by Nicholas Orth
Today’s yoga studios abound with class options, many of which are identified by outlandish names that may perplex and overwhelm the aspiring practitioner. Our yoga of the twenty first century is not the same rigidly interpreted science that Patanjali laid out thousands of years ago in the Yoga Sutras – it has evolved down various different paths, each offering different philosophies, postures, and techniques designed to develop a harmonious state of being. Nevertheless, two broad categories, vinyasa and hatha, have taken on a dominant position in the nomenclature of today’s yoga. These terms are contained within the titles of the course offerings found in most studios, and for the beginning practitioner an understanding of their meanings is important. This article is designed to demystify the categories of vinyasa and hatha so that you can choose the appropriate class for your goals and skill level.
These classes take their name from the yogic concept of “vinyasa krama,” which can approximately be translated from its Sanskrit origins to mean “to step in a special way.” The thought is that a yoga practice must not consist of random postures and movements ordered and executed in a nonstrategic fashion. Every step we take must be intelligently designed as part of a holistic practice designed to fulfill certain goals. Vinyasa krama thus refers to a properly designed yoga practice. While today’s “vinyasa” class label certainly holds no monopoly on the concept of vinyasa krama, these classes are called what they are due to the way in which the postures quickly and seamlessly flow into one another (by the way, any class containing the word “flow” in its name is likely to be some sort of vinyasa). A vinyasa class will consist of a large number of postures held for a short period of time.
This may sound appealing, but know that a greater number of postures is not necessarily better. If you are a beginner, I advise that you stay away from vinyasa classes until you’ve developed competency with the basic asanas and an ability to maintain deep, even breaths throughout your practice. Many newcomers choose vinyasa because they enjoy flying from pose to pose and the sweat that comes along with it. However, it doesn’t matter how many asanas you perform: if you do them incorrectly, you will not gain the proper benefits, and you may even end up injuring yourself. Begin taking classes that place more emphasis on proper alignment and breathing technique than on variety of postures and the movement in between them.
Hatha technically refers to the third and fourth “limbs” of yoga (asana and pranayama), which broadly encompass all of the physical practices contained within the discipline. Within today’s yoga studios, however, the term has taken on a different, more specific meaning. A class labeled “hatha” will consist of fewer postures held for longer periods of time, focusing on correct alignment and breathing technique rather than on variety and continuous transition from asana to asana.
It may be seen as a “quality over quantity” approach, and for this reason I recommend hatha yoga to the novice practitioner. Vinyasa classes may seem more appealing to many beginners with their aerobic sequences and flowing transitions, but without proper alignment and breathing technique the greatest benefits of the practices will be lost and the risk of injury will greatly increase.
It is also a mistake to think that hatha is necessarily suited for beginners and vinyasa for more advanced yogis. Although hatha classes are certainly more accessible to the novice practitioner, this does not mean that they have less to offer to the advanced yogi. The development of each asana is a never-ending journey, and opportunities to improve quality of breath and meditation during practice never cease. Once a competent understanding of the fundamentals are developed it will be an open question as to whether a vinyasa or a hatha class is right for you, but upon arrival to the yoga world I urge you to give hatha a try. It may appear less flashy, but for its rigor you will be, in the end, a better yogi.
Nicholas Orth is a graduate of the Yoga Center of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, holding an inter-disciplinary certification in yoga instruction and a Bachelors Degree in philosophy. He has worked as a yoga instructor in Wisconsin and currently lives in Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras, where he continues his study and practice of yoga. To reach Nicholas with questions or comments, email him at email@example.com.