Nowadays, there's an endless number of yoga styles, from Hatha yoga to power to aerial to puppy and even goat. Frankly, it can be a bit confusing, can’t it?! This is where I come in, to demystify Hatha yoga for you! Read on to learn the Hatha yoga definition and discover what makes a Hatha yoga class so special.
Sure, some of the crazy yoga styles can certainly be fun. But like me, you may wonder, do they really represent traditional yoga? Do these “watered down” versions allow us to experience the maximum benefits?
I was lucky enough to begin my yoga journey with one of the most traditional styles, Hatha yoga. I believe every yogi should start with this style, and in this article, I'm going to reveal why.
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Hatha is a style of yoga under the Raja yoga branch. Many online yoga trainings and in-person trainings are teaching and following Hatha yoga traditions.
There are four classical paths of yoga; Raja (the yoga of meditation), Bhakti (the yoga of devotion), Karma (the yoga of action), and Jnana (the yoga of knowledge).
What's interesting about this is that Raja yoga is the only path that includes physical poses. Thus, the yoga most of us know and practice today (Hatha yoga) stems from just one branch of yoga – and is a very watered-down version of that.
The purpose of Raja yoga is to control and purify the fluctuations of the mind with the goal of achieving self-realization. Yogis following the Raja tradition follow an eight-fold path known as the eight limbs of yoga. The first limb is asana, which is where Hatha yoga comes in. The idea is to achieve balance and harmony in the spirit, body, and mind.
However, while modern yoga only focuses on postures, according to the ancient Hatha yoga text “Hatha Yoga Pradipika,” there are four parts or characteristics to classical Hatha yoga practice.
The four parts of a Hatha yoga class
- Asana (movements to preserve and channel the vital force or energy)
- Pranayama (breathing exercises)
- Mudras (sacred hand gestures) and bandhas (energetic locks)
- Samadhi (techniques to reach enlightenment)
Traditionally, the main aim of Hatha yoga is to attain the state of Samadhi, where it is believed you have overcome all restraints of the mind and, as a result, will experience eternal bliss.
Of course, most yoga practitioners in the western culture are not seeking enlightenment but more a way to unwind from the demands of the fast-paced, modern-day life. For this purpose, I've personally found (along with thousands of other yogis) that Hatha yoga serves wonderfully.
What does Hatha mean?
In the most simple terms, Hatha means the practice of physical postures in conjunction with proper breathing. Although it is commonly seen as a distinct style, Hatha is the basis of many other newer yoga types, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar yoga, and Power Yoga.
A traditional Hatha yoga class will appear significantly different from these other styles regarding sequencing, pacing, and teaching style. However, you'll notice all these styles share many of the same poses, such as the warrior poses, downward-facing dog, mountain pose, etc. Moreover, conscious breath control is a component of all yoga styles.
Thus, for practitioners in the western world, Hatha is best understood as the original asana practice described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Many modern-day yoga classes in studios and gyms will likely not be traditional Hatha, but they will be heavily influenced by it.
What is the Sanskrit meaning of the word Hatha?
Hatha is a Sanskrit word that literally translates to “effort” or “force,” referring to the physical effort of asana practice (holding yoga poses). However, when broken down into two words, “Ha” means “Sun,” and “Tha” means “Moon.” This suggests the practice is designed to unite and balance these opposing energies.
One of my Hatha yoga teachers also taught me that the sun and moon represent “Sthira” and “Sukha.” The Sanskrit word Sthira translates to “steadiness,” while Sukha means “ease.”
Hatha practices aim to find a balance between steadiness and ease. This means it should feel challenging but not to the point of pain or overexertion – there should always be some sense of comfort.
Why is it called Hatha yoga?
You may be thinking, force is a strange translation for a practice that's supposed to be gentle and therapeutic. So what is the reason behind this somewhat surprising name?
Like most styles of yoga practiced in the western culture, Hatha Yoga is predominantly asana (physical practices). Asana is the first of eight limbs described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, and it is the one that requires the most physical effort. After asana comes more subtle practices like breathing techniques and meditation.
The 15th-century text, “Hatha Yoga Pradipika,” by Swami Svatmarama, is the oldest surviving manual explaining Hatha yoga. Swami Svatmarama was the disciple of Guru Gorakhnath, who is considered the “great yogi” or founder of Hatha yoga.
In this text, Swami Svatmarama states that practicing this classical yoga style will help you attain spiritual powers and reach enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal. However, nowadays, we know there are great benefits of practicing Hatha yoga for the body, mind, and spirit.
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Physical and mental health benefits of Hatha yoga
5 physical health benefits of Hatha yoga are:
- Increased flexibility
- Increased strength
- Better posture
- Improved blood flow in the body and brain
- Better functioning of all bodily systems and organs, including the lungs, digestive, and immune systems.
5 mental health benefits of Hatha yoga are:
- Lower stress levels
- Reduction in anxious, pessimistic, or repetitive thoughts
- Increased focus and clarity
- More self-discipline
- Improved sleep quality
While most of us practicing modern yoga styles won't reach enlightenment, Hatha yoga is still an excellent way to gain more self-knowledge, awareness of the subtle energies within, and spiritual development.
Hatha yoga postures
As I previously mentioned, many poses you practice in Vinyasa, Ashtanga, or power yoga also appear in Hatha classes. However, one key difference I found between Hatha and Vinyasa was that Hatha features more static posture holds.
Instead of quickly flowing from one pose to the next, you spend time in each posture, finding the correct alignment, connecting to your breath, and observing how it feels in your body. Hatha is often used by yogis as a tool to master the body.
5 common yoga poses in a Hatha class
1. Lotus pose
This seated position looks easy from the outside but is challenging for most yogis. The classic meditation pose involves placing each foot on the opposite thigh, giving a deep stretch to the hips, ankles, and knees.
2. Downward-facing dog
One of the most well-known yoga poses, the downward-facing dog is a full-body stretch, often practiced as a warm-up or in sun salutations. It rejuvenates and relieves tension from the physical body while calming the mind.
3. Mountain Pose
Mountain pose (Tadasana) is the foundational standing posture in any yoga practice. It helps you improve your posture, correct muscle imbalances, and increase body awareness.
4. Warrior 2
Warrior 2 is one of the three classic warrior yoga postures in Hatha yoga. It strengthens the legs and arms, stretches the hips, builds stamina and concentration, and improves self-confidence.
5. Tree Pose
The Tree pose involves balancing your weight on one leg with the lifted foot placed on the opposite thigh and the knee out to the side. This creates a gentle hip opening in the side of the lifted leg while strengthening the standing leg. Like other balance poses, the Tree pose helps to improve focus, concentration, balance, and posture.
Takeaway on Hatha yoga definition
So let's recap, what is the Hatha yoga definition? Hatha yoga is a classical yoga system that combines physical techniques (postures) and breathing techniques. Hatha focuses primarily on purifying and uniting the body and mind, leading to the many incredible benefits that keep us returning to our mats.
If you want to learn yoga, Hatha is undoubtedly the best style to start with. Even if you later move on to other types, Hatha creates the foundation of your yoga journey and gives a glimpse of what traditional yoga practice is.
FAQ about Hatha yoga
What is the difference between Hatha and Vinyasa yoga?
Vinyasa yoga focuses on connecting breath to movement while a Hatha yoga class will likely hold poses for longer. Vinyasa yoga classes are in a constant state of flow which is not necessarily true for a classic Hatha class.
Is Hatha Yoga beginner friendly?
Hatha classes are definitely beginner friendly and a great starting point for any novice yogi. There are many modifications offered in Hatha yoga, and because Hatha is not a breath-to-movement practice, it is often less physically demanding.
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