I was asked recently to identify what type of yoga I teach. She asked, “Hatha?”
In typical philosopher style, I wanted to answer, “Yes and no.”
Yes, the focus of the session will be the unity of body, mind, and breath by flowing through movements. Yes, I hope the session carries both your mind and body to more ease. And yes, Hatha, as the practice of Sthira-Sukha, stillness and ease, I hope the yoga session helps us find balance.
On the other hand,
I wanted to answer, “No, not just Hatha yoga, as the yoga tradition most devoted to cultivating the body. No, I’m not interested in pushing you to your physical limit. No, I do not expect you to master difficult poses, head stands or binds. No, I am not invested in your physical wellbeing drained of emotional strength.”
The dilemma about Hatha yoga is common, as we try to balance fitness with mindfulness, assuming a mind-body duality. There is a long history to this question of the mind as it relates to our understanding of our embodied selves and our material world.
Here is one yoga scholar’s description about the dangers of holding the body as the locus of ego-centric practice:
“…the disciplines of Hatha-Yoga are designed to help manifest the ultimate Reality in the finite human body-mind. In this, Hatha-Yoga expresses the ideal of Tantra, which is to live in the world out of the fullness of Self-realization rather than withdraw from life in order to gain enlightenment.
…The Hatha- Yoga practitioner wants to construct a “divine body” or “adamantine body” for himself or herself, which would guarantee immortality in the manifest realms. He or she is not interested in attaining enlightenment on the basis of prolonged neglect of the physical body. He or she wants it all: Self-realization and a transmutated body in which to enjoy the manifest universe in its diverse dimensions. Who would not sympathize with this desire? Yet, as can be imagined, the practitioners of Hatha-Yoga have sometimes sacrificed their highest spiritual aspirations and settled for lesser, perhaps magical, goals in service of the ego-personality. Magic, like exo-technology, is a way of manipulating the forces of Nature, whereas spirituality is about the transcendence of the manipulative ego-personality. Narcissism, or body-oriented egocentrism, is as great a danger among hatha-yogins as it is among bodybuilders.”
from George Fuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition
After alerting us about the potential dangers of egocentric self-absorption, Dr. Fuerstein suggests coupling Hatha-yoga with Raja yoga. Perhaps, that ego-countering coupling can include many other forms of yoga: Mantra (chanting), Bhakti (faith), Karma (action) and my favorite, Jnana (wisdom).
This is why as we move through the poses attentive to our breath, we look towards our inner landscape to find moments of pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal from outside stimuli) and even dharana (concentration on something specific, like breath or tense tissue). I like to think of asana as the pivotal yoga-limb grounded in the yamas (how we behave with others) and niyamas (how we cultivate ourselves) while reaching and touching pranayama (aware breathing), pratyahara (focusing inward) and dharana (focusing on a single thing). It may or may not help us with dhyana (meditation) that may or may not lead to samadhi (transcendence). Asana can help us walk through 6 of the 8 limbs of the yoga-path. Or, we can metaphorically and literally be stuck in a peacock pose.
When we share our yoga practice with others, we become a community of individuals each striving towards the same thing through different breathing patterns, body types, and levels of awareness. Our bodies are not the same, how can our minds be? We may not be saying the same prayer or holding the same intentions but we are all praying and intending. Unity in diversity, not uniformity.
For me, asana practice, celebrates the diversity of bodies, of being, of lives, of minds that all strives towards the same human need for ease, goodness, and stillness.
But, I simply answered the lady’s question, “Hatha?” with a, “Yes.”
Hope I see her in class soon.