What Is Hatha Yoga?

Yoga class in Downward Facing Dog Pose
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Hatha is a very broad term that encompasses any of the physical practices of yoga. It can be used to describe every kind of yoga asana practice from Iyengar to Ashtanga and everything that falls between and beyond.  In fact, any of the many contemporary types of physical yoga that are popular today can be accurately described as hatha yoga.

The History of Hatha

Hatha means forceful in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language that is the source of most of yoga's terminology.

 According to Ellen Stansell, a scholar of yogic literature, the term may have come into use as early as the 12th century. Though we consider hatha to be on the gentle end of the spectrum these days, Stansell posits that it must have seemed strong in comparison to more subtle practices (meditation, for example) that were available at time.

The first Indian gurus who brought yoga to a western audience in the mid-19th century took pains to distance themselves from hatha yoga, which they associated with wandering street mendicants called yogins, according to Mark Singleton's book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Singleton explains that it was not until the international popularity of the physical culture movement later in the 19th century that hatha yoga was integrated into the teachings exported to the west.

Contemporary Hatha Yoga Classes

Given that the word has such an open meaning, what should you expect if you attend a hatha yoga class?

Today, hatha is most often used to describe gentle, basic yoga classes with no flow between poses. Expect a slower-paced stretching-focused class with some basic pranayama breathing exercises and perhaps a seated meditation at the end. Hatha classes are a good place to work on your alignment, learn relaxation techniques, and become comfortable with doing yoga while building strength and flexibility.

What About Hatha Flow?

Just to confuse things, some studios throw something called hatha flow into the mix. Wait, didn't we just say that hatha wasn't flow? Classes in which you move from pose to pose in a sequence without resting can also correctly be described as vinyasa. To further add to the muddle, you might see both hatha flow and vinyasa on the schedule at your local studio. In this case, expect the vinyasa to be a little more vigorous, but so much depends upon the style of each individual teacher that it's impossible to be definitive on this point without taking specific classes. If you need more clarification, ask the studio how the classes differ or try them yourself to find out.

Is Hatha Yoga for You?

Try a hatha class if the idea of gentle yoga appeals to you or seems right for your body. It can be a great introduction to yoga, but shouldn't be mistaken for easy yoga since it can still be challenging both physically and mentally. Hatha classes provide an opportunity to stretch, unwind, and release tension, providing a good counterpoint to both busy lifestyles and cardio workouts.

 If you go into a hatha class and it feels too slow or not active enough, don't give up on yoga completely. There are faster-paced, more athletic ways to do yoga. Try a vinyasa or power yoga class and see if that is more your speed.


Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2010.

Stansell, Ellen. Personal correspondence.

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