Hatha yoga: bringing balance to a practice for balanced being.
Hatha yoga is the most prevalent form of Yoga practiced in the West. According to the 2016 Yoga in America study, 36.7 million Americans practice yoga! Whether their goals were physical, mental, or spiritual, most of these Americans probably undertook their hatha yoga practice as a form of self-care. It may surprise them to find out that the origins of hatha yoga are rooted in the mastery of the body through austere physical practices.
There are multiple translations of the Sanskrit word hatha. The one commonly given to Western practitioners is that the word hatha can be broken down into two syllables: ha and tha, which mean solar and lunar. The word yoga is commonly defined as union. According to this definition, hatha yoga is a practice of union through bringing the solar and lunar energies within us into balance.
It is also true that the word hatha can be defined as force. From this perspective, the body is not a temple for the spirit, but an obstacle to overcome in order that the spirit might be released. Not unlike the West’s medieval practice of self-flagellation, transcendence is achieved by forcing the body into situations that are painful, degrading, and humiliating.
Well, that sounds pretty extreme, doesn’t it?
Gender in religion and spirituality.
After millennia of oppression, women all over the world are beginning to rise and step into their power in politics, education, health care, and more. Men are beginning to see their traditional roles in society in a new light. The voices of those who identify as other than male or female are being heard. We are learning there are many ways of expressing gender… including not to express gender at all! Everyone is being asked to approach gender, in other people and in ourselves, in a more open and fluid way.
Many of us see the harm that patriarchal structures within religion has done. Many are working to right this wrong. However, less focus has being given to how feminine suppression has harmed us through our spiritual practices. In our attempt to transcend the physical world in pursuit of enlightenment, we have made the domain of the Divine Feminine -the earth and our bodies- illusions at best and evil at worst.
The words feminine and masculine do not refer to femaleness or maleness. Instead, they are words that describe particular energies that exist in and flow through all of us. Many individuals who were born and identify as female may express very masculine qualities such as drive and ambition. Likewise, many men express feminine qualities such as gentleness and a desire to create beauty.
The divorce of Father Sky and Mother Earth.
We can also think of masculinity and femininity in terms of yang and yin. Both are needed for balance. This is indicted by the solar/lunar translation of the word hatha. Masculine energy is that of initiation. It is an active energy that generates movement. We need masculine energy! It is the same energy that helps us to set goals and pursue our dreams… or even just get up in the morning!
Feminine energy allows us to be still. It is the receptive energy of gestation. It is our feminine energy that gives time and space in order for growth to occur.
Most patriarchal spiritual traditions express a mythology that places the Divine Masculine in the Heavens and the Divine Feminine on Earth. Thus, the spiritual journey becomes a quest to transcend Mother Earth in pursuit of pleasing and uniting with Father Sky. This has had many harmful consequences, both personally and collectively. Spiritual students and adepts alike participate in extreme practices that harm the body and do little to cultivate inner peace or enlightenment. Many devout practitioners of a faith or tradition use their beliefs to harm other people, creatures, and the environment. Spirituality has even become an excuse for people to justify and turn a blind eye to destructive tendencies in ourselves and in the world around us.
Yoga and healing the Divine Feminine.
Implicit bias means that we base our evaluation of others, situations, institutions, etc. on our own unconscious thoughts and ideas. Our implicit bias does not make us bad, but it does limit our experience. It is a buffer between our understanding of something and that which we are trying to understand being able to define and express itself.
Part of our Yoga practice is to observe our thoughts. As we see our thoughts more clearly, we have greater choice in which ones we keep and which ones we dismiss. As Yogis we are primed to identify and heal implicit bias, both in ourselves and in our practices!
Things change…. Over the years, Yoga practices have evolved. In the West, and many places in the East as well, women are now allowed to practice and teach Yoga. Many of us have abandoned the harmful interpretation of hatha yoga. Most have embraced yoga as a balanced and compassionate practice that allows us to transcend the world through our love of and active participation in the world rather than our denial of it.
Honoring the Divine Feminine in you.
At Yule, the Winter Solstice, we celebrate the Divine Masculine as the Sun/Son is reborn. Imbolc, celebrated on February 1st, we celebrate the return of the Divine Feminine. Yoga, a state where our minds are calm and we can see and think clearly, can only be achieved when we bring these aspects of ourselves into balance. Here are ways you can honor the Divine Feminine on her holy day and throughout the year to come:
- Honor your body. In the physical world, your spirit is irrelevant without your body. Your body is the vehicle through which love, mercy, service, and compassion comes into the world. The nature of physical reality is that it is impermanent. That doesn’t mean it is not important. Do good to your body. Love it, not for what it does, but simply for what it is.
- Honor others. If we are fathered by the sky and mothered by the earth, the human and non-human creatures around us are our siblings. One way to honor the feminine within is to nurture and care for other sentient beings.
- Honor the Earth. The Earth embodies the Divine Feminine, as do you. The Earth longs to give of itself and care for its creatures, but it can’t do so in any sort of healthy or sustainable way without our active participation. We wouldn’t expect those who have mothered us to give and give and give without offering anything in return. Let’s not do any less for the planet that has given and sustained our lives.