Vinyasa Vs Hatha: A categorical distinction for choosing your group exercise class.
In our modern world where Yoga is known to increasingly more populations, it can often be overwhelming for a new person to decide what kind of Yoga they want to seek out. Yoga has many paths, it has many expressions, but in our culture Yoga is usually going to be conveyed as a physical art and demonstrated as such. That’s a short intro to say that I’m aware of all that is beyond the physical world of Yoga, however in this write-up I am simply going to focus on Yoga in the physical class room, and how one can usually make sense of it for best first impression. Let’s just start with some basic definitions:
Yoga – typically defined as ‘union.’
Vinyasa – typically defined as ‘moving with the breath.’
Hatha – typically defined as ‘will or force, sometimes as the union of Sun and Moon.’
Asana – defined as ‘seat,’ typically used to define physical postures in Yoga
To be blunt, all physical Yoga IS BOTH Vinyasa Yoga AND Hatha Yoga, by both the literal definition of the terms and even the overall application of concepts contained. Hatha Yoga started with the physical practice that involved bringing balance to the body, uniting the energy on both sides of the spine, and achieving a stepping stone to other paths of consciousness expansion and/or spirituality. The basic foundation of all popularized Western Vinyasa Yoga was ‘Vinyasa Ashtanga,’ and it should be considered that almost EVERY modern class format and style that contains the word ‘Vinyasa’ in it, is in some way claiming reference to this style of practice and lineage. ‘99% practice 1 % theory’ was the raw motto of Vinyasa Ashtanga in a world where people’s bodies were getting too ruined and out of shape to practice true Hatha effectively. It was believed that the importance of the routine of practice and the correct sequencing would get the person back to what Hatha Yoga expected of their physical bodies. If an Ashtanga Yogi had enough hours in their day they would theoretically have a 2-3 hour physical practice that would then lead into any amount of stillness and meditative practice.
So why are there so many different types of Yoga if it is all really the same? – the answer is branding. In today’s era the terms ‘Hatha’ and ‘Vinyasa’ have become the 2 major headers for which all the other styles will fall under. Some studios might provide elaborate descriptions on class style and influence – if you are lucky. Sometimes studios lean in one direction or the other, being a Vinyasa or Hatha focused studio. For the most part though it is expected that the student knows what they are walking into, or else a lot of investigation must occur. Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Baptiste, Forrest, Corepower, Kundalini are just some of the major names one might encounter, and there are endless others. In today’s day and age you can MOSTLY expect to sift through with these points as your guide.
Vinyasa – Based around the Sun Salutation movement (fold down, touch ground, step or jump to a pushup, upward dog, downward dog) to build heat and raise heart rate. You will almost ALWAYS encounter this movement in this class; expect it. From there styles may vary greatly in terms of the composition of flow sequences & how much time is spent standing vs ground, but overall the class is designed to be medium-fast paced with ease of transition in between postures. Generally the flow of class is: centering/warmup -> repeated sun salutations -> standing postures, balance on tail end -> ground stretches -> savasana/resting position.
Ashtanga Vinyasa – It’s the one that started it, and it’s best to know it as almost everything else after attempted to imitate it. The popularized postures are very commonly seen across all ‘inspired’ classes and are always used in the ‘chop shop/cookie cutter classes.’ Ashtanga has a certain way to go through them, and always adjusts the visual attention, some key physical alignments, and seeks to find fluid movement with breath as the familiarity with sequence develops. The sequence is set up to always leave from for advancement without changing the core flow of energy.
‘Vinyasa Flow’ - A very common type of Vinyasa in these parts that usually sets up sequences once the first time somewhat slow, then repeats 2 more times faster (3x total). Very open to what postures you will see outside of the sun salutation.
Heated Vinyasa – May also be a studio designation, but expect it to be a class fast paced and designed to make you sweat anywhere from 90 to up to 100+ degrees!
Hatha – no allegiance to any type of physical shape. You MIGHT see the ‘sun salutation,’ but even if so it is used more sparingly and with slower postural focus. You might not see it at all. Hatha class tends to hold postures longer, focus more on breath and minor muscle movement integration within postures, and leave more room more meditation and/or internal contemplation. You may explore standing and ground in no particular set order. Generally the flow of class is: Seated or standing stationary centering -> dynamic or internal focus technique -> physical practice of any amount of intensity -> savasana/resting position -> (frequently time for seated meditation afterwards)
Yin(Gentle) Hatha – very low physical intensity, very few postures, very long holds. Relaxing and restorative as it stretches the connective tissue gently over time.
Inyengar – Popularized by one of the Western Father’s of Yoga, a very authentic style that leaves room for postural alignment, breath integration, and designates different practices for different times.
Bikram – Popularized by Bikram Choudhury, a very rigid sequence of postures that are performed at an extremely high temperature room. Rooms might reach 110-115 degrees, eat and drink accordingly!
Kundalini – an extremely meditative and spiritually oriented style one must have proper and specific authentication to
teach properly. Not nearly as much emphasis put on body movement.
There’s so many others, I practice Yoga 23 for example which isn’t even known well in the USA, but as I said they are largely brands on a person’s name from a more recent generation , or they are simply not that common in my region and im rattling off this blog to be somewhat relevant to people in my backyard of San Diego, California.
Why is it good to practice both?
There are benefits to attempting to fluidly and quickly move through postures without pain, just as there are benefits to taking one’s time and trying to realign the joints and tap into better postural awareness. Just as in the gym variety is key to not getting stuck in functional-fixedness.
What are some common pitfalls of both?
Vinyasa – Postures go by too quickly to fully align, philosophically some find themselves wondering how much physical intensity is actually productive vs a hindrance to internal awareness. Vinyasa Yogis should always take time to think about bone stacking, and making sure to spend longer periods of time with certain postures off the mat. (ie warrior 2 looks ugly on almost EVERYONE if you make them hold it for a few minutes and check them.)
Hatha – depending on your influences and curriculum, Hatha can sometimes be on the other end of the spectrum and leave a person with a lot of body awareness, flexibility, and rooted foundation, with not a lot of functional mobility or strength application. Yin/gentle and Kundalini have their purposes for certain reasons, but a well-rounded physical regiment is what the original Asntanga Vinyasa aimed to improve upon in Hatha, and that’s important to remember. Hatha Yogis should always take the time to engage in fluidity exercises, sports, or even just dynamic stretching that don’t always just focus on abrupt ranges and angles. They should also analyze if CERTAIN POSTURES are actually worth practicing, healthy for the body, or relevant in the modern world. (ie is that peacock arm balance really worth doing for your overall health.)
Which leads me to my final conclusion on both – DON’T EVER GET STUCK IN BLIND TRADITION. Every TRULY GREAT instructor I’ve had questioned at least one traditional thing in their own practice or in their teaching. When you can take it all in, sift through it all, and take what works best for you, THAT’s when you’ve TRULY ‘gotten’ physical Yoga.
I hope this has been a helpful blog, and I hope that my rough summary on things was not offensive to any as it is not my intention. As I stated earlier Physical Yoga is simply one of many paths, I always encourage students to explore others. J Questions and comments welcome. If you are ever in San Diego or would like more info about where/when I teach reach out to me at
Nick 'Niko-Bolas' Capobianco / 5 Element Fitness
"Transform your body, Enhance your Mind"