What is Hatha Yoga?
What is Hatha Yoga?
On a typical yoga schedule, a hatha class is usually slow moving and good for all levels, which means this style is great for a beginner to get to know the poses and understand the alignment of each pose, or asana. But Hatha has a lot more to offer than lessons on alignment, as important as those are.
In Sanskrit, “Ha” means sun and “Tha” means moon; the practice is about balancing the opposites of masculine and feminine, hot and cool, and active and receptive. When you practice Hatha, it’s all about creating balance in your mind, your body, and your practice. But what does that really mean?
Sthira and sukha
Sthira and Sukha are Sanskrit words that embody the opposing forces within a Hatha practice. The quality of Sthira is active, strong, and steady, while the quality of Sukha is comfortable, soft, and light. According to Patanjali, the sage who wrote the Yoga Sutras, each asana should embody both principles.
Think of Sthira, or steadiness, as tension – you need to create tension in your muscles in order to create each shape. But tension, or effort, can only take you so far; you don’t want every single muscle to be tense at all times. There is a point in each pose where you need to integrate ease or softness – sukha – into the shape. Tension that is not balanced by softness is brittle and hard – remember that those who cannot bend, break. Instead, the distribution of intentional tension creates the shape of each asana.
Imagine the shape of Warrior 2: there is plenty of effort required to create the shape of the pose, but once we find the appropriate muscular engagement, we can begin to relax the face, the neck and shoulders, and the hands.
Softness also allows us to create space for the breath. There is always a balance between how much core compression you need to support a pose (sthira) and how much spaciousness you can allow through the rib cage for breath (sukha).
Slow and Focused
Hatha practice is also about focus and concentration, and therein lays much of the challenge: keeping your mind focused on what you’re doing when you’re staying still or moving slowly is hard. Hatha is particularly challenging for those of us who are used to moving quickly and want to use yoga as a distraction from our everyday life – a challenging Vinyasa-based practice often demands our attention, which provides a gateway to focus. Moving with every breath can more easily occupy your attention because something is always changing. In a world that demands that we are always in motion and always busy, Hatha becomes a way to balance that tendency– a practice that asks us to slow down and concentrate on the minutiae, or the important details, of our practice.
Hatha makes you do the work of focusing. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re holding a pose for a longer period of time because there is time enough for stray thoughts to pop in and distract you. The advantage of the extra time spent in each pose is that Hatha allows you the chance to focus on alignment and on building each pose from the ground up. In Hatha, you can focus on all of the elements that make a complete practice – drishti, or gaze; the balance between Sthira and Sukha; breath; and muscular engagement and alignment.
Letting Go and Learning
Hatha is the perfect practice for learning to let go of thoughts, especially when you are obsessing or dwelling on something unproductive, and for letting go of the oppressive demand for endless speed and endless movement. It’s also ideal for learning about yourself and your practice: how does each pose feel? Where is there tightness or spaciousness? What needs to be stretched or strengthened? Which poses make you uncomfortable, either physically or mentally? During the practice, it is not necessary to figure out the reason behind your answers to these questions – it’s enough to simply notice sensations and feelings of discomfort and aversion, which you can consider and explore intellectually once this practice is over.
For example: I used to loathe revolved triangle. I hated how it made me feel and it hurt me. I noticed this in practice without thinking about why; outside the practice room, I realized that the pose pulled on my hamstrings too much for me to properly lengthen through the spine in order to twist. The feeling of hunching and twisting in misery also made me uncomfortable because I was clearly not “good” at the pose, while being “good” at yoga in general was part of my identity. With this knowledge, I worked through a milder version of the pose while also working on the areas of tightness that needed to open up so I could eventually become comfortable in a deeper version.
Hatha is an ideal practice when you feel the need to slow down and get grounded. The focus and slow movement of a hatha practice make it well suited for managing anxiety or a racing mind. Hatha is also easily adaptable day by day; the challenge level of a Hatha class is based on how much effort you choose to put into each pose. A Hatha practice can be easy, but it can also be a challenging, sweaty practice that flies by because your attention is completely bound up in each and every pose.
Hatha is the perfect practice for practicing being a student, whether you are just starting your yoga journey or you have been practicing for years.