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Why Hatha Yoga Is The Friend of the Mystic

Max Strom

Sufism, Buddhism and Yoga are three great rivers that carry many people toward the light. Yoga in particular is surging across the globe. A February 2005 Harris poll commissioned by Yoga Journal, the leading American Yoga magazine, found that 7.5 percent of U.S. adults, or 16.5 million people, now practice Hatha Yoga. That's an increase of 43 percent from 2002. Notably, many people are turning to this ancient regime not only as an alternative form of exercise, but also for the spiritual experience they cannot find in a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or website.

Yet a common criticism of Hatha Yoga is that it is not really a spiritual practice unto itself, that it is solely a body/health regimen and therefore the serious aspirant on a spiritual path need not bother with it. It is an arguable point of view, but consider this: the Yoga tradition teaches us that our bodies manifest our samskaras (inherent tendencies) carried into this life from our previous lives, and these samskaras predetermine much of our behavior, both helpful and detrimental. By consciously manipulating the body with breathing practices and postures in Hatha Yoga, we can straighten the crooked course of our samskaras, altering the course of our life.

Equally significant is that we hold our past emotional experiences, energetically, in our bodies. So many of us become unexplainably stuck on our path, not from lack of effort, but because of the chains of the past known as anger, grief, and fear. These buried emotions, like splinters in the heart, can be crippling to our spiritual practice. It is as simple as this: when people are in pain, they become self-centered and myopic. When people heal, they become more empathetic, self-less, and sympathetic to the pain and welfare of others.

Through the practice of Yoga, in particular the breathing practices, we can liberate these buried emotions and experience a rapid and meaningful transformation. So our God Intent, fueled with breath and powered by our will, ultimately realigns an emotionally misaligned body.

When I stumbled upon Yoga in my own life nearly two decades ago, I knew well what spiritual practice was, and I knew what exercise was—but I had never seen a system that combined the two except for martial arts. But martial arts usually involve a fighting mindset, while my aim was peace within and unity with all. After a month of practicing Yoga three times a week, I finally connected the dots and understood Hatha Yoga as an integral part of spiritual, and even mystical practice. At its simplest, Hatha Yoga supports the body of the seeker on his or her spiritual quest. It enables and empowers our other practices: breathing, meditation, ritual, and daily life itself. Why damage your back and knees in meditation when this can be deterred with the addition of a short regime of yoga to support your body before meditation? Why suffer from internal disorders and years of chronic pain when through conscious work this can be avoided? Why prematurely shorten your life and transformational practice through neglect of the body? The vehicle we travel in must be kept in order, or travel on the road of internal transformation becomes difficult, then painful, then impossible.

Integrating and balancing is one of the seminal purposes of Hatha Yoga. This requires us to develop strength where we are weak and flexibility or openness where we are congested—in body, mind, and emotions. As long as we are imbalanced, our lives and our spiritual path will be hindered. It could be said that Hatha Yoga is the foundation of the temple. This is because Yoga takes one’s spiritual life and embodies it, heals it, and removes stress and pain. After a time, the drugs one may have depended on to battle depression, sleeplessness and ulcers are no longer needed. Yoga works, regardless of your belief system. Try it three times a week for one month and see for yourself. Health comes as a side effect from a grander intent—the intent to breathe in God, and to ultimately embody God.

Max Strom is a teacher, speaker, and author known for inspiring and impacting the lives of his students and has become one of the most respected teachers of personal transformation and yoga worldwide. Due to an ever-increasing demand for his teachings, Max travels extensively teaching methods and lecturing on personal transformation, spirituality, and yoga. His methods address the emotional and spiritual aspects of our life as well as physical healing and health. His teachings can now be read in his new book, A Life Worth Breathing (Skyhorse Publishing 2010). You can see more of his work on his DVDs Learn to Breathe: To Heal Yourself and Your Relationships and Max Strom Yoga – Strength, Grace, Healing.

Read more about Max Strom

Comments (19)
  • Excellent article!!! I have had the pleasure of experiencing both hatha yoga, and Max Strom as a teacher. My practice of yoga has changed dramatically over the last 10 years I have been practicing. Moving from a “system” of movements that I thought might help me look more “ideal,” to this beautiful amazing transformative path that has made me who I am today. Yoga is the first breath I take in the morning….allowing me to be more consciously aware of my world. Yoga gives you permission to let go of anger, fear, resentment…and leaves you with a feeling of peace…calm. With yoga, you start viewing things differently…finding peace in the eyes of a stranger, the smile of a homeless man. And the beauty of it all is this….without yoga, you may have not even noticed that smile…that is yoga, that is peace!

    — Amanda Tucker on August 19, 2009

  • as always, you have a way of boiling it down to the pure essence of what we need to hear. keep spreadin’ the word.

    — Johnnie Shaver on August 19, 2009

  • Thank you Max. You said this very well. I know from my personal experience that it is difficult, if not impossible, to be kind and open when the nervous system is stressed and fearful. Yoga helps in many ways.

    — Darla Brown on August 19, 2009

  • True words from Max. I still remember your forgiveness meditation/asana class whih I took almost 2 years ago. It made me realize so much.  It makes me think of the below mentioned quote…

    “Let us not look back in anger or ahead in fear, but around in Awareness” 

    Thanks for making the yoga world and my world a better place.

    Peace In, Love out,

    — Jodie Bass on August 19, 2009

  • Thank you for living the example for us to follow.  Once again you move everyone with your intentions and your heart felt words.

    Love and Light,

    — Shannon von Burns on August 20, 2009

  • Thank you, Max. To a world of hearts filled with splinters, you are a giant, and gentle pair of tweezers.
    Peace, brother.

    — Joel Benjamin on August 20, 2009

  • Every time Max Strom comes to town, I take his class. His gentle, vibrant, thoughtful instruction illuminates yoga and makes the spiritual connection between breath and asana so clear. Max, you write with beauty and clarity and your presence honors your teachers. You are a living testament that the spirit of yoga will continue to manifest in the West.

    — Amy Louise on August 20, 2009

  • How can you talk about Yoga without mentioning the philosophy of Vedanta and the 4 Yogas, eg Karma, Bhakti, Jnnana and Raja.  Or for that matter Hinduism…. 

    Yet you mention Sufism and Buddhism in the opening line…very odd…

    — Krishna on August 20, 2009

  • Thank you for the article, Max, and for continuing to teach with grace. You are a very good writer as well. I particularly liked, “when people are in pain, they become self-centered and myopic. When people heal, they become more empathetic, self-less, and sympathetic to the pain and welfare of others”. As such, I see this with patients coming to our holistic medical center, Lotus East-West Medical Center, in Santa Monica, California ( ). As people heal, their eyes open to see there is a world all around them.

    — Brendan Armm, DAOM, LAc on August 20, 2009

  • I can really relate to this article having gone through a bad patch and God crossed my path with that of Max Strom. I can relate to the samskaras and vasanas within us. Thanks for this wonderful article!

    — Susan Kho on August 21, 2009

  • Hi Max.  Long time no see.  I hope you are well.  Thanks for sharing your article that you wrote.  It is beautifully written and it is a reminder of why I practice yoga and why many practice yoga and become so attracted to it’s amazing beauty.  I particularly like what you write at the end ‘Health comes as a side effect from a grander intent—the intent to breathe in God, and to ultimately embody God.’  Thank you for this wording.  It brings a smile to my face.  Sharon Denton,

    — Sharon Denton on August 21, 2009

  • Dear max

    thankyou so much for this article, can i say that in my experience, unfortunately some of what you say was not true for me.

    i started practising yoga, it did indeed bring me into contact with my emotions, and then i was there for nine years, the yoga practise did not help them go away it kept me there with them, a really horrible experience indeed. It was through balancing yoga with therapy & finally anti-depressants, that this situation began to change, i would prefer it if as teachers we gave a view of yoga that represents the truth of our dark side, and does not present it as a cure for them, at least not in the short term, many thanks


    — rachel on August 21, 2009

  • You truly have a way with words.  Simple, to the point, embodying a grace of speech that both leads and inspires.  Thank you for your heartfelt wisdom and guidance.  Namaste~

    — SEAN.FM on August 21, 2009

  • Brilliant! Hatha Yoga is the perfect antidote to our modern afflictions. It is the only practice that nurtures mind, body and spirit, and as such enables the animals of efficiency that we are to fully take care of ourselves and still go on with our wonderful lives. I believe that in the next 10 years, yoga will make its way into every hospital, every school and every corporation in the country and it is pioneers like Max Strom who are leading the way! Thank you!!!

    — Linda Schlamadinger McGrath on August 27, 2009

  • Dearest Max,
    How well I know the liberating power of the breath, particularly “Hai-i!”  Thank you as always for putting into words our deepest hopes and prayers, and thanks for the tools to help us find peace within and unity with all.
    In gratitude,

    — Sarah Fishman on August 28, 2009

  • Greetings,

    One of the posters wrote:

    “How can you talk about Yoga without mentioning the philosophy of Vedanta and the 4 Yogas, eg Karma, Bhakti, Jnnana and Raja.  Or for that matter Hinduism….
    Yet you mention Sufism and Buddhism in the opening line…very odd”


    This is a wise point, worth contemplation.  I do not wish to step on any toes (or egos).  There is, however, a significant point very visible here. 

    To compare Sufism (a mature mystical tradition) to the yoga that is popular throughout the world now (the very physically-focused forms) is like comparing an automobile to an airplane. 

    Yes, they are both vehicles.  And yet, there are qualititative differences.  It would be much closer to a truth to compare Sufism to the sacred Sanatana Dharma traditions mentioned by the other poster (i.e., Bhakti, Raja, etc.). 

    Does the average Joe & Jane in America seek out yoga because they desire God-consciousness?  Or do they respond to the marketing of almost all yoga classes (e.g., “fitness,”
    “flexibility,” “well-being,” etc.)?

    Again, this is not meant to elicit vitriolic responses.  I have found this to be the case in other forums. 

    There is a movement, in India, to bring yoga back to its true reality, that of being a perennial mystical tradition which one walks in order to become God-Realized. 

    It has so very little to do with physicality.  Indeed, no matter how expertly,  advanced, or healthy one may make one’s body, it will, as the Vedas emphasize, perish at death.  The body certainly needs to be taken care of, for it is the vessel of the Divine.  It is, though, a temporary phenomenon.

    Yoga is the search for what does not perish, for what is permanent, and does not die. 


    — n on August 31, 2009

  • As a neo-Vedantist myself, I’m usually pretty horrified at the bland way in which the word “Yoga” is used in Western circles. Yoga means union with the Divine, and the Indian yoga traditions are incredibly comprehensive. Hatha yoga is merely one type of yoga, and for most Vedantist yogis, probably one of the least important types. I have to say that I am appalled at the way the rich and diverse Indian yoga traditions have been reduced to mere hatha yoga in the West.

    — ned on September 20, 2009

  • Ned,

    Well said!


    — n on September 21, 2009

  • The key to becoming a mystic is 1st, obeying the spirit law, Be still & know God, by breathing like ur asleep while ur awake.—drawing air in w-diaphramatic phenomina, & after exhaling, hanging out in the exhaled state until u hit the white light where there is no time or space. 2nd, simultaneously obeying the celestial law, u cant enter the kingdom of heaven but as a child. This is accomplished by using the operating system of the earthly mind (thoughts,feelings, judgements) as u inhale, & using the operating system of the celestial mind as u exhale (no thought, just experiencing in a very high state of faith & being with). Key here is that we arent our thoughts or feelings. People who dont find hatha yoga transforming, are still hanging onto & owning thoughts & feelings, instead of using them as a mirror to see things about themselves that r in r blind spots, then letting them go, as they will leave because there is no further use for them…theres more on recognizing what happens that removes us from that state we achieve in being present, & how to stay in that state longer over time, so u can stay present longer…Theres much more. This is just alittle of what is happening in the unsaid as hatha yoga transforms us. we can talk if u want. smile Peace, Drew t.

    — drew t. on September 27, 2011

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14 August 2009

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