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What is Hatha Yoga?
It’s not infrequent that someone calls the studio, asks about hatha yoga and after a few minutes of conversation says, “Oh, I thought hatha yoga means hot yoga.” The words do sound similar but they are from very different languages and mean very different things. Bikram Yoga is both Hatha Yoga and done in the heat, but beyond that there is no connection.
The word hatha is Sanskrit and is composed of two words, ha and tha. Ha means sun and represents masculine energy, strength, and the right side of the body. Tha means moon and represents the feminine energy, calm, and the left side of the body. Ha is aggressive and tha is receptive. The practice of Hatha Yoga encompasses the principles of both gender and polarity. Have you ever noticed how we always start with the right side? The only time we don’t is in Toe Stand Pose when lifting the hands to prayer position. We lead with the left in that case to access the calm associated with the moon/feminine side.
Hatha Yoga has been around for thousands of years and is the second of the eight limbs of Yoga. Its focus is on the body, getting it healthy and keeping it healthy. It is said that the ancient Hatha Yoga asanas (postures) were developed and practiced by yogis seeking nirvana so that they could be still for long periods of time in meditation. Hatha Yoga now, and for perhaps as long as it has been around, is a form of medicine practiced throughout India.
There are a total of 84 “classic” yoga postures. It is said that with the proper and complete execution of all 84 of these classic postures on a daily basis the body would never deteriorate. There is an infinite number of ways in which these postures can be modified thereby creating thousands of yoga postures, but the modified version will not have the same effect on the body that the original version does.
Bikram has spent his entire life studying, practicing, and teaching Hatha Yoga. He was trained by Bishnu Ghosh, the youngest brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship and author of Autobiography of a Yogi. At Ghosh’s Yoga College in Calcutta, India, a patient would come to consult with Bishnu Ghosh. They would sit opposite him at a table and tell him everything that was wrong with their life. He would listen and at the same time read the energy blocks in their aura and body and write out a prescription of what postures needed to be done in what order in order to heal that body. A male patient would be sent off with a male instructor and a female patient with a female instructor and they would be given one on one instruction for the postures. The patient would then be responsible for performing the postures on their own and would return for follow-up appointments in which the prescription (order of postures) would be changed to reflect the changes in the body. Before Bishnu sent Bikram to teach in Bombay and then Japan, Bikram trained all the other instructors at Ghosh’s Yoga College.
There are three key elements within the practice of the postures that define Hatha Yoga. First, each posture must be executed to the deepest expression possible for any particular body and held in stillness for a period of time. Second, breathing must always follow the normal breathing pattern for that posture. Normal breathing happens naturally. The third key element is complete relaxation, as practiced in savasana, following the execution of the posture(s). If you leave out any one of these three key elements you are no longer practicing Hatha Yoga.
Bikram is adamant that each posture be done 100% the right way to the fullest extent possible for your body so that you get the full benefits of your hard work. He says, “It’s my way or the highway.” Changing the posture to make it easier does not create the same results and can potentially cause harm. Props are never used as they limit the change possible through the execution of the posture and only under rare circumstances, such as severe illness, injuries or handicaps, are postures modified to meet the specific needs of the individual.
In the midst of the stillness in execution of each posture, the body creates a play between struggle and surrender. As Bikram teachers we are trained to push you, our students, to your limit where change will happen. We tell you to “struggle a little harder.” It is there, at the deepest expression of the posture, that the breath becomes a key element. With the natural flow of the breath the body will fluctuate between struggle and surrender. Inhale for fortification, exhale for execution. Get to your maximum expression of the posture and then tune in to your breath and see how your body responds. Allow your breath to take you deeper. Also be sure to pay attention to the directions for your breath moving into and out of the posture as this will set you up for more controlled movement and effective execution of the posture.
Whenever possible, breathe in and out through your nose. The nasal passages prepare the air for the lungs and help to calm the mind which in turn calms the body. Breathing through the mouth tends to activate the adrenal glands and puts the body into the “flight or fight” syndrome which, while it can be good for some means of exercise, defeats the purpose of Hatha Yoga. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and Yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system. There is a direct correlation between mouth breathing and stress and nasal breathing and relaxation.
Last but not least is savasana, relaxation. Children don’t grow while they are up and about and running around, they literally “grow overnight” while they are asleep and their bodies are at rest. It is the same for us. The change does not happen in the midst of the exercise, it happens in the rest that follows. Change, growth, and healing all require proper nutrition and relaxation. To overlook the importance of savasana is like peeling the skin off a cherry before eating it; you miss the majority of the nutritional and pain relieving benefits of the fruit. Traditionally in India, for each hour of Hatha Yoga one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in savasana. Fortunately, in Bikram Yoga savasana is incorporated into the latter part of the class so only five minutes should do it at the end. This is just the minimum, mind you.
Bikram’s beginning Hatha Yoga class has been the same for decades. It comes from an extensive immersion and knowledge of the human body and Hatha Yoga postures. Bikram designed it with the entire population in mind and an underlying desire to heal the world, bringing peace and well-being one person at a time through the practice of Bikram Yoga.
When it comes to Hatha Yoga, you get the real deal with Bikram, and so much more!