On yoga class timetables, Hatha yoga is often used to describe a classical, more meditative style of yoga based around holding yoga postures, or asanas, and focusing on the breath, or pranayama. However all physical yoga styles as we know them today, such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Vinyasa flow, come under the umbrella of hatha yoga.
The origins of yoga as a philosophy date back to the Indus Valley around 5,000 years ago when the practice of yoga was synonymous with meditation. The yoga scholar and author of the classical text the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, defines yoga as Samadhi, the blissful, enlightened state reached through a dedicated practice of meditation. The literal translation of the Sanskrit root of yoga, ‘yuj’ is to yoke or unite and today yoga is often said to mean ‘union’: union of our essential self with our true nature – ultimate consciousness. It can also mean the realisation of our true nature through the elimination of everything we identify with that is false.
‘Hatha yoga’, the physical practice of asanas and pranayama (physical postures and breath) as we know it today, started to emerge between the 9th and 12th centuries. The word hatha is often translated as the union between the Sanskrit ‘Ha’, meaning sun (male, hot, active) and ‘Tha’, moon (female, cool, passive), symbolism for uniting opposites and creating harmony. However a more accurate linguistic interpretation of hatha means ‘forceful’ or ‘energetic’ and refers to how the practice helps us to harness life-force, or vital energy also known as prana.
The idea behind the hatha yoga system was to reach the same goal of enlightenment, but by using the body and breath. ‘Asana’ means seated posture and they were originally designed to help the body develop the strength and flexibility to sit for pranayama, breathing exercises. By focusing on and controlling the breath you could still the mind and develop a greater sense of clarity for meditation, the path to enlightenment.
Over the centuries the number of asanas has increased from the 16 listed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika to around 900 practised by yogis today and the practice of yoga is often described as a moving meditation.
Sthira-sukham-āsanam – ‘The posture should be steady and comfortable’ (The Yoga Sutras, 2.46, Patanjali). When the physical posture is steady, so is the mind.