This is the third in our series about the eight limbs of yoga. The third limb of yoga is asana or right posture. Hatha yoga is the practice of asana. Hatha means balance. Ha is often translated as sun, while tha may be translated as moon. Together ha-tha or sun-moon suggests the balance of energy that is promoted through the physical movement of asana. Traditionally, hatha yoga is taught as movement that prepares the body for prolonged seated meditation.
There are many hatha yoga styles but most of the hatha yoga practiced in the West today originates from a single teacher-- the yogi Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Krishnamacharya’s students include: BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois. Each of these students interpreted Krishnamacharya’s teachings about asana in a slightly different fashion, although they all adhere to yoga practice as described in Patanjali's yoga sutras. (See our blog post Yoga's Eight Limbs: A Spiritual Pathway for more information about the sutras.)
Iyengar Yoga focuses on spinal alignment in yoga shapes, and students tend to use props to achieve that alignment. Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, focuses on the linked poses or vinyasa of the Sun Salutation series. It tends to be a vigorous practice and many “power” yoga styles trace their lineage back to Jois. Viniyoga, is a therapeutic style of yoga that is taught by the students of TKV Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son). Viniyoga uses breath-centered, gentle asana to encourage the flow of prana throughout the body to promote healing.
Outside of the Krishnamacharya yoga lineage, yin and restorative yoga practices have emerged to address the stress and anxiety in our busy Western life style. Yin and restorative yoga styles are known for their prolonged holds of yoga shapes to open fascia, direct our attention inward, and encourage rest. There are many more styles of hatha yoga and many hybrids unique to individual yoga teachers. At Yogadevotion we welcome the current variety of yoga styles that are being taught but encourage students to explore an asana style rooted in Patanjali's yoga sutras. Hatha yoga that is based on the yoga sutras, is grounded in the ethics of the yamas and niyamas---particularly, to do no harm. Thus, asana informed by the yoga sutras encourages us to practice yoga safely.
While asana is just one limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, its role in contemplative practices is especially important; breath-centered hatha yoga helps quiet our minds and bodies, helping us to open to God’s presence. For Christians like us, this means that every time we practice breath-centered asana, regardless of the yoga style, we are encouraging the Holy Spirit to flow in us and through us.
Our friend and fellow yogi, Father Thomas Ryan, CSP, contends that Christianity has the highest theology of the body and the lowest bodily practice. God is “incarnate”, born as the child Jesus, from a woman. He breaths, eats, and walks the earth until he dies a violent human death. While living on earth Jesus’ ministry was human and physical. He preached what Roman Catholics refer to as the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit prisoners, bury the dead, and give alms to the poor. Following his death Jesus ascends into the Godhead bodily, flesh and spirit. Days later the Holy Spirit, the life of God, pours into the physical vessels that are the bodies of the apostles. Father Tom encourages us to affirm Jesus’s story of physical presence and human ministry, by honoring our faith through our bodies in a healthy, physical yoga practice: movement as embodied prayer.
Regardless of the hatha yoga style that you practice, and whether you have a faith-tradition or not, we encourage you to practice breath-centered movement: asana that begins and finishes with the breath, asana that invites Spirit energy, life force, to flow freely. Further, we encourage you to practice asana as described in the yoga sutras: “sthira and sukha”, effortless effort, comfort and ease. And we also hold that no yoga practice is complete without rest, stillness, savasana. But most important, like Father Tom, Yogadevotion encourages asana as embodied prayer, as a mindful, contemplative practice--a means to affirm faith and uncover our connection to the presence of God within us and in the world.
For more information on Father Thomas Ryan CSP, and his wise words on embodied prayer, go to the web site www.christianspracticingyoga.org. We also recommend Father Tom’s books Prayer of Heart and Body – Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice, and Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality.
Some of our favorite Hatha Yoga reference books:
Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar
Journey into Power by Baron Baptiste
Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga by Gary Kraftsow
Further reference books:
Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice by Paul Grilley
Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times by Judith Hanson Lasater
Some of our favorite online media about asana:
www.sequencewiz.com (viniyoga – therapeutic applications)
youtube yogajp (gentle yoga for 55+ and chair yoga)
youtube PaulGrilley (yin)
youtube Baptiste Yoga (vinyasa)
DVD’s to get started in an asana practice:
Sherry Zak Morris – Energizing Gentle Yoga; Energizing Chair Yoga
Rodney Yee – Yoga for Beginners
Paul Grilley – Yin Yoga