Go ahead: open your favourite web search engine and type in 'Hatha yoga important'. Did you get lots of 'Benefits of yoga' results with a few 'Importance of yoga' hits sprinkled in, as I did? Friendly challenges aside, the question of Hatha yoga's importance is relevant in more ways than one. We're living in stressful times, aren't we? Between climate concerns and pandemic woes, supply chain lags and the holiday season right around the corner, it would be great to have a way to disconnect from it all. To find a measure of peace and rediscover your balance. Regular yoga practice is a way to achieve that. Indeed, embracing the yoga lifestyle will take you a long way toward inner and outer calm. Those benefits are significant but they are not what make Hatha yoga so important. Let Superprof yogis dish on the deeper reasons.
What Hatha Yoga is All About
The first thing to know about Hatha yoga is how to pronounce the name correctly. Not 'hah-tha' but 'hat-tah'. Most of us in the western world, unfortunately, tend toward the first pronunciation which, translated from Sanskrit, means slaughter, killing or a sad, depressed man. Obviously, all of those definitions are exactly the opposite of yoga, a 'no-harm' discipline that works to counter sadness and depression. The second pronunciation reflects the original intent of yoga much better: force, obstinance, persistence - truly values a yogi can get on board with. They also represent well the elements that make up the name hatha. Looking at that word written in Sanskrit - or, more specifically, Devanagari, one of the main writing systems for Sanskrit, we see it's made up of two characters: हठ. Would you be entirely surprised to learn that one represents the sun and the other, the moon? The Hatha name underscores the duality of yoga: the physical and spiritual, the energy and calmness, its timelessness and current necessity, the restraint and discipline... Okay, the last pair is the same side of the coin but, still, you get the idea. Another important fact to know about Hatha is that, long ago, it represented the physical aspects of yogic practice. As you know, yoga is a blend of spiritual and physical practices designed to help yogis move towards understanding the fundamental nature of existence. The word 'yoga' loosely translates to 'brings you to reality' - not the mainstream meaning of that word but of full awareness, of yourself and the world around you. Thus, though many today see yoga as a fitness discipline, it isn't. But we're jumping a bit too far ahead... Throughout the history of yoga, the discipline was a combined spiritual and physical practices. However, about 600 years ago, it underwent a significant shift, splitting the spiritual from the physical aspects - Hatha, to become a practice in its own right, only loosely tethered to the spiritual. In today's yoga classes, yoga instructors encourage spiritual practices such as pranayama - the art of focusing on the breath, and meditation. However, the emphasis of these lessons is on the asanas; the yoga poses, rather than on any cosmic contemplation.
The Science Behind Hatha Yoga
As we just mentioned, yoga is not a fitness regimen, per se. Unlike other fitness activities, increasing the number of postures you adopt or the length of time you spend doing them won't work your body any harder or yield higher, faster benefits. Still, much like Tai Qi (Tai Chi), you will get a total body workout during your Hatha yoga classes and a bit extra, to boot. That's because Hatha yoga (and Tai Qi) represent a different take on the same ideology. The purpose of both is to open the energy channels in your body and direct energy flow throughout. However, unlike its Chinese cousin, Hatha takes things a few steps further. Hatha yoga, while decidedly a physical pursuit, leaves enough room for you to get in touch with your emotions and mental state. As you turn your contemplation inward, maybe while in Shavasana Pose (Corpse Pose) at the end of your Hatha session, you will take stock of how you feel and what your thoughts are at that moment. Several times throughout your yoga class, your yoga instructor should encourage you to turn your focus inward; this is to forge a connection between your body, mind and spirit - the very essence of yogic practice. Once you gain control over your renegade spirit and tortuous thoughts, you will better be able to control harmful energies that impact your body. Science has proven a link between mental health and wellness and the regular practice of yoga. Furthermore, people who regularly practise yoga have fewer incidents of back and joint pain. They also suffer fewer digestive problems, enjoy greater flexibility and sleep better. Even if, as a beginner, you do modified Hatha yoga poses, you'll feel benefits immediately. Don't be surprised if you feel much calmer and more centred, better able to manage what the day throws at you and more invigorated than you've felt in a long time. All of that without sore muscles!
The Benefits of Hatha Yoga
You might wonder why we have an entire section on the benefits of Hatha yoga when we've already listed several benefits in the previous segment. The benefits listed above relate to the overall practice of Hatha on your total being - mental, spiritual and physical. The benefits included in this section relate directly to your physical self. Perhaps the biggest revelation is that regular Hatha yoga practice can help you fight hypertension. High blood pressure is called the silent killer; it is the leading cause of heart attacks and other cardiovascular ills. Unlike other types of physical activity, most types of yoga are gentle on your heart, so there's no danger of increasing your heart rate as you go from one asana to the next. Also, yoga's calming effects work to reduce stress and anxiety; two leading causes of hypertension. Other Hatha yoga benefits include:
- a strong core: asanas like the Plank Pose, Tree Pose and the Warrior Poses help build and maintain core strength
- strong bones: weight-bearing asanas help prevent or lessen the effects of osteopenia and osteoporosis
- strong joints: Hatha asanas work your joints, helping them stay lubricated and working them to their full range
- a strong back: Hatha's many stretches will help loosen tense muscles and work to strengthen them to protect the spine
- improved posture: your newly-loosened spine, protected by strong muscles, will allow you to carry yourself better
- improved flexibility: as you become more conditioned and your connective tissues become more limber, you'll be better able to stretch and reach
- glowing skin: as you rid your body of impurities, the effects of your mental, spiritual and physical cleansing will show on your face
Naturally, we acknowledge that, if your body feels good, the rest of you will, too. Still, as these are all corporeal effects, they warranted this separate listing - rather like the principles of Hatha yoga as opposed to its practices. Don't you think?
The Fundamental Importance of Hatha Yoga
All things considered, Hatha yoga is kind of an inside joke. Consider that, far back in time, Hatha represented the physical aspects of yoga, as blended with the mental and spiritual. And then came that philosophical split, making Hatha a purely physical discipline, divorced from the other 'legs' of enlightenment. From the initial Hatha yogic practices grew a variety of yoga styles that focus on the discipline's physical aspects: Iyengar, Bikram, Vinyasa and others. That is, in a nutshell, the irony and importance of Hatha yoga. Fundamentally, all types of yoga are Hatha, because Hatha represents the discipline's physical dimensions. With that being said, we must understand that yoga styles differ dramatically. Hot yoga and Bikram yoga, for instance, are practised in a high heat/high humidity environment. By contrast, prenatal yoga and corrective yoga studios maintain more amenable conditions. Vinyasa and Bikram repeat sequences of asanas; in Bikram, you would do the same 24 asanas and two pranayama postures during the 90-minute session. By contrast, Yin yoga is much slower-paced and all of the asanas are 'seated', meaning you do them all from a seated position. Many styles of yoga use Hatha asanas but give them different names. Sometimes, if the postures' names remain the same, they are executed differently. A fine example of name/execution difference is Hatha yoga's Cobra Pose versus Yin yoga's Seal Pose. Cobra pose is more forcefully executed; the legs remain together and push back. The dorsal and core muscles work together to push the torso upwards. Only after that lift are the arms and hands engaged to support the pose. By contrast, Yin's Seal Pose leaves the legs loose while the arms push the torso up. One final nod to the importance of Hatha yoga: unless a yoga studio mentions what type of yoga they practise - Kundalini, Bikram and so on, the instructors teach Hatha yoga. Hatha has become synonymous with the practice of yoga. Not just the asanas but the yoga lifestyle; vegetarian diets, meditation and all. Today, when one says "I'm a yoga devotee", it's generally understood to mean that they avoid causing harm, they practise mindfulness and attend yoga classes regularly. Hatha yoga classes, unless they specify a particular style. That's what Hatha yoga is. Not just the root of all physical yoga activity but the very practice of yoga.
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