Hatha yoga misunderstood

2920434800_6fdf417d5cRecently, I asked a yoga teacher about her training. I wanted to know which lineage she was following or simply whether she focused more on vinyasa or alignment.

“I teach some vinyasa classes,” she said. “But my favorite is really hatha yoga.”

Huh? Don’t all asana methods fall under hatha yoga?

There is rampant misunderstanding about the term “hatha yoga” because so many recreation centers (and actual studios, too) call introductory, gentler classes “hatha yoga.” Hatha yoga comprises the physical disciplines, including asana and pranayama. But people now think it’s a specific method of asana.

Who are the nitwits that started this trend?

I practice Iyengar yoga. Most non-studio yoga settings offer vinyasa/flow classes and the catchall “hatha yoga” classes. Where can Iyengar yoga fit into this scheme? I’m biased, but I believe that any yogi would benefit from Iyengar’s impeccable standards for proper alignment. Only in an Iyengar class do I realize that my downward dog (generally a feel-good relief pose for me) could use tweaking. Iyengar yoga keeps me honest … and gives me the fundamental prerequisites to practice any other method.

People often assume that Iyengar yoga is all about complicated ropes and props. Or they picture middle-aged ladies obsessing over perfectly spread toes (see this Economist article). I heard one gym-yoga teacher state to novices that all of the poses they see in Yoga Journal come from Ashtanga yoga. (When pressed, she admitted that she was unfamiliar with Iyengar yoga and relies on Shiva Rea’s Ashtanga-based teaching … speaking of which, how come Pattabhi Jois appropriated the term “ashtanga” (eight-limbed yoga as defined by Patanjali) anyway?) No surprise that gyms focus on vinyasa, plus a vinyasa-lite that they call “hatha.”

Beginners can learn Iyengar basics with mats, blocks, and straps (or, minimally, just mats). No fancy stuff necessary. The crux of Iyengar yoga, alignment, can be learned with minimal props.

Maybe an Iyengar-based “alignment yoga” can eventually usurp the meaningless “hatha yoga” category at rec centers. In any case, the term “hatha yoga” should be redefined in common parlance. Some might roll their eyes and say it’s just semantics, but words do matter.

Photo: Talkingsun

7 thoughts on “Hatha yoga misunderstood

  1. The misunderstanding about hatha yoga is one of my biggest yoga pet peeves. I, too, wonder how this all started.

    I have a lot of respect for Iyengar yoga, though I don’t practice it regularly. Sometimes I find it too austere and serious. I’ve gravitated towards Anusara, which has a similar focus on alignment and a Tantric-influenced uplifting language and philosophy.

  2. Good blog, yogaspy! I agree with your definition of “hatha” as it is currently used today in the West.

    Just to add a little bit of historical perspective:

    The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (literally “Light on Hatha Yoga”) was written in the 15th century but it was based on much earlier works. It has four parts:

    1) Asana, 2)Purification and Pranayama, 3) Mudra and Bandha, and 4) Samadhi

    Samadhi covers the same ground as the Yoga Sutra, but not nearly as effectively, in my opinion, mixed in with a lot of kundalini and chakra instruction.

    The Purification and Mudra sections contains a number of physical practices that I’m too squeamish to describe here. If you are curious, you’ll have to get a copy or google it.

    According to the version I read, hatha was founded on the premise that one must prepare the body for the higher spiritual pursuits of Yoga. Hence the association of “hatha” with the physical side of Yoga.

    The definition of Hatha has taken on a very different meaning in the West, but originally it was a very comprehensive system of Yoga that covered everything from asana and pranayama to meditation and Tantra.

    I found the Hatha Yoga Pradipika to be a very difficult text, the commentary I happened to read even more so, and I don’t recommend it in general. It reminded me why I started writing Yoga Demystified!

    Bob Weisenberg

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