Q: It has become increasingly common for yoga studios to advertise that they are teaching hatha yoga, often implying it is a spiritual practice. But when I attend these classes, the instruction is usually limited to the physical postures. Is hatha yoga synonymous with asana? How does practicing asana help us grow spiritually?
A: Yoga means “union,” and yoga practices help us come to the realization that there is a connection among the different aspects of ourselves. The physical level of asana practice by itself is not yoga and does little to help us grow spiritually.
The classes you describe are not hatha yoga classes. According to the scriptures, hatha yoga is a complete path leading to physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual illumination. Hatha yoga practice combines asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), concentration, and meditation.
Hatha yoga is a complete path.
The word hatha is itself an indication of the goals and objectives of this practice: ha means “sun,” and tha means “moon.” Hatha yoga practices enable a practitioner to balance solar and lunar energies. They create a state of harmony in body and mind by balancing the solar and lunar, the masculine and feminine, and the active and passive aspects of our being. Unless we combine the disciplines associated with breathing and meditation with the physical postures, we cannot expect to achieve a harmonious state.
Separating the physical postures from the breathing practices is a modern invention. Nowhere in the scriptures is asana taught without pranayama. Many contemporary teachers do not include the discipline of pranayama when they teach asana, and yet, as you have noticed, they mistakenly call what they teach hatha yoga. While a stand-alone asana practice may promote health, it will do little to engender an inner awakening.
As the great master Guru Gorakhnath explained, “The body is like a mansion. It is built on the foundation of Providence. This structure is held in place and sustained by the pillars and beams of the pranic force.” The pranic force is the vital energy within us. It is expressed in our nadi system, the network of energy channels through which the pranic force travels, sustaining both body and mind. When the pranic force travels through the energy channels unobstructed, sloth, inertia, and laziness vanish and we are filled with vital energy.
The journey from matter to energy—from the physical body to the pranic force—is possible only when postures and pranayama are practiced together. According to the acclaimed text The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, asana helps us prepare for pranayama, but it is the energy released by the practice of pranayama that awakens the dormant forces within.
This is not to minimize asana. The practice of asana is a prerequisite for pranayama. The classical asanas have a dual purpose: first, they clean and revitalize our limbs and organs, especially the nervous system, and second, they prepare the body for the awakening of the vital force, which in normal situations lies dormant in our pranic sheath. The ultimate result of practicing the full range of yoga asana is that we begin to truly rest and relax.
We begin to transform ourselves from outside in.
Further, the classical asanas help train the body to sit still and comfortably. Comfort and stability of the body and mind are prerequisites to the practice of pranayama. Together asana and pranayama restore the harmonious functions of all our limbs and organs, connecting us with our innate sense of joy. This condition is necessary to allow the mind to travel into deeper levels of consciousness, for if the mind is not brought to a state of joy it cannot remain steady, and an unsteady mind is not fit for meditation.
According to tradition, when asana and pranayama are practiced in light of the yamas and niyamas, hatha yoga emerges as a fully developed spiritual path. The yamas are five restraints—non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, control over sensory indulgence, and non-possessiveness—designed to curtail behavior that impedes spiritual growth. The niyamas—purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to the divine—are five observances conducive to inner unfoldment. By practicing the yamas and niyamas along with asana and pranayama, we begin to transform ourselves from outside in and to prepare the mind for concentration and meditation. This is the gift of an integrated practice of hatha yoga.