suitably centered.

Netra Viyam – Eye Movements
Your eyes are two of the most important elements of your body. Yet, until eyesight is failing, few people every pay any attention to them. This should not be the case.

Begin your Hatha Yoga session by exercising your eyes. To do this, open your eyes and consciously look upwards as far as you can. You will instantly feel the muscles that surround your eyes stretching. Hold your eyes in this upward positioning for approximately three seconds. Now, look down as far as is comfortable and hold them in this positioning for approximately three seconds. Perform approximately five sets of this exercise.

Once you have completed your up/down eye yoga, perform the exercise in the same fashion looking side to side. Do this for five repetitions.

Upon the completion of this stage of eye yoga, move your eyes slowly in a circle. Do not move your head; simply allow your eyes to travel in clockwise fashion around their sockets. Do this for approximately five cycles.

Upon completion, vigorously rub the palms of your hands together for a few moments. When you feel that a warmth is emanating from them, place individual palms over each of your eyes. Hold them there for a few moments, as your eyes are nourished with the heat emanating from your hands.

Surya Namaskar – Salutation to the Sun
Surya Namaskar is the most important Hatha Yoga exercise you can perform. This is due to the fact that it stretches each element of your body and causes, Prana, “Life energy,” to flow through your physical and spiritual being.

Surya Namaskar is performed in a continual, flowing fashion. In this way, your body, mind, and soul are allowed to stay in a constant harmony with the flowing nature of Prana.

To begin Surya Namaskar, stand up. Place your hands in prayer position in front of your chest. Hold this positioning for a few moments, as you center your being.

When you are ready, interlock your thumbs and bring your hands out in front of your body, then up and over your head. This will cause your body to lean backwards—bending at the base of your spine.

Immediately bring your hands back in front of your body. Open your hands and extended your palms parallel to the ground. Bent over, keeping your knees straight, in a forward stretching fashion. If you can, allow your palms to embrace the ground in front of you.

Now, allow your left leg to travel back, as you establish yourself on your right knee. The palms of your hands are placed on the floor in front of you. From this positioning, arch your torso backwards, in a stretching fashion.

Move your right leg to join your left leg, in its rear position. Your palms remain on the ground.

Arch your back as if you were performing an exaggerated pushup. Then, in a continually flowing movement, allow your chest to encounter the ground, as you arch your body forward, allowing your face to extend in front of you in an exaggerated fashion.

Your left foot is now brought forward. Establish yourself with your left knee on the ground. This is the reverse of what you have already performed on your right side. Again, arch your body back.

Stand up. With your hands separated approximately one inch from one another, bring them up and over your head, arching your body back at the base of your spine.

You complete Surya Namaskar by bringing your hands back into prayer position in front of your chest.

Surya Namaskar can be performed up to three times.

Bhujang Asana – The Cobra Pose
Bhujang Asana provides a powerful stretching technique for the lower back. This region of the body is understood to be an area of chronic pain for many individuals. Thus, this asana is a great posture to perform in order to gain relief from said pain. It also causes slightly misalignments of the spine to be remedied

Bhujang Asana is also essential in maintaining unhindered Prana flow throughout the body. This is due to the fact that it stimulates the spinal region where the Nadis “Channels of Energy” are located.

To perform Bhujang Asana, begin by lying on your stomach. Become comfortable in this positioning for a few moments and then place the palms of your hands directly under your shoulders. As you inhale, lift your torso upwards, bending at the base of your spine. Do this slowly to coincide with the completion of your in-breath. Your legs remain touching the ground; your head and neck are lightly arched backwards. Hold this position for a few natural breath cycles and then, as you exhale, slowly return to your lowered positioning.

This asana should be performed three to five times.

Salaba Asana – The Locust Pose
The Locus Pose is beneficial for the lower back and abdomen. It is also a purifier of the liver.

To perform Salaba Asana, lay on your stomach with your hands to your side and your chin on the floor. As you breathe in, lift you legs upwards, at hip level. You can substantiate your positioning by allowing your hands to move under your pelvis. Hold this posture, in association with your breath, for as long as is comfortable, and then release your in-breath and slowly return your legs to their original position.

This posture should be performed from three to five times. As you develop in Hatha Vidya, you will be able to remain in this posture for up to one minute.

Dhanur Asana – The Bow Pose
Dhanur Asana takes Bhujang Asana and Salaba Asana to the next level. This posture benefits the back, pelvis, and abdomen. In addition, it is instrumental in cultivating Prana flow throughout your body.

To perform Dhanur Asana, begin by lying down on your stomach, with your hands to your side, and your forehead upon the floor. As you breathe out, slowly cause your knees to bend as your hands reach back and take hold of your ankles. Allow your back to arch.

Achieve this asana, naturally. Do not force its positioning.

Once you have achieved this posture, hold it for a few natural breath cycles and then release. Return to your original laying position. After a few moments of rest, you can perform Dhanur Asana again, up to five times.

Janusirsh Asana – The Head to Knee Posture
Begin Janusirsh Asana with both of your legs extended in front of you. Bring your first leg in and allow the sole of your foot to touch your inner thigh. For more advance practitioner of this asana, they can place the instep of their foot atop their thigh, as in Half Lotus Posture.

Breath out, allow your body to lean down over your leg, as your hands embrace your calf or foot.

Do not bounce as you go into this posture as is common with many types of sport stretches. Bouncing is never good for the muscles of your body, as it causes them to unnaturally stretch and then contract in a rapid fashion. Instead, slowly lean into the stretch that becomes this asana. Hold your positioning for a few natural breath cycles and then rise up.

Upon completion, consciously extend your other leg as your first leg is retracted. The posture is then performed on the opposite side. This asana should be performed from three to five repetitions.

The benefits of this posture, from a physiological standpoint, are added elasticity to your back and legs. From a spiritual perspective, this posture helps one in controlling sexual urges.

Pachimoth Asana – The Forward Bend
Pachimoth Asana is the next step from Janusirsh Asana. In this case, both of your legs are extended as you breath out and bend down over them.

As is the case with Janusirsh Asana, you will hold this positioning for a few natural breath cycles, then raise up. After a few moment of mental focusing, you can perform this posture again, up to five times.

Halas Asana – The Plow Pose
Halas Asana is an excellent method for stimulating the thyroid gland. It is also a very good method to keep the spine aligned and the muscles that surround it, limber.

To perform Halas Asana, lie on your back with your palms down, arms naturally extended to your side. As you breath out, bring your legs up and over your head. Keeping them straight, allow your toes to travel as close to the floor as is natural—touching the floor, if that is possible.

Initially, this posture may feel unnatural to you. Therefore, as is the case with all Hatha Vidya, never strain or force your body. If you feel any pressure on your neck or your back while performing this asana, release this pose and proceed to another one that feels more comfortable.

Halas Asana should be held for no more than twenty seconds. This is because it is not natural to breathe in this position and your air passage may be come hindered.

Halas Asana should be performed for three to five repetitions.

Ardha Matsyendra Asana – The Half Spinal Twist Posture
Ardha Matsyendra Asana is an excellent method to stretch the muscles of your back and realign your spinal column. It is also highly beneficial to your liver, spleen, and kidneys.

To begin Ardha Matsyendra Asana, sit with your legs extended in front of you. Bend one knee, bring it close to your torso, and then lift that leg up and over your other, still extended, leg. Take a hold of our foot that is touching the floor with your lead hand. Now, reaching with your other arm around the back of your body, pivot your torso behind yourself. Once you have achieved this positioning and are feeling the stretch, remain locked in this pose for a few natural breath cycles or until you feel that it is time to come back to a natural posture.

Upon completion of your initial Ardha Matsyendra Asana, remain conscious and focused for a few natural breath cycles and then perform the pose on the opposite side of your body.

It is essential that you perform Ardha Matsyendra Asana with both sides of your body. From this, you will not only keep your spine dutifully aligned but will allow the Prana, which is stimulated by this asana, to remain flowing in a balanced fashion.

Sarvang Asana – The Shoulder Stand
The Shoulder Stand is one of the most essential practices of Hatha Vidya. The title, Sarvang Asana, actually means, “All Parts Pose,” in Sanskrit. From this asana, you will not only instantly revitalize your thyroid gland but also will be highly stimulated due to added blood flow to your brain.

To begin Sarvang Asana, lay on your back with your hands to your side. When you feel it is time to begin this posture, roll your feet back over your head as you did with Halas Asana—The Plow Pose. Now, extend your legs upwards as your hands come to rest in your lower back to provide support.

As you perform The Shoulder Stand, keep your mouth close and breathe through your nose. If any saliva builds up in your mouth do not attempt to swallow it as this is an unnatural process and will send your Prana out of natural alignment.

When you feel that it is time to end this asana, slowly allow your feet to drop down over your head and then consciously bring them back to their original positioning upon the floor.

In the initial stages of practicing this pose, hold it for a few natural breath cycles. As you become more comfortable with it, your performance time can increase.

Sirsha Asana – The Head Stand
Sirsha Asana is one of the most advanced poses in Hatha Vidya and is also one of the most beneficial. Sirsha Asana causes the brain to be aerated with blood. Due to the process of gravity, this is something that does not naturally occur. Thus, this asana is very important in not only the prevention of such diseases as Alzheimer and stroke but also nourishes the brain of a healthy individual with oxygen rich blood.

This pose adds Pranic nutrients to the brain. Thereby, enhancing thought and cognitive powers.

Sirsha Asana also allows your heart to rest. As this organ is forced to constantly pump blood through the human body in a vertical fashion, by reversing the polarity of your body, new and invigorated patterns of Pranic circulation are activated.

To perform Sirsha Asana enter into a kneeling position and then lock the fingers of your two hands on the ground in front of you. Place your head against the floor, supported by hands. Slowly, with the aid of your feet, raise your body up. When you feel you are confident, allow your feet to leave the floor with your knees remaining bent. In this way, if you feel off balance, you will easily be able to resubstantiate your footing on the ground.

Become comfortable with your feet close to the ground for a period of time before you attempt to direct your feet above your head. When you feel you are ready, slowly raise your feet and legs up—achieving full Sirsha Asana.

It is essential that you do not rush into performing Sirsha Asana. Move into this posture slowly—allowing the muscles of your body to become accustomed to this pose before you attempted to perform full headstand.

Once you have achieved Sirsha Asana, it is important to not allow yourself to hold this posture for an extended period of time at the outset. Thirty seconds is about the longest you will wish to hold this posture for, initially. You should extend the time your practice Sirsha Asana, slowly and consciously.

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