a blog by Ellen Davies

Do the words “hatha” and “vinyasa” mean anything anymore?

Do the words “hatha” and “vinyasa” mean anything anymore?

Have you noticed that sometimes it’s hard to pick a yoga class? The words “hatha” and “vinyasa” don’t always mean the same thing, from one studio to the next, and even from one teacher to the next. Recently I took one of each class at two different studios in California, and I didn’t get what I was expecting.

Before each class, however, I did my homework. I read the class descriptions on the studios’ websites, and I called ahead to confirm that the classes were not heated. I thought I knew what I was walking into. 

First, the hatha class. Now bear in mind that my idea of a hatha class is one that’s middle-of-the-road. It is not a vinyasa class, so we might do some sun salutations (traditionally done at the end of class, not at the beginning), but we won’t “float through a vinyasa” from one pose to the next. Also, poses may be held longer, and thus the class may be more meditative.


My first clue, when I was paying the $18 drop-in fee, was hearing the teacher talking excitedly about what she was “obsessing” about that week. I soon learned more—she had been obsessing about anatomy. She started the class with a five minute anatomy lecture, focused on the hips, glutes, and low back. No centering–we jumped right into the poses. 

Then she kept talking. And talking. And talking. There was no space in between her talking for me to breathe and relax. For each pose she cued, she gave instruction after instruction: put your foot here, straighten that leg, engage the quadriceps, squeeze the gluteals, feel the QL stretch and tilt the pelvis exactly like this, no, not like that, like this.

It was exhausting. I longed for quiet, but she was “obsessed” with getting her point across. She had us put a strap around the mid-thighs, then actively try to “break” the strap. Granted, this is a good exercise and can help open the low back (if you follow her instructions). But she kept hitting the same idea over and over. Standing with the strap. Kneeling with the strap. On our backs with the strap. In between, she talked us through every single anatomy cue for Triangle, Angle, and Goddess. Then she put us on our bellies with the strap, and that’s when I gave up. Because what she was cueing made my back hurt. So I released the strap, and rested. And I sensed that she wasn’t happy with me not following her instruction.

I bailed out of her class, and moved to child’s pose, then corpse pose. I stopped listening. And I was glad that I did, because in the end, she forgot savasana. She forgot it. That, to me, is inexcusable.

Two days later, I took a vinyasa class. The instructor opened class with a long centering sequence, having us float our arms around in a circle to awaken our energy. She led us through neck stretches, then side stretches. Eventually we got to our feet, and she took us through a few slow sun salutations. But the bulk of the class was seated. Her voice was quiet, and she gave very few instructions, so there was plenty of silence. I could relax and expand. She ended with reclined twists and a just-long-enough savasana.

In the end, I got one hatha class that was too much like vinyasa, and a vinyasa class that was really hatha.

I don’t see this as a fault of the studio or the instructors. Both instructors were good, but their teaching styles were wildly different.

So, those of you who are hesitant to take a yoga class, I guess this is one more hurdle to overcome. How do you know what type of class you’ll get? One possible solution is to call the studio and ask about the different classes, maybe describe your comfort and ability level, and get a recommendation. That’s great, but most of us choose a yoga class based simply on when it’s most convenient.

What would you do? Do you call the studio, or talk to your friends about the different classes and instructors? Leave me a note in the comments section, I’d love to hear your suggestions.


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