Look at the schedule for any yoga studio and you'll see a variety of class names: Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, Power Yoga, and more. Most of the yoga practiced today, however -- in America and around the world -- stems from one philosophy that originated thousands of years ago.
Hatha Yoga is an umbrella term to describe any style of yoga that originated from the classical teachings of master yogis in 15th- and 16th-century India. The main components of any Hatha yoga class are the postures (asanas, in Sanskrit) and the breathing techniques (pranayama), although there is traditionally a focus on meditation and self-reflection, as well.
In today's culture, Hatha may also be used to describe specific yoga classes, says Annelise Hagen, a yoga instructor in New York City. "You don't always know what it means, when you see 'Hatha Yoga' on a schedule," she says. "But oftentimes they're saying that this is a slower, more restorative class -- less vigorous than, say, a Vinyasa or a Power Yoga."
The word hatha translates to "sun and moon," which, in yogic philosophy, refers to our masculine and feminine qualities and our attempt to find a balance between strength and flexibility. It also means "forceful," and so Hatha Yoga is often thought of as the physical branch of yoga -- although, says Hagen, "any studio worth its salt is going to incorporate the spiritual and meditative elements, as well."
Hatha Yoga has been shown to have numerous physical benefits: Studies have shown that a regular practice can improve strength, flexibility, and physical fitness; and help alleviate chronic health conditions, such as back pain or insomnia. [Site: Mayo Clinic] People who practice yoga (but not those engaging in other types of physical activity) are also less likely to be obese than those who don't, in part because they seem to be more mindful about what they eat. [Source: Framson]
There's also evidence that it's good for the mind, as well. It can boost your mood and help relieve stress and anxiety on daily basis, and a 2013 study from Duke University found that yoga (along with medication) can improve symptoms of psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and ADHD. [Source: Sifferlin]
If you have an existing health condition, you should talk to your doctor before trying yoga -- and let your instructor know about any concerns you have before class. Luckily, most postures can be modified, though, so that everyone can reap the many health benefits of yoga.
Learn more about Hatha yoga in "Hatha Yoga Illustrated" by Martin Kirk. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.