Hatha Yoga is a ladder that leads to Raja Yoga. It is the branch of yoga that deals with the preparation of the body for the higher levels of yoga. Obviously, it is the very basic yoga that one needs to begin with. The modern-day yoga poses belong to this branch of yoga only. Today, the term yoga simply refers to yoga poses of this kind.
Modern yoga misses the very goal of Hatha Yoga which is Raja Yoga. Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly states,
For the purpose of Raja Yoga alone, Hath Yoga is being taught.Hatha Yoga Padipika 1.2
Let us have a look into its history, meaning, and benefits along with its flow and sequence.
Hatha Yoga Meaning
One of the meanings of the word Hatha is unyielding or resoluteness or doing things forcefully. When you begin the practice, you could not do it perfectly. It is the resoluteness or unyielding practice that helps to get mastery. In other words, success is for those who practice it forcefully. This is the reason why it gets the name Hatha Yoga or Yoga of resoluteness or yoga of force.
The word Hatha constitutes two letters in Sanskrit: ha and tha. Ha means Sun and tha means moon. Hence it is the yoga of the Sun and Moon. Sun also refers to the breath that flows through the right nostril and the moon refers to the breath that flows through the left nostril. In this sense, it is a yoga of Pranayama. The breath through the right nostril activates Pingala and the left nostril activates Ida. Both Pingala and Ida are nerve currents found adjacent to Sushumna. In this sense, it is the yoga of Sushumna.
We may simply define it as the branch of yoga that yields the fruit of Raja yoga. In the words of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it is the ladder or staircase that leads the aspirant to the high-pinnacled Raja Yoga.
Hatha Yoga History
On scrutiny of yoga history, one can easily conclude that this branch of yoga had been in practice well before it was documented. Yoga texts are the major source for understanding the history of yoga. The earliest texts like Yoga Sutra, Thirumandiram, and Bhagavad Gita talk more about Dhyana Yoga or Rajayoga, but not this branch of Yoga. From this, we could deduce that this branch of yoga was not as prevalent as Raja Yoga.
At the same time, we could not rule out its existence in some other form of yoga or tradition, for example, Tantra. Hatha Yoga was a part of Tantra. According to the documented history, Tantra had been at its peak of practice during the fifth to ninth century AD. The concepts like Chakras, Nadis, and Kundalini are discussed in tantric texts that belong to the said period.
Hence, we may conclude that Hatha Yoga had been in practice well before we could find any direct documentation on it. However, the techniques would have been in practice from the 4th Century BCE to the 9th Century AD.
To understand the history of Hatha Yoga, let us have a look into the hatha yoga texts of the earliest period, the medieval period, and the modern period.
Earliest Hatha Yoga Texts
The tenth-century Vaishnavite text Vimanacharakalpha describes some non-meditative yoga poses like Peacock Pose. However, this is not a yoga text.
During this period, the yoga lineage of Nath flourished. Sage Matsyendernath and Goraknath were the pioneers of this yoga lineage. Goraknath authored many texts on Hinduism and yoga. Vivekamarthanda and Gorakshasataka are important texts on Hatha Yoga.
Vasista Samhita, a yoga text of the thirteenth century describes the yoga of meditation with eight parts of Raja Yoga. Vasista Samhita is the yoga text that describes the techniques for the purification of Nadis and non-seated yoga poses like Kukutasana. Though it is a text on Raja Yoga in principle, it incorporated many aspects of Hatha Yoga. Vasista Samhita influenced many yoga texts of the medieval period. Hence during this period (12th and 13th Century AD), Hatha has become a part of mainstream Raja Yoga apart from the Nath lineage.
During this period, Hatha has become a separate branch of yoga. Separate yoga texts like Gheranda Samhita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Hatha Tattva Kaumudi, and Siva Samhita had been created. It is in this period, it had become more popular.
During the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, yoga teachers like Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, T. Krishnamacharya revived modern yoga. Krishnamacharya is regarded as the father of modern yoga. His students like T.KV. Desikachar, B.K.S Iyengar, Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois propagated yoga to the modern world. Traditional Yoga schools like Bihar Yoga School of Yoga, Kaivalyadhama, and Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram have come into existence.
Hatha Yoga Benefits
Many approaches to yoga are in pursuit of the benefits. Comparing the results, yoga offers more benefits than any other exercise. We may broadly classify the benefits of yoga into three categories.
- Physiological Benefits of Yoga
- Mental or psychological Benefits of Yoga
- Spiritual Benefits of Yoga
For maintaining the health and wellness of both diseased and healthy individuals, yoga is as effective as any physical exercise or more effective than that. In other words, the intervention of yoga is equal or superior to exercise on many measurable outcomes. Several medical studies observe a feasible intervention and beneficial effects of yoga on many grounds. Yoga practice helps
Stable Autonomic Nervous System Equilibrium
In the present-day stress-dominated world, the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system or involuntary nervous system is more common. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the body’s involuntary response in a stressful situation. As a result, the blood pressure and heart rate increase, fresh oxygen, glucose, and hormones like cortisol are infused into the bloodstream and the brain, and the body becomes hyper-reactive at an unimaginable speed.
According to Harward School, many people are unable to put the brake on stress and encounter chronic health problems. Only the parasympathetic nervous system puts the brake on this grave situation. A study by C.C. Streeter et all observes that yoga helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Respiratory System Improvement
Several studies indicate that yoga has a positive physiological benefit on the respiratory system. It improves pulmonary function, cardio-respiratory endurance, and breath-holding time. Yoga, when practiced by patients with Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease, results in the improvement of lung function and quality of life. It decreases dyspnea-related stress and improves diffusion capacity. Moreover, it reduces the respiratory rate.
Circulatory System Benefits
Yoga improves the functions of the heart, arteries, and veins. It reduces the heart rate and systolic blood pressure. Several studies show that yoga practice reduces the main factors of cardiac diseases like total cholesterol, LDL, and VLDL.
Yoga practice retards the progression of atherosclerosis. As a result, it helps to lower the risk in patients with severe CAD (Coronary Artery Disease). Furthermore, yoga practice helps in the regression of coronary lesions and improves myocardial perfusion.
Yoga addresses the other factors of cardiac diseases like obesity, stress, and nervous system imbalance. This, in turn, helps one to have better heart health.
Digestive System Benefits
Yoga offers several postures for health conditions like bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, and constipation. Moreover, it regulates the functions of the bowel.
A medical study concludes,
Practicing yoga in conjunction with medications can be helpful in controlling and/or alleviation of symptoms related to digestive diseases.Can yoga be used to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease?
As we already know, yoga activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This activates the cranial and sacral nerves. In turn, cranial nerves stimulate the activity of the stomach, gallbladder, and intestines. Hence, yoga boosts the functions of the stomach.
The following poses improve the functions of the digestive system.
Skeletal System Improvements
As concluded by the pilot study authored by Maja PetriÄ, et al, in 2014, Improved body flexibility is one of the most obvious and quickly achieved effects of regular hatha yoga practice. The results of this study confirm that the regular practice of yoga has a significant effect on body flexibility in young healthy women, which is particularly obvious in measurements of the increase of the flexibility of skeletal muscles.
Furthermore, yoga practice strengthens the joints and makes the skeletal system disease-free. The overall health and well-being of an individual depend much on the health of the spine. Yoga practice helps to have a healthy spine and contributes to overall health.
Endocrine System Benefits
Similarly, Palm Tree Pose stimulates the growth hormones and directly influences the height of a growing individual. Plough Pose, Fish Pose, and Camel Pose help to have good thyroid health. Likewise, Head Stand, Shoulder Stand, Hero Pose, and Reclined Bound Angle Pose are beneficial to gonads. As a result, it regulates the functions of the testes and ovaries.
Exocrine System Improvements
The practice of yoga improves the parasympathetic tone that promotes and regulates the salivary glands and pancreas. Moreover, yoga is effective in improving the quality of life in patients having health conditions like chronic pancreatitis.
Yoga improves the blood supply to the breast and keeps the mammary glands healthy. Regular practice keeps the diseases like breast cancer at bay.
Immune System Improvements
A study aimed to find the effects of yoga practice on students’ physiology in India. On the basis of effects studied on the alpha EEG and GSR level showed a significant change. So the study concludes that yoga practice helps to improve immunity. Similarly, another study concludes that yoga practice resists the impairment of immunity observed in the examination of stress.
In yet another study, the IgG levels of the yoga practitioners were tested before and after a three-times-a-week yoga program. The results show an increase in the level of IgG level. It means they are less likely to develop an infection.
Moreover, mind-body therapies reduce markers of inflammation and influence virus-specific immune responses to vaccination.
Muscular System Benefits
Yoga practice improves skeletal muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance. Moreover, several studies on yoga reveal the following.
- Yoga improves leg press muscular strength.
- Moreover, it enhances the strength of the inspiratory and expiratory muscles. As a result, lung function improved.
- It boosts handgrip in normal persons as well as patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
- Similarly, in patients on ventilators with COPD, yoga practice decreased the number of days needed to transfer from bed to chair.
- Also, it enhances the aerobic capacity.
Renal System Improvements
Hatha Yoga is found to be a safe and effective adjuvant therapy in treating persons with Chronic Kidney Disease. It improves renal functions and Quality Of Life in them. Moreover, it reduces the need for dialysis. In End-Stage Renal Disease Patients, it considerably reduces oxidative stress which shows therapeutic, preventive, and protective effects for them.
Reproductive System Benefits
Many studies postulate that yoga triggers neurohormonal mechanisms that improve reproductive health. As a result, it can be beneficial in the prevention of infertility and male reproductive health. Also, it is found that it escalates female reproductive health during pregnancy.
Mental health is a precursor to the overall health of an individual. Many studies found its impact on the Autonomic Nervous System. It effectively handles the fight or flight response. In turn, it helps to handle stress, anxiety, and depression. Hence, yoga helps to prevent these conditions and their subsequent development into psychosomatic diseases.
Spiritual benefits are the primary benefits of yoga. In other words, the very approach of yoga is for these benefits only. Hatha Yoga prepares one for the successful journey of Raja Yoga. We may list the spiritual benefits below.
- It helps to reach the state of Samadhi.
- Hatha Yoga helps the yogi to advance to the higher realms of yoga.
- It activates Kundalini.
- Yoga improves mental and physical health. Hence the yogi could focus and concentrate on the higher goals of yoga without distraction.