Every time you step onto your mat, you link into a tradition that reaches back more than 5,000 years. You share the same intention as the rishis who were exploring the nature of reality and human beings’ inner worlds through meditation and the physical practice of yoga. Their goal, to find unity through these studies, has not changed as yoga has grown to connect people over five millennia and around the world. But, not surprisingly, the physical practice has.
Since each individual has a unique yoga practice, it’s only natural that styles would evolve to meet the needs of students who prefer to hold poses to reach deeply within as well as to others who benefit from the current of swift, intense motion. It seems like the menu of yoga classes gets longer every year. So, which one is right for you? Hatha? Ashtanga? Kundalini? All of the above? This new monthly blog series on leading yoga styles can help get you on the right path(s). Since Hatha is the most popular approach to yoga in the West, it’s great place to start this series—and a yoga practice.
What You Need to Know
The basics: Hatha yoga is said to have been introduced by Yogi Swatmarama, a Hindu sage of 15th century India and compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a classical Sanskrit manual on Hatha yoga). The term Hatha comes from two Sanskrit words: ha meaning sun and tha meaning moon. Technically it is not an individual type of yoga but any practice of yoga postures. But, the term has come to be associated with a slower-paced practice which combines poses to enhance strength, balance and flexibility. Hatha combines the third and fourth of the eight limbs of yoga: Asanas and pranayama (breath work).
The focus: To create balance and unify the opposing aspects of mind, body and spirit. The sequences of asanas (postures or poses) used in Hatha yoga work to align skin, muscles and bones in order to open the body and allow energy to flow freely.
The class: Generally Hatha classes have three components: Pranayama, asanas and meditation. After seated meditation and breath work, students will move through the asana sequence. Students are directed to connect with their breath as they move into each pose. Poses are often held for 30 seconds to one minute in the standing sequences; longer in some of the seated stretching poses.
The benefits: On a physical level, a Hatha practice can help to improve muscular strength and flexibility, relax the body and brain, massage and tone vital organs, relax your body and create open channels for energy and breath. The emphasis on bringing the body into balance may aid in controlling diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. On a deeper level, Hatha invites you to find calm in stressful situations, to be present in the moment and to break through the barriers that stand between you and your full potential.
The lowdown: Hatha yoga classes are both accessible to nearly every student and widely available. Most beginning classes are Hatha. However, if you enjoy a fast practice that flows from one asana to the next, you may prefer a vinyasa class.
Try Before You Buy
Hatha may be billed as “gentle,” but the wide range of poses and the length of time these yoga poses are held can make it as intense as any Asthanga or Power class. Here are some asanas to introduce you to or rejuvenate your passion for Hatha yoga.
Padmasana (lotus pose). Sit on your mat with your legs straight in front of you. Warm up by bending your left leg and place the sole of your foot into the crook of your right elbow. Clasp your hands over your shin and rock your leg gently side to side. Bend your right leg and bring your foot as close to the left groin as possible. With your hands on the underside of your left shin, bend your left leg and slide it gently on top the right. Bring the right knee as close the left as possible and keep the soles of the feet perpendicular to the floor. Reverse and repeat with the right leg on top.
Virabhadrasana I (warrior I). Stand in Tadasana (mountain pose). Step your right foot to the back of the mat—about 3 or 4 ft. behind you. Raise your arms, bend your left knee so that your knee is directly over your toes. Straighten your left leg and press all four sides of your left foot into the mat. Raise your arms overhead. If your back permits, arch back. Return to Tadasana and repeat by stepping back with your left leg and bending into your right knee.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe pose) Note: You may need a strap for this pose if your hamstrings are tight. Begin in Tadasana (mountain pose). Bring your left knee up in front of you. Hold the outside of your left foot with your left hand if that is available to you, interlace your fingers and place them under your foot or loop a strap around your foot. On an inhale, extend your left knee forward and straighten your left leg as much as possible. Focus on your breath and the stability of your supporting leg. If you feel steady, bring your left leg out to the side. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Salabhasana (locust pose). Lie face down on your mat. You may want extra padding under your pelvic bones and ribs. Rest your forehead on your mat and place your arms alongside your torso with your palms up. Take a few breaths to get the feeling of pushing off the mat as you inhale and hollowing out as you exhale. Inhale and raise both feet and your arms off the floor. At the same time, raise your head. Keep your gaze down or slightly forward.
Halasana (plow pose). Lie on your back. Bend your knees and bring the soles of your feet close to your buttocks. With your arms by your sides, extend your heels toward the ceiling. Press your palms against your back and begin to lower your legs over your head, releasing one vertebra at a time. Eventually, your toes will touch the floor in back of your head.
The beauty of Hatha is that even the simplest poses remain challenging and interesting as you learn to deepen, relax and explore the edge of the particular movement. The discipline makes it easier to be present fully and benefitting from the life-enhancing possibilities of a yoga practice that stretches, strengthens and balances mind, body and spirit.