What Is Hatha Yoga?

Hatha yoga class
Hatha Yoga. AAGAMIA/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Hatha Definition

In its most basic usage, hatha means yoga. The word hatha describes any kind of yoga in which poses are done. Remember that yoga has eight limbs, only one of which, asana, is concerned with yoga poses. If you do Iyengar Yoga, this is hatha yoga. If you do Ashtanga, as different as it may seem, it is also hatha yoga. Any of the many contemporary types of physical yoga practices can be accurately described as hatha yoga.

Hatha History

Hatha means forceful in Sanskrit. Compared to more subtle practices that were in use at the time (which may have been as early as the 12th century), the physical practices of hatha must have seemed forceful, according to Ellen Stansell, a scholar of yogic literature. However, it was some time before hatha became synonymous with yoga asanas as we practice them today. 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 coming west.

How Hatha Is Used Today

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

These days, hatha is most often used to describe gentle, basic yoga classes with no flow between poses. Expect a slower-paced stretching class with some basic pranayama breathing exercises and perhaps seated meditation at the end. Hatha classes are a good place to learn beginners' poses, relaxation techniques, and become comfortable with yoga.

What About Hatha Flow?

Just to confuse things more, some studios throw something called hatha flow into the mix. Wait, didn't I just say that hatha wasn't flow? Well, since the term is so open, it can be used to mean almost any kind of asana class. What some call hatha flow, I would call vinyasa. However, some places take the confusion one step further by offering both hatha flow and vinyasa. In this case, expect the vinyasa to be a little more vigorous, but so much depends upon the approach of each individual teacher that it's impossible to be definitive on this point without taking specific classes. If you need more clarification, ask at the studio or gym where the classes are taught.

Is Hatha Yoga for You?

Try a hatha class if the idea of gentle yoga appeals to you or seems right for your level of physical fitness. 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. 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 flow or vinyasa class and see if that is more your speed.

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