For me, it all began up on a rooftop in Udaipur, Rajasthan. I had never done yoga before and didn’t really have any expectations or hopes for what the practice would be like. In walked this tiny Indian man called Prakash who spoke very little English, though more than I spoke of Hindi. He proceeded to lead us through a sequence of progressively challenging static poses that culminated in some breathing exercises, a short seated meditation and then lying on the floor with the sun gently warming our bodies.
Due to the lack of a common language it was very much a case of show and follow, with little speaking apart from the occasional expressive sound from Prakash to get us into the correct alignment. After that morning for some reason I kept coming everyday and before long had spent 6 months with my new found teacher Prakash. One day I thought to ask him, what kind of yoga are we doing? He furrowed his brow and with the aid of hand gestures and repeating the question he answered ‘Hatha yoga’. Right I thought that’s what I have been doing. But it’s only since I have continued to study yoga in greater depth that I began to understand the potential of the multiple meanings of this response. Because really the term ‘Hatha’ can be understood in a number of different ways.
In India ‘Hatha yoga’ can mean a distinct Path of yoga based on physical asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing practices) with the main emphasis being on the body and physical practices. So in this sense the term ‘Hatha yoga’ encompasses all the physical based styles of yoga such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa flow and so on. This differs from other paths of yoga such as ‘Bhakti yoga’, the yoga of devotion or ‘Karma yoga’ the yoga of service to name but a few. However, these days in the West, the term ‘Hatha’ has also come to denote a style of physical postural practice with more of a static quality where you go from pose to pose without the flowing ‘Vinyasa’ sequence that ‘Vinyasa flow’ and ‘Ashtanga’ are synonymous with. So when you see ‘Hatha’ on a studio timetable it may well be referring to this more static pose style of yoga.
Even futher the actual word ‘Hatha’ is made up of ‘Ha’ meaning Sun and ‘tha’ meaning moon so in this context Hatha yoga could be taken to mean the joining or yoking of the Sun and the Moon elements within each of us, the unification of our inner masculine and feminine leading towards a harmonious wholeness.
In that sense my teacher Prakash could really have meant multiple things in this response that we were practising ‘Hatha’ yoga on that rooftop. He could have been referring to us practising the Path of ‘Hatha Yoga’ as in physical yoga practised using asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises) or the style of yoga which was certainly of the more static, traditional Hatha style. So yes, it’s complicated and multilayered and though it is wonderful to delve deep into the tradtions and meanings existent within the realm of yoga.
Ultimately for me, what’s important is if your practice resonates and works for you. Do you feel better after you practice? Is it a form of nourishment in your day? Each time you practice it is a response to your physical, mental and emotional needs of the day. For me somedays I get on my mat and all I want and need is to flow and move and sweat whereas other days a more steady, static practice feels more appropriate. Ultimately whether we choose the physical asanas as our mode of transformation, or the prayer and devotion of Bhakti yoga or indeed to selfless service of Karma yoga, it is leading towards the same goal of self-realization and finding peace within in this lifetime that all Yoga aims at.
Lucy is a London based yoga teacher teaching Vinyasa flow, pregnancy and restorative yoga to the masses. Yoga from and for the heart. Yoga for happiness, fun and healing. For more info visit www.lucyogi.com
Photo credit: Karen Yeomans