Yoga Asana

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Good health can be achieved by the regular practice of asanas, which control the emotions, produce mental peace and distribute prana evenly throughout the body. Asanas help to maintain the healthy functioning of the internal organs, to cure many diseases and to awaken kundalini shakti. These are the chief advantages of the yogic system of practices, which no other system has. A few asanas daily for at least fifteen minutes will give wonderful health, but regular practice is of paramount importance. Ill health is a myth. It does not exist beyond the range of the physical and mental sheaths.

Right and wrong living

Many people find the unmistakable signs of disease, such as declining health, vigour and vitality, and many actually feel the grip of premature old age. It will not do to unjustly throw the blame on heredity without for a moment understanding that you may have been flouting the laws of life for all these years. It is the result of wrong living, incorrect eating, wrong breathing and inappropriate thinking. Living in ignorance of the relationship between brain and brawn is in fact exactly the way to develop the disease of `old age'.

If the whole situation is reversed, and right living, a healthy diet and correct breathing are introduced, then what will be the effect? The answer given by the seers of the East is that the physical and mental degeneration will give place to physical and mental regeneration. The Indian yogis have conclusively proved that by following a regimen it is quite possible to rebuild the human body.

Beyond the body

According to the saints and sages of old, the key to accomplish this remarkable feat, namely to reconstruct the human mind, to regain lost youth, strength and beauty, is to be found in yoga asanas. The word yoga means union of the individual soul with the supreme soul, and asana is an easy and comfortable pose or posture. Therefore, the term yoga asana means that through the practice of certain postures by the yoga practitioner, the individual soul can become united with the supreme soul. The relationship between mind and body is so complete and so subtle that it is no wonder certain kinds of physical training will induce certain mental transformations.

You might have come across people demonstrating yoga asanas, some of which may seem at first sight difficult and tiring. Such persons are not uncommon in India and some of my students who are specialists in this branch of yoga can do the various exercises with amazing grace and finish. It is wrong to suppose that these yoga asanas founded by the ancient rishis of India are merely physical exercises. There is something spiritual, something divine at the bottom of this system, because it awakens the sleeping kundalini shakti, helps the yogic student a lot in becoming fully established in meditation and finally makes him taste the nectar of cosmic consciousness.

The ideal

It is important to know what an ideal system of physical culture should be, so that you will be able to judge for yourself the value of yoga asanas in the light of the ideal. An ideal system requires the smallest amount of energy to be spent in order to secure the greatest amount of benefit. It can increase vital energy, build up a healthy nervous system, ensure healthy excretory organs, take care of the circulatory system and develop the muscular system.

These conditions are fulfilled by yoga asanas. The prescription of a short but complete course of yoga asanas is more than sufficient for an average healthy person not only to maintain a high standard of health but also to achieve true success in yoga.

By the practice of asanas, the blood is charged with abundant oxygen, the body is filled with abundant energy, the brain centres and the spinal cord are strengthened, memory is improved, intellect is sharpened and intuition is developed. In addition, asanas cause a mild awakening of the chakras.

The practice

Yogic physical culture is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Therefore, you need not attach undue importance to this branch of yoga alone to the neglect of the others. Thousands are benefited in various ways by the regular practice of asanas. All asanas should be done invariably in the morning and not in the evening. In the evening people are tired after a day's work and as such will not be able to do the various exercises with the feeling of exhilaration and freshness which they would feel in the morning. Asana practice must be done on an empty stomach, but there is no harm if a small cup of milk, light tea or coffee is taken before commencing the exercises.

There should be absolutely no feeling of depression or fatigue either before or during the performance of the asanas. This is an important point to remember, if you wish to enjoy the benefits of these exercises to the fullest measure. You need not go through a whole course of practices every day, but you must by all means be regular and systematic in the little that you do, and be a master of all the practices that you learn.

Easy and comfortable

Another point to remember is that the amount of energy expended in these exercises should on no account strain your system. Those of you who wish to do muscular exercises may do so in the evening.

Asana is the third limb or anga of yoga. If you are firmly established in asanas, you will not feel the body at all. When you do not feel the body, the pairs of opposites, such as heat and cold, pleasure and pain, will not affect you. When you are free from these effects, you will be able to take up the next higher step, which is pranayama, and practise it with an unruffled mind. Therefore, you should select a posture that is easy and comfortable and in which you can remain for some time.

Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (6:11-13), "Having in a clean spot established a firm seat, neither too high nor too low with cloth, skin, and kusha grass thereon, and making the mind one-pointed, with the actions of the mind and the senses controlled, let him, seated there on the seat, practise yoga for purification of the self. Holding the body erect and still, head and neck firm, gazing at the tip of the nose, without looking around, serene-minded, fearless, firm in the vow of godly life, having restrained the mind, thinking on Me, and balanced, let him sit, looking up to Me as the Supreme."

Hatha and raja yogis

Yoga aims at developing willpower. A person with strong and dynamic willpower will always sit upright and walk with his chest thrown out in front, but a weak-willed person will change his posture often, either sitting or standing, and walk in a zigzag fashion, betraying want of resolution in every step. The practice of asanas is of vital importance and, though the practice may be found to be painful and troublesome at the outset, when the habit of sitting in one asana for a considerable length of time is formed, one will feel a peculiar thrill and pleasure while seated there, and will not like to change the pose on any account.

According to Sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (2:46), posture is that which is firm and comfortable - sthira sukham aasanam. He does not lay any special stress on either asana or pranayama. It was only later on that hatha yogis developed these two limbs of yoga and, no doubt, they are of tremendous help to the yogic student. While hatha yogis aim at the control and culture of the body, raja yogis aim at the control and culture of the mind. As body and mind are interdependent, physical culture is an indispensable condition to mental culture.

Body and mind

There is an intimate connection between the mind and the body. Whatever you hold in your mind will be produced in the physical body. Any ill-feeling or bitterness towards another person will at once affect the body and produce some kind of disease in the body. Intense passion, hatred or fits of hot temper actually destroy the cells of the body and induce diseases of the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, and stomach. Worry has caused new deadly diseases like high blood pressure, heart trouble or nervous breakdown.

All diseases take their origin in the mind. The pains that afflict the physical body are called secondary diseases, whilst the vasanas or desires that affect the mind are termed mental or primary diseases. If bad thoughts are destroyed, all bodily diseases will vanish.

Treat the mind first because mental health is more important than physical health. Remove hatred through cosmic love, friendship, sympathy and compassion. Remove greed through disinterested service, generous acts and charity and remove pride through humility.

A healthy person smiles, laughs, is cheerful and happy. Laughter and cheerfulness increase the blood circulation. They are tonics for the blood. Be courageous, cheerful, kind and tolerant. Pray, sing and meditate on the Lord. Do japa, pranayama and asanas. You will always have wonderful physical and mental health and a calm mind.

When you have controlled the mind, you have perfect control over the body. The body is only a shadow of the mind. It is the mould prepared by the mind for its expression. The body becomes your slave, when you have conquered the mind.