There are currently 36.7 million yogis in the United States.

And nearly all of those are practicing Hatha yoga or a form of yoga based on it. But what the heck does that really mean? With so many classes now, and with class titles ranging from the simple — like Hatha Flow — to the more fun but potentially confusing — like Soul Shakin’ or Happy Hour Flow — it can help to know what Hatha yoga is and where it comes from.

At its most basic level of word origins and definitions, yoga means “to join” or “to yoke.” Hatha comes from ha, meaning “the sun,” and tha, meaning “the moon.”

So, Hatha yoga is the union of two opposites, a common theme in yoga. We practice yoga to unite the mind and body, our flexibility and strength, and movement of our bodies and stillness of our minds.

But Hatha can also be translated as “will” or “force,” so within the one practice we have both a practice of balance and one of activity, which perfectly describes Hatha. It focuses on the physical side and how this can help you achieve inner balance. But of course, with anything that is thousands of years old, it also has some more complex aspects.

A Quick History

Yoga in the West is often a mixture of a few traditional practices. There’s a lot of overlap and evolution within most modern classes, but a little history is always helpful. Here’s a quick historical breakdown.

Patanjali, an Indian sage, is believed to be have compiled the “Yoga Sutras” over 2,000 years ago. This collection of nearly 200 aphorisms outlines Ashtanga yoga, the “eight-limbed path of yoga,” also called raja (royal) yoga. It’s often used as the philosophical foundation for yoga today.

Basically, the first four limbs of the eight-limbed path comprise what modern practitioners think of as Hatha yoga. In some teachings, Hatha yoga prepares you for raja yoga, the last four limbs.

The first four limbs are the following:

  • Yamas (restraints): These are five ethics and are made up of ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asetya (nonstealing), brahmacharya (continence/abstinence), and aparigraha (noncovetousness). These are supposed to help the practitioner externally, in how they deal with the world.
  • Niyamas (observances): These disciplines help you deal with yourself internally and are saucha (purity of energy/intention), santosha (contentment or appreciation), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and isvara pranidhana (surrender to something greater than yourself).
  • Asanas (postures): These are the poses that many Westerners are referring to when they refer to “yoga.” This is the physical practice of yoga.
  • Pranayama (energy control): Translates to “energy” and ayama “control.” In pranayama practice, you learn how to control the breath and, therefore, your energy, in certain ways.

Though the last four limbs of Ashtanga yoga are not part of most Hatha practices, for your general knowledge, they are pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).

What Does Modern Hatha Include?

Any classes you go to that are Hatha will be focused on asana (posture). In fact, many Hatha classes in the United States don’t focus on the yamas and niyamas at all. Most hold it to its more physical side with a focus on poses and breathing. Here are some things you can expect to encounter.

Pranyama

The most common pranayama is Ujjayi (victorious) breath.

This consists of breathing deeply, completely filling your lungs on your inhales and then fully exhaling, both of which are done through your nose with your mouth closed and a slight constriction in the back of your throat.

Some teachers may refer to it as “Ujjayi breath,” “yogic breath,” or even simply as “finding the breath.” This is the breath often used throughout a yoga practice.

Mudras

Hatha also includes mudras. Mudra translates to “seal.” In the context of yoga, it refers to a particular hand gesture that will help you seal in a certain state of mind.

The most common of these is Anjali mudra (salutation mudra), which is both palms together in front of your heart, and is also called “prayer” or “hands in at heart center.” This particular mudra unites the most basic opposites — the left and the right — and will be referenced a number of times in a Hatha practice to remind you of and symbolize unification.

Surya Namaskar

The most basic series of poses practiced in Hatha yoga is the Surya Namaskar, “sun salutation.” The origins of the modern sun salutation only go back as far as 1934, when T. Krishnamacharya wrote “Yoga Makaranda,” but they are integral to Hatha yoga today.

The classic Surya Namaskar sequence is the following.

  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)

Poses are added onto sun salutations during most classes, but this is the basic series of poses that most classes build off.

Om

Mantra is literally translated as “instrument (tra) of thought (man).”

A mantra can be a noise, a syllable, or a complete phrase. The most common in Hatha is “Om.”

Om is a sacred sound that has many complex definitions and stories depending on the tradition you’re studying. On a whole, it’s thought to simply be a cosmic sound that connects the person who chants, says, or speaks it with the universal divine through the vibrations of the sound.

You may be asked to say “Om” with the class at the beginning, end, or both of a Hatha class.

Namaste

Last but certainly not least, there is a decent chance that a Hatha class will end with the teacher bowing to their students and saying, “Namaste.” Most of the students will then do the same in return.

Namaste is simply a respectful greeting. Nama translates to “bow,” as to “I,” and te to “you,” breaking down pretty simply to “I bow to you.”

On a deeper level, and in the practice of Hatha yoga, it means that each of us has a spark within that is made up of the same thing as the universe. When you say, “Namaste” to someone, it means that the part of you that is divine recognizes the divine in the other person as well. It’s yet another way to unite two opposites, acknowledging that we are all similar.

“Namaste” can be infused with as much spirituality as you prefer, meaning simply “all people are alike in some ways,” or more complexly, “we are both made up of the divine, so we’re all one with each other and It.” All practitioners can feel comfortable using it, no matter their spiritual beliefs.

The Takeaway

A yoga class that has the word “Hatha” in the title will most likely be a little slower than other offerings out there, focusing on holding the poses for longer than most “flow” or “Vinyasa” classes.

That being said, you will be practicing a form of Hatha yoga if you attend most Western yoga classes. Most, if not all, of the above will find their way into those classes as well.

The Sanskrit terms are sprinkled throughout this information much in the way they will be used in classes. Most instructors use some Sanskrit for poses and pranayama, but also use the English terms to make the class accessible to all.

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