What is Hatha Yoga?

Hatha yoga mudra‘What is Hatha yoga?’ is an easy enough question but the answer is not so straightforward. Hatha yoga is a broad term, which refers to the physical practices of yoga.

Initally, yoga was a meditative discipline practiced by Indian ascetics to break the of cycle of rebirth and find enlightenment. Hatha yoga came about at the end of the first millennium CE, introducing a strong focus on physical exercises. Hatha yoga was devised as preparation for meditation. Hatha yoga is meant to prepare us for meditation by helping us create a state of ‘sattva’ (a state when our body is healthy and comfortable, and our mind is clear and stable).

What type of yoga I teach

When asked what type of yoga I teach I usually reply ‘Hatha yoga’ for the sole reason that I do not follow any particular school of yoga but enjoy the freedom and flexibility Hatha yoga offers me for creating my yoga classes: I can draw from different schools of yoga and can vary the sequence and pace depending on the needs of the students attending or a theme we intend to explore. I base my classes on classic Hatha yoga postures with a focus on good alignment and safe practice. I also include gentle flows, x breathing techniques, mindful meditation and time for relaxation.

The meaning of the word hatha

The Sanskrit word ‘hatha’ means ‘force’, so Hatha yoga is ‘forceful yoga’; it is anything you do with your body, including:

  • Asana (postures)
  • Pranayama (breathing techniques)
  • Mudra (hand gestures)
  • Bandha (energy locks)
  • Mantra (chanting/reciting)
  • Shatkriya/shatkarma (cleansing techniques).

The work ‘hatha’ also contains the words ‘ha’ (sun) and ‘tha’ (moon); and the word ‘yoga’ means to yoke, to join together. For that reason Hatha yoga is associated with balancing and uniting opposing forces, similar to the concept of yin and yang in traditional Chinese medicine.

By the way, to pronounce the word ‘hatha’ correctly, do not pronounce the ‘th’ sound (as in ‘the’), rather replace it with ‘t’ (as in ‘tea’).

Shades of Hatha yoga

In many yoga studios, the term Hatha yoga is used for gentler yoga classes with a focus on poses (rather than flows), supported by the use of props. Stronger, more dynamic forms of Hatha yoga now come under their own – often branded – names, for example, Ashtanga, Atmananda, Bikram, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Vinyasa, etc. Other variations include Yin yoga, Kundalini yoga, restorative yoga, therapeutic yoga, and pregnancy yoga.

Add the additional diversity due to the different personalities of yoga teachers to the equation, and it is probably best to try out a range of yoga classes to find the ones, which suit you best.

A weird and wondrous history

Yoga was and still is one of the six Indian orthodox schools of philosophy. Modern day yoga in the ‘Western world’, however, is mostly a non-religious practice promoting good health through the practice of yoga postures.

The history of yoga spans several thousand years and it is therefore not surprising that is has evolved considerably over time. Yoga has adapted to regional social and cultural variations and in many places has taken a life of its own, independent of its Indian roots.

The first texts on Hatha yoga appeared at the end of the first millennium CE. Some of the techniques described in these original texts appear to our modern eye outdated, outlandish and even outright dangerous. At the time of colonialism at the end of the eighteenth century, Europeans encountered ascetic yogis engaging in extreme rituals such as holding their arms up in the air for years or enduring the bat penance, i.e. hanging upside down for long periods of time. Other elements of Hatha yoga are still relevant and have not only endured but florished, particularly the practice of postures and breathing techniques.

Many of the health benefits of Hatha yoga are increasingly substantiated by independent research, which has paved the way for yoga to be considered as a tool to manage conditions such as lower back pain, high blood pressure, stress, and anxiety.

For a brief introduction on the history of yoga, you may like to listen to this BBC Radio 4 programme The Secret History of Yoga.

The physical practices of yoga – particularly the practice of poses – has become so prevalent that when we talk about yoga today, what we really mean is Hatha yoga.

“Success is not attained by wearing the clothes of a yogi or by talking about it.
Practice alone is the cause of success.”

Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.66