The practice of Hatha Yoga is a practice of exploring balance.
Yogic texts describe our human existence as one of duality, in search of unity. From a place of unity, our vehicles keep dividing the more we transform into gross existence.
On the energetic level our vehicle is said to embody mainly two energies, symbolically that of the sun and the moon.
The word ‘hatha’ also expresses this, ‘ha’ meaning sun, and ‘ta’ meaning moon.
When we explore this notion, we can discover many dualities within our existence.
For example, on a more gross level, within our physical human body, these dualities as expressed in a brain with a left and right hemisphere. For most people one side functions dominant to the other.
Some people are creative and dreamy, whereas others are very practical and systematic.
This is literally seen in a dominant left or right hand writing.
Within our body, there is also the autonomic nervous system, which divides into two systems with seemingly opposite functions. Activate and alertness as compared to rest and digest.
When dualities are brought into balance, beautiful things come into being.
When two hands are playing together on a piano a beautiful melody can be heard.
When our two feet work together we can walk or even run from one place to another.
When a man and a woman comes together they can create another human being!
Of course, it is not all black and white, and there are many levels of being and subdivisions which are too complex to discuss here. But what we can discuss here is the exploration of duality towards unity and that Yoga sadhana is the practice where we occupy (or un-occupy) ourselves with this.
Within our Yoga sadhana there is the exploration of ha and tha. Of ida and pingala. The lunar and solar energies that reside within us and how they are expressed on physical and mental levels
Now what is most interesting for us, is how we can discover this in our daily practice.
We start with our physical practice. We explore the difference between the left and right side of the body. We balance on one leg. Then the other.
We stretch to one side. Then the other.
We twist to one side. Then the other.
We breathe through one nostril. Then the other.
Within these explorations we learn to observe the effect each movement, each stretch or twist, depending on which side was done, has on our physical and energetic body.
Then we need to start exploring activity versus inactivity. The effects of activity on the different layers of being. The effect of inactivity on the different bodies. The relation between the inactivity of one layer and the activity of another. The relation between the effect of the activity with inactivity. Dualities start intertwining on different levels of being and a more subtle sensitivity develops where the more subtle dualities within breath and mind start to become obvious.
Let’s zoom out a bit, and look at Hatha Yoga within the framework of Yoga.
Within the framework of Yoga, Hatha yoga can be seen as one way of developing a certain area of the human personality.
Other ways, for example, are Laya Yoga, Nada Yoga, Mantra Yoga and Kundalini Yoga.
Most of us resonate with Hatha Yoga, because we identify ourselves with the physical body.
Once we become aware of the other levels of our being, other forms of yoga where we explore our inner being, Sound, Prana or Mantra, also become interesting.
The beauty lies in starting somewhere, it does not matter at which layer, because a natural curiosity will develop.
In its own way Hatha Yoga sets the foundation by preparing the body and becoming aware of subtle forces that run through the vehicle such as mind and prana.
The more these forces are understood, Hatha Yoga practice becomes an exploration of channels through which these essences are infused.
Therefore, Hatha Yoga cannot be merely a system of physical exercise, but a method for gaining higher ground of awareness. It is a beautiful synthesis of awareness of the physical body, awareness of mind and awareness of prana.
Essentially, still within the framework of Yoga, Hatha Yoga, along with the other forms of Yoga prepares the aspirant for Raja Yoga (The King of Yoga/Yoga of the mind/Yoga beyond the mind).
Now let’s look at the meaning of Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga has multiple meanings, depending of which level of understanding it is applied.
On the grossest level it carries the meaning of Force.
The gentle forcing of a new habit.
To change our posture, or a mental habit, there has to be an effort to gently replace the old habit with the new one.
Gentle, because we do not want to cause too much reaction. Reaction creates karma. Gentle, discriminative, mindful action is what we are looking for, as the lessons are more in the process than in the results.
On a more subtle level Ha and Tha symbolically represent sun and moon.
Essentially, Ha represents the masculine energy and right nostril breathing.
Essentially, Tha represents the feminine energy and left nostril breathing.
The practices for bringing these two energies into balance are a wonderful exploration and sets the tone for meditation.
Again here we see how Hatha Yoga works on various levels of being simultaneously.
To become aware of the different levels, the primary consideration within Hatha Yoga is mindfulness, or in other words, self observation.
To make a habit of being a witness to one’s own (physical) actions and functions.
Turning the head towards the left. Placing the hands together. Reaching towards the ceiling. Pressing the feet into the ground etc.
External surfaces, muscle tension, heart rate, blood flow, breathing.
The latter being known as mainly autonomic functions, brings us to another amazing part of Hatha Yoga.
Autonomic functions are generally known as involuntary physiological processes such as the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion and sexual arousal.
These are under the influence of the autonomic nervous system. Which in turn can be divided into three parts, namely Sympathetic, Enteric and Parasympathetic.
This is a very complex structure that goes beyond the scope of this text, but here I will just put it in the framework of the theme of this text.
Basically the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), when stimulated, elevates activity and attention, and when over stimulated activates a ‘fight of flight’ response. This is expressed in the body through increased blood pressure, increased heart rate and a cessation of gastrointestinal peristalsis. Basically your heart works overtime, and your digestion stops.
When the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is stimulated it promotes a ‘rest and digest’ response. This is expressed in the body through a decrease of heart rate, decrease of blood pressure and a restart of gastrointestinal peristalsis. Basically your heart can calm down and your mind and body can digest all impressions and food that has been taken in.
Another very important function of the PNS is that it is an early warning system. Since this system is around 80% sensory, it will communicate if something is ‘off’ in the body. The trick is to be able to sense it.
So what does this have to do with my Yoga practice? Well, in Hatha Yoga autonomic does not exist. Yogis have proven over the centuries that they can influence their so-called autonomic functions and more specifically control and balance their nervous system. Thus, in our yoga practice we are constantly searching for a balance between SNS and PNS. In modern (city) life, our SNS is almost constantly over stimulated, which might mean that a yoga practice will consist of mostly PNS stimulating practices. It is no wonder that Yin yoga is such a popular style of yoga!
Within Hatha Yoga there are various methods that we use to stimulate activity, rest, or create a balance.
The whole art is to have developed a certain degree of self observation and discrimination to choose the right method at the right moment. And of course, have a trustworthy and experienced teacher to guide you!
I would like to point out two applications that (among others of course) for me, represent the ‘tha’ of Hatha Yoga, and are given too little attention in daily yoga practice.
- Relaxation and observation between postures/exercise
- Yoga Nidra
Please note that I am not saying that a dynamic practice such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa is ‘bad’. In yoga there is no good or bad. There is simply balance or imbalance, depending on each individual situation.
I do think that everyone who has a busy lifestyle (which is pretty much all of us) can benefit from incorporating moments of relaxation and observation during practice.
First of all, what do I mean with relaxation and observation.
When performing an asana, or pranayama, for example, the practitioner stands/sits/lies down and relaxes the whole body, in order to release any tension that was created during the performed action. Turning the attention inwards and observing the sensations caused by the action performed will give the practitioner an idea of where tension was created and through conscious relaxation this can be released. The sequential action can then be performed from a place of (mental and physical) relaxation, receptiveness and non-ego. Not to mention, physiological processes that were accelerated can neutralize and therefore we constantly return to a point of balance.
Conscious relaxation in between postures is more difficult than we think. During movement our mind cannot interfere as it is occupied with performing the movements or actions. However, during stillness, a potential moment is there for the mind to take the stage. Therefore conscious relaxation is actually something that we need to train ourselves in. By constantly reminding ourselves to feel the sensations caused by our actions we train our senses to become more and more receptive without the interference of the (judging) mind. We learn to simply observe and feel what is. To BE. Over time we learn to not only sense physical sensations, but more subtle sensations. We learn to explore deeper and deeper through the different levels of physical, energetic and psychic being.
Another very important method, and a practice in itself, is Yoga Nidra.
Yoga Nidra is a practice where we learn to move our mind and consciousness to various places in the different bodies. It is a practice of conscious surrender and relaxation.
There are many different lineages and schools of Yoga Nidra, which is beyond the scope of this article. But the point I would like to make here, is that there is a relaxation practice beyond the usual Savasana. When you lie down for 10 to 20 minutes (some Yoga Nidra practices can take up to two hours) instead of just lying on your mat (and falling asleep), there are an array of different techniques to bring you into a deeper state of relaxation and essentially awareness.
Depending on the student I would recommend different techniques and whether the Yoga Nidra is part of a practice including for example asana and pranayama, or a practice on its own.
Hatha Yoga is the practice of finding balance and moving towards a more subtle experience of Self.
Through the exploration of duality we can move towards an experience of unity.
The fact is that becuse of our current lifestyle and daily life, we might feel out of balance as a result of too much sun, or yang or activity. For this reason it is important to include practices that will stimulate the opposite energy of moon, yin or rest.
The beautiful thing is that through practice it is not just theory anymore. The theory put into practice becomes the living experience.
Only through living experience can we truly understand the theory.
I hope this article has inspired you to delve into the moon side of things. The exploration of relaxation and surrender is a wonderful way to balance out the stresses and over activity of daily life.
And then may we bring the moon and sun inside ourselve into balance, in order to experience the so longed for unity, or being.
During my Group Yoga Classes and Private Yoga Classes I teach techniques to become aware of Ida and Pingala and how to balance them. I also teach different levels of Yoga Nidra.
If you are curious about my classes don’t hesitate to reach out!
I will be happy to meet you and see how we can work together.
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