As a primarily hatha yoga teacher, I’m often asked what makes my classes different. While people are usually referring to the physical or marketing aspect – how will my body move differently here than a vinyasa, gentle, or power class? – I’m always tempted to respond with how Hatha Yoga has philosophical differences from other schools of Yoga. And, since I get to choose these themes, that’s what we’re discussing this month :o)
First, a quick history review:
Patanjali (who may or may not have been an individual) authored The Yoga Sutras, which is considered the most fundamental, most complete yoga text that’s out there. It has endured for roughly 2,000 years as a guide and well-organized collection of what Yoga is; multiple schools of thought are contained and referenced in this very inclusive work. For good reason, Patanjali’s path, the 8-Limb Path, is called Raja (Royal) Yoga, or Classical Yoga.
Hatha Yoga differs in a few aspects; however, I want to stress that the fundamental purpose of both schools is the same: yogi sages urge us to create a sattvic state of mind, or one where we are balanced, calm, and perceiving truly. They simply have slightly different ways of approaching the same goal. Hatha Yoga makes use of the concepts of prana and kundalini, whereas Raja Yoga mentions prana in service to breathwork, and doesn’t elaborate on kundalini at all.
Terms and definitions:
Prana is defined as “life force energy,” which, let’s face it, doesn’t tell us much. I’ve read some interpretations which talk about it as a literal thing, and some that consider it a metaphor; personally, I believe that prana is a literal energetic field that can affect our mental and physical states, and can be manipulated. It’s noticeable in the subtle sensations of our bodies; it’s central to our intuition, like getting ‘hits’ or ‘a feeling’ about something not being right. It can become a sixth sense, if you are wiling to cultivate it, and it’s a powerful influencer of every body, whether they notice it or not.
There are plenty of modalities that reference this type of energy and have tools to move and direct it; we’ll stick with what yogic texts and traditions discuss. Prana flows through thousands of channels that exist within our bodies – nadis – and the more we can bring it under conscious control, the more health and vitality we experience. Gathering the prana (i.e., getting it under conscious control) gives us a clearer, more focused mind; when the prana is dispersed or uncontrolled, we have the experience of being scattered, tired, and having a ‘noisy’ mind. To gather prana inwards, we usually work with the three most central and impactful nadis: the ida, the pingala, and the susumna.
The ida and pingala crisscross our body from left to right. They connect at six different points – our chakras – and they move past our nostrils to meet at the third eye center. Ida, which passes the left nostril, represents the feminine, the cooling, “ha” or moon aspect; pingala, which passes the right nostril, represents the masculine, warming, active, “tha” or sun aspect; balanced together they make up the ha and tha of Hatha Yoga. Different pranayama practices use breath through the right and left nostrils to produce a specific effect relevant to these aspects.
Meanwhile, the susumna is a central channel which runs in a straight line up our spine (even though the spine isn’t exactly straight). A primary goal of regulating the prana is to corral it in the susumna. When accomplished, we experience a blissful state of timelessness, calm, and a very steady mind. Of course, this regulation is easier said than done, because we have to deal with kundalini, which is said to be a coiled force resting at the base of our spine – the entrance to susumna.
While reading about and researching kundalini this month, I discovered a wide variety of definitions, depending on the teacher, their school of thought, and what text they were referring to. (This variety includes all the things I’ve heard over the years, too; everything from armchair experts to respected teachers. It’s a big world of opinions out there!) Luckily, I found a trustworthy source in “The Heart of Yoga,” by T.K.V Desikachar, who is the son of renowned teacher Krishnamacharya. In his book (p138), he states:
The concept of kundalini is confused by many imprecise definitions, and even (…) contradictory descriptions of it. The definition that follows is derived from what in my opinion is the best, the clearest, and the most coherent text on this subject, the Yoga Yajnavalkya. There kundalini is defined unambiguously as an obstacle. What is to enter the susumna at some stage or other through your yoga practice is, according to this text, not the kundalini itself, but simply prana. Many books say [differently] (…), but this does not make sense if we follow the Yoga Yajnavalka, one of the oldest texts that deals with this aspect of yoga. (…) it says that if we are successful in our practice, the kundalini is burned up, making the way clear for prana.
Considering the fact that I don’t read sanskrit and have not made a deep study of the Yoga Yajnvalkya (though I’ve seen references to it), I’m taking Desikachar’s definition of kundalini being an obstacle we work to clear out.
Okay. So now we have background information and a lot of definitions…how does that actually apply to our practice?
When we practice any movement-based yoga, we are practicing a form of Hatha Yoga. One goal is to support and encourage the health of the body, but close behind it is to prepare the mind for enlightenment and the meditative practices of Patanjali’s yoga. What I have observed is that by moving through yoga postures, we actually move the prana through the nadis, gathering it inwards with our focus, and ultimately progressing towards that sattvic state of mind.
It is no coincidence that most people who practice yoga long-term mention the mental benefits. By working with the prana through body movements and breathing practices, we reap numerous benefits on an experiential level. Knowing the concepts behind this result gives us a conscious access to a goal most of us express – being more ‘centered’, less stressed, and calmer in our minds in the day-to-day.
What’s more, as I continue to watch bodies practicing yoga, I can clearly see the flow of prana along the physical channels. (If you take my classes, this is often what I look to to make individual adjustments.) As we learn our own alignment and individual variances, we can tune into what works with our bodies. This, in turn, helps us listen to what our minds and prana are telling us, giving us more control and confidence throughout our lives.
As you practice postures on a mat, I encourage you to use the opportunity to tune into that subtle level of prana and awareness. The more you practice gathering up this energy, the more present you become – both in class and in your life. And considering how many beautiful, transformative experiences are out there, who doesn’t want to be present for more of them?