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There are many ways to practice yoga. It can be a fitness class, a more personal practice, a workout, or a spiritual experience. One of the most popular ways to practice yoga in modern western cultures is known as hatha.
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class and went through sequences of poses, you have done hatha yoga. Hatha is a physical practice, but to get the most out of it, there should be a connection between the body, the breath, and the mind.
Hatha yoga is more focused on the body than other types of yoga. It is an umbrella term that includes many types of yoga practiced commonly in the west, including ashtanga, vinyasa, Iyengar, and others.
The word hatha means force. It can also be broken down into the words ha and tha, meaning sun and moon. There are two interpretations of this: hatha yoga is concerned with the physical forces of the body and/or bringing the body and mind in balance with each other, like the sun and moon.
A lot of people today use hatha yoga as a workout or as a combination of a workout and a spiritual practice. The traditional purposes of going through poses in hatha yoga is to align the body and breath, calm the body and mind, and prepare for meditation.
There are eight limbs of a complete and traditional yoga practice. Three of these are most commonly used in western hatha yoga:
Asanas. Also known as poses or postures, the asanas are the main reason most people do hatha yoga. They range from easy to extremely difficult and help align the body while building strength, balance, and flexibility.
Pranayama. Pranayama is the breathwork associated with a yoga practice. Many hatha classes begin and end with breathing, but it’s also important to breathe thoughtfully throughout the asanas. A skilled instructor guides students through proper inhalations and exhalations during each pose.
Meditation. Yoga classes might skip this part, but the true purpose of working on poses and breathing is to calm the body and mind for meditation. The end of a hatha session is a great time to spend a few minutes on quiet reflection or meditation.
Some practitioners of hatha yoga use the other limbs or elements in their practice, but most mainstream classes stick with these three.
Can you do yoga without the spiritual aspect? Learn more here.
Technically, vinyasa is a type of hatha yoga. Vinyasa is also often referred to as yoga flow. In a vinyasa class, the goal is to move smoothly and purposely from one pose into the next and without spending too much time on each one.
While vinyasa is a subtype of hatha, some people use the term hatha yoga to refer only to a slower pace of movement between asanas. The focus is more on holding an asana with good form and proper alignment than on flowing quickly into the next pose.
There are many benefits of practicing hatha yoga, especially if you take time to combine the asanas with breathwork and meditation.
Some of the most obvious benefits of hatha yoga are physical. The asanas require you to hold your body weight in some physically challenging positions, which strengthens muscles. These challenging positions also stretch the muscles and connective tissue to make you more flexible.
Learn more about adding yoga to your regular strength routine.
Aligning the body in proper asana form helps improve posture, an important benefit for people who spend a lot of time hunched over a screen. Studies also show that hatha yoga practice improves balance, which is good for preventing falls.
The mental health benefits of yoga can be just as important as the physical and fitness benefits. Research indicates that regular hatha yoga practice can serve as an effective treatment for anxiety. Hatha yoga also reduces symptoms of depression in some people.
Many of the benefits of practicing hatha yoga contribute to better sleep. Studies back this up and show that regular yoga practice can improve the time it takes to get to sleep, boost sleep quality, and reduce the need for sleep aids.
These are just some of the most important benefits of a regular hatha yoga practice. It can also boost your cardiovascular fitness, reduce pain, improve mood, and help with some symptoms of certain chronic conditions.
If you’re new to yoga and choose a class to try as a beginner, it will most likely be hatha yoga, even if the name of the class doesn’t include hatha. This is by far the most common type of yoga taught in the U.S., and there are many varieties, from hot and power yoga to flow or restorative yoga. Here’s what you need to know before your first class.
You’ll be moving a lot during this class, so wear comfortable athletic clothing. You want some stretch and give but avoid clothes that are too loose. Loose fabric can impede your movement in poses. Bring your own mat and towel. Not all gyms provide them or can guarantee clean options. Bring a water bottle to hydrate during and after the class.
A standard hatha yoga class might last from 45 to 90 minutes. You’ll roll out your mat in a free area and take off your shoes and socks. Most instructors begin the class with breathwork. You’ll be asked to focus on breathing as you go through some gentle movements to warm up.
The instructor will then move you through a series of asanas, describing and demonstrating how to do each one correctly. As opposed to a vinyasa class, where students flow quickly from pose to the next, in hatha, you can expect the instructor to take more time to correct your form as needed and to direct your breathing. You’ll have time in each pose to make adjustments and get it right.
Many hatha yoga classes include props: blocks, straps, blankets. You can use these to modify poses or to do more difficult poses. Your instructor will offer them and show you how to use them if they think you could benefit.
Most classes end with a relaxation pose or even a brief meditation. You’ll likely be asked lie on the mat quietly, focusing on your breathing or clearing your mind.
Expect to feel both relaxed and reinvigorated after a hatha yoga class. Your mind should feel clear and refreshed and your body looser than when you walked in. Be sure to drink plenty of water to hydrate and get a snack to refuel.
One of the great things about hatha and other types of yoga is that they are highly modifiable. This means that nearly anyone can practice and benefit from yoga. Hatha yoga is good for beginners, advanced practitioners, and people with physical limitations.
Hatha yoga includes poses that are simple and easy for beginners, extremely challenging poses, and everything in between. Many of the poses can be adapted for an individual’s needs, goals, or limitations.
The ISSA now offers a Yoga Alliance-approved 200-hour teacher training program. If you have a passion for yoga and want to share it with others, this is your next best step.