All You Need To Know About Hatha Yoga

In the current world of yoga, there is an onslaught of different strains, styles, and versions of yoga classes. Hatha yoga is one of the oldest and longest practiced in the world.

However, rather than being a very specific style of yoga, like Ashtanga or Iyengar, the definition of Hatha yoga technically covers any kind of yoga where asanas are practiced. Traditionally speaking, Hatha yoga can be considered more of a branch of yoga instead of a specific style.

Hatha yoga is the linking of asanas and breath. Often, now you will find yoga classes described or titles as Hatha yoga in many yoga studios. When you see a class labeled ‘Hatha’ in western society it tends to  indicate a slower pace and a flow focused on alignment and breath.

In the rest of this article you will find answers to where Hatha yoga started, the benefits of Hatha yoga, what to expect out of a Hatha yoga class, and more.

History of Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga originated in Northern India over 5000 years ago. It was taught as a healing for the mind and as preparation for seated meditation.

One of the oldest surviving texts concerning yoga was written by a 15th century sage, Swatmarama. It was titled ‘Hathapradipika’. The Hathapradipika describes pranayama (controlled breathing techniques), asanas (yoga poses), and other purifying practices in detail. It explains that the purpose and reason to do Hatha yoga is to help bring the individual into Samadhi, a deep state of meditative consciousness.

The word Hatha is Sanskrit for ‘forceful’. Broken down further, the Sanskrit word ‘ha’ translates to ‘sun’ and the Sanskrit word ‘tha’ translates to ‘moon’. This shows the core purpose of Hatha yoga is to create balance and harmony within oneself. Hatha can be translated as the union of two opposites. It is a gentle practice yet builds fire and heat within the body.

In the 20th century, Hatha yoga was brought to the west. Typically, in western society Hatha yoga is understood to just be movement and asanas in a yoga practice. But, in India and Tibet, it translates and a cleansing of the entire mind-body through diet, meditation, asanas, beathwork, and practice in everyday life of the yogic philosophy.

What is Hatha Yoga?

As mentioned above, Hatha yoga is less of a specific style and set sequence of yoga poses and more of a way to practice yoga. However, the west has turned into a title of yoga that indicates a gentle, slow flow.

Hatha yoga will include a physical, asana practice as well as a mixture of breathwork, meditation, and mudras. Typically, a Hatha yoga practice will focus on alignment and will not be done in a heated space.

Through the use of physical poses Hatha yoga generates strength and flexibility throughout the body, releasing and removing any build up tension. Hatha yoga will build up inner heat through a slow, gentle holding of the yoga postures. Usually, Hatha is considered an ‘easier’ yoga class, but don’t be surprised if you still find it challenging.

There are two purposes in Hatha yoga in terms of why you do the asana practice. The purpose of the movement is to create release in your body so you can find a longer seated meditation, as well as to bring health and energy to the body through movement. Hatha yoga is so much more than just a ‘fitness’ practice. The practice of asanas is a pathway to unlock the deeper parts of yourself.

Benefits of Hatha Yoga

Like with other yoga styles, the benefits of Hatha yoga are uncountable. Ultimately, the purpose of a Hatha yoga practice is to create complete health of your mind-body to allow breath and energy to flow freely and easily. This freedom and oneness is needed and will eventually empower you to reach samadhi (whole and complete enlightenment).

Increased flexibility

Hatha yoga will increase flexibility. Flexibility allows you to use the full strength of your muscles while also allowing you to release tension being held throughout your body. It decreases the risk of injury as well as lubricates the joints. Yoga helps increase flexibility through the asanas. These asanas allow your body to stretch and twist muscles that often get limited movement in the day to day.

Boosts your immune system

Hatha yoga will boost your immune system. When you twist and stretch, as is done in a Hatha yoga practice, you stimulate your lymphatic system. Stimulating your lymphatic system increases the rinsing of toxins in your body. When you rinse toxins from your body it becomes easier to fight infection and illness.

Lowered stress levels

Hatha yoga will lower stress levels and decrease anxiety. Pranayama, the breath practice part of Hatha yoga lowers the heart rate and stills the busy mind. Physiologically speaking, the way breath is used in Hatha yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is your ‘rest and digest’ state. By stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system, you allow your body to find rest and relaxation.

Strengthens the body

Hatha yoga will tone and strengthen your muscles, tendons, and whole body. Working with your own body weight is one of the healthiest ways to strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments of your body. Through the holding of standing, balancing and inversion asanas you build strength through your yoga practice.

Elevates your mood

As already mentioned, Hatha yoga reduces anxiety and stress which in turn elevates your mood. One of the most powerful benefits of a Hatha yoga practice is its ability to calm the mind. When you calm the mind, your entire outlook on life becomes a little more positive.

Sense of oneness with self

The purpose of Hatha yoga is to lead you to Samadhi, a deep state of meditative consciousness and enlightenment. Through the connection of breath and movement, you will become more connected with your body and notice the habits of your mind. As you become aware of what is happening within yourself, you will be able to take stock on what you need to move towards inner peace.

Relieves physical pain

It has been shown that Hatha yoga relieves physical pain. Often physical trainers will recommend the gentle and slow movements of Hatha yoga to relieve back and neck pain. Plus, the connection of breath and movement found in Hatha yoga releases the anxiety attached to the pain in the body.

What to expect from a Hatha Yoga class

A typical Hatha yoga class will last between 60-90 minutes. Although the postures will vary from class to class, you will start any Hatha class waking up the body with easier poses. You will then continue to warm up the body eventually moving towards more challenging asanas. Before your savasana you will cool down. Throughout the whole class poses will be tied to breath.

A focus on alignment

Most Hatha yoga classes will have a heavy focus on the alignment of your bones, joints, and the rest of your body in each posture. It will focus on ensuring that you are moving safely through each asana. In many ways, yoga is a science with specific alignment and breath linked within the body. Hatha yoga looks to be sure that historical expectation of alignment is met.

A more gentle yoga practice

In western society, Hatha yoga has come to be considered a more gentle yoga practice compared to other styles. A gentle yoga practice typically means the class will move slower and lead into postures that put less strain on your body. However, as has already been mentioned, a slower paced yoga practice will still build heat within your body and can be quite challenging.

Breathwork

A Hatha yoga class should consist of controlled breathing exercises, in yoga this controlled breathworks is known as pranayama. These breathing techniques have a direct life-force effect on your nervous system and the energy in your body. The practice of pranayama is said to extend life and awaken your inner energies. At different times throughout the class you may be shown how to use breath to either stimulate or relax your mind-body.

Meditation

An integral part of a Hatha yoga class is meditation. Often you will find this part of the Hatha yoga integrated at the beginning or end of a class. Meditation is when you focus you intentionally clear your mind to achieve a sense of clarity and peace.

Asana and sun salutation flow

Hatha yoga often starts with a short meditation and/or breathwork. After taking time to first center your mind, the class will then move into the more physical asana practice.

Many Hatha yoga classes will warm up the body with a repetitive sun salutation flow. A sun salutation is a set of sequences yoga postures linked by breath. Within a sun salutation flow you will move from the common downward dog posture into standing through an ancient flow meant to open your back, chest, hamstrings, and more while warming up your body.

A large part of the class will be set aside for a guided but ‘not a set sequence’ asana practice. These asanas will include poses that involve core work, balancing, back bends, and inversions. The class will typically be leading you to one peak pose. After the peak pose, you will begin to cool down with seated postures.

At the end of any Hatha class, you will take savanassa. This is the final pose of any yoga practice that allows your mind-body to absorb all the work you just put into it. Lying on your back with eyes closed, savasana will last between 5-15 minutes.

Hatha Yoga compared to other Yoga Styles

As it has already been mentioned, Hatha yoga is more than just a style of yoga, it is in many ways an umbrella term for other yoga styles. This is because many yoga styles started and metamorphosed from Hatha yoga. By definition, any yoga style that combines, emphasizes the balance of breath and asana is a style of Hatha yoga.

What is important to note, is that in westernized yoga. Hatha yoga can cover many styles of yoga, but now has come to be considered a more gentle and alignment focused practice.

Hatha compared to Vinyasa  

A vinyasa yoga class will seem very similar to a Hatha yoga class  because Vinyasa yoga was born out of Hatha yoga. The word Vinayas means flow, which indicates the biggest difference between the two class types.

Typically, a Hatha yoga class will be a slower sequence of blouses and much more gentle that a Vinyasa class. Vinyasa classes tend to be more dynamic and fast-paced in order to build heat in the body. Hatha will have you holding poses for a longer period of time allowing you to work deeper into each pose.

Hatha compared to Ashtanga

An Ashtanga yoga practice is always a set sequence of yoga postures taught in the same order. Although Hatha yoga will often include a sun salutation at the beginning of the class, it will vary per class and teacher you go to. Ashtanga yoga is much more fast paced than a typical Hatha class.

Hatha compared to Restorative

Restorative yoga is a passive form of yoga. This means, unlike Hatha yoga, you are not building heat or looking to build strength. The aim of a restorative yoga practice is to allow your mind-body to completely let go and relax into the posture.

Hatha compared to Inyengar  

Both Hatha and Iyengar have a large focus on alignment. However, in an Iyengar practice your will be focused even more so on the minute details of each pose and spend even long periods of time channeling your breath in each asana. Because of the length of time you hold poses in an Iyengar practice you will often use a variety of props to aid your practice.

Hatha compared to Kundalini   

Kundalini yoga has a strong focus on the breath and mediation side of yoga. Hatha, however, is more focused on the physical, asana side of a yoga practice. A Hatha yoga practice is a way to lead into a Kundalini yoga practice.

Hatha compared to Yin  

Yin yoga is even slower than Hatha yoga and primarily practiced seated or lying on the floor. In a yin practice you are holding poses for 3-7 minutes with the intention of to release the fascia and deeper layers of the body. Although Hatha is a slower paced form of yoga, it is still building heat within the body.

Hatha compared to Bikram  

One of the biggest differences between Hatha yoga and Bikram yoga is that Bikram yoga is done in a heated room. A Bikram class will be 90 minutes long wherever you go & is a specific set of 26 postures. A Hatha yoga class has much more freedom to explore a wide range of asanas.

How to start a practicing Hatha yoga

Practicing Hatha yoga can be as simple as just finding time to meditate and connect your breath to simple movements. Don’t be afraid to try a few Hatha yoga asanas or breathwork exercises.

Go to a yoga studio’s Hatha yoga class

As mentioned, many yoga studios offer Hatha yoga classes. Remember, each yoga class is going to have a little bit of a different vibe. So if you do not resonate with the first Hatha yoga class you go to, explore one or two others to see if it is a better fit.

Your yoga instructor will guide you through the asanas and help you connect the right breath with the right movement. How to connect the movement with breath is crucial and figuring it out can be confusing at first. This is why so many people find the need for a yoga instructor when they practice yoga. It helps ease the need for ‘thinking’ and allows people to sink into the breath and movement easier.

Be sure to look at the description of the yoga class before you go. Perhaps even call the studio to ask any questions. Your time and money is valuable so don’t be afraid to confirm that the class is what you are looking for.

Start a small home, personal yoga practice

If you do not want to go to a studio, start with your breath. Start by closing your eyes and taking deep breaths in a comfortable seated position.

Then, choose a few beginner asanas and start to practice. Remember, Hatha yoga does not have to be complicated or super overwhelming. To be practicing Hatha yoga, all you need to do is focus on linking your breath with movement. As you move and breath, listen to your body. What feels good?

Although you will typically find that a Hatha yoga practice is at least 60 minutes. If you are doing your own home practice, 15 minutes is better than nothing. Allow yourself to start small and continue to grow. Also, try not to skip out on your savasana, that last asana, also known as corpse pose. This is where you soak up everything you just did for your mind-body.

In closing, Hatha yoga is a safe, powerful way to exercise and rejuvenate your mind-body to improve your overall health and well-being. Whether you are a complete beginner or a weathered yogi, Hatha yoga can be a perfect fit. Hatha yoga is a great introduction to yoga, but can still be quite challenging both physically and mentally. In a Hatha yoga practice you will move your body releasing tension and anxiety throughout your mind-body.