Though used as a general term to refer to the physical element of yoga, Hatha as a type of yoga is a very mellow form, ideal for relaxation. Hatha seeks to unify opposite pairs, notably the positive and negative, as its name demonstrates by unifying the positive “sun” with the negative “moon” in Sanskrit. Its common vague meaning probably comes from it being among, if not the best-known type of yoga in the Western world.
Hatha yoga, as a particular type of yoga, is what most people mean when they use the term “yoga.” It focuses on developing comfort in at least one pose to allow meditation. The focus on the asanas also seeks to energize the body and to make it healthy. Mastering breathing patterns and techniques is essential to this form of yoga. Most of the other styles of yoga are derivatives of this style.
Yoga has “eight limbs” that define it as a lifestyle: your attitudes to the world around you, your attitudes towards yourself, physical postures, breathing exercises, withdrawing the senses, concentration, contemplation, and enlightenment. Hatha yoga uses the third and forth of the limbs: poses and breathing exercises.
The asanas, or poses, were originally developed for meditation, to position the body in orientation to divinity (Asana is Sanskrit for “seat”). Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit for “energy source” or “life force” (prana) and “to control” (ayama). Of old, the mastery of Pranayama was thought to unlock the ability to control one’s mind. Pranayama allows the individual to clear the mind, if only because he or she has to concentrate on the breathing rather than what will be eaten after class.
Most people practice Hatha yoga solely for the health benefits. It’s a solid means of exercise, building strength, flexibility, and energy levels. It also promotes relaxation in the modern stress-filled world, lowering risk of heart attack and other stress-related health problems. Transition between poses is slow, with yogis (those who practice yoga) progressing at their own pace between the poses.
Few people practice the meditation element of Hatha yoga, which seeks to fuse the infinite life with the finite individual life. Approaching Hatha yoga from this perspective is to focus on purifying the physical body (through the poses) in order to guide the individual into purifying the mind. Some individuals substitute the meditation element of yoga with prayer to their deity or deities.