Principles of Hatha Yog
Even if Hatha Yog were to be practiced at its basic, physical level, it is still vastly different from any other form of exercise. What makes Hatha Yog unique and different from any other form of exercise are the principles on which it is based. Without them Hatha Yog degenerates into circus acrobatics building human rubber bands and nothing more. Unfortunately based on what we see, many schools of yog ignore or are unaware of these principles and go on blatantly contravening them in their practice and their tuition. Naturally aches, pains, injuries and other problems come up and then yog is blamed! People then get the wrong idea of yog. Some of the various schools of yog going around today are as far off from the original Hatha Yog as Swami Swatmaram could possibly imagine. Read on the learn why..
1. No use of force or violence
The first principle of Yog is "ahimsa" or non-violence. Simply interpreted, there must be no force or violence done to the body in doing any pose. It does not matter if the violence or force is self-inflicted or inflicted by another person but the effect is the same though probably someone else applying force is probably a lot worse.
Let us say you have to do "paschim-uttan-asan", a forward bend where you sit down on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you. Now you attempt to bend forward and grasp your toes, trying to place your head on your knees. Obviously an intense stretch. Very few would be able to do this at first attempt. Some will be able to just touch their toes with their hands others may not even be able to do that.
WHAT MUST NOT BE DONE, AT ANY COST is to force your head down to (try to) touch your knees. Someone else sitting or pushing on your back can do immense damage to your spinal cord, hamstring muscles and what not. The same will be the case if you try to overstretch beyond your capacity and try to do what your body is not currently ready to. Aches and pains, strains, muscle pulls, tissue tears, ligament damage are all bound to occur sooner or later if you follow this approach.
How then should the pose be done?
2. Slow and gentle movement
This is how a yog posture is meant to be done. Slowly and gently. Don't be in a hurry to get it over with. You are not doing aerobics. When doing "Paschim-uttan-asan", for example, start by slowly raising your hands above your head as in a slow motion movie. Then slowly bent forward, reaching as much as you can. Keep watching for any strain or pain. If appears, then stop pushing further immediately. If you feel the pain is pleasurable, if you feel you can hold it at that stage, do so. If not, release the pose by coming up a little. Then slowly come up.
3. Co-ordinate Breathing with the pose
The next cardinal principle states that the breath has to be co-ordinated with the pose. Going into a pose, staying there and coming out of it these are the three phases of any pose. Typically you are either supposed to inhale, exhale or hold your breath in each of these phases. When done properly, the pose helps the breathing and the breathing helps the pose.
Let us come back to "paschim-uttan-asan". In the first stage, going into the pose, when you are raising your arms, you will naturally inhale. Your chest is expanding as you raise your hands and this facilitates the inward breath. Now as you bend forward you will be compressing your chest and abdomen and deflating your lungs so naturally you will exhale. When you reach your limit, you will hold the breath, and when coming up you will naturally inhale.
In general, any backward bend is accompanied by an inhalation, a forward bend or twist with If you reflect on this, you will realise this is not rocket science but common sense. If you try to inhale while bending forward or twisting your spine, you will realise how it feels.
4. Awareness in the pose.
This cardinal principle is probably unique to yog. It insists that the awareness, consciousness or mind should be focussed WITHIN the body on the pose. During "paschim-uttan-asan" for example, you would probably be paying attention to your hamstrings and back. Only if you are paying close attention will you realise if you have reached your limit, are over-doing the pose or simply stopping far short of your capacity. If you are listening to music, watching TV or thinking of what to eat for breakfast while doing yog, then it is not yog any more. It degenerates into physical exercise. True yog is done with body, breath and mind. In that way, yog can be called dynamic meditation since the generally useless mental chatter and clutter automatically slows down when you focus on your body and breath.
5. Begin where you are
While doing yog, you have to recognise your current capability and position and begin there. An olympic gymnast may want to begin with a one-handed handstand, but you probably cannot. A sure fire way to injure yourself is to try something you are not sure that you can do. In the case of yog, it is better to play safe and begin with simple standing poses before attempting anything more complicated.
6. Stay within your capabilities
A corollary of the principle of non-violence. Don't do harm to your body by overextending yourself. Aches and pains have no place in yog done properly. Be aware when you are doing the pose and push yourself to your limit. Stay there for as long as you can. But don't go beyond and invite trouble.
7. Slow and steady progress
If the first day of "paschim-uttan-asan", your hands only touch your knees, no matter. Do what you can and slowly, day by day, try to improve. The next day, see if you can do a little more. This is the secret to steady, problem-free progress. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly your body adapts and you will soon be doing the "impossible" by practicing regularly. But remember the previous principle of staying within your capacity. Some people are not born to do a four minute mile and never will, how much ever they train. Similarly if you just cannot do a pose after giving it your best shot for a long period of time, do what you can and just move on. It is not worth spending one year to perfect one pose!
8. Static and dynamic poses
Going into a pose and immediately coming out of it, without staying in it for more than a fraction of a second, is called doing a pose dynamically. Often it is easier than staying in the pose. For example, dynamic "paschim-uttan-asan" will comprise of raising your arms, then slowlybending forward as much as you can, and then immediately but slowly getting up again. There is no pause in the middle.
When you stay in the pose, in the final position, it is called the static pose.
When you find that you cannot do the static pose comfortably, start with the dynamic pose. After a few days or weeks of practice, you will soon be able to hold it for a few seconds and then longer and longer. This is a gentle way of making progress. Doing a static pose that your body is not ready for could create problems.
9. Pose and Counterpose,
Every yog pose puts the body into an unusual position the body is not accustomed to. This naturally produces a strain on the body. This strain is to be relieved immediately after coming out of the pose, whenever possible, by doing a pose that has the opposite effect. For example after "paschim-uttan-asan", a forward bend, the counterpose to relieve the back will be a mild back bend such as "dwi-pada-pitham". The important thing to note is that the counterpose should be milder and easier than the main pose. The idea is to relax that part of the body which has been strained in the previous pose, not to tax it further.
10. No use of props
What is a prop? A prop is anything you use to be able to do a pose, other than your body, the ground and a small rug or blanket. Many people use belts, ropes, bricks, sticks, chairs, tables, and what not to assist them in their postures. While it may be argued that these help the persons to do things they otherwise cannot, and thus give them the benefits they would otherwise miss out, there is a hidden danger. The danger is over-exceeding your capacity. Your body is obviously not ready to do a pose. By using a prop, you are forcing it to do something beyond it's capacity, which could easily lead to harm.
A classic case is doing "shirs-asan" or the head-stand, taking the support of a wall. Yes, the wall is a prop, too! Shirs-asan is a delicate pose. The entire weight of the body is being borne on the head, neck and arms. The neck especially is designed to take the weight of the head. Now you are putting the whole weight of the body on it! Similary the delicate blood vessels and capillaries in the brain are only used to the mild pressure of blood being pumped through them by the heart, against the pull of gravity. Now suddenly all the blood in the body is gushing down, aided by gravity, when your body is in the inverted posture.
Therefore the need of the hour is to be very careful in these poses. Stay within your capacity. The body will tell you if you are ready for the pose and if so, when you have had enough, when you must come out of the pose. It indicates this by either refusing to obey your command to go into the pose, or by displaying breathlessness, pain, discomfort or fatigue. You now know what needs to be done. Using a prop, like the wall, gives you a false sense of security. You can now stay upside down for much longer, but the damage is being done as the muscles of the neck and the capillaries in the brain get strained beyond their capacities.
11. No going out-of-breath
A natural corollary. If you follow all the above principles, you will never go out of breath while doing yog. Going out of breath or having difficulty in maintaining normal breathing, is the first indicator that you have overstepped your limits. Pain etc comes much later. If you pay close attention to your breathing, you will now when it is becoming laboured or abnormal. That is the time to stop.
12. No comparisions with others
One of the dangers of doing yog in a class with others is that you are constantly comparing yourself with others to see how they are doing. If no one else can do the pose you cannot, you feel happy. If they are all doing it and you are having difficulty, you feel embarrassed and push yourself to do what you should not. Or if you are doing it well, you may feel the temptation of showing off to others.
This brings about serious problems. Firstly you may over-reach and strain or injure yourself. Secondly, comparisions have no meaning. For a very flexible person, just putting his head on his knees may not bring him benefit. He would probably need to clasp his wrists around his heels, or do some other more difficult variation. On the other hand, a stiff person would get lots of benefit even if he could just reach to his ankles. The idea is to go upto your capacity. If you try to imitate others, you are asking for trouble.
Thirdly and most importantly, your attention is not within but outside, on the others. This is quite the opposite of yog. Yog is something you do by yourself for yourself. It is not a spectator sport. You are the the observer and the observed. That is the uniqueness of yog.
13. Energized vs fatigued
If you follow all these principles faithfully, you will emerge from the class energised and not fatigued. That is the true test of Hatha Yog!
For further information, please refer to "Heart of Yoga" by Shri T K V Desikachar.