Yoga for Health
By Richard Hittleman
This section contains exercises that are known in Sanskrit as asanas, meaning postures or poses. The total series of asanas is designated as Hatha (physical) Yoga, A select, highly effective group of these comprises the basic exercise program of the Yoga For Health system. This program is presented in the following pages.
In undertaking the practice of Hatha Yoga, you are joining millions of people throughout the world who have turned to this most ancient and respected of natural methods for achieving and maintaining a high level of physical, mental, and emotional health. These people, of all ages and backgrounds, have found Yoga to be the perfect lifetime fitness program.
You will probably be pleasantly surprised, if not actually astonished, at how easy most of the movements are and how quickly you experience positive results. You can begin the Yoga practice nearly regardless of your age or present physical condition.
This is because you are not in competition with anyone; you do only what you can do comfortably, at your own pace, without strain, without huffing and puffing, without feeling you have benefited only when you are on the verge of collapse, as is the case in many systems of exercise. Beginning students frequently say. "I don't know if I can do these exercises." My response is, "If you can move your body one inch in any direction, you can do sufficient Yoga to experience significant benefits almost at once." This is true because while the movements can be performed in as simple a manner as is comfortable for you, they are extremely profound in nature. They reach deep into the organism; they massage, stimulate, relieve tension, work out stiffness, release trapped energy, revitalize, and assist in overcoming many physical and emotional problems. Whereas most methods of physical conditioning emphasize the muscular system. Yoga addresses all systems of the body: muscular, endocrine, respiratory, nervous, etc.
The approach to Yoga practice is totally different from that of calisthenics. First, you quiet the mind and emotions. Then, performing the exercises, you move for the most part slowly, with the poise, rhythm, and concentration of a dancer. You perform few repetitions of each exercise; postures such as the Shoulder and Head Stands are done only once during a practice session. You hold your extreme position for a brief interval while your mind is fully focused on what the body is feeling. You sink into the movements, you become the movements, you have a joyous physical experience in knowing and understanding your body from a new perspective. Indeed, Hatha Yoga assists you in perceiving the spiritual reality of your existence and, as stated by the ancient gurus, "is that practice which renders the mind fit for meditation." So it is essential to be aware that when you are engaged in Hatha Yoga there is much more involved than physical movement and exercising. You will soon come to understand the truth of this, and you will look forward to your practice session as one of the most enjoyable and meaningful periods of the day.
During the next several weeks, devote as much time as you can each day to learning the positions. Begin with the first asana, and work your way through to the end of the section. Then repeat the procedure a number of times until you feel you understand what is involved with each asana. Be certain to follow all of the instructions for performing, holding, and repeating exactly as written. Never strain; never go further than is comfortable. There is no hurry to attain an extreme position. The beginning and intermediate positions hold as much benefit for you while you are learning as the extreme positions will later on. If you hurry or strain, you will retard your progress. Learning the positions in this methodical, progressive manner will impart a sense of satisfaction, and you will continue to derive the various benefits listed below. Do not skip any of the postures. If any seems particularly difficult, do whatever modified position you can. A bend, stretch, lift, or inversion of only a few inches will prove beneficial.
Here is what you need to consider in preparing to practice: Allow at least ninety minutes to elapse after eating. Attempt to practice at the same hour each day. Minimal clothing is desirable; you must have complete freedom of movement, so nothing tight or restrictive should be worn. Remove watch, eyeglasses, and jewelry. Locate a flat surface with sufficient space for you to stretch in all directions. Select an area that is private and where you will not be disturbed. Cover this flat surface with a thin mat or large towel five to six feet long and approximately three feet wide. Use this covering only for your practice. Ideally, your practice environment (indoors or outdoors) should be conducive to a serene, elevating mode of mind, and there should be a supply of fresh air.
However, these conditions are frequently difficult to meet and are not essential. The main factor is that wherever you practice, you do so patiently, seriously, and regularly. You will want to time yourself in various "holding" positions, so place a silent clock or watch where the seconds and minutes can be easily read. The Locust and Head Stand postures may be facilitated by the use of a small pillow approximately six inches in height. Place this in the practice area before you begin. Once begun, practice should never be interrupted by your needing to obtain articles or by any activity that requires you to leave the area.
There will be days during which your body may not respond as well as it did the day before. Students frequently evaluate this as a "setback" and become discouraged. However, this is not a real regression. The body is simply pulling back a little in order to set itself firmly into the positions you have been teaching it. If you are patient on these days and go through your practice session to the best of your ability, you will assist the body in setting, and in a day or two it will be ready to move ahead once again. Permitting the body to set itself in this manner will enable you to derive benefits at each step of the way, and you will make steady progress. The body will learn the positions so thoroughly that it will never forget them, and you will be able to execute all of the postures throughout your entire life. I know from my personal experience with thousands of class students that the flexibility and other youthful physical characteristics developed through serious Yoga practice are maintained for life.
Once you have become familiar with the asanas through this learning procedure, your practice should take the form indicated in the Practice Plan at the end of this section. By faithfully following this plan with thirty to forty minutes of daily practice sessions, and adopting the principles contained in the other sections of this book, you can expect to:
Develop strength and muscle tone in all areas of the body.
Increase endurance and heighten resistance to many common disorders.
Maintain lifelong flexibility in spine and limbs.
Eliminate tension, and quiet the mind and emotions as necessary.
Release trapped energies and gain access to untapped Life-Force.
Improve efficiency in all activities through steadiness of mind.
Acquire greater control of the body through cultivation of balance and poise.
Overcome various negative conditions of the body such as stiffness, congestion, nervousness.
Promote the regulation and redistribution of weight.
If you are currently involved in jogging, the martial arts, golf, etc., and you believe these things to be of genuine value, you can continue to engage in them. However, understand that your Yoga practice is a totally different activity and should be undertaken entirely apart from these sports. Most sports promote stress and tension; it is interesting to note that many people have found it highly beneficial to loosen and relax themselves with a brief routine of the asanas prior to or immediately following a sporting event, as well as prior to a business meeting, school examination, or any activity in which they want to be particularly alert and yet relaxed. It won't take long to discover which of the asanas are effective for your particular needs in this regard. However, such application of the asanas should not be regarded as actual practice. Serious use of the postures in a therapeutic context is described on pages 70-71.
Read through the Nutrition section as soon as possible, and attempt to incorporate these principles into your diet. The benefits of Hatha Yoga practice will be increased through adoption of these principles.
It is suggested that you consult your physician before undertaking any system of exercise. Because of its nonstrenuous nature and involvement with all body systems, an increasing number of medical and health authorities are recommending Yoga practice to their patients.
You now know everything necessary to begin your practice. Devote yourself seriously to Hatha Yoga for the next few weeks and you will begin to understand its extraordinary value and why it has endured these many centuries. Regard your practice session as that time which totally transcends your ordinary life. You transport yourself into another dimension of existence where your mind and senses are turned wholly within. It is in this dimension that you draw ever closer to the source of your being. And it is that source which restores your health, replenishes your energies, and maintains your life.