What to Expect From a Hatha Yoga Class

Learn the history of hatha yoga and what present-day classes are like

Yoga class in Downward Facing Dog Pose
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Hatha yoga is the branch of yoga that typically comes to mind when you think of yoga in general terms. The practice involves breath, body, and mind, and classes are usually 45 minutes to 90 minutes of breathing, yoga poses, and meditation.

Yoga began in India around for 2,000 years ago as a series of spiritual breathing exercises. The term Hatha was first recorded in the 11th century, but it wasn't until the late 19th century that it came to American, gaining mainstream popularity in the 1960s.

Today, roughly one in seven Americans practice yoga due to its mind-body wellness and health benefits. Research shows hatha yoga helps to relieve stress, support healthy habits, improve emotional health, ease back and arthritis pain, and even help people quit smoking.

History

In Sanskrit, Hatha means force. Hatha yoga breathing techniques can be traced back to the 1st Century in both Buddhist and Hindu texts, but it was another 1,000 years before the use of yoga postures, or asanas, and breath control was recorded as a way to enhance vital energy.

Classical Hatha yoga was developed in the 15th century and included guidance for the proper setting of yoga, asanas, pranayama or breathing exercises, mudras or hand gestures, and meditation for personal spiritual growth.

Hatha yoga was brought to America by Swami Vivekananda in 1893 as a spiritual practice. In the 1920s, yogis combined asanas with other popular exercises of the day to create a flowing style of yoga that was more physical than spiritual.

By the 1950s, hatha yoga was introduced to millions of households across America with Richard Hittleman's popular TV program "Yoga For Health."

A few years later, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the spiritual advisor to The Beatles, brought a new dimension of yoga to the mainstream with a combination of transcendental meditation and yoga and its popularity soared.

Today, hatha yoga is well-known for both as a physical and spiritual practice for mind-body health.

Health Benefits

Yogis have long touted the calming and wellness benefits of practicing yoga. Today, research supports many of these claims.

The National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health analyzed dozens of peer-reviewed studies and while most of the research was performed on small numbers of subjects, they found evidence to suggest yoga may be beneficial for the following conditions:

  • Stress management. Yoga was shown to improve physical or psychological measures related to stress in 12 out of 17 studies reviewed, according to NCCIH.
  • Emotional health. Yoga has a positive impact on mental health and was shown to have benefits of improving resilience or general mental well-being in 10 out of 14 studies reviewed by NCCIH.
  • Anxiety and depression. While research shows that yoga can help to relieve everyday anxiety and depressive symptoms associated with life situations, it may not be effective for clinically diagnosed mental health conditions.

The NCCIH reviewed 68 published studies on yoga and diagnosed mental health conditions and did not find conclusive evidence to support its effectiveness for managing anxiety disorder, depression, or PTSD.

  • Sleep. Several studies reviewed by NCCIH have found yoga can improve sleep quality and duration. Populations found to experience sleep benefits from yoga include cancer patients, older adults, people with arthritis, pregnant women, and women with menopause symptoms.
  • Menopause. Yoga can relieve physical and psychological symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, according to the NCCIH review of more than 1,300 study participants.
  • Healthy living. Regular yoga practice is associated with better eating and physical activity habits.

In a 2018 survey of 1,820 young adults published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, participants attributed greater mindfulness, motivation to participate in other forms of activity and eat healthier, and the influence of a health-minded yoga community to practicing yoga regularly.

  • Balance. Yoga helps to improve balance in healthy people, according to 11 out of 15 studies reviewed by NIH.
  • Multiple sclerosis. Yoga has been shown to have short-term benefits on mood and fatigue in people with multiple sclerosis, however, it was not found to affect muscle function, cognitive function, or quality of life, the NCCIH reports.
  • Back pain. Several studies show yoga may help relieve chronic low-back pain, and the American College of Physicians recommends yoga as a non-drug method to treat back pain.

A 2018 review of eight studies by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found yoga improves low-back pain and function with both short-term and intermediate-term benefits, and its effects are similar to other types of exercise.

  • Neck pain. A 2019 meta-analysis published in the journal Medicine including 10 studies and a total of 686 subjects found that yoga can reduce the neck pain intensity and disability from pain while also improving range of motion in the neck. 
  • Arthritis and fibromyalgia. According to the NCCIH, there is weak evidence to support yoga has benefits for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.

What To Expect

There are several different styles of yoga to choose from today. If a class is just labeled yoga, it is likely the Hatha variety.

Hatha is considered a gentle yoga that focuses on static poses and is great for beginners. However, even though it is gentle, it can still be physically and mentally challenging.

While each class varies depending on the instructor, most classes last between 45 minutes and 90 minutes. Classes typically start with a gentle warm-up, advance to more physical poses, and end with a short period of meditation.

  • Breathing. Most hatha yoga classes start with a period of focus on your breath or pranayama. As you go through the poses, your teacher will continue to remind you to focus on your breath and may offer different breathing exercising to try.
  • Poses. Yoga poses, also called postures or asanas, are a series of movements that help improve balance, flexibility, and strength. Poses range in difficulty from laying flat on the floor to physically challenging positions. If at any time during your class, a pose is too difficult, your instructor can provide you with a modified posture.
  • Meditation. Most classes end with a short period of meditation. During this period of quiet reflexion, your teacher may ask you to lie on your back and may cover you with a blanket. Some instructors may take you through a guided meditation or may use Tibetan singing bowls.

A traditional Hatha yoga class ends with participants holding their hands held together in a prayer pose over the heart, bowing, and saying Namaste to one another.

A Word From Verywell

Hatha classes provide an opportunity to stretch, unwind, and release tension, providing a good counterpoint to both busy lifestyles and cardio workouts. 

If you go into a Hatha class and it feels too slow or not active enough, don't give up on yoga completely. There are faster-paced, more athletic ways to do yoga. Try a flow, vinyasa, or power yoga class, and see if that's more your speed.

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Article Sources

  1. Yoga: What You Need To Know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

  2. Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, Mclean RM, Forciea MA. Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2017;166(7):514-530. doi:10.7326/M16-2367

  3. Li Y, Li S, Jiang J, Yuan S. Effects of yoga on patients with chronic nonspecific neck pain: A PRISMA systematic review and meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019;98(8):e14649. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000014649.

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