Nowadays yoga styles like Vinyasa and Ashtanga are all the rage, while Hatha yoga is not as widely practised. It doesn’t have any strong defining traits, so some can be confused as to what exactly it entails.
Truly, Hatha is a practice of yoga that entails physical movement, meaning that all styles that include an Asana practice are types of Hatha yoga. There are instances of yoga styles that focus solely on breathing techniques and meditation, such as Raja yoga.
Generally, a Hatha yoga class entails a complete practice of poses, breathing and meditation. The poses are not practised back to back, but rather you are prompted to rest in recovery poses in between. As with all styles, Savasana is the most important pose.
Where does Hatha Yoga come from?
The term Hatha yoga can be understood in two ways:
- ‘the yoga of force’ due to the effort required to practice it, since techniques of breath control are strenuous
- ‘the union of the sun (ha) and the moon (ṭha) in the body.’
Some Buddhist texts and later medieval literature feature the term ‘hatha’, presenting it as a preliminary practice, often in rivalry with Raja yoga. A few texts claim that Raja yoga is superior because it is effortless yet fruitful. Hatha yoga, on the other hand, requires too much effort to reach the same goal. However, Hatha texts refer to practices with neutral words such as ‘carefully’, ‘diligently’, ‘gradually’, ‘gently’, sometimes ‘vigorously’, ‘energetically’ or ‘forcibly’.
Other sources saw Hatha yoga as a second-rate practice for second-rate students, since it wasn’t a purely intellectual practice. However, just a few centuries later the Haṭayogapradīpikā joined Hatha and Raja yoga into a complete system, still under the name of Hatha Yoga, asserting that they are dependent on each other.
Interestingly, no texts before the Haṭayogapradīpikā ever focused on asanas (or postures) in any significant way. This means we have no way of knowing how prevalent asana practice was.
The First Mentions of Asanas
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali calls asana any seated posture that is stable and comfortable to hold through the whole practice.
A later commentary of the Yoga Sutras specifies eleven asanas and indicates by an ‘etc.’ that the author knew additional postures. These are meditative asanas, which allow the practitioner to sit with a straight back for a long time.
Why the focus on seated postures? Simply, when you’re standing the mind cannot focus in the same way, and when lying down you could easily fall asleep!
The Innovation of Hatha Yoga
The goals of Hatha yoga, traditionally, are the same as those of other varieties of yoga: supernatural powers and/or liberation.
However, what made Hatha yoga different is the fact that the body does not function solely as a pneumatic system when it comes to breath control practices, it is not something that needs to be abandoned upon reaching liberation. The body is seen as a complete instrument, that can be perfected and retained after liberation, even cheating death with clever use of the advanced practice of Samadhi.
Is Hatha yoga then a superior practice? It depends on the practitioner’s goals. All yoga can be practised by all, regardless of their identity or beliefs, as it is practice alone that leads to success.