Disclaimer: The article below is not meant as a comprehensive description of Yoga and its origins, it is merely an introduction for the non-initiated individual that might be confused by the abundance of opinions and information out there. It’s meant to be as open minded and unbiased as possible but not something to base a research paper on.
With that in mind, I invite you to keep reading if Yoga is a subject you’d like to know a bit more about!
Unlike what most might think, Yoga didn’t start as a physical practice or a form of exercise. It finds its root in sacred Hindu texts that date back to several centuries before our era (BCE) such as the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. It was then developed and clarified in more modern texts like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The latters have been translated in most languages and are more approachable for most westerners, but still, you won’t find much in there that mentions the kind of Yoga that is now so widespread and being taught worldwide in gyms and fitness studios.
Yoga as it is explained in these texts, is mostly a range of physical, ethical, mental and spiritual practices and habits that one should follow to eventually attain enlightenment and break the cycle of reincarnation.
One of these many practices is the very root, the most simple and original form of what we all know today as Yoga: Hatha Yoga.
“Hatha”, in Sanskrit, has two different meanings, the entire word “Hatha” means vigorous. However, if you break it in half: Ha and Tha, it represents the two main energies that, based on ancient Hindu beliefs, make up the whole of creation and drive our existence. These two energies can be compared to the Yin and Yang of traditional Chinese medicine, and can be summarised as the female (Yin, Tha) and male (Yang, Ha). Hatha Yoga, can then be seen as a practice meant to balance these energies in every individual, attain equilibrium and improve the flow of said energies through the body.
Of course, this is all very esoteric and it can be difficult for people brought up in a very academic and scientific context like us westerners, to subscribe to such beliefs and concepts.
Now that it’s been made clear that Yoga stems from something bigger than just the desire to improve on our physicality, we can start to understand how it might affects us differently than just exercising, especially through Ayurvedic principles.
Ayurveda translates to “science of life”, and is basically an all-encompassing body of knowledge that addresses most aspect of one’s lifestyle, starting with diet, but then going further into other aspects of our physicality and psyche.
Even though there are still a few esoteric aspects to Ayurvedic medicine, it is a lot more grounded and applicable than the founding principles of Hindu spiritual practices.
Hatha Yoga, should in theory, respect and apply all the principles of Ayurvedic medicine. This means that a traditionally designed Hatha Yoga practice is going to take into account a lot more than just muscles and joints, it will be based on the deeper layers of our physicality, such as our digestive, circulatory, hormonal and reproductive systems, always with the aim of caring for and optimising these aspects.
This is where yoga differentiates itself from other forms of exercise done only with the resistance of the body, such as Pilates, gymnastics, or calisthenics, that have a lot of value, but that have a more focused scope.
Yoga was not designed for exercise’ sake, it is an extension of a holistic view of health and life, millennia in the making.
It is also important to realise that, unless you actually are aiming for spiritual enlightenment, these differences don’t really matter, especially as Yoga the way it mostly taught today, is radically different from what it was at the time of its conception thousands of years ago.
If you enjoy the practice, you can dive into it, without second thoughts and simply enjoy the aspect(s) that resonates with you, even if it is only the physical, more superficial benefits.
What does matter, is that you find a teacher that is competent and well trained and with whom you feel supported and challenged at the same time, so that you can develop and progress safely.
And who knows… after a while, you might decide to let this ancient practice permeate other areas of your life!