What is Hatha Yoga? A union between two opposites: Sun & Moon
Published25 October, 2017
What is Hatha Yoga?
This is a question I get a lot. I would define Hatha Yoga as a practice which via physical postures (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama) and the observation of them (meditation) the practitioner gains balance and control over their physical body as well as their nervous system. In other words, it is a way to balance mind and body. I teach and practice Hatha Yoga. Good Yoga is simply a name made up to help differentiate what I offer from other styles of Hatha Yoga, and there are as many styles of Hatha Yoga as there are teachers. I seek to follow the guidance of Patanjali and make every asana accessible to each student no matter their level, age or experience. A more descriptive name might be Patanjali Good Yoga Hatha. If it wasn´t such a long name, perhaps I would change it. Either way, I hope the following explanation of Hatha and Yoga serve to help clarify the questions that I have received.
Hatha Yoga literally means ¨Sun and Moon¨ and Yoga means the union between the two. Through the union of both these forms we become free. Translated directly from Sanskrit to English this translation of Hatha Yoga might not make a lot of sense. However, when one starts to reflect over what the sun and moon traditionally represent within mythology throughout the world, the wisdom of the combination of these two opposites in one word begins to manifest.
In the world of Hindu mythology (and most world mythologies) traditionally the symbol of the sun is related to the masculine and the moon with the feminine. These two energies work and exist together to create and maintain a delicate balance of life on this planet.
It is easy to observe that without the sun we would all die due to the cold and lack of nutrition that comes from its rays. What we do not see is that if the moon did not exist, life as we know it would cease to exist as well. If it were not for the ocean tides that the moon produces with its gravitational pull we would not be here. Primordial life started in the small tide pools that stay behind at the exiting of every tide. Without the moon the tide pools, which are like the petri dishes of creation, would not exist. I don´t think it is pure coincidence that there are many creation myths that start with a goddess or god coming out of the water. In fact, in the story of Genesis, land comes out of the ocean depths, not the other way around and the creation of the human being comes from a mix of both dirt and water (ie. Mud) not simply one or the other.
Furthermore, without the moon, the entire orbit of our planet would be different. Without the moon there would be total chaos in the seasonal patterns that we depend on to raise crops and cattle. The loss of the moon´s mass and its gravitational pull would put an almost complete end to the ocean tides. This would negatively affect marine life as well as life on land and result in certain death of most plant and animal species who depend upon the nutrients that are distributed throughout the world via the ocean and the constant ebb and flow of her waters. Our eco-system, like our mind-body system, is very integrated and everything is connected. If one part isn´t completing its function, the entire organism, the entire system, suffers. To learn more about the importance of the relationship between the moon and the earth click here.
The sun, the moon and the human body
Men and women, we are different biologically. Women have vaginas and men have a penis, obviously. In Sanskrit, the word Yoni (origin of creation) is used and Shishna respectively. Focusing only on the physical we can say that the female sexual organs exist inside the body whereas the male sexual organs exist outside. The sexual act of the male is external and that of the female is internal. Furthermore, although both men and women do have hormonal cycles, the menstrual cycle of the woman usually follows a 28 day rhythm, which syncs up with the rhythm of the moon. In fact, the root of the word menstruation comes from the Greek meaning moon. My opinion is that due to biology the things that we can see and feel clearly, like the light and heat of the sun are associated with masculine energy where as the things in nature that are less visible, like the gravitational pull of the moon, are associated with the feminine. This does not mean that one or the other is more important or more powerful than the other. As I have already explained, without the moon or sun we would not have the conditions necessary to sustain life on this planet.
This balance between the masculine and feminine is necessary as well to maintain a healthy mind-body system. In Yoga this balance is reflected in the energetic descriptions of the body-specifically in the representation of the channels (nadis) of energy (prana) known as Ida (moon/mental strength/Yin/feminine/internal/cool) and the pingala (sun/vital strength/yang/masculine/external/heat). These channels of complementary and opposing energies spiral up the center of the spine (shushumna). They start at the base of the sacrum and rise up to the top of the skull. A constant practice of asana, pranayama and meditation offers a way to develop and maintain a balanced flow of these two energies. A lack of balance between these two energies is what can cause pain on both physical and psychological levels.
For example, physical strength is important. Physical strength would be a characteristic traditionally associated with masculinity. However, too much strength without flexibility, for example in the hamstrings, can pull on the pelvis out of alignment and cause lumbar pain. Likewise, an imbalance between strength and flexibility in the upper part of the body can cause lots of tension in the shoulders and problems with the cervical spine. Also, too much flexibility (a traditionally feminine characteristic) without strength can create painful problems of hyper-extension in the joints and a lack of bone density.
The human body functions at it´s optimum mode when we are both strong and flexible and are able to react with both strength and agility. This principal of balance amongst two opposing forces within the body is also applicable we discuss psychological health as well.
The sun, the moon and the human mind
Traditionally one could say that masculine energy is associated with words like aggression, extroversion, logic, control and ambition. Whereas, the feminine is often associated with words like submission, introversion, emotion, chaos and empathy. The philosophy of Yoga teaches us that each one of us has the responsibility of developing both these types of energy that exist within us independent of our gender or biology.
On a psychological level, a lack of balance between masculine and feminine energies can result in anger problems and abuse or being the victim of these. Likewise, a person who puts too much emphasis on emotion and creative chaos without using logic or the strength necessary to confront life challenges will live life without much direction resulting in many dreams but with few results. On the other hand, a person who does everything from a logical perspective, with lots of ambition, without empathy, without thinking in the experience or suffering of others would be tagged as a psychopath. This type of hyper-masculine energy not only represents a danger for others but also diminishes the great opportunity and joy that is available when we connect with other human beings on a psychological-emotional level.
We are biological machines made up of both mind and body, of thoughts and emotions. Emotion starts first in the body and is then later interpreted by the mind. For example, the famous example of the snake and stick. If you go walking in the forest and see a stick that looks like a snake, the first physical reaction is a great surge of adrenaline that then moves blood to our exterminates away from our heart, lungs and digestive organs so that we can run away quickly. It actives the brain stem and shuts down activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of logic. If we stay in that mode without using the mind to re-interpret reality, we could very well end up running and screaming away from a stick. On the other hand, if we didn´t have these quick instinctual reactions, we run the risk of reacting too slow, thereby increasing our risk of being attacked by a snake or any other creature.
It is important to know when it is a stick and when it is a snake. The stress response triggered by fear is not bad in and of itself. As mentioned, this stress response could save our lives. What causes us harm is if this stress response simply continues and does not shut-off. In fact, most of the illnesses today have their root in this chronic stress response that is constantly putting out high levels of adrenaline and cortisol. Due to the movement of blood and oxygen moving continuously to our exterminates instead of providing and exporting important nutrients to our most vital parts such as our heart, lungs, digestive system and brain, eventually these chronic states of stress result in a compromised immune system and diseases like cancer, heart disease and inflammation of the brain that has been associated with depression and Alzheimer’s.
Finding balance betweeen the energies of the Sun and Moon
Chronic stress and its associated illnesses are the result of a great lack of self-observation. If your boss yells at you, you are in a major traffic jam or you end up sitting next to someone whom you don´t particularly like, normally our habit is a stress driven response instead of a logical one that would help us to maintain our calm. A yelling boss is not going to kill you, a traffic jam is not going to kill you and even though the person sitting next to you talks a lot or smells bad, most like they are not going to kill you either. Many of our stress responses have their base in past conditioning. It could be that we had a traumatic experience that makes us react in an illogical manner or simply, it could be that we are reacting with a pattern we learned, unconsciously from our parents or culture. Within the practice of Yoga asana (posture) maintaining the pose for more than just a few breaths can help the student to learn how to enter their bodies, observe and let go (NOT ignore) of the emotions and sensations that appear with these instinctual stress responses. Entering and observing the body, where this unconscious information is stored, we have the ability to redirect our energy to our more vital organs, including our brain, giving us the chance to use our logic to search for a solution.
Nonetheless, it is important to state that we cannot only live in our heads. There is a balance. By observing the body without judging or interpreting the millions of sensations that occur, we start to be able to enjoy more and more the simple things in life like food, the movement of our feet upon the land and the physical connection of a hug, a caress, a kiss or the act of making love without an objective, motive or end goal.
Today this type of observation of sensation without interpretation has the brand name of Mindfullness. I would say that the practice of mindfulness is the practice of yoga. The practice of Yoga is the union of mind and body, the union between sensation and interpretation, the union between the masculine and feminine, between the associated energies of the sun and moon, the ida and pingala, the yin and yang. Between the Ha and Tha. This union can only happen when one practices constant observation of both mind and body and Hatha Yoga practice offers a way to do that. The mind is an invisible thing that can be difficult to observe and guide whereas the body is tangible and can be much more accessible to observe and guide.
It is for that reason that a consistent and conscious practice of Hatha Yoga we have the opportunity to enjoy a life of balance that comes with a connected mind and body. In the observation of our thoughts and body we become free from our animal instincts and conditioned thoughts. We have the chance to be free and live in bliss which in the end, is the true purpose of Yoga. To help you remember you are already free.