What Is Hatha Yoga? A Beginners Guide

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With yoga hitting the Western world by storm, have you ever wondered how this spiritual and ancient practice from India became such a popular fitness workout? 

​Instagram is flooded with enthusiastic Yogis showing off their yoga moves, but to understand where the physical side of yoga fits in we need to start with Hatha.

The background of Hatha shows us how important it is to balance mind, body and soul for complete and overall health and wellbeing.

What Is Hatha Yoga?

Rather than being a style of yoga as such, Hatha describes any kind of yoga where poses (asanas) are practiced, this would include Ashtanga, Vinyasa and Iyengar yoga to name a few popular styles.

The word Hatha is the Sanskrit word for ‘Forceful’, and represents a system of physical techniques. Broken down, the Sanskrit word Ha translates to ‘sun’ and Tha to ‘moon’, equating to Hatha being the yoga practice of balance (1).

Hatha yoga has developed in the western world into a style of yoga that is widely practiced. Classes described as Hatha Yoga would be more basic and gentle with a focus on alignment, and physical and mental benefits of each pose, making Hatha the perfect choice for a novice yogi.

In addition to asana practice, Hatha yoga utilises breath in the form of pranayama exercises (controlled breathing techniques) (2) and meditation which is at the heart of traditional Hatha yoga.

The History Of Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga originated in Northern India more than 5000 years ago (3) and was taught as a healing system for the mind and to prepare the body for seated meditation.

​In the 15th Century an Indian Sage, Swatmarama (4), composed the yoga manual ‘Hathapradipika’ (5). This is said to be one of the oldest surviving texts on Hatha  yoga.

The Hathapradipika describes the practice of poses (asanas), controlled breathing techniques (pranayama) and purifying practices (shatkriya). It explains that the sole purpose of Hatha yoga is to awaken the Kundalini energy and to bring the body into a state of Samadhi (6), a deep state of meditative consciousness.

The 20th Century brought Yoga to the west and we have Sri T. Krishnamacharya (7) to thank for this. Krishnamacharya has influenced most yoga traditions today and had the aspiration of sending yoga out from India to the rest of the world.

His students included B.K.S. Iyengar (8) (Iyengar yoga), Pattabhi Jois (9) (Ashtanga), Indra Devi (10) and TKV Desikachar (11) who was the son and student of Krishnamacharya.

“Rid your body of its impurities, let your speech be true and sweet, feel friendship for the world, and with humility seek wealth and knowledge”
- Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Benefits Of Hatha Yoga

Like with all the yoga disciplines the benefits of Hatha yoga are vast. The purpose of the practice is to create complete health of your mind and body and to allow breath and energy to flow through you freely.

Hatha yoga uses physical poses to generate strength and flexibility and to drive energy into all areas of the body, removing any built up tension.

The benefits include:

  • Increase in flexibility - This may seem like an obvious benefit of yoga but being flexible is so important to our physical health. Flexibility allows you to use the maximum strength of your muscles, decreases risk of injury and lubricates your joints.

    Flexibility is built up by holding postures that force us to stretch and twist muscles that we otherwise wouldn’t reach in our day to day activities.
  • Lowers stress levels - This benefit you may notice immediately after your first class. The way breath is used during your practice stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and digest state. This enables us to still the busy mind and lower the heart rate.

    One study taken by UCLA revealed a reduction in the proteins responsible for increased inflammation which trigger stress in the body. (12)
  • Strengthens and tones the body - Working with your own body weight is an excellent way of building strength and tone in the body, and this is exactly what you do in a Hatha yoga class. A lot of the poses taught will be held for longer periods of time, will engage your muscles and be repeated throughout the class.
  • Increase in fitness - In a study looking at the physiological changes in adult women after a short period of regular yoga practice, evidence showed an increase in cardiorespiratory efficiency. (13)
  • Boosts your immune system - Twisting and stretching your body stimulates your lymphatic system and increases the drainage of toxins in the body. This helps the body to fight infection and illness and improve overall health.
  • Mood Elevation - Many studies have been performed to show how beneficial yoga and meditation can be on our mental health. The Harvard Medical School recognizes the positive effect yoga has on reducing anxiety and depression.

What To Expect From A Hatha Yoga Class

A Hatha yoga class will usually last for 75 - 90 minutes and in this time you would be guided through the following techniques.

Pranayama - Pranayama consists of controlled breathing techniques that have a direct impact on your nervous system and life force energy in the body. You would be introduced to deep breathing techniques and possibly some breathing exercises to either stimulate your mind and body or relax it, depending on the nature or the time of the class.

​Pranayama translates to ‘life force extension’. Prana meaning life force or breath, and ayama meaning to extend. The practice of pranayama is said to extend the life within us and awaken our Kundalini energy. (14)

Sun Salutation - Many Hatha classes will use sun salutations to warm up the body and build up heat within.A sun salutation is a flow of yoga asanas linked together with breath. They are extremely energising and combining your inhale and exhale with each transition creates a moving meditation, encouraging stillness and focus in the mind.

Asana - As we have learned that Hatha represents the physical side of yoga it should be no surprise that a large chunk of the class will be dedicated to the practice of yoga postures.

You will be guided through standing postures, core work, balancing postures, back bends, inversions and poses on the floor. The structure of the class will be put together in a systematic way to allow you to get the most out of each pose.

Savasana - Or corpse pose in english, is a favourite for many. This final pose requires you to lay on your back with your arms and legs apart, like a starfish, and to let go completely.

Savasana is an essential part of the yoga class and allows your body and mind time to rejuvenate and absorb all that good work you have done for your body.

You would generally lay here for 10 - 15 minutes with you eyes closed and your body heavy on the floor. Breathing deeply in savasana allows you to release tension in the body and to wake up feeling energised and nourished.

Being aware of your breath allows your mind to remain in the present moment and helps build the foundation for a seated meditation.

How is Hatha Yoga different from other forms of yoga

#1 Hatha vs Vinyasa

There isn’t a huge difference between these styles as the practice of Vinyasa stems from Hatha. The word Vinyasa means flow and this is the biggest difference between the styles.

With Hatha you will practice similar yoga poses as those in a Vinyasa class but you will approach them in a slower paced and more gentle way without flowing from one pose to another.

Vinyasa is more dynamic and has a focus of building heat in the body, whereas in Hatha you will work deeper into the pose and hold the positions for longer breath counts without the need to quickly jump to the next position.here...

#2 Hatha vs Kundalini

With the focus of Hatha being predominantly on the physical side of yoga, Kundalini has a strong focus on the breathing and meditation aspects of yoga.

The intention of Kundalini is to awaken the energy that lays dormant at the base of the spine, this results in the energy coiling up through the spine and aligning our energy centres. With Hatha you work through asanas to get energy flowing freely through the whole body.

#3 Hatha vs Yin

Yin yoga is a very passive form of yoga where most of the postures are performed seated or lying down on the floor. You would hold the poses for 3 - 5 minutes with the intention of working into the deeper layers of the body.

With Yin there is no emphasis on warming up the body. Although Hatha is a slower paced form of yoga it is still a yang style of practice working the superficial layers of the body, building strength as well as flexibility.

#4 Hatha vs Iyengar

Iyengar yoga has a strong focus on alignment, spending time working on the small details of each pose and breath control. With Iyengar you will hold poses for longer periods and use a variety of props to aid your practice.

You may also use props in a hatha class but not in such a detailed way and only to assist in the asanas you may find challenging.

#5 Hatha vs Ashtanga

Ashtanga yoga is a set sequence of yoga postures that are always taught in the same order. You would be led through the class with little or no description of the posture and encouraged to use your breath to flow from each movement.

Ashtanga is a very dynamic, fast paced and strong form of yoga with the intention of creating a moving meditation with the flow of movement and connection to breath.

#6 Hatha vs Bikram

Bikram yoga is a set of 26 postures that are performed in a room heated to105 degrees Fahrenheit and with a humidity of 40%. The aim here is to sweat out toxins and warm the body up so much that you are able to get deeper into poses.

A Bikram class will be the same 90 minute class wherever you go. Whereas there is so much more freedom in a Hatha yoga class to explore different asanas and techniques.

#6 Hatha vs Restorative

Restorative yoga is another form of passive yoga, holding stretches for as long as 10 minutes. The aim of this style of yoga is to completely let go, using the aid of props to support the body and to allow you release fully into the posture.

Begin A Hatha Yoga Practice In The Comfort Of Your Own Home

1. A 30 minute Hatha class for beginners

2. A Hatha Yoga class led by the popular Yogi, Esther Ekhart (15)

3. A full Hatha yoga class

Begin Your Practice

Hatha is a beautiful way to exercise your body and mind and improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Whether you are a complete beginner or someone wanting a more gentle physical practice then Hatha yoga could be the style you were looking for.

With Hatha yoga being the most practiced style of yoga in the western world today you are sure to find a class near you.

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