History of Hatha Yoga
In the first few centuries of the Christian era, and in a more marked way around the fifth century A.D., a peculiar upheaval took place in the area in which the great Indo-Aryan civilization had grown: the appearance, development, establishment, and diffusion of a new spiritual and religious trend, characterized by newer features when compared with the prevalent motifs of the previous period.
This trend penetrated everywhere and heavily influenced what is generally called Hinduism: it affected yoga schools, post-Upanishadic speculation, and the cults of Vishnu and Shiva. In Buddhism it gave rise to a new current, the so-called Vajrayana (the “Way of the Diamond” or “Way of the Thunderbolt”).
It is interesting to note that at least two of the Mahasiddhas given in the Buddhist literature are actually names for Shaiva Nath saints (Gorakshanath and Matsyendranath) who introduced Hatha Yoga.
Thus, somewhere between 300-1200 A.D. yoga went through what is known as the Post-Classical period, during which yogis like Matsyendaranatha, Gorkshanatha, Cauranginatha, Swatmaram Suri, Gheranda and Shrinivasa Bhatt popularized Hatha Yoga alongside the popularization of Vajrayana philosophy by philosophers like Dipankar Srigyan etc.
They called it hatha yoga / kundalini yoga in Tantric-Hindusim. Its equivalent in Tantric-Buddhism is vajrarupa-guhya, “mystery to thunderbolt body (rupa).” At this level, sadhana focuses on the body, which constitutes the foundation and the place in which all spiritual operations take place.
One thing is clear, that time our ancestors focused to have not only a strong mind, but also a strong body.
Description of Hatha Yoga
This style of yoga focuses on the physical poses. Hatha Yoga, or forceful yoga, is meant to increase the energy of yogis by taking them through different physical poses or postures. Hatha mean adamant. A practitioner must be adamant about his willingness to push out of his comfort zone. You are supposed to get comfortable being uncomfortable, push your mental limits to see what you are capable of.
As “HATHA” is an umbrella term for all physical yoga:
- Basic physical activities like VYAYAMA, which is an essential component of Ayurveda’s system of preventative health care, and includes Gardening, Running, Walking, Swimming and Yoga.
- Flowing practices such as VINYASA are also Hatha yoga, where you link the breath with movement to create a yogic dance of sorts. Postures flow together with Sun Salutations.
- Usually, this isn’t the case in CHATURANGA, where each pose is visited independently. The breath is still emphasized, but after you arrive in the pose.
- And ASANAS are a set of powerful postures for elevating one’s consciousness, stabilizing one’s mind, emotions and energy system.
Ultimately, whether your Hatha practice is gentle or rigorous, it intends to quiet your mind so that you can focus on meditation. This is achieved through focus on breathing. If you have ever studied Martial Art or Hatha Yoga you know that proper breathing is given huge importance.
Maintain awareness of the breath the entire time. Breathe in and out through the nose, not mouth. Breathe slowly, completing each inhalation and exhalation. And do not hold the breath at any time.
Mentally assign the breath a certain task in a posture (i.e. in a forward bend, inhale and pull the muscles up the legs, then exhale and elongate the spine with your exhalation).
When the chest is compressed (bend or twist) it is natural to exhale with the movement. When the chest is expanded, an inhalation is appropriate. Follow your breath into the postures.
Appropriate length of time to hold a posture may vary between 5 to 60 seconds. 60 seconds is approximately ten full breaths, where one breath equals one inhalation and one exhalation.
Counting the number of breaths, rather than using a time piece, will allow you to “turn within” and be alert to the subtle effects of the posture on the body.
- Starting Pose: Tadasana
- Warm up Poses (VYAYAMA): standing poses like Trikonasana
- Power Poses (VINAYASA): Different Surya Namaskara poses
- Strength Poses (CHATURANGA): like Chaturanga Dandasana
- Cool down Poses (ASANAS): sitting poses like Padmasana, Vajrasana
- Ending Pose: Savasana
The more we advance in Yoga the priority shifts from the beginning steps to the ending steps of the above sequence. And also proper breathing becomes more important. The reason being:
When we are at the Tamo Guna stage, we are usually physically weak, and unfit to practice the higher Dhyan Yogas. And therefore at this stage proper breathing doesn’t count any big importance. At this stage our objective is the attainment of physical strength & stamina, which we get from the beginning steps.
When we advance in yoga and reach to the Rajo Guna stage then the objective shifts from body building to body maintaining; so the priority towards the ending steps of the above sequence. And proper breathing becomes more important because we need to quiet our mind to focus more on Dhyana.
Focus ‘more’ I have said because initially also we need to somewhat focus on Japa-Dhyana. That is why we practice the last Asanas steps to calm down the mind.
Workout Formula: Gym vs Yoga
Now this is something I need to explain because the concept of yoga is somewhat different from gym and that need to be understood properly.
In gym there are mainly 3 training variables- Intensity, Duration and Frequency. Of these intensity happens to be the most effective variable. Having workouts for 2-3 hours duration is called dumb and having workout at 5 day/week frequency is called overkill. They don’t produce results because they overstrain resources and hamper recovery.
Having workout of one set with max weights and max reps per exercise per body part is called Intense. This one ALL-OUT set per exercise per body part is all that is needed to make gains from week to week.
But in Yoga the concept is different. Instead of working on a specific muscle group, the yoga poses takes the whole body into consideration.
Yoga believes it isn’t just the muscle groups that is important. But the glands, organs, hormones should also need to be holistically improved for an overall wellbeing. And not only muscles, organs, glands but other things like income level, relationships etc. also should be improved for the overall wellbeing.
Therefore, the idea practiced in Yoga is to exert the full body and to exert half of our maximum strength or capacity. This principle is called Balaardh. This helps to maintain a consistent energy through our day. This allows our capacity for exercise to increase gradually without creating stress, strain or imbalance; while we also take good care of the other aspects of our life.
Yogic Chakras and Endocrine Glands
Now, the ancients claimed that there are seven yogic chakras in our body. And through proper practice of Yoga, these chakras can be aroused. We find that there is a striking similarity between these yogic chakras and the endocrine glands. They are quite similar in terms of number, location and even function. And through proper practice of yoga, they get healthier.
If we study the meaning of Sanskrit names for Yogic Chakras and the functions of Endocrine Glands, we discover a striking similarity between these.
Muladhara, mula means root/origin and adhara means support/base. Testis and ovary glands produces hormones which are essential for the reproduction, through which new generations arise. Thus it acts like the root from which plants emerges.
Svadhishthana means one’s own base. Pancreas excretes enzymes to break down the proteins, fats and carbohydrates in food. Thus it fulfills the basic needs of our body to stay alive. It also secretes hormones to control the blood sugar levels throughout the day, so that we are able to do our daily work properly.
Manipura means city jewel. In Vedic scriptures body is often compared to city and jewel to life. Adrenal gland modulate the functioning of entire body to maintain stability during stress and keep us alive. It is through the actions of the adrenal gland that our body is able to mobilize its resources to escape or fight off danger and save our life.
Anahata means unstruck. Thymus gland is associated with the immune system, which protect our body from diseases.
Vishuddha means especially pure. Thyroid gland has the main role of controlling our body’s metabolism. These hormones controls our breathing and our heart rate. Since steady breathing and heart rate is absolutely essential for meditation, which is a way to purify our thoughts. So it is called essentially pure.
Agya means command. Pituitary gland produces critical hormones that controls the proper functioning of all other organs and glands in our body.
Sahasrar means thousand petaled lotus. Pineal gland produces hormones, which helps maintain circadian rhythm i.e. sleep patterns. It regulate biological rhythms of sleep and wake cycles. In other words, it regulates our journey through conscious and unconscious state of mind. For yogis, this should also regulate the journey through conscious and super-conscious state during meditation. Therefore, this chakra is so highly acclaimed in hatha yoga.
How Hatha Yoga Reap the Benefits
So how does yoga produce the benefits it claim?
By using a whole-body approach, twisting-bending the body, holding different positions, and placing continuous pressure on specific areas, it stimulates the often unreachable areas of the body, like the internal organs and glands.
Thus, through specific movements, yoga targets the internal organs and glands. It stimulates the organs and glands through increasing blood flow and oxygen to these areas.
This is rare in cardio and body building exercises, because they focus on specific parts of body and many organs of the body are not stimulated through basic exercising.
As a conclusion I would say that once we build a strong physical foundation through yoga, then only we should give a try to body building exercises.
It is like civil engineering and architect engineering. When the inner construction of a building is strong through civil engineering, then only we should try external decoration through architect engineering.
Way to Knowledge
Now, one question I need to answer here. How the ancient yogis got this knowledge? Well, they got that through meditation. I will site a meditation related conversation with Vivekananda, and it will be clear.
Swami Vivekananda said, “During Meditation, when the mind slowly get absorbed in Brahman, it passes through different stages one by one, to reach the Nirvikalpa state at last. While entering into Samadhi, first it feels like everything in this world is in sound state; then everything i.e. all the different sounds get merged into the profound A.U.M sound. Then even that is also not heard, we are not able to differentiate that. This is the eternal Nada sound. And then the mind becomes lost in the Brahman, and it is all done. All is peace, silent.
This is what Swami Vivekananda told about meditation. The Upanishads also explain it the same way.
Now, what I feel is the sound is nothing but vibration, frequency. It’s just a crude way of expression. And if we compare it to string theory, it tells the same thing about universe. That all the things we see in this universe are but strings in different mode of vibration.
So the yogis during meditation must have felt some unique, very powerful and different form of vibration in the spaces where the glands are located, compared to rest of the objects. By further focusing on those vibrations they seem to have gained that knowledge.
Ritual of yoga practice
Let me repeat, yoga believes it isn’t just the muscle groups that is important; but the glands, organs, hormones should also need to be holistically improved for an overall wellbeing. And not only muscles, organs, glands; but other things like income level, relationships etc. also should be improved for the overall wellbeing.
Vivekananda once said, “We speak of many things, but never do them; speaking and not doing has become a habit with us. What is the cause of that? Physical weakness. The physical weakness is the cause of at least one-third of our miseries.
He proclaimed the Katha Upanishad sloka: उत्तिष्ठत, जाग्रत, प्राप्य वरान्निबोधत। which means: Arise, Awake and regain thy lost empire. उत्तिष्ठत rise, जाग्रत get up (in your profession, business etc.) and प्राप्य achieve, वर the boon, नबोधत that’s yours only.
And yoga says, the power to live a life of respect, freedom, prosperity, without suffering, subjugation is within us only. It is dormant, only needs to be raised.
As I said before, during meditation first the mind feels everything in different states of vibration; then the mind goes deeper and the various vibrations merges into three vibrations only, the A.U.M; and further going deeper the mind perceives only one vibration, the Nada; and finally the mind perceives everything as still silent, the Brahman. This is what one experiences in meditation, which very closely resembles to the String Theory of physics.
The ancient sages classified the different elements of universe into 5 categories: Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Space. This is similar to modern physicist classification: Solid, Liquid and Gas. The ancients also considered Fire, which is a transition from one state to another. Also space, so that the entire universe is covered.
During first stage of meditation, the sages perceived everything of this universe into five modes of vibrations. i.e. the objects may be different, but because of their same state, the sages perceived similar vibration in them. And they perceived the same five modes of vibrations within our body as well. Only they found certain vibrations more powerful, more intense than the rest. They called them the Yogic Chakras, which we have seen how they resemble the endocrine glands of our body, which are more powerful than any other organs in our body.
Thus, our body harbors much powerful superior elements than the nature. And therefore, we are not supposed to live a subjugated life to nature, but rule over it. And we are not able to do so, because those power-house cells of our body are in dormant state. The Hatha Yoga shows the way to awaken them, and thus regain thy lost kingdom. Overcome the life of subjugation and suffering, and live a life of prosperity and respect.
The sages assigned a Bija mantra i.e. sound vibration to those Yogic Chakras, which we can utter during the Hatha Yoga practice, to remind us of our powers and purpose of practicing. Together with it we can also utter the Upanishad Mantra, to remind us explicitly.
That mantra is: lam, vam, ram, yam, ham, aum, shanti.
I was little confused about what has air to do with immune system. So I got this answer: An antibody, also known as an immunoglobulin, is a large Y-shaped protein produced mainly by plasma cells that is used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses.
Nitric oxide is secreted as free radicals in the immune response and is toxic to bacteria and parasites. Nitric oxide is a colorless gas with the formula NO.
Hatha Yoga Practice Guidelines
The following eight are the comprehensive yoga pose types. One must practice all these types for a complete yoga session.
- Standing poses:
- Warrior poses: one leg, etc.
- Squat poses
- Quadruped poses
- Supine poses:
- Kneeled poses: back bends, etc.
- Core poses
- Inversion poses
In all of these eight types of poses, different variations should be brought from time to time, moving from the easy variations to difficult ones.
The following are two type of exhaustion in yoga.
- Moving from one pose type to another; e.g. from seated to standing.
- Holding one’s body into any one pose for some amount of time.
You need to find out those poses which are ideal for moving exhaustion; and also those poses which are ideal for holding exhaustion. You should deploy both these types of exhaustion for both stamina & strength building. The first type being called Vinyasa Yoga and second type Chaturanga Yoga.
In any physical exercise program, repose is a must for body development. Spend the repose days learning new poses and categorizing them into Vinyasa and Chaturanga. So be it is exercise day or repose day, your mind is always engaged in yoga.