If you are considering taking up yoga classes, beginning your yoga journey, and cultivating the habit of practicing yoga in the long term, you must have stumbled upon the different types of yoga available, Hatha yoga being one of them.
And now if you are wondering what specifically Hatha yoga is all about, how it is different from other yoga styles, and what benefits it comes with, this beginner’s guide to Hatha yoga is definitely for you.
You’ll get to learn what Hatha yoga is in-depth, its history, how it works, its benefits, how to get started with it, and the frequently asked questions about it.
What is Hatha Yoga?
Hatha yoga is perceived to mean different things to different groups of people, and there is often a slight difference in the meaning of the word “Hatha” between the people from the East and the Western countries.
In the west, the name “Hatha” is divided into 2 sections, “Ha” which refers to the sun, and “Tha” which means the moon, which are two different energies (solar and lunar energies) within human beings. And this brings about the common understanding of Hatha yoga to mean a style of yoga that is crafted in a way to help bring union and balance to the two
In essence, “Hatha” is a Sanskrit word that means discipline of force. Sanskrit is an old-age language in Asia that was commonly used during the time yoga was being established as a transformative practice and exercise (1).
Hatha yoga is a type of yoga that puts emphasis on using disciplined force for mastering the body as a path to gaining spiritual perfection, which is a state where the yoga practitioner lets go of all external objects and experiences to focus inward.
By understanding how we relate to our internal and external experiences through Hatha yoga, we can come to the attainment of inner peace.
This yoga style works closely with breath regulation (known as pranayama), physical postures (known as asanas), and meditation (known as dhyana) to help bring unity to the mind, body, and spirit, as is the goal of all yoga styles and yoga as a whole.
You can read our comprehensive guide to yoga to know other yoga styles and other crucial aspects of yoga as a practice.
History of Hatha Yoga
When it comes to the origin of Hatha yoga, there has been a constant conflict about when exactly this practice was started, some scholars argue that it may have existed 1500 years ago, others say it was 2000 years ago, while others argue it was neither of the two.
What is known for sure is that it originated in Eastern countries, and Hindus and Buddhists were among the first few groups to practice it.
It is believed that the practice was developed around the fifteenth century and embraced the use of poses, controlled breathing techniques, hand gestures, and meditation for achieving a higher spiritual awakening.
The practice was held in high reverence and practiced religiously according to the texts, Yoga sutras of Patanjali (Hindu texts that outline the practice of yoga written by Patanjali, one of the sages believed to have received instructions on yoga from Lord Shiva).
While for the most part of the old age Hatha yoga was practiced in the East, around the 1800s, the practice was introduced to the West by Swami Vivekananda in the early 1890s from India (2).
Around 1950 to 1960, the practice became even more popular when it was featured on television through the program called “Yoga For Health” by Richard Hittleman.
The popularity of Hatha yoga was later on amplified by Maharishi Maheshi Yogi, who was a spiritual leader that advised the Beatles. He brought about a fairly different approach to the practice that combined yoga with transcendental meditation.
Over the years, Hatha yoga has grown and is widely practiced across the world by thousands of enthusiasts due to its mental, spiritual and physical benefits.
How Hatha Yoga Works
Hatha yoga involves classes that last 45 minutes to an hour and a half per class, but some experts argue that working with a shorter duration than that can still prove to be beneficial to your health.
Hatha yoga is a slow-paced practice that works with gentle poses and movements that you can easily learn and master, that is why it is great for beginners who are just stepping foot into yoga as well as experienced yogis (yogis are people who practice yoga).
Many meditation studios, organizations, and centers that teach yoga offer different variations of the practice although the essence of the practice and the main areas of focus across all the centers are the same.
As earlier mentioned, there are 3 aspects to Hatha yoga, meditation, poses, and controlled breathing.
Typically, a Hatha yoga class will begin with an easy-to-do guided meditation or a quiet moment of silence, or even a moment to focus on your breath for a couple of minutes. You may be taken through various breathing techniques such as the alternate nostril breathing to help you build the momentum needed for the next phase.
After that, you will be taken through some gentle body movements and poses which include spinal rolls, restorative poses like the child’s pose, gentle body twists, seated poses like the bridge pose, and standing poses like the tree pose.
Some instructors may guide you through various body movements that set the pace for the peak pose instead of the other poses. It all depends on the instructor and the approach they find best to work with.
As the class comes to an end, you will be immersed in a meditative session guided by the instructor to help you relax, be calm, focused, and soak in the experience you have had in the class. Some classes add chanting too.
The good thing about the poses is that you don’t have to do all of them as the instructor guides you. Depending on your health status and flexibility, you can ask the instructor to give you other modified poses to replace the ones you feel are too much for you to handle. The instructors are trained to modify every student’s path depending on various factors.
Also, as you make the body movements, you work with your breath, ensuring that your inhalation and exhalation processes are aligned to your movements so that everything works in synchrony. Doing that increases your level of mindfulness and provides a more immersive experience for you.
Difference Between Hatha Yoga And Vinyasa Yoga
From afar, vinyasa yoga and Hatha yoga might seem to be similar but there are actual differences between the two styles.
To begin with, Hatha yoga takes into account many aspects of yoga generally which is why it appears to be similar to many other styles of yoga including Vinyasa yoga, Iyengar yoga, and Ashtanga yoga.
However, Vinyasa yoga has been adopted from Hatha yoga. So it is okay to say that Vinyasa yoga is a modified version of Hatha yoga.
Also, the pace used for doing poses in Hatha yoga is much slower and more focused on doing every pose correctly compared to Vinyasa yoga which is a bit fast-paced.
Benefits of Hatha Yoga
Researchers have taken a keen interest in how Hatha yoga improves different areas of our lives and here are some of the benefits the practice was found to bring for those who did it regularly.
1. Improves flexibility, endurance, and muscular strength – A study that sought to determine how a 12-weeks practice of Hatha yoga affects endurance, flexibility, muscular strength, and cardiorespiratory endurance divided 187 participants into 2 groups where one group received the 12 weeks of Hatha yoga while the other group was the control group. The results of the experiment showed that the practice produces positive effects on all aspects. Also, the practice can increase spine flexibility in older women who are above 50 years old (3)(4).
2. Can bring down anxiety – A meta-analysis that involved seventeen studies that worked with more than 500 participants revealed that Hatha yoga could potentially be a treatment for anxiety due to its positive effects (5).
3. Improves body balance – A study that aimed to see how 5 months of practice of Hatha yoga can affect body balance in young adults worked with 24 male participants around the age of 25 to 55 years who were divided into 2 groups with one group getting the Hatha yoga practice while the other was the control. The findings of the study showed that Hatha yoga can in fact improve postural control in young adults who are healthy (6).
4. Improves stress reactivity – A study that involved young adults who were taken through 2 days of Hatha yoga practice while the control group watched television found that as little as one session of Hatha yoga, through video instructions, can boost stress reactivity and promote recovery from a task that brings about acute stress in healthy people (7).
5. Enhancing mindfulness – A study that aimed to determine how Hatha yoga affects yoga practitioners in the beginning stage as well as the advanced stage of practice in terms of stress and mindfulness found that there are no differences in improved mindfulness or stress reduction. Both groups of practitioners get to improve their level of mindfulness and bring down stress (8).
Hatha yoga is still under research and we might discover more benefits linked to the practice with more future research that is targeted toward how it influences other aspects of our lives.
How to Do Hatha Yoga
To begin Hatha yoga on the right footing and get to benefit from it, you should consider and commit to learning and practicing it as part of your lifestyle, and not some short-lived practice you will be doing to enjoy the benefits once or twice and then decide to abandon it.
Just like meditation, the more you practice yoga, the better your experiences with it become and the more you get to enjoy its full benefits.
When it comes to learning Hatha yoga, as a beginner, you should take your time to find the right Hatha yoga center, organization, or personal instructor.
You can look up the nearby yoga studios, fitness centers, or yoga organizations and see if they offer Hatha yoga classes.
Make sure you do deep research on each of the leads you get to ensure you settle for high-quality and reliable yoga classes that will help you learn the practice properly and ground yourself well so as to have long-term positive effects that keep building up with every class.
Research the center or the personal instructor and see that they have all the right credentials, qualifications, and experience in teaching the practice.
Search for people they have trained and talk to them to understand how their experiences were and if you’re going to get what you want from the center or instructor based on the past experiences of the people who have been through what you are about to get into.
After you have settled for an instructor or center you feel is your best fit, you should consider investing in a good yoga mat, yoga blocks, yoga blanket, a water bottle, yoga strap, comfortable yoga clothing and determine when you will be having your classes per week.
If you have any health issues, be sure to consult with your doctor to determine if the practice is good for you and how you can go about it in the safest and best way possible without increasing risks to your health.
Also, discuss with your instructor and disclose any of the conditions you have so that they can figure out the best techniques and poses for you and the modifications they need to make according to your health status in the effort to provide a safe and rewarding Hatha yoga approach for you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Hatha Yoga
Question: Which are the most common Hatha yoga poses?
Answer: Some of the most popular poses in Hatha yoga include the child’s pose, standing forward fold, downward-facing dog, peak pose, tree pose, and boat pose among many others.
Question: Which are the best Hatha yoga books to deepen my knowledge of the practice?
Answer: You should consider reading Pancham Sinh’s “Hatha Yoga Pradipika”. Also, other books like “Hatha Yoga For Teachers And Practitioners” written by Kalyani Hauswirth Jain and Ram Jain, and “Patanjali Yoga Sutras” written by Swami Satchidananda are great additions to your collection.