What is commonly called yoga in the West is technically Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga (ha=”sun” tha=”moon”) attains the union of mind-body-spirit through a practice of asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (yoga breathing), mudra (body gestures), bandha (energy locks or seals) and shatkarma (internal cleansing). These body-centered practices are used to strengthen and purify the physical body, and cultivate prana (life-force energy) and activate kundalini (dormant spiritual energy). Modern Hatha Yoga does not emphasize most of these esoteric methods and instead focuses primarily on the physical yoga practices.
What is Hatha Yoga?
The Sanskrit word “hatha” can be translated in English two different ways: as “willful” or “forceful,” as the active path of yoga—or as “sun” (ha) and “moon” (tha), as the yoga of balance. Taken together, hatha yoga can be described as a set of willful and active practices that aim to achieve harmony and balance in the mind, body, and spirit. This approach to yoga is often called “the forceful path” and includes the practice of physical postures and breathing techniques.
Hatha yoga is the generic type of yoga classes taught in the West. Most of the popular types of yoga taught in yoga studios are derived from this style. It is often used to describe a more gentle or beginner friendly style.
History of Hatha Yoga
In the history of yoga, hatha yoga is a fairly recent technique that was developed from theories and techniques of Tantra Yoga. The tantrics embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment and developed the physical-spiritual connections and body-centered practices that lead to Hatha Yoga. But Hatha Yoga is uniquely focused on transforming the physical body through purification and the cultivation of the subtle energies of the body. The ultimate goal of this
type of yoga is to direct the vital energy into the central channel and draw it up towards the crown chakra. Most modern classes do not teach the esoteric exercises of breath retention, bandhas and mudras that would channel and raise one’s energy levels high enough to attain enlightenment. And all of the techniques of this form of yoga are seen as preliminary steps to achieving the deeper states of meditation and enlightenment found in the path of raja yoga.
The oldest and most widely used ancient text on the physical practices of Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This book was composed in 15th century CE by Swami Swatamarama and is derived from older Sanskrit texts, the teachings from well-known teachers, and from Swatamarama’s own yogic experiences. The main goal of this text is to illuminate the physical disciplines and practices of Hatha Yoga and integrate these with the higher spiritual goals of Raja Yoga.
Swatamarama begins with explaining the relationship between the two, informing us that Hatha is a preliminary practice for Raja Yoga. He tells us that obtaining self-control and self-discipline is much easier when we start with the physical and energetic body, versus trying to directly control the mind as in Raja Yoga. Through the mastery of the prana, or energy of the body, we can then easily master the control of the mind and obtain success with Raja Yoga.
Other Classical Hatha Yoga texts
Several other important texts emerged after the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. These Sanskrit texts reaffirmed, refined and added to the practices and theories of Hatha Yoga. Only two of these classical treatises have survived and are available to be read today.
Modern popularity of Hatha Yoga
It was not until the 1920s when Hatha Yoga became popularized and promoted in India with the work of T. Krishnamacharya and a few other brave and determined yogis. Krishnamacharya traveled through India giving demonstrations of poses and with other pioneering yogis promoted hatha yoga through its strong healing and other positive benefits. Since then, many more western and Indian teachers have become pioneers, popularizing this branch of yoga and gaining millions of followers. Hatha Yoga now has many different schools or styles, all emphasizing the many different aspects of the practice.
Traditional Hatha Yoga poses
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes fifteen physical poses. Some of the names of these postures have changed over time and the instructions and alignment details have also shifted in modern yoga. It is interesting that many of these classical asanas are seated meditation poses and several are very advanced and challenging poses.
- Svastikasana – Auspicious Pose
- Gomukhasana – Cow-Facing Pose
- Virasana – Hero’s Pose
- Kurmasana – Tortoise Pose
- Kukkutasana – Cockerel or Rooster Pose
- Uttana Kurmasana – Tortoise Pose
- Dhanurasana – Bow Pose
- Matsyendrasana – Seated Twisting Pose
- Paschimatanasana – Seated Forward Bending Pose
- Mayurasana – Peacock Pose
- Shavasana – Corpse Pose
- Siddhasana – Accomplished Pose
- Padmasana – Lotus Pose
- Simhasana – Lion Pose
- Bhadrasana – Throne Pose
What is a Hatha Yoga class like?
Hatha and Hatha Yoga are used in modern times as a broad and generic term for yoga which does not have a specific style attached to it. A typical class will be relatively gentle, slow and good for beginners, but it is difficult to know what a specific class will be like before attending. This practice typically starts with some gentle warm-ups, continues to a sequence of poses, and end with 5-10 minutes of relaxation in corpse pose. A class will often begin and end with a short seated meditation. The class often concludes with students bringing their hands together in prayer position while bowing and saying Namaste. Hatha classes are usually 60 to 90 minutes long and may also include pranayama breathing exercises as a separate practice or integrated with the yoga postures.
What is Hatha Yoga good for?
Hatha Yoga is usually taught as a householder path with a focus on the physical attainment of the poses. Hatha practices are designed to align, cleanse and calm your body, mind, and spirit in order to achieve deeper states of meditation and spiritual realization. A regular practice can improve strength, stamina, flexibility, range of motion, and balance; reduce stress; promote mental calm; and provide many other therapeutic benefits as well. The many different styles or schools of Hatha Yoga have more specific benefits. For example, if you wish to build strength and cardiovascular health, try a more vigorous style of yoga like vinyasa yoga, ashtanga or power yoga.
Ready to Practice Yoga?
When you’re brand new to yoga, it can be difficult to know exactly where and how to get started. Our Beginners guide was created to give you all the tips, guidelines, and recommendations you will need to start a successful yoga practice. If you are familiar to yoga but want to advance your practice, explore our intermediate and advanced asanas in our comprehensive pose index.