Knowing your Asana from your Elbow: The Origins of Hatha Yoga


The yogic world is diverse: from sleek yoga studios where perfect bodies tie themselves into knots to Patchouli-soaked gatherings of chanting neo-hippies; from practices for sculpting the perfect butt to practices for reaching nirvana.[1] Given this diversity, it is useful to reflect from time-to-time on yoga’s origins and how it has evolved.


Yoga originated in India approximately 5,000 years ago. Unfortunately, 5,000 years of history is well beyond the scope of this humble blog post (and most attention spans), so I will keep this brief. If you are a yoga nerd and want to learn more, see the recommended books at the end of this post.


The word “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit term “yuj”, meaning “work”, “coordination” and “integration.” It is most commonly translated as meaning “yoke” or “union,” referring to the “yoking together” or union of body, mind and spirit or union with our highest self.[2]


Yoga is discussed in The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita, ancient Sanskrit texts that set out many of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism, some of which are shared with Buddhism and Jainism. In these texts, yoga is described as a meditative path to self-realization and, ultimately, enlightenment.


Hatha Yoga and Asana Practice


Hatha Yoga’s focus on physical postures, known as asanas, is a relatively modern phenomenon. One of the seminal texts of classical yoga, The Yoga Sutras, written by a sage known as Patanjali, likely around 300 B.C., mentions “asana” but this term seems to refer only to adopting a comfortable posture that is conducive to meditation.


There is debate over exactly when the practice of physical postures became part of yogic practice. However, it has been around since at least the 15th century as that is when the classic text, the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā or Light on Hatha Yoga, was written. The Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, a compilation of earlier yogic texts, begins with a chapter called “Asana.” It explains, “Being the first accessory of Hatha Yoga, asana is described first. It should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health, and lightness of body.” The text then proceeds to describe many of the yoga postures we continue to practice today.


Yogic Paths


The five primary paths of yoga are


· Jnana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge: self-realization through studying the self

· Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion: self-realization through devotion

· Karma Yoga, the yoga of service: self-realization through altruistic work

· Raja Yoga, the royal yoga: self-realization through a combination of knowledge, devotion and work

· Hatha Yoga, the yoga of technique: self-realization through a combination of asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), mantra (repetition of sounds or words) and mediation practices


Nearly all North American yogis practice Hatha Yoga. Almost every style of yoga you will find offered at a modern yoga studio, from power to Iyengar to Yin yoga, fit under the Hatha umbrella as they use the embodied practice of asana as a means of connecting us with our higher self. As BKS Iyengar, one of the world’s foremost yoga teachers, puts it, “…one’s body is the bow, the asana (the physical posture) is the arrow, and the target is the soul.”[3]


Hatha Yoga at Here and Now Studio


The primary style of yoga I teach at Here and Now Studio is Hatha Yoga. Wait, didn’t I just say that nearly all modern forms of yoga are considered Hatha Yoga? Why, yes, my attentive reader, you are correct. Whether you are sweating your way through fast-flowing sun salutations or lying on the floor, propped up by yoga blocks and bolsters, you are practicing Hatha Yoga.


I like to use the general term “Hatha” as it describes a style that focuses primarily on asana but otherwise doesn’t pin me down too much. My Hatha classes vary from class-to-class: some are more vigorous and challenging and some are focused more on relaxation. Each of the classes has a theme, many of which are drawn from the ancient yogic texts mentioned above.[4] I introduce the theme and then we practice asanas that, in my opinion, fit well with it. For example, if the theme is “focus”, we may practice balance poses, which require focus if we are to avoid falling over.


If you are interested in exploring Hatha Yoga with me or would like to explore other styles, such as Yin, Gentle, Prenatal or Parent and Baby Yoga, please click here to check out the studio’s current offerings. Hope to see you at the studio!


Books on the History of Yoga


· Yoga: The Greater Tradition by David Frawley

· Mindfulness Yoga: The Awakened Union of Breath, Body, and Mind by Frank Jude Boccio

· The Spirit of Yoga by Kathy Phillips

[1] To clarify, I mean nirvana, the state in which suffering and desire cease to exist and the individual is released from the cycle of death and rebirth, not the band.

I recognize that for some sculpting the perfect butt and reaching nirvana may be considered one-in-the-same. I just don’t happen to subscribe to this particular theory.


[2] However, it can also be understood to indicate the use of force or effort.


[3] Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar.


[4] For example, I have taught a 10-week series that focused on the yamas and niyamas (the dos and don’ts of yoga), which are set out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and my fall 2019 course are going to focus on passages from the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.

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