What is Yoga?
'Yoga' can be said to describe a set of practices designed to explore consciousness. These practices, originating from India, range from meditation, to the use of mantras and the study of scriptures.
When we think of the term ‘yoga’ in the West, we most commonly associate it with the practice of yoga postures (known in Sanskrit as asana) - a central element of ‘hatha’ yoga along with breath control (pranayama), energy locks (mudra) and cleansing practices (kriya - although these are not necessarily for everyone!).
Hatha yoga is in fact a system of physical practices designed to purify the body in preparation for higher meditation. Hatha yoga techniques, which were outlined in key texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that appeared in the 12th - 14th centuries C.E., were designed to move life force (‘prana’) through energy channels in the body in order to clear energy blockages. It is believed that through skilful manipulation of the body these energy blockages will be cleared, facilitating the free flow of prana, which in turn purifies the body and clears the mind. Simple!
What Does 'Hatha Yoga' Mean?
The term ‘hatha yoga’ was coined by the adept Goraksanatha, who learned the system from his teacher Matsyendranatha in the 12th century C.E. It means ‘forceful’ or ‘violent’ (but don’t worry - we are never forceful or violent in our yoga classes!) although it can also be read as indicating the union between the sun (‘ha’) and moon (‘tha’), with hatha yoga being a means to balance different energies within us.
Origins and Development of Hatha Yoga
The development of hatha yoga owed much to 3 key influences - Ayurveda (an advanced system of medicine that seeks to balance energy in the body and mind), Alchemy (a quest for spiritual as well physical transformation) and Tantra (a revolutionary approach to yoga that spiritualises every aspect of daily life, including the physical body). Originally the number of yoga postures was very limited in scope - in fact there were only 15 asanas outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a key text of the tradition.
This all changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a nationalist impulse developed in India towards the creation of ‘strong’ bodies. This was heavily influenced by the global physical cultivation movement that existed at the time - in particular Scandinavian gymnastics, Indian wrestling and bodybuilding. These physical development systems were synthesised by hatha yoga, leading to the rapid expansion of the number of yoga asanas. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in Mysore, India where in the 1930s and 1940s Sri T. Krishnamacharya (often referred to as the grandfather of modern yoga) created many forms of hatha yoga practice that are popular to this day.
For more about yoga and its history please visit Carlos Pomeda's site or read Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition. For more on the development of ‘postural’ yoga in the 19th and 20th centuries you can read Mark Singleton’s excellent Yoga Body.