Yoga Styles 101: An Introduction to Hatha Yoga
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When thinking of yoga in general, physical postures combined with controlled breathing and meditation are what often come to mind. This is, in fact, Hatha Yoga.
Vinyasa and Hatha are two of the most popular yoga styles in the world. With Vinyasa being fast and flowing and Hatha slow and deep, they’re frequently considered opposites.
That said, it can be quite hard to keep tab on the many yoga styles practiced in studios and yoga retreats worldwide. Although the asanas are nearly the same, the tempo and focus differ.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing insightful articles that break down the main yoga styles. By doing so, we hope that you’ll be able to choose the style that suits you best and perhaps encourage you to try out something new.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at Hatha Yoga, a gentle style that focuses on static poses while aligning the body, mind, and soul.
In this article, you’ll learn more about its history, what makes Hatha different from other yoga styles, its benefits, and the other types of yoga that derived from it.
But first, what is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha Yoga is the practice of physical postures. Yoga postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama) are at its core. This is, in fact, what is often referred to as “general yoga” in the West.
Hatha Yoga is a combination of movement and breath. It is, therefore, the origin of all yoga styles. Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Hot Yoga, Power Yoga, to name a few, have all derived from Hatha. The differences between them lie in the focus and pace.
In Hatha, the poses are performed slowly, statically, and are held for longer than in a Vinyasa or Ashtanga class. This pace challenges your strength and flexibility, welcoming a deep stretch, with an emphasis on mindfulness and relaxation. The focus is on controlling both the posture and the breath.
Hatha is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “forceful” or “willful”, used in reference to the physical postures.
But the word can also be broken into ha (“sun”) and tha (“moon”). Therefore, Hatha is aimed towards bringing balance between the sun and the moon within you, Pingala and Ida, your light and your darkness. The practice is designed to align the body, mind, and spirit, preparing you for deeper spiritual practices.
History of Hatha Yoga
The term dates back to the 11th century, when Gorakhnath, a Hindu master yogi and founder of the Kanphata Yogis, described the physical and spiritual discipline of Hatha. However, the style is based on ancient yogic traditions dating back to Patanjali.
The oldest text on the physical practices of the style is Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century by Swami Swatamarama using older Sanskrit texts, teachings of gurus, and his own experience. Hatha Yoga Pradipika described 15 yoga poses (asanas).
Later, several other Sanskrit texts about the discipline emerged. Hatha Ratnavali, a 17th-century text, described 84 asanas.
Hatha was developed as a preparation for Raja Yoga, the oldest system of yoga, which aims to reach the state of unity between body, mind, and spirit, the quintessential goal of yoga itself. Originally, it was focused on breath, purification, diet, and physical postures. It was a life philosophy, a guide to how we relate to the world we live in and to attaining inner peace.
Traditionally, Hatha Yoga uses the mastery of the body as a means to attaining spiritual perfection.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that Hatha Yoga was introduced to the West, and not until the 1960s that it started to gain popularity.
Today, Hatha has become a mainstream form of exercise, often used as a broad term for yoga.
Elements of Hatha Yoga
According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Hatha has three elements: physical poses (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dyana).
Typically, when a class is labeled just yoga, it is most likely Hatha. Because it’s such a broad term, you cannot really know what to expect from a class until you get there. Classes vary from one studio to the other and from one teacher to the next. That said, there are a few common aspects that all sessions share.
A class labeled as Hatha includes basic yoga poses with a focus on breath and meditation.
The classes are usually 60 to 90 minutes long. They start with a gentle warm-up, bringing the attention to the breath, followed by a sequence of yoga poses. The emphasis is on controlling the poses.
Hatha classes don’t necessarily follow a flow (unlike Vinyasa). Instead, they insist on one pose at a time, with a rest in between. As the students go through the asanas, the teacher reminds them to focus on their breath. The poses are held for several breaths before moving onto the next.
The asanas range in difficulty. If a pose is too challenging, the teacher can provide a modified version.
The class usually ends with a short period of meditation for which you might be asked to lie on your back in Shavasana or on your side, and the teacher may cover you with a blanket.
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Benefits of Hatha Yoga
Yoga has numerous health benefits, no matter which style you practice.
Hatha is the yoga style that’s usually undertaken to relieve stress. Regular practice promotes mental calmness and can significantly reduce perceived stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
It is a powerful tool for self-transformation. Because you’re asked to bring your attention to the breath, you are more present, grounded, and in the moment.
Because the poses are held for longer, Hatha is known to improve strength, flexibility, stamina, range of motion, and balance.
More specifically, it improves flexibility in the spine and hamstrings. Since core stability is key to good posture, Hatha builds core muscle strength.
It is recommended for older adults who need to improve the range of motion in the joints. Furthermore, certain poses help to promote bone density.
Yoga styles based on Hatha
Hatha is an umbrella term for all the yoga styles that incorporate the three elements – yoga poses, breathing techniques, and meditation. Some are more passive, such as Restorative or Sivananda, while others are more active, like Ashtanga and Vinyasa.
Here are some of the most popular yoga styles that are variations of Hatha Yoga:
Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic yoga style characterized by continual movements that flow in harmony with the breath. The poses in a Vinyasa class are linked together to form a fast-paced sequence that’s recommended for fit and agile yogis. The order of the poses changes often and the flows vary from one class to the other.
Power Yoga is often regarded as hardcore Vinyasa. It’s faster and more intense than most yoga styles, with the main focus on building strength.
Ashtanga Yoga is a rigorous style and a modern-day form of classical Indian yoga. Ashtanga means “eight limbs”. Therefore, it focuses on practicing the eight limbs of yoga through challenging poses performed at a quick pace. Practitioners flow through the poses more quickly than in a Hatha class. An Ashtanga series uses predefined sequences that are the same every time.
Iyengar Yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1960s, derived directly from classic Hatha Yoga traditions. It is one of the world’s most practiced yoga methods, revered for its therapeutic benefits. The focus is on alignment, sequencing, and timing in the asanas. The use of props is encouraged in order to hold the poses in alignment.
Restorative Yoga is a relaxing Hatha-based yoga style also developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Aimed to relieve stress, the class uses props to support the body so that the students do not experience any strain when performing the poses. The tempo is significantly slowed down to open the body through passive stretching.
Kundalini Yoga combines ancient traditions with asanas, pranayama, and mantra chanting. It stimulates the powerful energy channel that runs up the spine, known as Kundalini Shakti. The asanas are moderate in difficulty and the pace is slow.
Sivananda Yoga is a systematic and precise approach to classical Hatha. It embodies traditional and authentic yogic disciplines, focusing on relaxation and energizing yogic breathing techniques. The emphasis is on mastering the 12 basic yoga postures.
Who should practice Hatha Yoga?
Hatha classes are gentle and slow-paced, which makes them feel less intimidating than other styles. They allow the practitioner to become familiarized and get comfortable with the poses. Thanks to this, Hatha is ideal for beginners who are just starting their yoga journey.
Hatha is great for practitioners of all levels and ages, who prefer a more relaxed style in which the poses are held for longer and those who wish to focus on the unhurried and meditative aspect instead of a physically demanding yoga style.
However, Hatha Yoga should not be mistaken for “easy yoga”. It can be challenging, both physically and mentally. Sometimes, students are asked to stay in fairly difficult asanas for several breaths.
You probably won’t sweat much in a Hatha class, but you will leave the studio feeling leaner, looser, and more relaxed.
If Hatha seems too slow, why not try something more fast-paced? Go on a Vinyasa yoga retreat and feel the burn!