Hatha yoga is unique for maintaining proper health. But that is only one aspect of Hatha yoga. It is also a complete step-by-step system that can take you to the ultimate goal of God-realization and perfection. Therefore do not mistakenly think that Hatha yoga is only a physical practice for proper health.
At the inception of your practice, however, you will most likely be relating to Hatha yoga for maintaining or regaining proper health. In that perspective, there are five principles that you should observe:
(i) proper exercise, (ii) proper breathing, (iii) proper relaxation, (iv) proper diet and (v) positive thinking.
To maintain proper health, there are three basic things that you need to observe: (i) you need to nourish the body, (ii) you need to rest it, and (iii) you need to exercise. Most people only nourish and rest the body without exercising it. This is why any kind of exercise will be beneficial for them. You cannot tell poor people that they must exercise; usually that is what they do all day! Most times, they are over-exercised, undernourished and under-rested! It is the rich and privileged people, who have been compacting and impacting the body, stressing it with too much food and no exercise that must exercise. Once they start to exercise, they will feel much better!
But what is “proper” exercise? People exercise all the time; everything that demands some sort of physical effort qualifies as exercise. For example, you might work in the garden, go for a walk or work out at the gym. In each case, you are exercising. Why is “proper” exercise necessary? When you analyze most systems of exercise, you will discover that they only work part of the body or alternately, they develop some form of stress in the body. For example, jogging and aerobic-type exercises work the heart and increase your endorphin levels, but at the same time, it creates lots of stress and tension in your body, especially your feet, calf muscles and thighs.
We relate to Hatha yoga as proper exercise, because it works on all the systems in the physical body. The skeletal system, muscular system, nervous system, circulatory system, digestive system, lymphatic system, endocrine system, excretory system, integumentary system, reproductive system and respiratory system are all toned, strengthened, refined and purified through the proper practice of Hatha Yoga.
Most people are very stiff and have lost the full range of motion in their bodies. This is especially true with weight lifters and body builders; they develop so much stiffness and tension. Some people cannot squat or bend at the waist anymore. Through yoga exercise, you maintain proper range of motion; you do not weaken the joints. Instead, you release stress and tension and become very strong at that same time. If you look at children who innately perform various yoga postures, their bodies are very flexible but they are also very strong. They can work and play all day effortlessly.
Yoga also works on proper alignment of the skeletal system while strengthening and renewing the bones, ligaments and cartilage.
Yoga tones and strengthens all the muscles in the body including even the cardiac muscles.
People may think that Yoga postures are passive, but when you do a headstand or shoulder stand properly, you will discover that all your muscles are working.
A great deal of tension and stress is released from the muscles. To help you in that release, your mind should be focused on the areas of tension while performing the Asanas. Breathe deeply into those areas and use the breath to help you release the stiffness, tension and stress that has accumulated there due to lack of exercise and toning.
Many people have tension in their necks. It is no mystery. They keep their heads tilted down at the computer for hours each day. Your head is the size of a bowling ball. How long can you hold a bowling ball in your hand without screaming? It is the same thing with your neck. If you place stress and tension on the muscles all day, they will undoubtedly hurt. It is rare that people sit erect or stand up straight. Therefore, there is constant stress on the neck and back, but it can be released through Yoga practice.
Yoga postures also benefit the circulatory system. They tone up the arteries and veins. Postures like headstand and shoulder stand increase blood flow to the heart through the force of gravity. This, in turn, causes the heart to expand and contract more forcefully. Thus, it is really exercising the heart, even though you do not realize it. Since the circulatory system is stimulated, many people, especially beginners, sweat during the class.
Toning and strengthening of the nervous system also takes place during Asana practice. Many beginners find their muscles shaking when they exercise them more than they are used to, as in the leg lifts for example. This happens because the nervous system is very weak. Certain postures are very beneficial for toning and strengthening of the nerves, such as forward bends, shoulder stand and plough. The plough tones up all the muscles, the ligaments and especially the nervous system.
The nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which are part of the central nervous system, as well as the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary body functions such as the heartbeat and digestion, are all stimulated and toned by Yoga postures.
Through the metabolism and catabolism in the body, which takes place on the cellular level, all the waste is dumped into the lymphatic system, which in turn dumps it into the circulatory system at certain nodes or points in the body. The circulatory system then gets rid of it through the excretory system, which consists of the kidneys, lungs, bladder, colon and sweat glands.
The lymphatic system is stimulated by activity and movement; it does not have a pump like the heart, which pumps the blood throughout the body. The lymphatic system’s ability to circulate and drain is increased by the increase in muscle movement in Yoga practice. The squeezing action of the Asanas also stimulates the lymphatic system. This is why after Asana practice you feel so healthy and purified, as the body is being cleaned of toxins.
Certain postures have a direct effect on the digestive organs, particularly Vajrasana and Peacock. In Vajrasana, the blood circulation in the legs is reduced, leaving more blood available for the digestive process. Peacock stimulates the liver and spleen, even if one is not able to do it completely and perfectly.
Stretching and compressing the muscles around the endocrine glands provides deep massage, oxygenation and nourishment to the endocrine system.
The practice of certain Yoga postures provides a deep massage of the internal organs such as the ascending and descending colon, which are part of the excretory system.
The integumentary system is being cleansed as you sweat from doing physical exercise.
The reproductive organs are also nourished through massage and oxygenation.
Breathing takes place through the expansion and contraction of muscles. The muscles that are involved in breathing include the diaphragm, intercostals, chest muscles and shoulders. Exhalation occurs by contracting these muscles. In order to inhale, you expand these muscles. The more you can expand these muscles, the more fresh oxygenated air flows in. The more you contract them, the more stale and toxic air is being expelled.
In order to experience the expansion and contraction of the breathing muscles, try this simple exercise: Sit up straight, do not move any muscle and try to pull air in through your nose. Nothing will happen. The only way to inhale is through the expansion of muscles. When these muscles expand, a low-pressure situation is created and air rushes in automatically.
Now sit up straight again and try to exhale through your nose. Nothing will happen unless you contract your muscles. The more you can contract, the more you can expel. But you can never get all the air out of the lungs, the lungs cannot be collapsed, unless of course, you are run over by a truck.
The respiratory system is nourished through proper breathing which is the basis of physical and mental well being.
At all levels of your practice, you will find that all these systems are being purified, toned and strengthened.
The Sampoorna approach to Yoga exercise, which consists of breathing exercises, strengthening and warming up exercises, Asanas, and deep relaxation, helps you to gain endurance, strength and flexibility while restoring balance in the body.
Almost everyone has some kind of imbalance in their body. By virtue of being right-handed or left-handed, you work one side of the body more than the other. But if you observe certain basic points in your asana practice, it helps you to realign the body and restore symmetry and balance. In your Asana practice, you should work towards gaining strength, endurance and balance, not only flexibility. A common misconception is that a person who is flexible is a good Hatha yogi. But in reality, that person may be developing weakness in their body. If you only stretch the muscles in one direction, you inevitably develop weakness, which is undesirable. Instead, you should strive for symmetry and balance. For example, if you find that your backward-bending postures are weak, you should practice those more. Most people like to do the Asanas that they can perform easily and neglect those which are more difficult for them to perform; in the process of doing that, they develop greater imbalance. If your approach to Hatha yoga is correct, you can restore symmetry and balance in your body.
When you perform asanas, your mind should be focused on the area of tension. For example, in forward bending, your attention should be on feeling the stretch in the hamstring muscles and the nervous system. Focus on the area of tension and stress and breathe into it. In doing so, you release the stress and tension in that area. The stiffness, tension and stress accumulates there from lack of exercise and lack of toning. If you learn about the mechanics of the body and how to release stress while maintaining a proper posture, it helps to ease the tensions. Wherever you find stress, you will find more circulation. But if your body is toxic, it is bringing more toxins to that area. That is where proper diet comes in. If your colon is blocked and you have constant constipation, you will find tension in your neck. The moment you get rid of the constipation, you feel released there.
These are very simple things that you will experience in your practice of yoga. Most doctors cannot tell you all these things because they haven’t studied medicine from this standpoint. The medication that is prescribed only treats the effect, neglecting the cause.
When you practice yoga, you need to practice with some understanding. If the understanding is not there, you will not get the desirable result. You have to understand what the purpose of each yoga posture is. Once you know the purpose, whatever you do will help you to get the desirable result. If you understand these basic things, you will be able to adapt the postures to any situation. You do not need to teach a special class for obese or elderly people. If you understand the principle, you can modify, adapt and adjust the postures for anyone.
Take, for instance, the spinal twist. What is the purpose of the spinal twist? It is to twist the spine. You may get other benefits from it but the purpose is to twist the spine. In order to twist the spine, you have to keep it erect. If it is not straight and you try to twist it, it will not happen. You will find that people go into all kinds of gymnastics in spinal twist which mostly defeats the purpose and serves to boost their Ego. The posture should be adjusted in relationship to the flexibility of the person and how much freedom they have. If a person is very obese and very stiff, it does not mean that they cannot do spinal twist. Whatever they can do to twist the spine is sufficient. They can simply keep their legs straight. The position of the hands is only to aid the twisting of the spine. As long as they keep their attention on the spine and continue to breathe as they twist the spine, they are getting the benefits of spinal twist. Later on, as they lose weight and gain flexibility, they may be able to cross their foot over, but that should not compromise the vertical position of the spine. A person who is flexible may be able to go into all kinds of variations, but that does not mean they are getting more benefits than the person who has the legs straight. So once the spine is erect, you can twist it. If you don’t understand the objective of the posture, you will encounter various problems created by the mind.
In my years of involvement in the field of Hatha Yoga, I noticed that people who depend on props in their Yoga practice, never seem to advance. While some may argue that if you want to learn how to ride a bike, you need training wheels, I would say that the training wheels in this case, namely the props, create limitations.
I have seen people pulling on straps or using blocks as props. In the case of a strap, if they are only pulling on the strap, it will take much longer to improve as the body is not really pulled on. On the other hand, people who pull and stretch their bodies, improve in a very short time. The same goes for using blocks as props. Take the triangle pose as an example: if you use a block, it creates a limitation. You impose a limitation on yourself. You will not go any further than that. The other person will be moving and stretching, and in a short time their hand will be down on the floor.
You can observe the practice of headstand as another example. People always run to the wall when you tell them to do headstand. People who have used that wall for years develop dependence on the wall and cannot move away from it. Another person who has never done headstand before, if I teach them step by step how to do it, in a week they are doing headstand without the wall. Look at the benefits. The person who is using the wall is developing dependence on the wall. They are not going step by step so they are not developing the muscles to prepare them for headstand. They are also not developing confidence because they continue with the fear that they are going to fall. All of these things are negating the benefits of yoga! Yoga should give you confidence and independence. It should help you to develop focus, concentration and awareness of your body. All this is negated if you just jump on the wall doing headstand. These people will never advance to a regular headstand with variations.
Moving onto variations in the headstand is similar to teaching a baby to run. If the baby is not even crawling yet, will you be able to teach it to run? No. How does the baby learn to run? They crawl, creep, walk and finally they run. It is a natural progression. The idea of which variation to do in headstand is irrelevant until you are ready. First you learn how to do dolphin in the Sampoorna Yoga Level 1 Class. You measure the hands and bring the elbows under the shoulders. Then you interlace the fingers, raise the hips, come up and do dolphin. It strengthens the shoulders and also brings the awareness to the elbows pressing down on the floor. That is the secret of the headstand. So you go step by step. Once you go step by step and experience the headstand effortlessly, from there on you do whatever you want.
There are gymnasts that can do almost anything. For example, there are people who can do headstand without using their hands up in the air on a swing that is swinging. If we equate yogis to how flexible or strong someone is, then these people would be the greatest yogis! But yoga is much more than that. You cannot just dismiss their athleticism, discipline and ability to focus their mind. But it is not taking them any further because they don’t have any higher aspirations. If you understand about yoga and the purpose of life, you can redirect that kind of focus and concentration towards something higher. It is your aspiration. If you don’t aspire for something higher, you just remain where you are. You are what your deepest desire is.
Everybody has limitations. These limitations are what they impose on themselves. Since you are what your deepest desire is, why not desire the highest?
Even if you are just a beginner, you can do advanced postures. How? You practice! Of course, it does not necessarily mean you are going to attain it in this life. It may not happen in this body! But you have to start somewhere. Yoga is a step-by-step process. Approach it that way. You will enjoy it when you go step by step and it will unfold naturally.
In my opinion, it is not necessary to learn the Sanskrit names of the asanas. You might as well learn the Spanish names for them. People come up with all kinds of gimmicks just to keep people in bondage. What is the Sanskrit name? It is just a description of the posture. For example, you may say something in Sanskrit that means “foot over head.” So what difference does it make if I just tell you to put your foot over your head? When you go to a class and say the Sanskrit name for the posture, it seems as if you have a lot of knowledge. “Foot over head!” Of course, you can learn it if you want to learn it. But it does not add anything.