Why Hatha and Yin Yoga make the perfect partnership for your Yoga Teacher Training course
For most people, especially under a certain age, Hatha Yoga means a slow, steady, quiet practice, without the ‘workout’ benefits of a more dynamic style of yoga, such as Ashtanga or Vinyasa. Even though yoga was never intended to be a workout, people in the west in particular have started to incorporate it into their exercise regime and look for classes that will make them sweat and breathe heavily. Poor old Hatha doesn’t get a look in.
But one of the biggest lessons learned when you’re on a yoga teacher-training course is just that – yoga was never intended to be a workout, with only around 20% of a yogic life intended to be devoted to practising asanas. And those asanas are intended to prepare the body and mind for practising meditation, and ultimately achieving enlightenment, not to get a six-pack abdomen or enviable biceps.
Many students turn up with their egos with them (I did), ready to show off the asanas they can do and to learn how to do the ones they can’t (inversions and arm balances seem to be the prize goal). But when they leave training, their egos are humbled, having realised that the goal is self-realisation not physical improvement, and that to know yourself more intimately is the ultimate prize.
So where does slow, steady Hatha fit in for today’s yogi? I asked one of the teachers on the new Hatha-Yin 200-hr TTC at Sampoorna Yoga School in Goa, what they thought:
“With Hatha, the two words to have in your mind are ‘authenticity’ and ‘clarity’. Hatha is the mother of all yoga. It is the origin – the source of all the other yoga ‘streams’: ashtanga, vinyasa, rocket, hot yoga … they all come from Hatha and they are simply modifications of the original practice.”
They reminded me that what’s important about Hatha is that we remember it’s not just about asana, it also includes a system of pranayama (breathing techniques), mantra-chanting, mudras (hand gestures), shatkriyas and shatkarmas (cleansing techniques) and some visualisation practices.
Having experienced Sampoorna’s meditation and pranayama teaching on Sampoorna’s 60-hr Yin TTC very recently I can confirm that it’s a beautifully holistic approach to yoga that is intended to balance the mind and the body between its two halves, with ‘ha’ representing the sun (and the right side of the body – the ‘Ida’) and ‘tha’ representing the moon ( the left side – the ‘Pingala’). The goal of Hatha yoga is to unite, or balance these two energies in the central energy channel or ‘nadi’ of the body – the ‘Shushumna’ (located in the spine).
This has much in common with the idea behind Yin Yoga practice, which focuses on the body’s meridians (instead of ‘Nadis’) and aims to balance not only both sides of the body, but also the body and mind. It looks for balance between the ‘yin’ – representing the moon – slow, dark, passive, cold – with the ‘yang’ – representing the sun – fast, light, dynamic, hot. Yin Yoga is in itself a balance between Chinese and Indian philosophies which dovetail when it comes to teachings on energy channels, duality and a universal life force (‘prana’ in Indian philosophy is ‘chi’ in Chinese).
In the west we have firmly put our yogi toes in the Yang camp in an obsession with a strong practice that can have a damaging effect on our bodies if it is not balanced with enough Yin. We practiced a variety mix of Yin and Yang on our six-day course and it was very clear that too much of one thing wasn’t good. On wholly Yin days we felt relaxed but sluggish, craving some Ashtanga action.
In our everyday yogi lives, we tend to practice too much Yang and only focus on the ‘workout’ aspect. Looking at the classic Yin/Yang symbol in class, we noted that not only are the black and white areas perfectly balanced, but the white Yang has a small black dot in it, and vice versa. Every Yang has to have a little bit of Yin in it it seems – the terms are never absolute.
Having practised in an almost exclusively Yang way for a few years I realised very quickly how much my body craved the Yin practice. And it wasn’t at all what I thought it was, either. Many of us realised that we’d been taught restorative yoga in our home countries, which focuses on complete relaxation, supported by a variety of soft props that our bodies ‘nest’ in in various poses.
Yin practice is very different – the aim is to put stress on our joints by relaxing the area directly around them, but it isn’t necessarily to relax the body completely. There is a little bit of Yang in the Yin to make it work. Teacher Eli Aguilar told us to ‘find the comfort in the discomfort’ and not make our students too comfortable in class. I’d had the notion that Yin focused on stretching muscles and fascia – the web of connective tissue that holds our bodies together but also can restrict us from moving in certain ways. There is no doubt that this is a by-product of the Yin poses but it’s not the main game. Slowly creating space in the joints and releasing ligaments is. Just that one basic idea was a game-changer for me.
In many ways, Hatha and Yin can be considered to be ‘mindful yoga’, even though the whole concept of yoga is in itself mindful. It’s a slower practice with more focus on staying power, sitting with yourself for longer, allowing the body and mind to adapt to the silence, space and time. You can see how this may lead to a resurgence in both streams of yoga in this hectic world. Even our yoga is getting hectic in the west so we’re looking to more mindful streams to find ourselves again.
As Eli said in class, “an injury is the universe telling you to stop.” My shoulder injury earlier this year has forced me to slow down and consider what I’m doing and I’ve already started incorporating Yin into my daily routine. It’s not a relaxation cop-out – you are actively releasing your body in ways that will affect your Yang practice in ways you never thought possible.
And the bonus? Whole nights of blissful sleep for this insomniac.