What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha Yoga is yoga practised through physical exercise. Hatha means effort in Sanskrit. It is based on the balance of opposing principles:
- The material and the immaterial, represented by the body and the mind;
- The mobility and immobility of the body, in performing the poses;
- Stamina, to maintain them, and relaxation;
- Effort and becoming calm, both physically and mentally.
Not to forget breathing: inspiration and expiration give rhythm to the movements, and breathing control is essential.
The aim of Hatha Yoga is to rid the disciple’s mind of all disturbance, by focussing on the self.
Some poses are more difficult to perform than others. They involve movements which stretch muscles and require stamina, and also stability to strengthen weaker parts of the body.
At first, the exertion is physical, but the greatest difficulty is in keeping the body still, to maintain the pose, so even the seemingly easy poses need great concentration, and real mental strength takes over from the strength of the body.
The body in the service of the soul
What distinguishes Hatha Yoga from other physical activities is that its prime aim is to bring peace of mind: you use the body to strengthen the mind.
Stress, or mind pollution, brings tensions which directly affect the body: they bend the back, stiffen muscles and pollute the mind. The body is more exposed to pain or injury and because of this the mind also is weakened: aggressive behaviour, instability, depression…
Little by little, stressed people lose touch with themselves and become weak. This phenomenon is increasingly common today, as our way of life
is so sedentary. We lose awareness of our bodies, placing all our burdens on our minds, which gradually close up.
The effects of Hatha Yoga
Short term effects
Hatha Yoga uses physical sensations to focus the mind on the present moment.
To perform these exercises as effectively as possible, the disciple should let go and centre themselves. For a while, everyday problems and worries about the future should be left aside. The body releases its tensions and the freed mind can open up again.
Long term effects
Hatha Yoga uses effort to restore harmony and the connection between body and mind, which have been lost.
The disciple has to assume and hold poses they are not used to. They must employ physical stamina, breath control and concentration.
The pupil must, therefore, try to create a close connection between the body and the mind. Regular practitioners of Hatha Yoga will use what they have learned doing exercises to help manage stressful situations without being overcome. Just as their mind and body have supported them during their physical effort, they will be supported during their mental effort to remain calm and stable.
The mind and the body become more and more flexible, and less vulnerable to physical and emotional pain.
Hatha Yoga benefits:
- Better breathing.
- Better stress management.
- Greater physical flexibility.
- Calming of the mind.
- Greater self-confidence.
- The ability to maintain a sense of self, with more mental stability. – A better relationship with oneself and others.
It is particularly beneficial
- For those who are hyperactive or too exposed to stress. Hatha Yoga teaches them to centre themselves. By helping them to be detached from external disturbances, it brings welcome relief from stress.
- For passive people, who are in a state of physical and mental inertia, and want to have more energy. Hatha Yoga allows them to get back in touch with their bodies. In a more toned and flexible body, the mind is livelier and more open to the world.
How to practise Yoga
Yoga should be practised on an empty stomach, or at least two hours after your last meal, so as not to interfere with digestion and for you to move with greater ease.
One of the particularities of yoga is that breathing is done essentially through the nose, with the mouth closed. You will notice that a good number of poses open up the ribcage to allow more space for breathing, so the capacity of the lungs to fill with air is increased. This way, the muscles and brain receive more oxygen, the body is more ready for effort, and the mind is prepared for concentration.
To maintain this advantage, choose a well-ventilated space, to benefit from good quality air.
Avoid draughts and places which are too cold. Yoga being slow, muscles must be kept warm so they relax more easily, and avoid the risk of being pulled. For the same reason, be careful to warm up, to stimulate the circulation of blood and increase your body temperature.
The room where you practise should exclude any activities which might disturb your concentration, as far as possible, and offer a quiet, uncluttered space. A calm atmosphere is essential, all that counts is you in the room at that moment.
Choose comfortable, loose-fitting clothes which will not hamper your movements. Finally, yoga is practised with bare feet. The toes grip the floor and you will learn to spread them, for greater stability. Use a mat for sitting poses, or poses where you lie on your stomach or back, and also for standing poses if your floor is not suitable (tiles or a slippery surface).
But most of all, give yourself time to progress. To practise yoga is also to learn how to live in the present moment, looking neither at the past nor into the future.
Our very sedentary way of life makes our bodies more and more immobile. Flexibility, muscle tone and shape are lost. Sitting or standing, the back has a tendency to get out of shape, and the passing years do not help at all.
Get into the habit of correcting this bad back posture: draw in your stomach and let your shoulders drop. In a circular movement of the shoulders, push your chest forward and hold yourself as straight as possible, as if your spinal column were being pulled upwards.
Before you start to practise any exercises, begin by looking at the explanations and photos in your book. The last pose of each exercise is often the hardest to perform. Then, look at each exercise for the first time without performing the movements, to understand the sequence better.
We do not all have the same level of flexibility or level of fitness; the difficulty of an exercise often varies according to the individual. Choose to perform poses you feel comfortable in, and do not hold them for too long at first. That will come with time and practice.