What is Hatha Yoga and what makes it different to other styles of yoga?

Hatha yoga is seen by some as one of the most timeless types of yoga that unifies the mind, body and soul. Most modern yogis think of yoga as a physical fitness practice; one where you stretch, move and breathe to experience the benefits of a calm mind and physical glow. Yoga is absolutely that, but it is also a lot more …

Over 5 000 years since its origins, yoga continues to be an intimate and personal practice where we look at how we live in the world with others and ourselves, whether physical, mental or spiritual. Understanding the roots of Hatha yoga will help to eliminate any fears new yogis might have. It will create a greater interest in this style and shed new light on the benefits you can expect from each session on your mat.

If you are new to yoga, this article is for you. Come learn where yoga's spiritual connections come from, understand how the physical and mental side work together in Hatha yoga and just how breathing techniques and meditation fit into the mix.

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Pre-Classical Yoga: An Ancient Wisdom

The history of yoga is complex, colourful and often debated amongst academics and historians. Using ancient texts, they tried to explain exactly where yoga came from, and physical proof was found that it originated further than 5 000 years ago.

Yoga’s original connotations were highly spiritual in nature and approximately 4 000 years ago the Vedic religion, India’s oldest religion and forebear to Hinduism, laid its mystical foundations. The Rig-Veda is an ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit Hymns with prominent mention of yoga, and even though we’re not certain of all the details, it confirmed the origin of Yoga as a spiritual dimensional practice from India.

Sanskrit: Ancient texts are of Indo-Aryan origin and the oldest known recorded language.

Vedic beliefs were unfortunately hardwired in doctrine and rituals, including sacrifice. It was eventually rejected by society, making way for a range of alternative,Vedic-related practices in 500 BCE  during the Sramana movement. The focus became one where ascetics moved away from external rituals to change the world and more towards internal rituals to change oneself  in an attempt to grow closer to god and reach enlightenment.

It’s important to note that ascetic practices lie at the heart of ancient yoga and thus the practices of fasting, meditation, heat production in the body and sexual abstinence became an integral precursor to yoga as we know it today.

500 years later, the Mahabharata, one of the oldest texts in Hindu theology was written, including the Bhagavat-Gita as guidance and practices for self-improvement that gave rise to Karma yoga, Jnana yoga and Bhakti yoga.

Hatha practices and asanas are just as much contested as yoga history and while some historians argue that the sun salutation (Suryanamaskar) originates from Vedic texts, others will find evidence to back their arguments around it only being ascetic until the 20th century.

woman on yoga mat practising meditation
Based on ancient texts yoga's purpose is centred on practices to better the self through unifying our various parts. - Source: Pexels

Classical Yoga

Many gurus and yogis contributed to the evolution of yoga, but one of the most significant contributions were made around 350-400 CE through what is seen as one of the most comprehensive yoga texts. Patanjali’s yoga sutras became a guiding text with rules and exercises for yogis.

Up to this time, yogic practices were reserved for the elite from upper castes, but with the introduction of the yoga sutras it became more available to all people. The sutras, a written recording of yoga wisdom in verse form, became a beacon for people towards enlightenment; a code of conduct and a means to exercise personal control in their own spiritual lives.

Ashtanga, Kriya and Samyama were three different types of yoga, but the form of focus became Ashtanga. Patanjali explains and lays out the 8 limbs of ashtanga in the sutras:

  • Yama – practising ethical discipline
  • Niyama – the rules around conduct
  • Asana – physical postures and poses
  • Pranayama – practices around the expansion and restraint of breath
  • Dharana – concentration
  • Dyhana - meditation
  • Samadhi – absorption

Also known as the 'eight fold path' these were exercises every yogi can use to bring balance, health and control to their life. The 8 Limbs of Ashtanga continued to develop, and some of them thrived. Nowadays most yoga classes include asana, meditation or breathing techniques.

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Post-Classical Rise of Tantra and Hatha

During the first millennium Tantra Yoga emerged which was mostly focused on the spiritual practice of yoga and closely related to Buddhism.

Its mystical power was centred on words, sounds, mantras, chanting and much focus was placed on the energy wheels, or focal points called Chakras. The practice turned more inward and the physical focus on poses started to dissolve in Tantra, but there was also a spin-off into Hatha yoga which had a more physical focus.

The word Hatha is composed of ‘Ha’ meaning the sun and ‘tha’ the moon. The objective is to find balances in this combination of effort and surrender.

Hatha went a bit 'quiet' during this time while yogis continued to return to their mat to gain personally from the health and mental benefits. About 1 000 years after Patanjali's sutras, it came back with full force and the introduction of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika provided an important breath of fresh air to this form to help yogis. The Pradipika included teachings and drawings which started to teach Hatha as the form of yoga above all the other methods and included new focus areas around:

  • Mudras - gestures or seals
  • Asana - postures
  • Kumbhaka - Breath retention
  • Nadanusandhana - concentration on internal sound

Hatha's stronger focus on asana also introduced the first 15 poses to yoga which you might even recognise in a yoga class today.

woman doing seated forward bend
Most ancient hatha yoga postures were seated in nature and standing poses came later. - Source: Pexels

Modern Hatha Yoga

The physical exploration around Yoga increased in the 19th and 20th century and influential names like Swami Vivekananda ( 1863 – 1902) and Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989) helped to make yoga popular to the ‘West’.

Seen as the father of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya was a yoga teacher that was on the forefront of hatha yoga and the development of these physical asanas. BKS Iyengar was one of his students and went on to create the spin-off Iyengar style yoga we know today.

Bikram yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Ashtanga yoga and Hatha yoga are only some of the many different types of yoga we see today. Essentially, all of these originated, branched off and developed from ancient Hatha yoga.

The yoga we know and see today thus all have the same origins essentially, but over the last 100 years evolved at incredible speeds into different styles.

Modern Hatha is a very specific style that was built around the physical practice that makes use of the body for inner exploration.

More yoga schools popped-up, different asanas were developed that included standing asanas, and a variety of yoga types were introduced like the flow-type yoga called vinyasa, rehabilitative yoga, prenatal yoga, and Kundalini became more established.

What to Expect in a Hatha Class Today?

So will your first hatha class be intense and physical?

Generally a Hatha class is more slow paced than intense yoga types like Vinyasa and Ashthanga, but it is not as restorative as you’d find in a Yin yoga class. Hatha yoga teachers all studied under different guru’s and therefore they all have a slightly different approach to their classes, including posture work, breathing techniques and final relaxation in their own way. Some of them might include a little bit of chanting and meditation, but this depends on the teacher.

Overall a Hatha yoga class is a great yoga introduction for any beginner. The classes are structured in such a way that they include enough adaptations for each pose to suit beginner students while progressing the difficulty of a pose for the more flexible and advanced students.

The original ancient postures were intended to direct energy in the body and if you refer to ancient texts like the Pradipika, you’ll learn how the approximately 84 poses are an amalgamation of the original 15 seated and on-seated postures. Those amount of poses increased during the 18th and 19th centuries to 112 poses and today we have a wide variety of poses including gentle, standing, twisting and challenging. You can learn more about the various Hatha yoga poses in this article.

yoga matypgaThe yoga poses in Hatha yoga tend to be held a bit longer than styles like Vinyasa and Ashtanga.  At the end it’s still aimed at creating heat in your body and you’ll certainly work to get a glow and light sweat, especially once the focus shifts more into pranayama or breath work.

We hope this article piqued your interest in yoga even more and that we've contributed in removing any inhibitions you might have around this beautiful life discipline. It's important to realise that the yogi will determine what yoga will mean in their life and the best advice we can give you is to start your exercise as soon as you can.

We have a range of experienced yogis and teachers right here on Superprof and they will tweak and adapt your yoga classes to suit your fitness level and style. You can also read more on what Hatha is all about in this article and hope we see you soon on your mat?

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Mauritz

Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.