What is Hatha Yoga?
it just a physical culture or something more?
Let us turn to what Swami Swatmarama says in the second verse of the 16th Century classic, Hatha Yoga Pradeepika :
Pranamay SriGurunatham Swatmaramena Yogaena
Kevalam Raja Yogi Hatha Vidya Padishyathey
A free translation:
After paying the traditional obeisance to his guru, Yogi Swatmarama lays down the principles of the Science of Hatha Yoga SOLELY (Kevalam) to attain Raj Yoga (Yoga of the mind).
Hatha Yoga is the means to an end and not an end in itself. The end is spiritual enlightenment and having a strong and fit body is the means to attaining that end.
The spiritual path can be long and arduous. We need a strong, disease-free vehicle to carry us along, without giving us trouble or breaking down along the way. The Yogis realised the importance of health. With a weak body, frequently ravished by pain and disease, how can a man even think of higher ideals? His immediate concern is his physical health. The attention he has to pay to his weaknesses and illnesses are a constant distraction.
Even in the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, (circa 500 BC), a Raj Yoga text considered the bible for yoga practitioners, the relative importance of the physical exercises (asanas) is evident. Out of 196 verses in this text, only two relate to the physical aspects of yoga! One verse mentions that asana is one of the limbs of the eight-limbed (ashtanga) yoga path. The other simply states "Sthiram Sukham Asanaam" or "That (posture) which is steady and comfortable to hold is a suitable posture (for meditation).
Unfortunately for many, Hatha Yoga has become the end in itself. Years are spent in practising and perfecting a particular asana. If while doing that the practitioner is paying due attention to awareness and his mind that may be fine - but generally many people mistake yoga for pure acrobatics. Sole attention is given to learning more and more complicated postures. A human rubber band who can contort his body into a hundred impossible postures is considered a great yogi. People do poses in public for acclaim and applause. The reality is that yoga is for yourself and not for others. Until it is practised in this way, it isn't easy to make progress beyond the body.
So yoga is not about just the body. On the other hand, it is not just about the mind either. There are several people who give no importance to the body at all. They look down on the body, consider it a hindrance and a nuisance on the spiritual path. They pay no attention to its needs and try to concentrate on their mind alone with meditation and other practices. Undoubtedly they make progress in this realm, but they fall far short of what they could have achieved had they paid equal and prior importance to their health. History is full of examples of spiritual giants who died early or suffered from diseases like cancer..
The real yoga is about avoiding either of the extremes. We have to take care of our body AND our mind AND our soul. Where do we begin? The mind is very subtle and difficult to grasp and the soul even more so. If we do not have control over our gross body, then this whole business is going to be very difficult. So the best way seems to be, to begin with the body- and that is what Hatha Yoga is all about..
What are the characteristics of a Hatha Yogi?
Another way of getting a better understanding of Hatha Yoga is to understand what the characteristics of a Hatha Yogi should be.
Let us turn to Swami Swatmarama again in the Hatha Yoga Pradeepika :
"Vapu Krishatvam, Vadaney Prasananatha, Nadha Sputathvam, Nayane Sunirmalay, Arogatha, Bindu-jayo- agni-dipanam, nadi Vishuddhi Hatha Yoga lakshshanam."
A free translation :
Slim body, smiling face, clear and resonant voice, sparkling eyes, disease-free body, having control over sexual passions, having a hearty appetite, clean and clear Nadis : these are the characteristics of a Hatha Yogi.
So now we know what is aimed at. It is not just a strong and supple body but much more than that.
This gives us an excellent way to determine whether the Yoga teacher we are planning to learn from is practising what he is preaching. If he lives up to this ideal, it is probably safe to learn from him.
There are MANY books on Yoga, but by far the one I have liked the best amongst what I have read so far is:
A systematic course in the ancient tantric techniques of Yoga and Kriya
By Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India
The name of the book is quite a mouthful, but so is the book. It is an encyclopaedia of yoga (over 800 pages) covering almost all of its aspects. Equal importance is given to Hatha Yoga and Raj yoga. The best part of the book I liked is the conversational tone the Swami maintains. He always talks to you and not down to you. It is a practical text for the modern man because it understands where the reader is coming from and speaks his language. What's more, it does not talk about ideals that can be achieved in an ashram in the Himalayas, but rather about something you can do here and now. A must-own for all yogis, if you can get hold of it..
Another interesting book:
Heart of Yoga by TKV Desikachar
An excellent book propagating the parampara (tradition) of the great Yogi Krishnamacharya. The central point of his teachings was the concept of "viniyoga" or yoga (customised) for the individual. He preached that yoga was for the individual and not the other way around. Many important concepts such as the importance of linking breath with the postures -is covered here.
You can learn more about the benefits of Yoga based on scientific research here – they have covered 46 benefits!