We humans like to compartmentalize our thinking into categories and boxes. One of the most common questions I get asked is: What type of yoga do you teach?
I generally think what people are asking is: What brand of yoga do you teach?
They want to know about my teachers (lineage) and my style of teaching.
There are many styles of yoga. You may have heard of Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kripalu, Power, Bikram, Kundalini, Svarupa, Jivamukti, Anusara, Forrest, Sivananda, and Integral, to name a few. I think of these styles as marketing brands. They are packaged programs that help to sell the product of yoga more efficiently. If someone walks into an Iyengar or Power yoga studio anywhere in the world, they have a pretty good sense of what to expect. But the truth is that they are all types of Hatha Yoga.
I am grateful for my individual teachers and the practices they have shared with me over the years. I wouldn’t be the yogin I am without their knowledge, grace, and wisdom. But, I tend to eschew formalized, trademarked (they are in fact trademarked) brands of yoga. I have practiced and studied many of them over the years, but my solitary, anti-establishment tendencies always get the best of me. I like to follow my own path and I am not too fond of getting stuck inside a rigid teaching paradigm that does not allow room for questioning authority, creativity, and personal expression.
Maybe I just like to test the edges and break the rules every now and then (not the law, just the rules)…
I often think of these different styles as the pretty packaging around the actual practices that are Hatha Yoga. They dress up yoga in language, flow, methodology, and procedure. But I am interested in getting at the origins and the essence of the practice. What is the commonality behind all these styles? To me, that is where the true essence of yoga resides.
In my teacher training programs, I encourage students to question the paradigms and to follow their own creative inspirations. I emphasize that there is no one right way to approach anything, and there are no wrong answers. Different approaches to one’s practice will have different outcomes, and I believe it is better to develop the ability to understand cause and effect of your actions than to get stuck inside a “right or wrong” paradigm. Understanding the effect of your actions is at the heart of the original teachings of yoga.
When people ask me what type of yoga I teach, I answer: I teach Hatha Yoga.
The question that usually follows is: What is Hatha Yoga?
Practically every style of yoga in the West is a form of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga generally refers to the practice of asana—postures, pranayama—breath, mudra—hand configurations, meditation, and specific cleansing techniques. If you practice physical asana, you practice Hatha Yoga. Hatha yoga posits that mastery of the physical body is the primary path towards spiritual growth or enlightenment. Hatha Yoga is relatively new in the Indian philosophy systems, and traces its origins to the 11th-century, but it grew out of yogic traditions dating back at least as far as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (attributed to the 2nd century BCE).
Generally speaking, practicing Hatha Yoga means you will practice asana, usually in a prepared and planned sequence for a specific intention. You will also practice some breath awareness and breathing exercises, as well as meditation and introspective practices (visualizations, mantras, mudras, relaxation, etc.). Someone who describes their class as a Hatha Yoga class usually means that the class may contain some flowing movement, but it may be a slower and more mindful pacing, perhaps with more time for stretching and relaxation. But a Hatha Yoga class might also be very active and heating. It all depends on the teacher’s intentions for that day. A true Hatha Yoga class will balance heating and cooling, active and passive, engaged and relaxed. That is the meaning of the Hatha Yoga practice—a balance of opposites.
The word Hatha is often translated to mean a discipline of force: your effort in the practice will glean the most results. The word “Hatha” is a composite of the Sanskrit ha and tha (pronounced with a hard “T” sound as in the name “Todd”). Ha refers to solar or energizing practices. Tha refers to lunar and more mindful practices. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Muktibodhananda, it also refers specifically to the concepts of prana—life energy, and chitta—mind. So, Hatha Yoga is a pairing of opposites, a merging of energies. A synergistic balance arises through the practice of cultivating and merging energies. Hatha Yoga prepares the body and the mind through physical exertion, breath exercises, and mental awareness for a more spiritual way of living in the world. The fluctuation and pulsation between seemingly opposite energies creates a union in the body, mind, and soul. Hatha yoga is a practice and process of clarifying the physical, mental, emotional, and psychic energies of the lived experience, and bringing them into a state of equilibrium aligned with something greater than the physical self.
Most people practice yoga for improving or restoring physical health, building mental well-being, reducing stress, or gaining strength and flexibility. These are all beautiful reasons to practice yoga, but they are not the original intention or objectives of the practice. These benefits are only the side effects of practicing yoga. The goal of all yoga experiences, according to Hatha Yoga, is to discover the universal spirit within your own self. I believe that is truly why so many people feel fabulous after a yoga class. There is a tiny glimpse of the greater self, and a deeper sense of wholeness.
For a while I struggled to explain what type of yoga I teach. I would use language that merged different brands, saying something like: I teach an Iyengar-Anusara alignment-inspired, Vinyasa flow type class. Eventually I realized I teach Hatha Yoga, plain and simple. I utilize all of the traditional tools of yoga: asana, pranayama, mudra, mantra, visualization, and meditation in order to clarify the body, mind, and spirit connection.
I believe that we all are seeking a more meaningful connection to self, to others, and to the world. Connection is the greatest gift yoga has to offer. When you find a knowledgeable and experienced yoga teacher that you trust, you will develop that essential connection to your body. As you move and breathe with your physical body, you will come a little closer to something far greater than the simple physical benefits of the practice.
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Photo: Sage Harple.