Everything You Need to Know About Hatha Yoga
Hatha yoga is the flexibility- and strength-boosting workout you haven't heard of, but almost definitely have done.
If you were to rattle off the names of all the styles of yoga you've tested out, you might list a Power yoga class you booked through your ClassPass account, a free Vinyasa flow you tried in your college's gymnasium, and the one goat yoga class your friends begged you to attend (and you happily obliged).
Chances are, you wouldn't mention Hatha yoga—or even know what that is when asked point-blank. But, in reality, you’ve probably done this style of yoga without even realizing it.
What is Hatha yoga, exactly?
Hatha yoga is one of the most popular styles of yoga today, but the practice dates back to at least 1200 A.D. In Sanskrit, the word “hatha” means “sun” (ha) and “moon” (ta), while “yoga” comes from the word “yug,” meaning “union.” Together, the name "Hatha yoga” represents a yoga practice that balances the polarities—the sun and moon energy, the light and the dark—within the self, says Ashley Rideaux, a YogaWorks-certified teacher trainer. This balance is achieved by pairing physical postures (asanas) with breathing techniques (pranayama). (FYI, yoga isn't just limited to this type of practice. Asanas and pranayama are two of the eight "limbs" or components of yoga. The remaining limbs are universal ethics, individual ethics, control of the senses, concentration, meditation, and bliss.)
If that sounds like almost every yoga class you’ve ever attended, you’re not mistaken. Hatha yoga is actually an umbrella term for any style of yoga that emphasizes and balances the two components, including Vinyasa, Yin, Ashtanga, Power, and Iyengar yoga.
“By definition of trying to balance the energy of the body through the effort of the body, I would say that probably any physical posture in yoga [across styles] has a foundation or history in Hatha,” says Rideaux. Translation: It's hard to pinpoint any specific types of yoga that don't feature some aspects of Hatha. (Related: Yoga for Beginners: A Guide to the Different Types of Yoga)
- Vinyasa: Vinyasa emphasizes smooth transitions and fluid movement between asanas, and you rarely hold postures for multiple breaths.
- Yin: In this slow-flow style of yoga, you hold poses for anywhere from 45 seconds to five minutes to encourage a stretch deep into your muscles connective tissue.
- Ashtanga: This dynamic method of yoga involves breezing through a specific sequence of poses, which require more strength and flexibility than other styles. You'll work up a good sweat that's meant to detoxify the muscles and organs.
- Power: Derived from Ashtanga, this fitness-based approach to yoga emphasizes building up to advanced postures in order to tone muscles and increase flexibility. However, you don't follow a set-in-stone sequence of asanas as you do in Ashtanga.
- Iyengar: Developed by B.K.S. Iyengar, this style of Hatha yoga focuses on precision and alignment while performing postures. Quality > quantity in this practice.
What can you expect at a Hatha yoga class?
Even though Hatha yoga is a catch-all term, you can still find Hatha-designated classes for all levels and abilities at yoga studios, and you can take the title to mean it’s a well-rounded practice, says Rideaux. Compared to fast-flowing Vinyasa classes and slow-paced, deep-stretching Yin classes, Hatha yoga classes are a happy medium, infusing elements from various styles.
“I think Hatha yoga allows the teacher a little bit more freedom to play with what they’re offering in that space,” she says. For example, one Hatha yoga instructor might suggest seamless, yet gentle, movement between asanas, while another could emphasize holding each posture for a few breaths before moving to the next one.
No matter how leisurely or dynamic it is, each 60- to 90-minute Hatha yoga class has an arc that’s similar to one of your typical day. While you start your morning with a strong cup of coffee, Hatha yoga classes start waking up the body with asanas like child’s pose, cat-cow pose, and spinal twists. You’ll continue to warm and loosen the body with sun salutations, forward folds, or downward-facing dogs, building toward the most challenging postures (think: warrior poses, tree pose, or inversions) of the day. After hitting that peak, you begin to cool down the body and mind with asanas such as seated forward folds and the bound angle pose, ultimately ending the practice with savasana (corpse pose), explains Rideaux. If you’re freaking out about the idea of having to put your leg behind your head or breezily performing a handstand, take a deep breath—those asanas are saved for the intermediate and advanced classes, she adds.
While the asanas might vary from class to class, breathwork will always be emphasized, and the instructor will guide you through each breath to ensure it's in sync with your movement. This connection not only helps wake up the muscles, but it also acts as a moving meditation for the body and can help calm your mind—even after you roll up your mat, says Rideaux.
“If I can learn to breathe in the challenging shapes I'm offered on the mat, suddenly that starts to follow me off of my mat,” she says. “The next time that I'm in a difficult situation in my life, hopefully, I know how to breathe through it and be present with it.” (See: All the Benefits of Meditation)
Do you need equipment for Hatha yoga?
Depending on your needs, you might use a handful of yoga props to help you get the most out of your practice. Though most studios will let you borrow props or rent them for a small fee, you consider buying your own planning on practicing multiple times a week or flowing through sequences at home. (Not to mention, it feels *much* more hygienic. Related: This Manduka Yoga Bundle Is Everything You Need for a Home Practice)
- Yoga mat: In general, a standard 1/8-inch yoga mat with a slightly grippy texture—which keeps your joints supported and slip-free—will do for a Hatha yoga practice. But if you're set on Ashtanga or Power yoga, opt for a mat that offers more grip (like this hot yoga instructor-approved one) so you don't slide off the mat as you work up a sweat.
- Yoga block(s): If your hand can’t reach the ground while you’re in triangle pose, you can use a yoga block (Buy It, $16, manduka.com) to bring the floor closer to you, which creates a deeper stretch while preventing you from crunching your spine.
- Yoga strap: Similarly, yoga straps (Buy It, $18, manduka.com) can help create more space between the shoulders—and encourage a feel-good stretch—while you practice cow face.
- Yoga blanket: Yoga blankets (Buy It, $20, gaiam.com) can also be used to cushion joints while you perform a low lunge or sit in a butterfly pose.
What are the health benefits of Hatha yoga?
A total-body stretch isn’t the only thing you’ll gain from picking up a Hatha yoga practice. As for physical health benefits, the activity can help with digestion, swelling in legs, varicose veins, and strength, and flexibility, notes Rideaux. Research backs this up, too: A small study showed that practicing Hatha yoga three times a week for six weeks significantly increased the muscular strength and flexibility of middle-aged women.
And some of the biggest perks of yoga go beyond the external. A study published in the Journal of Nursing Research found that a single 90-minute Hatha yoga class significantly lowered levels of perceived stress in middle-aged women, while another showed that Hatha yoga was linked to improved self-esteem and quality of life and reduced fatigue. And it’s these benefits that keep Rideaux coming back to the mat year after year.
“Most of us come to our yoga mat because it’s like ‘I want that yoga booty’—we’re attracted to it for the physical benefits,” she says. “The amazing thing is, if we hang around long enough, we often discover that we get all of these things beyond the physical.”