Many people know that yoga is a 'total' discipline that conditions the mind, body and spirit. Indeed, yoga is a lifestyle, not just an exercise class you can bring your own mat to. So beneficial is the yoga lifestyle that aspects of yoga have spilt into other dimensions. Yoga pants are all the rage, for example, and these days, more and more pundits are touting the vegetarian diet as the way forward, both for our climate's sake and for our health. Did you know that there is a firm link between yoga and vegetarianism? It's called ahimsa, the practice of non-harming or, as it is sometimes known, non-violence. The idea behind ahimsa is not harming yourself by eating animals; it's about not harming the animals so that you might consume their flesh. For as knowledgeable as the average person might be about yoga, including about the meatless diet being an integral part of the yoga lifestyle, few are aware that there is more than one style of yoga. It stands to reason that there would be. Yoga is a millennia-old discipline that is now practised all over the world; of course, it would evolve over time. One of the main ways yoga has changed is from being a purely spiritual discipline to becoming a type of fitness practice. And, of all the types of yoga that yoga-for-fitness practitioners embrace, Hatha stands as the clear favourite. Let's let Superprof yogis explain what Hatha yoga is (and isn't) before they talk about essential Hatha yoga asanas.

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What is Hatha Yoga

As alluded to in this article's introduction, people who've not yet embraced the yoga lifestyle but are decidedly curious about it might encounter their first challenge the first time they sign up for yoga classes. It comes in the form of a question: what type of yoga are you interested in?

"My favourite kind of Pepsi? Pepsi's Pepsi!" Britney Spears, when asked about her favourite cola during a 2003 interview.

The newly-liberated Princess of Pop may not distinguish between one type of cola and another - diet, flavoured or clear but yoga instructors need to know what type of yoga you're interested in, and for more than one reason.

You have to have a measure of flexibility and fitness to adopt some yoga poses
The poses you can adopt depend on your level of fitness and flexibility. Photo credit: PMillera4 on VisualHunt
When choosing your style of yoga, your fitness goals matter a great deal, as does your current level of fitness and what you hope to achieve as a yoga devotee. For instance, if you're recovering from an injury, you might need rehabilitative yoga rather than launching yourself, full-tilt, into a standard Hatha yoga class. Conversely, if your body is well-tuned and you're more interested in the spiritual side of yoga, Kundalini would be the style for you. Hatha, translated from Sanskrit, means 'force'. Thus, Hatha yoga represents the system of physical techniques of yoga, separate from the spiritual aspects. That's not to say that there is no spiritual element in practising Hatha yoga. For instance, pranayama - breathing and meditation, commonly practised during Hatha yoga sessions, both touch on yoga's spiritual dimensions. Usually, people tend to equate yoga practice with Hatha yoga. In some parts of the world, the two are synonymous, with studios offering different types of yoga advertising their type of yoga on their studios' adverts. That's why you see Bikram yoga studios, Iyengar studios and so on. Still, out of all the types of yoga you could practise, Hatha yoga stands out as one of the most important. So let's explore some of Hatha yoga's basic asanas - the poses you'll likely adopt in your first yoga class.

Hatha Yoga for Beginners

Whether your first time in a yoga class or a long-time devotee to the discipline, all Hatha yoga classes follow roughly the same pattern:

  • breathing: pranayama is essential to the yogic discipline; you will start and end your class focusing on your breath
  • asanas: also called poses or postures, these moves range from comforting/gentle to challenging
  • meditation: you'll end your class in Savasana pose - unflatteringly known as Corpse pose; an ideal posture for meditation and focusing on your breath
  • duration: Hatha yoga classes generally last between 45 minutes to an hour and a half

As you are just introducing yourself to yoga, your classes will likely be of shorter duration and, perhaps, not quite as physically intensive. As your guide on your yogic journey, your yoga instructor will call out the names of each asana and demonstrate how to assume each position.

Beginner yoga classes usually adopt the Cat-Cow Posture
Cat-Cow Pose is an easy asana that usually features in beginner yoga classes. Photo credit: Geert van Duinen on Visualhunt.com
To make things easier, we've listed them, along with their Sanskrit name and a brief description in the table below.
Sanskrit NameCommon NameDescription
BalasanaChild's PoseSit on your heels with knees together, lean forward at the waist, extending your arms over your head.
Bitilasana MarjaryasanaCat-Cow PoseOn hands and knees, alternate arching your back upwards (cat) an downward (cow)
TadasanaMountain PoseStand with feet hip-width apart. Roll shoulders to release tension, then turn your palms facing forward.
Adho Mukva SvanasanaDownward-facing dogFrom a kneeling position, plant your hands in front, raise your glutes until your legs are straight.
BhujangaCobra PoseLying face-down, plant your hands along your ribs; raise your head and torso off your mat
Virabhadrasana IWarrior I PoseFrom a lunge position (front knee at 90 degrees), lift your arms up. Roll shoulders back to keep your chest open.
Virabhadrasana IIWarrior II PoseForm a side-lunge - right knee bent with thigh parallel to your mat, left leg straight and heel planted. Raise arms shoulder height, keeping palms down.
Utthita TrikonasanaTriangle PoseFeet four feet apart, arms raised to shoulder height with palms facing down. Tilt to the right until your right hand touches your calf; send your gaze upward. Then, switch sides.
Paripurna NavasanaBoat PoseSitting on your mat, knees raised and hands tucked into them. Raise your feet off the mat, leaning back until your body rests on your glutes. Straighten legs and then arms, so that your hands are reaching for your feet.
Setu Bandha SarvangasanaBridge PoseLaying flat on the ground, raise your knees until your feet are flat on your mat. Raise your pelvis, keeping arms and shoulders on the mat.
It's okay if you're not quite at the level where you can effortlessly hold the Warrior Pose or the Bow Pose yet. If you're struggling, your yoga instructor may suggest modifications - for instance, instead of a full Cow Face, they may suggest keeping your legs straight or just curling one leg rather than both. As you get more comfortable practising yoga - and become more knowledgeable about the principles of Hatha yoga, you'll find yourself able to adopt the Camel Pose and Grasshopper Pose with no problems.

Going Beyond the Basics

Just as with any discipline, whether athletic or intellectual, there must be new challenges to overcome; otherwise, you would get bored and move on to something more stimulating and rewarding. That's not to say that practising yoga isn't rewarding in itself; only that it is such a far-reaching discipline that only mastering basic postures leaves so much of the discipline's potential benefit unexplored. It also leaves so much of your potential untapped. Thus, it's likely that, once you've got the basics down, you'll want to discover more challenging asanas. Here are a few you could try.

  • Bhekasana (Frog Pose variation): on your stomach, feet to glutes and hands on ankles; elbows in the air. Head and chest raised
  • Kukkutasana (Rooster Pose): legs in the Lotus position, arms threaded through the legs; lift yourself off your mat, balancing on your hands
  • Dhanurasana (Bow Pose): lying on your stomach, arms reach back and up to hold the ankles; head and chest raised off the mat
  • Mayurasana (Peacock Pose): lying face-down, elbows tightly at your sides and hands planted on your mat. Raise your body off the mat, balancing on your hands
  • Utkatasana (Chair Pose): standing straight (maybe from Mountain Pose), feet together and arms at your sides. Bend your knees until your fingers sweep your yoga mat; breathe in as you sweep your arms upward
  • Vrikshasana (Tree Pose): from a standing position, feet together, raise your left foot and use your left hand to guide that foot into position on your right inner thigh. Once your left foot is firmly planted on your right thigh, bring your hands together at chest level and slowly raise them skyward as you inhale.

You may be familiar with some of these postures already; Tree Pose is one of the most iconic yoga asanas, after all. However, their elegance belies their difficulty and the muscle strength and flexibility needed to adopt and hold them so don't push yourself too quickly to become the yogi you know you can be.

You might have to wait a while before trying some of yoga's more challenging poses
You many not be ready for some of yoga's more challenging poses right away. Photo credit: TinyTall on Visualhunt

The Difference Between Hatha and Vinyasa Yoga

By all accounts, new devotees to the yoga lifestyle have a healthy curiosity for understanding yoga in all of its forms. In particular, we find a lot of questions about the differences between certain types of yoga, mainly Hatha and Vinyasa. To make things clear, let's first set out that Hatha defines the physical aspects of yoga. When thought of that way, Vinyasa yoga is Hatha yoga - as are all other physical practices of yoga. However, to understand the differences between Hatha and Vinyasa yoga, we have to know the history of Hatha yoga. It's a bit too long to go into here; suffice to say that, at one time, Hatha concerned itself with all physical activity; not just targeted asanas that allow energy to flow freely through our bodies. All of our systems - breath, blood and bile, as well as our muscles, bone and sinew, were a part of the Hatha yoga philosophy. So were eating and drinking; even sleeping. About six centuries ago, a radical shift in yogic thinking changed all of that. Till then, Hatha had been all-inclusive; since that time, it addresses only the visible 'force' its name suggests, namely body movements. In other words, asanas. Where does Vinyasa fit into all of this? Remember that, to an extent, Vinyasa yoga is Hatha yoga. They both address how the body moves, not the spiritual side of yoga. However, there are fundamental differences between the two types of yoga. Vinyasa yoga is generally faster-paced than Hatha, and poses are held for a certain number of breaths, usually five, while Hatha's pose length varies. Because Vinyasa is usually faster, the poses may flow into one another - hence the name Vinyasa Flow (or simply Flow yoga). Furthermore, Vinyasa provides a cardio workout, a feature absent in Hatha yoga practice. Finally, Vinyasa yoga repeats a sequence of poses while Hatha is based on a repetition of unsequenced poses. Nevertheless, both types of yoga are suitable for beginners so, if you wanted to explore a fuller depth of what Hatha yoga is, you may try both styles to see which one works best for you.

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