Hatha yoga is the most widely practiced form of yoga in America. It is the branch of yoga that concentrates on physical health and mental well-being. Hatha yoga uses bodily postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dyana) with the goal of bringing about a sound, healthy body and a clear, peaceful mind. There are nearly 200 hatha yoga postures, with hundreds of variations, which work to make the spine supple and to promote circulation in all the organs, glands, and tissues. Hatha yoga postures also stretch and align the body, promoting balance and flexibility.
Yoga was developed in ancient India as far back as 5,000 years ago; sculptures detailing yoga positions have been found in India which date back to 3000 B.C. Yoga is derived from a Sanskrit word which means "union." The goal of classical yoga to bring self-transcendence, or enlightenment, through physical, mental, and spiritual health. Many people in the West mistakenly believe yoga to be a religion, but its teachers point out that it is a system of living designed to promote health, peace of mind, and deeper awareness of ourselves. There are several branches of yoga, each of which is a different path and philosophy toward self-improvement. Some of these paths include service to others, pursuit of wisdom, nonviolence, devotion to God, and observance of spiritual rituals. Hatha yoga is the path which has physical health and balance as a primary goal, for its practitioners believe that greater mental and spiritual awareness can be brought about with a healthy and pure body.
The origins of hatha yoga have been traced back to the eleventh century A.D. The Sanskrit word ha means "sun" and tha means "moon," and thus hatha, or literally sun-moon yoga, strives to balance opposing parts of the physical body, the front and back, left and right, top and bottom. Some yoga masters (yogis) claim that hatha yoga was originally developed by enlightened teachers to help people survive during the Age of Kali, or the spiritual dark ages, in which Hindus believe we are now living.
The original philosophers of yoga developed it as an eight-fold path to complete health. These eight steps include moral and ethical considerations (such as honesty, non-aggression, peacefulness, non-stealing, generosity, and sexual propriety), self-discipline (including purity, simplicity, devotion to God, and self-knowledge), posture, breath control, control of desires, concentration, meditation, and happiness. According to yogis, if these steps are followed diligently, a person can reach high levels of health and mental awareness.
As it has subsequently developed, hatha yoga has concentrated mainly on two of the eight paths, breathing and posture. Yogis believe breathing to be the most important metabolic function; we breathe roughly 23,000 times per day and use about 4,500 gallons of air, which
increases during exercise. Thus, breathing is extremely important to health, and prana, or life-force, is found most abundantly in the air and in the breath. If we are breathing incorrectly, we are hampering our potential for optimal health. Pranayama, literally the "science of breathing" or "control of life force," is the yogic practice of breathing correctly and deeply.
In addition to breathing, hatha yoga utilizes asanas, or physical postures, to bring about flexibility, balance and strength in the body. Each of these postures has a definite form and precise steps for achieving the desired position and for exiting it. These postures, yogis maintain, have been scientifically developed to increase circulation and health in all parts of the body, from the muscular tissues to the glands and internal organs. Yogis claim that although hatha yoga can make the body as strong and fit as any exercise program, its real benefits come about because it is a system of maintenance and balance for the whole body.
Yoga was brought to America in the late 1800s, when Swami Vivekananda, an Indian yogi, presented a lecture on yoga in Chicago. Hatha yoga captured the imagination of the Western mind, because accomplished yogis could demonstrate incredible levels of fitness, flexibility, and control over their bodies and metabolism. Yoga has flourished in the West. Americans have brought to yoga their energy and zest for innovation, which troubles some Indian yogis and encourages others, as new variations and schools of yoga have developed. For instance, power yoga is a recent Americanized version of yoga which takes hatha yoga principles and speeds them up into an extremely rigorous aerobic workout, and many strict hatha yoga teachers oppose this sort of change to their philosophy. Other variations of hatha yoga in America now include Iyengar, Ashtanga, Kripalu, Integral, Viniyoga, Hidden Language, and Bikram yoga, to name a few. Sivananda yoga was practiced by Lilias Folen, who was responsible for introducing many Americans to yoga through public television.
Iyengar yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, who is widely accepted as one of the great living yogis. Iyengar uses classical hatha yoga asanas and breathing techniques, but emphasizes great precision and strict form in the poses, and uses many variations on a few postures. Iyengar allows the use of props such as belts, ropes, chairs, and blocks to enable students to get into postures they otherwise couldn't. In this respect, Iyengar yoga is good for physical therapy because it assists in the manipulation of inflexible or injured areas.
Ashtanga yoga, made popular by yogi K. Patabhi Jois, also uses hatha yoga asanas, but places an emphasis on the sequences in which these postures are performed. Ashtanga routines often unfold like long dances with many positions done quickly one after the other. Ashtanga is thus a rigorous form of hatha yoga, and sometimes can resemble a difficult aerobic workout. Ashtanga teachers claim that this form of yoga uses body heat, sweating, and deep breathing to purify the body.
Kripalu yoga uses hatha yoga positions but emphasizes the mental and emotional components of each asana. Its teachers believe that tension and long-held emotional problems can be released from the body by a deep and meditative approach to the yoga positions. Integral yoga seeks to combine all the paths of yoga, and is generally more meditative than physical, emphasizing spirituality and awareness in everyday life. Viniyoga tries to adapt hatha yoga techniques to each individual body and medical problem. Hidden Language yoga was developed by Swami Sivananda Radha, a Western man influenced by Jungian psychology. It emphasizes the symbolic and psychological parts of yoga postures and techniques. Its students are encouraged to write journals and participate in group discussions as part of their practice. Bikram yoga has become very popular in the late 1990s, as its popular teacher, Bikram Choudury, began teaching in Beverly Hills and has been endorsed by many famous celebrities. Bikram yoga uses the repetition of 26 specific poses and two breathing techniques to stretch and tone the whole body.
In a celebrated 1990 study, Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Random House), a cardiologist showed that yoga and meditation combined with a low-fat diet and group support could significantly reduce the blockage of coronary arteries. Other studies have shown yoga's benefit in reducing stress-related problems such as high blood pressure and cholesterol. Meditation has been adopted by medical schools and clinics as an effective stress management technique. Hatha yoga is also used by physical therapists to improve many injuries and disabilities, as the gentleness and adaptability of yoga make it an excellent rehabilitation program.
Yoga has been touted for its ability to reduce problems with such varying conditions as asthma, backaches, diabetes, constipation, menopause, multiple sclerosis, varicose veins, and carpal tunnel syndrome. A vegetarian diet is the dietary goal of yoga, and this change of lifestyle has been shown to significantly increase longevity and reduce heart disease.
Yoga as a daily exercise program can improve fitness, strength, and flexibility. People who practice yoga correctly every day report that it can promote high levels of overall health and energy. The mental component of yoga can clarify and discipline the mind, and yoga practitioners say its benefits can permeate all facets of a person's life and attitude, raising self-esteem and self-understanding. Once individuals learn the basics of yoga, certain poses can be used to help with particular needs, such as improving memory and concentration or reducing bloating and gas after meals.
A hatha yoga routine consists of a series of physical postures and breathing techniques. Routines can take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, depending on the needs and ability of the practitioner. Yoga should always be adapted to one's state of health; that is, a shorter and easier routine should be used when a person is fatigued. Yoga is ideally practiced at the same time every day, to encourage the discipline of the practice. It can be done at any time of day; some prefer it in the morning as a wake-up routine, while others like to wind down and de-stress with yoga at the end of the day.
Yoga asanas consist of three basic movements: backward bends, forward bends, and twisting movements. These postures are always balanced; a back bend should be followed with a forward bend, and a leftward movement should be followed by one to the right. Diaphragm breathing is important during the poses, where the breath begins at the bottom of the lungs. The stomach should move outward with the inhalation and relax inward during exhalation. The breath should be through the nose at all times during hatha asanas. Typically, one inhales during backward bends and exhales during forward bending movements.
The mental component in yoga is as important as the physical movements. Yoga is not a competitive sport, but a means to self-awareness and self-improvement. An attitude of attention, care, and non-criticism is important; limitations should be acknowledged and calmly improved. Patience is important, and yoga stretches should be slow and worked up to gradually. The body should be worked with, and never against, and a person should never overexert. A yoga stretch should be done only so far as proper form and alignment of the whole body can be maintained. Some yoga stretches can be uncomfortable for beginners, and part of yoga is learning to distinguish between sensations that are beneficial and those that can signal potential injury. A good rule is that positions should be stopped when there is sharp pain in the joints, muscles, or tendons.
All that is needed to perform hatha yoga is a flat floor and adequate space for stretching out. A well-ventilated space is preferable, for facilitating proper breathing
Yoga is an exercise that can be done anywhere and requires no special equipment. Yoga uses only gravity and the body itself as resistance, so it is a low-impact activity excellent for those who don't do well with other types of exercise. The mental component of yoga can appeal to those who get bored easily with exercise. By the same token, yoga can be a good stress management tool for those who prefer movement to sitting meditation.
As with any exercise program, people should check with their doctors before starting yoga practice for the first time. Those with medical conditions, injuries, or spinal problems should find a yoga teacher familiar with their conditions before beginning yoga. Pregnant women, particularly after the third month of pregnancy, should only perform a few yoga positions with the supervision of an experienced teacher. Some yoga asanas can be very difficult, and potentially injurious, for beginners, so teachers should always be consulted as preparation for advanced yoga positions. Certain yoga positions should not be performed by those with fevers, or during menstruation.
Those just beginning hatha yoga programs often report fatigue and soreness throughout the body, as yoga stretches and exercises muscles and tendons that are often long-neglected. Some yogic breathing and meditation techniques can be difficult for beginners and can cause dizziness or disorientation; these are best performed under the guidance of a teacher.
Training & certification
At this time, there are no generally accepted standards for yoga teacher certification in America, unlike in Europe and England, where yoga schools have been standardized. Some schools in America require teachers to study for many years, while some will grant beginning certificates in a much shorter time. When choosing teachers, students should search for qualities they may require, such as understanding, patience, knowledge of certain medical conditions, carefulness, and attention to individual details.
Yoga classes cost around 10 dollars per session. Many communities, schools, and health organizations offer discounted or free yoga classes as part of health awareness programs. Yoga can be reimbursed by insurance when it is part of physical therapy.
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Teresa G. Odle