Yoga is a broad set of disciplines, which developed out of Vedic religion and practice. Among other reasons, these disciplines are noteworthy for their heavy emphasis on the unity of the body and the soul. Rather than treating the soul as an abstract concern, entirely separate from the body, yogic disciplines help the practitioner become aware of the inter-relatedness of their body and soul. Yoga teaches us that the actions we take to maintain our physical health can have a direct affect upon our spiritual quest.
To begin with, let’s take a look at a few of the major branches of yoga.
Bhakti yoga, Jnana yoga, and Hatha yoga.
Even though these three branches are presented here as separate entities, it is important to remember that in practice, they draw heavily upon each other. What may appear as hard borders between the practices are in fact very permeable.
Bhakti yoga, simply put, is the path of seeking after an intimate, ecstatic experience of the divine. The word bhakti can be translated into English in several ways, but is frequently rendered as “devotion,” or “reliance.” When practicing bhakti yoga you draw yourself perpetually closer to the divine through kirtanam-chanting prayers or mantra with total devotion.
People in the West are most likely to be familiar with bhakti yoga through the work of ISKCON or the Hare Krishnas and their famous mantra “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.” In no way is this practice limited to Hindu traditions, the Hesychast tradition of Christian mysticism, with its reliance on the Jesus Prayer, bears much resemblance to bhakti yoga.
Turning next to jnana yoga, we find ourselves in the tradition of meditative absorption. In this practice, one approaches the transcendental through the use of reason and meditation. Jnana yoga teaches us to examine the transient phenomenon of this world, and to work towards knowledge of Brahman the eternal spirit that resides within the practitioner.
This meditation culminates in the phrase Tat Tvam Asai, “Thou art that.” Resting in the knowledge of their own absolute oneness with the divine, the practitioner of jnana yoga can come to a much deeper spiritual practice.
By far the most familiar branch of Yoga in the West, hatha yoga focuses on movements of the body. In it, the yogi places themselves in poses or asanas in order to align their body and their spirit. The word hatha means force, and likely originally referred to the life force of the yogi which coursed through their body. The various positions of hatha yoga were developed to be used as meditative positions, though in the West today they are more widely used as a set of physical exercises (not that this should discourage you from incorporating them into your spiritual practice).
The history of hatha yoga stretches back for thousands of years, but the discipline as it is widely practiced today was developed around the beginning of the twentieth century.
A great scholar of Hindu philosophy, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was responsible for systematizing the discipline into the form we know it and spreading it out from India. From a young age Krishnamacharya studied Hindu philosophy and the several major branches of religious thought in Hinduism. As a young man, he desired to study yoga under the tutelage of Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari. But there was a problem, in order to do so Krishnamacharya would need to travel to the foot of Mt. Kailas in Tibet.
To make this journey, Krishnamacharya needed permission from Lord Irwin, the British viceroy in Simla-a city in northern India. At the time, Lord Irwin was suffering from a debilitating case of diabetes. At Irwin’s request, Krishnamacharya spent the next six months teaching him what he knew of yoga. Impressed by the results and now quite fond of Krishnamacharya, Lord Irwin granted him permission to cross the border.
Once at the foot of Mt. Kailas, Krishnamacharya began his studies under Sri Brahmachari. For seven-and-a-half years he studied the Yoga sutras, learning the various asanas and all the practices of hatha yoga. When his education was complete, Sri Brahmachari sent his student out to the world to spread the teachings he had imparted.
From there, Krishnamacharya taught yoga in the courts of India, his students including many westerners. These students took the teachings of yoga to the rest of the world. Over time, many of them have developed their own approaches to yoga; with schools ranging from a slow and meditative approach to a fast-paced, heavily aerobic set of movements.
But why should you practice hatha yoga? What are the benefits?
Yoga can benefit the spiritual seeker in two significant ways, both physically and spiritually. Because of its emphasis on the unity of spirit and body, even those seeking one element are likely to find themselves gaining benefits from the other. To begin with, let’s look at the physical benefits to yoga practice.
Many of us suffer from poor flexibility and muscle tone. This can leave us unable to enjoy the world around us nearly as much as we might like. Numerous studies have shown that practicing the asanas can help to correct the poor care so many of us take of our bodies.
Maintaining the asanas helps to train our bodies not only to move in a more healthy way, but to enjoy those benefits even while resting. In addition, the regular practice of yoga can give a structure around which you can build a stretching regimen, allowing for a much more thorough practice than you would get from merely stretching a muscle from time to time.
Our modern western lifestyle of sitting in chairs, slumped back to watch TV or bent forward to stare at a computer screen can often result in unpleasant symptoms-a crooked posture or constant pain in the back. Yoga helps us to straighten our spines and train our bodies to adopt more healthy positions as a natural response. We find this particularly apparent in one of the foundational yoga asanas, mountain pose. In this pose, the yogi stands still, holding their body carefully upright, dwelling within their breath as they find themselves wholly present in the simple act of standing.
Last, but certainly not least, we should look at the effects yoga can have on our stress and anxiety. Study after study has shown that a regular practice of yoga can result in dramatically lower levels of anxiety and stress. This makes a certain intuitive sense-how many of us take time out of our lives to be still and really connect with ourselves in the moment? These benefits, much like meditation, can branch out into our ability to focus and be more effective in everyday life. When the two are combined, our potential for development is enormous.
In the realm of spiritual effects, the benefits of yoga have two branches. On the one, yoga gives us a firm basis of mindfulness and awareness of our place in the moment around us. On the other, yoga will open our chakras and allow our prana to flow freely. Let us look first to the benefits of awareness.
Sri Chinmoy, a well-known Yoga teacher commented on the Bhagavad Gita, “The word yoga means skill – skill to live your life, to manage your mind, to deal with your emotions, to be with people, to be in love and not let that love turn into hatred.” This skill in living our lives mindfully, in being able to live with the world around us in a state of absolute love will deepen our spiritual practice immensely. By intentionally placing our body in these positions and maintaining them, focusing our energies, gain a more natural sense of our bodies and the sensations they experience. This familiarity with our own bodies helps us to connect to the larger universe, to grasp our place in it at a deep and intuitive level.
To understand the benefits yoga grants us through our chakras, it is important to begin with a good understanding of prana. The Sanskrit word prana is frequently rendered in English as “life force” or “vital essence,” but a more direct look at the word is instructive. Prana very closely translates to breath, in the same way that the Greek pneuma and the Latin spritus mean breath. In a religious context, however, all three of these words take on the meaning “spirit.” In Hindu tradition, prana is understood to be flowing throughout our body, and traveling heavily through seven centers-our seven chakras.
Through poor posture, not taking care of ourselves, and even a bad diet, our chakras can be closed, disrupting the flow of prana throughout the body. Fortunately for us, yoga can open our chakras, restoring our prana’s healthy flow, carrying our vital essence to every fiber of our being. This balanced flow of life force helps our body to function at its best, grounding our spiritual practice in a healthy body.
Now that we are familiar with what yoga is and what we can gain from it, let’s take a quick glance at a few poses. The list below is by no means an exhaustive write-up of the asanas, but rather a beginner-friendly introduction to some of the most common. As you read through the descriptions of each of these poses, it is important to remember to breathe naturally and mindfully. Remember, these are designed as meditative postures, after all.
Mountain Pose – “Trdhasana”
First, stand up and place your feet together. Breathe deeply and reach to the sky, stretching your fingers upwards. Maintain this position for close to a minute, focusing on not tightening your core, but expanding your entire body.
Warrior Pose – “Virabhadrasana”
Starting from mountain pose, step forward with your left foot. Turn your feet to left, keeping them parallel with each other. Now raise your arms until they are perpendicular to the floor, focusing again on expanding your chest and your ribcage. Hold this position for around a minute, then lower your arms slowly and repeat with your right foot forward.
Tree Pose – “Vrksasana”
Standing straight up, raise your right leg and place the sole of your foot against the inside of your left thigh. Make sure to open your leg, keeping your hips open and facing straight forward. Place your hands in front of your chest as though praying. If you are able to, raise your hands above your head, still holding your palms together. Hold this position for about a minute, then slowly return to standing and repeat with the left leg.
Downward Dog – “Adho Mukha Svanasana”
Place your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Lean forward and place your entire palms on the ground (It is important to get your whole palm flat on the ground to avoid excess stress on your wrist) and then walk your hands forward until you feel a stretch in your back. Raise your body slowly, keeping your back straight. Once you are in position, look back at your shins. If you are holding the pose correctly, they will be parallel to each other. Hold this position for around a minute, and then slowly raise yourself to a standing position.