Hatha yoga is the branch of yoga which uses postures as its foundational tool for self-transformation. And it is at a fascinating crossroads in North America. With the proliferation of studios who often need to train teachers to meet their bottom line, yoga is truly anywhere and everywhere.
Hatha Yoga vs. Yoga Fitness
In the past decade or so, an increasingly pronounced distinction has arisen between Hatha Yoga and what I refer to as Yoga Fitness. They can both be beneficial, but it is much like comparing apples and oranges. In traditional, 20th century Hatha Yoga systems (i.e. Iyengar, Bikram, Ashtanga Primary Series), postures are held absolutely still, correctness of the form and alignment is central, intentional breathing is required, and savasana (the resting posture) is used purposefully. Yoga Fitness classes, on the other hand, may or may not include some of these aspects, and they generally incorporate a fair amount of movement, repetitive motions, transitions, changing routines, and even music.
If you are looking to stretch, sweat, tone certain areas, or do a yoga-fitness hybrid, there are plenty of options, and free or nearly-free drop-in classes are fairly easy to find. These can be enjoyable and can provide a nice change from impact-based exercise.
However, if — in addition to the physical benefits — you are looking to develop self-discipline, patience, self-control, determination, energetic balance, and a variety of other deeper aspects of a hatha yoga practice, looking for inexpensive drop-ins and a wide variety of classes is actually counterproductive. For hatha yoga to work on its energetic, mental, and emotional levels, it is crucial to build a foundation with a consistent sequence of postures, practiced no less than four days per week. Working with one or two core teachers over the course of several years is an important part of the process as well. I recommend that your core teacher has at least 10 years (or 4,000-5,000 hours) teaching experience and retains strong mentorship connections within her or his traditional lineage.
What do you want to get?
The postures in hatha yoga are intended to be used as tools for building mindfulness, balanced energy, and awareness. Even though they must be attempted with tremendous attention to detail and correctness, the postures are not the goal or the object of the class. If you are looking for sustainable and deep self-transformation in addition to health benefits, it is important to carefully assess whether the yoga teachers you study and practice with can guide you in practicing these less tangible aspects of the hatha yoga tradition.
Ann Chrapkiewicz, M.A. (Medical Anthropology, MSU), is owner and principal of Bikram Yoga Capital Area. Visit bikramyogacapitalarea.com.