by Sally Boon
(Los Angeles, California, USA)
There are many types of yoga including jnana, the yoga of knowledge and bhakti, the yoga of devotion, but the best known in the West is hatha yoga or physical yoga. This is also the most widely practiced outside of India, offered at exercise studios, gyms, schools and colleges, and even some workplaces in every city.
But within hatha yoga there are also many different yoga schools or forms, and so the description ‘hatha yoga’ has come to mean something a little more specific for us.
Usually if you see hatha yoga advertised in your city what you can expect is to perform a series of poses or asanas which, while they can be demanding in terms of the stretching that your body will do, are generally not vigorously energetic. At the end of the class there will probably be some breathing exercises and relaxation time.
The word ‘yoga’ means to join, or bind together, through meditation and exercise. From a spiritual point of view this can be seen as joining body and mind, left side and right side, male and female energy, yin and yang, or ending the separation of ‘me’ from the rest of the universe.
Most people do not practice yoga for any spiritual reasons but to increase the flexibility of their bodies. However you will almost certainly find that it also has a positive effect on your mood. If you think of yoga as a way of achieving mental and physical balance you will be on the way to getting the most out of your yoga practice.
It is not necessary to be unusually flexible or double-jointed. Anyone can practice hatha yoga, from small children to the elderly.
You can practice even if you pregnant, very overweight or disabled, although in these cases you should be sure to have a well-qualified hatha yoga teacher who can advise on particular poses that you should or should not attempt.
There are many different yoga poses or asanas and a good instructor will use a series of asanas that stretch the body in all directions in a controlled way. There are standing poses, seated poses, poses that you do on hands and knees or lying down and inversions such as shoulder stands.
By going through the whole series regularly without forcing your muscles or limbs excessively you can gain flexibility, stamina, strength and better circulation and breathing.
A typical adult yoga class will last 1 hour or 90 minutes. It will begin with some breathing exercises or simply sitting still on the floor to center the mind in the body after all the distractions of our busy lives.
Then most of the class time will be taken up with the asanas, followed by 10 or 20 minutes of deep relaxation at the end. For the relaxation period students lie on their backs on the floor with eyes closed. Some students fall asleep, but most are able to relax in a very conscious way.
Of all the types of yoga that there are, hatha yoga is probably the one that is best adapted to most Western people.