Hatha yoga is one part of the broad spectrum of yoga practice. It is particularly suited for developing physical fitness, and is the type of yoga most practiced in the West. Although Hatha yoga is considered an alternative medicine practice, it has won respect in the mainstream medical community.
Hatha yoga combines physical exercise and mental discipline, with the goal of integrating and invigorating both body and mind. It consists primarily of poses, known as asanas, designed to increase strength and flexibility, and controlled breathing, known as pranayamic breating. Hatha yoga poses range from novice-level poses to poses that can challenge even an experienced practitioner. Movement and breathing are used together to help you flow smoothly from one pose to the other.
Yoga itself is at least 3,000 years old, according to the University of Indiana. Hatha yoga is a relatively new form of yoga. It originated in India in the 15th century, and was brought to the West in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries. The first Hatha yoga institute was opened in India in the 1920s, and the first institute in the United States was opened in Hollywood in 1947. It greatly increased in popularity in the United States in the 1960s, and has since branched off into a number of styles.
All forms of yoga are based on a mystical philosophy with no direct counterpart in Western thought. It ultimately seeks to unify the practitioner's inner soul with the cosmos, although many people practice it solely for its health benefits. Hatha yoga in particular utilizes poses and controlled breathing to unify the positive and negative forces in the body in a new harmony, eventually allowing the practitioner to control her own vital force, achieve clarity of mind and gain access to the unconscious mind. This harmony, when perfected, is thought to lead to a mentally healthy, disease-free state. This state is considered a precondition to graduation to deeper meditative yoga practices that fall outside the scope of Hatha yoga.
Hatha yoga provides numerous health benefits, although it is not viewed as a replacement for mainstream Western medicine in the event of illness. Hatha yoga has been shown to reduce stress, improve balance and flexibility, increase strength and reduce the risk of injury in daily life. It can reduce heart rate and blood pressure, and can help manage chronic diseases such as cancer, insomnia and chronic pain. Its psychological benefits can assist in weight loss by helping to control appetite.