What is Hatha Yoga?

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Of all the yoga terms in general use, hatha yoga is one of the most confusing. It can mean different things to different people and, depending who you are talking to, is defined several different ways. Still, it is one of the oldest names associated with yoga and is likely to remain in common use. A look at the origins and history of hatha yoga may be helpful in understanding the variety of ways it is currently used.

The Sun and the Moon

A common translation of hatha breaks it into two parts: ha, meaning sun, and tha, meaning moon. By this definition, hatha symbolizes the uniting and balancing of opposing forces within us. These might be sun and moon, masculine and feminine, dark and light, effort and surrender or mind and body.

Early References to Hatha

The “Hathapradipika” is one of the early yoga texts, dating from the 15th century. It is said to be a compilation of even earlier yoga texts. Some scholars say that in this early use of the word hatha it was considered a force. Hatha yoga was a way to harness and conserve this power. It was largely through the physical poses, or asanas, that this was accomplished.

It is this interpretation of the word hatha that leads to its association with yoga asanas. Many people currently define hatha as the physical aspects of yoga, the practice of the asanas. Some of the confusion occurs because there are so many different styles of yoga – Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Vinyasa, Viniyoga and more – that all have asanas as the basic foundation of their practice. In one sense, these are all types of hatha yoga, yet, like all yoga, they are more than just the physical poses.

Hatha as a Yoga Style

Given the specificity and focus of the various styles of yoga, when you hear the phrase hatha yoga, which is not unique to a particular school or method, it usually refers to a general practice of yoga. Hatha yoga teachers usually do not have certification from a particular method such as Iyengar or Bikram that has very particular training requirements. This is not to say that hatha yoga teachers are not well trained. They may have extensive training and experience, but are more likely to draw upon a variety of styles in their approach to yoga.

All of the above can make it difficult to know what to expect if you sign up for a hatha yoga class. It will depend largely upon the background and interests of the yoga teacher. For this reason, you may want to do a little more research when choosing hatha yoga to see if it aligns with your own interests and expectations. There are many approaches to what we know as yoga. The word hatha has some specific meanings, but as it relates to the practice of yoga, it has become a broad, general term.  

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