The Main Traditions
Hatha yoga means literally the "forceful yoga." As its name implies, this approach to yoga emphasizes the vitality and life force of the physical body. Hatha yoga is undoubtedly the most well known, popular, and frequently practiced style of yoga in the West. It places great emphasis on purifying the body through a variety of means that include physical exercise, cleansing rites, and specific breathing techniques. These practices not only strengthen the body through the force of exercise, they can also help you to expand your own personal force, or store of energy, through their vitalizing effects.
One of the most influential and widely read texts on hatha yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 14th century c.e. In this seminal manual, the author describes 16 physical postures as well as a variety of cleansing and breathing practices and what are known as locks and seals to control the flow of energy within the body.1
In its emphasis on physical postures, or asanas, hatha yoga is often considered one of the steps on the eight-limbed path of yoga, which forms an important part of classical, or raja, yoga. However, it is important to bear in mind that emphasis is placed on making the body as whole and complete as possible in order to achieve the ultimate goal of liberation. Practitioners of hatha yoga believe that in order to achieve the fullest unfoldment of our minds and spirits, we must do our utmost to have a body that is at ease and free of disease. Hatha yoga is thus a way of balancing or harmonizing body and mind. This intent is highlighted in the esoteric interpretation sometimes accorded to the word hatha. According to some practitioners, the word hatha is comprised of two syllables that stand for the sun (ha) and the moon (tha), implying a deep union of the body and the mind and of the masculine and feminine energies within each individual—man and woman alike. Thus, the word hatha reminds us that at heart, yoga is a search for underlying unity and wholeness.
Hatha yoga practitioners see the body as a wonderful vehicle for self-realization. For without a body, we would not be alive today, and thus incapable of seeking the path of transformation. Hatha yoga urges a man to respect his body as a temple of the divine spirit of the universe. The practice of hatha yoga is thus an opportunity of honoring your own inner divinity.
Hatha yoga has become so popular, particularly in the last few decades, that there are now many styles for practicing it. Surprisingly, however, most of the styles of hatha yoga that are practiced today trace their roots to a handful of yoga teachers, who traveled from India to the West in the 1960s and 1970s to train practitioners here in their particular approach to yoga; or to a small number of Westerners who traveled to India during the same time period to train as teachers with a few celebrated masters.
The teachers of the 60s and 70s differed in their approach to presenting yoga from the gurus who had preceded them. The earliest teachers of yoga who traveled to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries emphasized the traditional sacred texts and metaphysical aspects of yoga. The newer generation of teachers, while revering all aspects of the yoga tradition, also incorporated much more of the physical exercise aspect of yoga into their teaching. Their approaches to yoga appealed to Western practitioners, and, consequently, much of the yoga that has developed in the United States has focused on the physical postures of hatha yoga.
The following chapters will introduce you to the main approaches to hatha yoga that have helped to define hatha practice in the West. Because there are now so many styles of yoga available, the choice of a practice can seem overwhelming. These chapters will introduce you to the main styles of hatha yoga so that you can be better informed as you undertake your own practice of yoga.
Each of the main styles of hatha yoga is generally named after the individual who first introduced or was influential in the teachings of that style, such as Iyengar Yoga and Sivananda Yoga; the institute that was founded based on their teachings, such as yoga taught at the Himalayan Institute and Integral Yoga; or for a prominent element or focal point of the approach, such as Ashtanga Yoga and kundalini yoga.
Nearly all the various styles of hatha yoga have as their base a common repertoire of physical postures and practices, which have evolved over the centuries. The emphasis on how to perform these practices can differ widely from one style of yoga to another, however. Understanding the differences among these styles can help you choose the style of hatha yoga that is right for you. The following chapters describe the major styles of hatha yoga that you are likely to encounter in your exploration of yoga today. As you read these chapters, please bear in mind that the approaches to yoga presented are grouped together under hatha yoga for convenience. In addition to instruction in the physical postures of yoga, most of these approaches can also help you incorporate a full range of yogic practices into your life.
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