Recently a potential student enquired as to what kind of yoga I teach. Oh no, not that old curly question!  My standard answer goes something along the lines of – “Oh, for want of calling it something else – I call it gentle hatha yoga”.  I explained that I use the term gentle to emphasise that I do not teach a fast paced, fitness focused style, and hatha, as it is a traditional form of yoga that most modern forms as based in, and it best fits my current style.  We talked a little more and she asked me what does the word hatha mean? I trotted out something about it meaning the sun and the moon and balancing opposing energies.

And at that point my mind was saying “And is that it?  Is that all that hatha means?”

OK, let’s backtrack a little.  My original yoga training is in the Oki-Do tradition (a modern Japanese form) and it didn’t include much in the way of scholastic study of the ancient Hindu traditions of yoga.  My interest in the academic study of yoga is largely limited to its usefulness in the doing of yoga; as a tool to furthering my practice and teaching.  I am drawn to investigate as questions arise and my curiosity is piqued.  This routine conversation led me to do a little exploration.  What I discovered surprised me at first and then with some reflection has clarified and deepened my understanding of what we are doing when practicing hatha yoga…

Firstly, here’s some definitions:

Hatha (Sanskrit)
A blow, stroke
Violence, force; obstinacy, pertinacity

WOW – no gentle, fluffy, lovey-dovey vibe in that word. Imagine on a yoga poster – Use Violent Force TODAY!

& Yoga (Sanskrit)
Yoke, union

Put those 2 Sanskrit meanings together and we get forceful union.  EGAD, sounds even more violent!.  Forceful refers to all the physical, active, doing practices of hatha yoga; the postures, the breathing exercises, and focusing the mind. Using mental and physical force, and working with forces.  The union of yoga refers to uniting the body and mind with the Universal Spirit.

And to shed more light consider the many definitions of the word force:

Force (derived from Latin root Fortis – strong)

  1. The capacity to do work or cause physical change; energy, strength, or active power.  A force is any interaction that changes the motion of an object. Forces push or pull an object. The force of gravity, the force of an explosion. F = ma (Newton’s 2nd law of motion)
  2. Coercion or compulsion, especially with the use or threat of violence. Forced to swallow the medicine. I forced open the jar.
  3. Mental or moral strength or power. I forced myself to stay in the yoga pose.
  4. An organized body of military personnel or police. The armed forces.

And the sun and moon bit?

Some definitions of hatha split the word into it’s 2 syllables, ha and tha.  Ha is said to mean sun, and tha moon. This more esoteric, sun/moon translation seems only to have meaning when used in the yogic context of teaching the hatha yoga student.  It brings in the element of working with opposing and complimentary energies like the forces at play between the earth, sun and moon.  So when we do hatha yoga exercises we are taking action that brings change, and directly working with the forces of the body-mind to achieve harmonious balance that ultimately results in union with the Universal Spirit.

Every living being is powered by energy called prana, or life force, (there’s the force word again), or in the oriental traditions, chi or ki.  This living, flowing energy is the difference between a living creature and the shell that remains after death.  Our prana flows around the body and mind like a river, or like electricity through the wiring of a house; powering, feeding, connecting all parts of the self internally, and externally linking us to all other living beings.  The flow has opposing but simultaneously complimentary poles or directions; like positive & negative, yin and yang, male and female, or the gravitational push and pull of the sun and moon.  It is affected by everything we do and everything we digest and ingest; our diet, habits, thoughts, emotions, sleep, activities…, and easily gets out of balance, causing ill health and dis-ease, and keeping us in a perpetual state of conflict.

The practical methods of Hatha Yoga have been developed to harmonise all the forces at play, restoring balance and calming the body-mind.  And through this harmony our yoga can progress and open us into deeper levels of awareness and clarity.

So when we do our yoga we are affecting not only our physical body, but also our mental, emotional and pranic bodies. Sounds pretty cosmic I know, but trust me, as your awareness refines and develops you will feel your prana flowing.

May the force be with you!