What Is Hatha Yoga? When It Started, Who Started It, & What to Expect
Hatha Yoga – The Original Asana Practice
The original asana yoga is Hatha Yoga, a style of yoga that takes each pose one at a time, thoughtfully, with a heavy focus on alignment and breath control while in the posture.
One of the four traditional paths of Yoga study, Hatha Yoga was originally a way to get to the goal of Yoga, connection with the Divine / Source/ Holy One of Blessing through the rigorous discipline of the physical body.
Hatha is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “persistent,” “willful,” or “disciplined,” though it is sometimes translated into more aggressive words like “forced” or “exertion.”
I see a lot of people on the interwebs say that Hatha Yoga can be broken down as ha meaning sun and tha meaning moon, but since surya is the Sanskrit word for sun (also savitā, which means sun or sun’s light/ energy) and chandra means moon, I’m not sure where that comes from or why it has been repeated.
Essentially, Hatha Yoga practice defines all physical practices of Yoga on the mat, but it also defines a specific type of yoga practice on the mat that is slow, steady, and static, practiced one pose at a time.
How Was Hatha Yoga Born?
The history of Hatha Yoga is complex and spans many centuries, but its origins can be traced back to ancient India, where it was first mentioned in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a text purportedly written in the 15th century CE. In this volume, a number of physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation practices are described with the goal of helping the practitioner achieve greater control over the physical body.
The idea is that when you have mastered your physical body, the spiritual realm through the other bodies, or koshas, is more accessible, as is the mental state that equates with enlightenment or samadhi.
Who Created Hatha Yoga?
It’s worth noting that Hatha Yoga as a specific system or style of yoga does not have a single founder. It evolved over the past few hundred years in India through the contributions of numerous yogis, sages, and scholars, and further evolved in different cultures and communities that have adopted the practice over the centuries.
Another important point: although countries, religions, and cultures have adopted yoga into their way of life and worship, the essence of Yoga remains unchanged. It’s simplicity and beauty are always available, no matter the words chanted or in what language, the poses done or in what order, or the person directing the students.
There are a number of teachers who have done amazing things with Hatha Yoga, and their styles of yoga bring value to the students who find value in them. This means that there are a lot of very different styles of yoga that can be termed “hatha” – and at the same time, all asana practice can be called “hatha yoga” so remember that if you try one hatha yoga class and don’t love it, you will likely have a very different experience if you go to another studio or find another teacher who teaches hatha yoga.
What Styles of Yoga Are Considered Hatha Yoga?
As both a generic term for physically-based practices and a style of physical practice, any class that has hatha in the title will be a slower practice with plenty of time to move into and out of postures and a focus first on physical alignment and then on the breath.
BKS Iyengar is one of the great teachers of Yoga and his focus on accessibility through use of props to support safe alignment is and was groundbreaking. An incredible teacher, he truly used the physical practice of asana to support a life lived in Yoga. He has written two of my favorite books in the world, Light on Life and Light on Yoga. They’re the kind of books that I listen to in the car the same way I would listen to music to make me feel calm and centered when I’m feeling off. I highly recommend them. Click the links on the titles to check them out for yourself.
I hesitate to include Bikram Choudhury in this list, especially right after talking about a great teacher like Iyengar, but Bikram did popularize the practice of hot yoga and taught a sequence of 26 postures that qualifies as Hatha Yoga in both senses of the term because there is no flowing between poses. There are studios out there that crank up the heat in their classes but teach in a flow style, so while all Bikram yoga is hot yoga and Hatha Yoga, not all hot yoga is Bikram or Hatha.
I’m putting Kundalini Yoga in the Hatha Yoga category, but it is with some reservation. There is some asana practice and it is not usually a flow style, but the whole focus of the class is rarely on asana at all. There’s some asana, yes, but it’s a class dedicated to chanting and mantra, a beautifully spiritual experience where movement is organic. A truly unique style of yoga, it should be accessible to beginners and it does provide plenty of time between asana poses once the asana portion begins, so that’s why I’m putting it here. Otherwise, it would probably be better classified as a category unto itself.
Who Is a Good Candidate for Hatha Yoga?
Everyone. The slower nature of the movement between postures means that everyone has plenty of time to get into the pose, get comfortable, make adjustments, and then spend some time focused on breath control and direction. I would feel absolutely comfortable directing a newbie to yoga to any class that has the word Hatha in it and any of the styles of yoga listed with the exception of Bikram because the heat can be a bit much for some people, and the attitude of the teacher in some traditional Bikram-style studios is not always as loving and helpful as a newcomer to yoga practice deserves.
Want to learn about other types of asana yoga? Click one of links below to check out the many Vinyasa or flow styles of yoga, restorative yoga options, and a variety of hybrid yoga styles that you can explore.
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Tips for Choosing the Right Type of Yoga for You
Hatha Yoga is a term that is used in different contexts so while on the one hand, all asana yoga is Hatha Yoga because it is a physical practice, some asana yoga styles may not offer a hatha-style (slow, static, non-flowing) practice.
For example, Ashtanga Yoga is Hatha Yoga in that it is a style of yoga designed to help the practitioner reach enlightenment through physical discipline, but it is a Vinyasa-style practice because there is flow from posture to posture.
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Written by Valeria Weber Williamson
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