What’s in a name?

I’ve recently started offering a new Hatha Yoga class at plan-B-fitness in addition to my Vinyasa Flow classes, and I’ve been getting a lot of questions about what these terms Hatha and Vinyasa mean and how the classes differ. If you have attended yoga classes with different teachers and in different locations, you’ve probably noticed that there are varied interpretations of some types of yoga (although other types are very narrow in their definition). This can be confusing, but it’s important to understand that yoga is a living, evolving art (and science), and that each practitioner (and therefore each teacher) brings his or her own experience and interpretations to the practice. The practice of yoga encourages personal exploration, and as such, it is by nature always changing and evolving as people explore new approaches. Therefore, my approach to Hatha and Vinyasa classes may be different from another teacher’s. In my view, it’s always most important to find a teacher and style that works for you – and also to be open to change in your practice. A teacher or style that is perfect for you at one point in your life may no longer work so well for you in the future. It’s important to remain open to the idea of personal exploration in your practice, including finding another style of practice or teacher if that is the right thing to do!

It may be helpful to understand that what we do in our yoga classes is only a part of the full system of yoga. The practice of yoga as described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali has eight “limbs” or areas of practice. These are:

    1. Yamas – ethical guidelines, such as nonviolence, truthfulness, and not stealing.
    2. Niyamas – observances or disciplines, such as cleanliness and purification, cultivating contentment, and studying spiritual scriptures.
    3. Asana – physical yoga poses
    4. Pranayama – breathing techniques
    5. Pratyahara – detaching from the senses – beginning to move towards meditation
    6. Dharana – concentration and focus
    7. Dhyana – meditation
    8. Samadhi – a state of spiritual bliss and enlightenment that involves transcending the individual self

Most yoga classes in the US focus on the physical practices of asana and some pranayama, with varying degrees of attention to the other limbs of yoga, and the different styles of yoga have varying ideas about how to approach physical yoga postures.

Hatha is a pretty general term. The Sanskrit word “hatha” can be interpreted as “forceful,” but the individual syllables also have their own meaning. “Ha” represents the sun (heating, motivating, externally-focused energy) and “tha” represents the moon (cooling, calming, internally-focused energy), so Hatha yoga brings these two energies into balance. Hatha yoga is the practice of asana and pranayama as described above, so most of the classes you take would be some form of Hatha. When you see the word “Hatha” on a class description, it usually means that the teacher does not follow any one particular style of yoga in the class. Hatha classes can vary widely. Unfortunately, the term “Hatha” doesn’t tell you much about the class, so if you’re looking for something particular, it’s a good idea to talk to the studio or teacher in advance to find out which classes are most suitable for you. Many studios and teachers provide a description of their Hatha classes and/or level designations to help you choose.

 generally refers to a style of yoga that has derived from Ashtanga yoga. “Ashtanga” refers to a dynamic style of practice where poses are practiced in set sequences in a vigorous flow. Poses are practiced in one of several prescribed sequences, so true Ashtanga classes will be similar to each other. Ashtanga off-shoots such as Power yoga and Vinyasa yoga usually do not follow the Ashtanga sequences and therefore display more variation. A class labeled “Vinyasa yoga” uses a flow of poses where the practitioner moves from one pose to another without pausing, and movements are linked to the breath. Classes are usually built around Surya Namakar, or Sun Salutations. The “glue” that holds the class together is a series of poses from Surya Namaskar that is known as a vinyasa – usually starting in High Plank, and with the breath, flowing through Chaturanga Dandasana and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), then Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). Variations on this sequence have been developed, such as using Bhujangasana (Cobra) instead of Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. The sequence is usually repeated in between each set of poses and is done many times during a class. Depending on the teacher and level of the class, Vinyasa Flow classes can vary quite a lot in difficulty, including variations in the types of poses included in the flow, the speed at which students move through the poses, the number of vinyasas done, and the number of pauses in the class. Note that a Vinyasa Flow class practices yoga postures and breathing, and therefore is really a subcategory of Hatha.

All this might leave you feeling even more confused, so here’s a summary of what my Hatha and Vinyasa classes are like.

  • In Vinyasa Flow Yoga, I always do Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations) and link other pose sequences with a vinyasa. I offer variations on the vinyasa to make it safer if you have injuries, are new to the practice, or just aren’t feeling it today. Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose the variations or ask me to explain them in more detail you aren’t sure how to practice for your body. This is a more vigorous practice, so take care of yourself and practice safely! In the world of Vinyasa Flow, I tend to teach a slower paced, more internally focused and meditative flow, and I am probably more alignment focused than many Vinyasa teachers, so I do take the time to talk about how to do the poses.
  • In Hatha Yoga, I will adapt the class depending on the students who attend and on what my theme or teaching point is for the day. Every class will be different! Some of my Hatha classes include Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), and I sometimes offer the option of taking a vinyasa for students who enjoy this practice. Generally speaking, we spend more time in each pose than we do in a Vinyasa Flow class, and we may use more props to explore different variations of the poses. There will be a variety of ways to transition from one pose to another beyond just the vinyasa, and we may even pause completely between poses instead of following a continuous flow.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re brand new to the practice of yoga, have lots of questions about the poses, are recovering from injury or a hard workout, or are feeling very fatigued, Hatha might be a better choice.
  • My Vinyasa classes are slower paced and focused on alignment, so they are OK for relative beginners as long as you are fairly fit and injury-free.
  • Always, always listen to your body and don’t do anything in yoga class that hurts or feels wrong. You can always rest in Balasana (Child’s Pose) or any other pose, and you can always ask me for alternatives to the sequence we are doing. Anything I say is simply a suggestion, and you are in charge of your own practice. Remember: there is no destination or final pose to get to, and you should never try to push yourself beyond your limits in the practice. Everything we do in yoga is just an exploration.
  • Please let me know before class if you have any injuries or other physical conditions that might affect your practice, including if you are pregnant. If you need to speak in private, just let me know.
  • I also welcome questions, feedback, and requests! Please come a few minutes early and let me know what poses you want to do today and whether you want a more or less vigorous practice.

2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Rachel, I just wanted to let you know, I remebered it was not you, but someone who knew you & your interest in wanting to be with the Dali Lama. Listening to the Dali Lama these past two days has really been enlightening. I hope you have been live streaming as well.
    Perhaps you’ll be able to ls him from Long Beach!!

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