Hatha yoga is a widely practiced branch of yoga, often deemed popular with beginners due to its moderate pace and static holds in each posture. Although it is often thought of as a gentle practice when considered alongside faster paced forms of yoga, such as vinyasa flow, or Ashtanga, hatha classes can be dialled up or down in terms of intensity depending on each yoga practitioner’s level of practice. The word hatha in fact can be translated from Sanskrit to mean “force” and directly refers to the physical effort required for the practice. With these thoughts in mind, we can explore the building blocks of hatha and its history in a little more detail.
How Long Has Hatha Yoga Been Around?
While there’s no precise answer as to how many years hatha yoga has been around for, it’s an ancient practice which is believed to have started in India between the 11th and 13th century. When yoga classes first started to take shape in India, asanas were taught from teacher to student in classrooms without any forms of textbooks to rely on and as such, traditional forms of yoga, like hatha have been subject to slight variations in interpretations as time has evolved. One example of this is that many people often consider hatha yoga as being the balancing of sun and moon energies - “Ha” representing the sun and “tha” referring to the moon, whilst others believe this to purely be an interpretation.
When more textbooks started to form around the 14th/15th century, practitioners were able to use these for reference as yoga spread from India into other countries. Much of the information we know and apply about hatha yoga has derived from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which is a highly regarded and well-studied textbook composed by Swami Swatmarama. Swami Swatmarama complied the book in the 15th century based on earlier texts and teachings he had come by. The book literally translates as meaning the “light on hatha yoga” and works to shed light on this ancient yoga form with a viewpoint that is closer to the origins of hatha yoga to any textbook written today. As such, its teachings and findings are incredibly valuable to many yogis and those interested in learning about hatha yoga in-depth.
The Aim of Hatha Yoga
The intent of hatha yoga is to balance the body’s energies through asana, pranayama and bandhas. Practitioners aim to balance the ida and pingala nadis, which are thought to be the energy channels moving up the left and right side of sushumna nadi (which is an energy channel that runs along the length of the spinal column). Many hatha yoga classes follow on from asana practice into meditation or extended pranayama, as the aim in not only to balance the body, but also the mind unifying the two together.
What to Typically Expect from a Hatha Yoga Class
The expected structure of a hatha yoga class has similarities with other forms of yoga, such as vinyasa flow, however the pace of hatha yoga is notable more moderate. This makes hatha a brilliant way to introduce yoga to those easing themselves into the practice or returning after a period of time away.
Classes vary in length with studios typically offering 60-90 minute sessions. Unlike a vinyasa class, a hatha sequence often omits elements of “flow”. The length and pace of the class gives students time to work through each asana slowly as their body makes sense of the postures.
Each class includes: centring, asana practice, ujjayi breath and engagement of bandhas. Students are often offered mudra options and asana sequences are often followed by additional pranayama techniques or meditation to calm the mind, unify the body and close the practice. These terms are explained in more detail below.
Breaking Down the Class Structure
Classes begin in a grounded position, helping students to feel present in the moment and start engaging with their breath. Mindfully tying asanas with fluid breathwork changes the movements from simple stretches to yoga, so taking time to be aware of the breath and mindfully set an intention is an important part of any hatha yoga practice.
This is the different poses students move in and out of throughout the class. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika sites that there are 84 different hatha yoga poses. This includes fifteen primary standing and seated poses, as well as balances and inversions. Typically, students will experience a selection of these in any one class.
- Ujjayi Breath
As mentioned when discussing the need for centring in yoga classes, students are encouraged to be mindful of their breath as they move in and out of asanas, as well as during the moments of pause in each hold. Each asana is generally held for 4 or 5 full breath counts. In yoga, different breathing techniques are called pranayama techniques and in hatha, students are offered Ujjayi breath. This “victorious breathing” helps to warm the body from the inside out through breathing in and out through the nose with a slight constriction at the back of the throat.
- Engaging Bandhas
There are different bandhas (energy locks) used in yoga to help seal energy and create stability in the body. You’ll find these being taught in most hatha classes with focus on the main four bandhas which are: mula bandha, uddiyana banhda, jalandhara bandha and maha bandha.
Different hand gestures to help direct the movement of energy around the body
After savasana, which counts as the last asana in the class, hatha students are often invited to return to a comfortable seated position for additional pranayama or meditation.
Benefits of Hatha Yoga
Having considered some of the building blocks and history of hatha yoga, the perspective on this practice may have changed from it being an “easy” yoga option to a practice students can explore to different depths. Here are some of the psychical and subtle benefits hatha yogis may experience:
- An increased sense of mental wellbeing and stress reduction through pranayama and asana to calm the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Increased energy levels during the daytime through working to move prana (energy) around the body.
- Improved blood circulation through regular asana practice.
- Can help to detoxify the body’s organs through twists and movement.
- Counterbalances to the body’s daily movements helping to promote improved posture through consistent practice and asana alignment.
- The potential to improve sleep patterns through calming the mind.
- A great option for beginners or those curious about yoga due to the slower pace and omission of complex linked movements.
- A great addition for athletes or anyone with tight muscles.
- The ability to improve flexibility through exploring range of motion.
- The potential to help strengthen bones through regular gentle weight bearing movements.
- The ability to increase overall body strength and muscle tone through asana holds and balances.
- Helps to increase focus through asana, pranayama and meditation.