According to Indian philosophy, the aim of the individual should be to search for the divine within, and the practice of Yoga is designed to help achieve this aim. The Yoga Sutras (sometimes called The Yoga of Eight Limbs or Astanga Yoga), written by the sage Patanjali around the third century BC, covers all the branches of Yoga, most of them meditative. Over the centuries, several overlapping paths of Yoga developed. The most practical branch of Yoga, and therefore the one that many people living in the West have found most accessible, is Hatha Yoga, the Yoga of willpower. The exercises described here are taken from this branch of Yoga.
A form of Raja Yoga (described as the Yoga of physical and mental control), Hatha Yoga focuses on postures (Asanas), breathing techniques (Pranayama) and meditation (Dhyana). Through these techniques, Hatha Yoga aims to clear the pathways and centres of energy in the body. With regular practice of the Asanas and yogic breathing, the individual can develop both physical and mental capabilities:and circulation are improved; the muscles are toned; tension is released; and the mind becomes clearer and more focused. Yoga practice also benefits a range of ailments, including back pain, respiratory disorders and digestive complaints. It can relieve stress and also helps in the management of hypertension (high blood pressure), heart conditions, asthma and non-insulin dependent diabetes.
Because purification of the physical body encourages purity of mind, Hatha Yoga also incorporates various purification or cleansing techniques called Shad Kriyas.
Traditionally, the Asanas (from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘steady pose’) were said to number 840,000 and to correspond to the full range and potential of human movement. There are some 80 major Asanas, about 20 of which are commonly practised. The Asanas incorporate standing, kneeling, sitting and lying poses that work on the spine, internal organs, limbs and various pressure points around the body (in a similar way to acupuncture). Commitment and hard work are required to attain mastery of the classic Asanas, which should be carried out with what is described as ‘mindfulness’, or whole-hearted attention, so that body and mind work as one.
Hatha Yoga uses yogic breathing techniques called Pranayama to help still the mind and cleanse the physical body. Prana is the universal lifeforce or energy – known as Qi in Chinese exercise disciplines. Prana pervades the cosmos and is distilled from the air and distributed around the body via the breath. According to the Yogis (Indian ascetics who practise Yoga), air is our most important food. Learning to control and channel the life-breath opens the gateway to spiritual knowledge. The newcomer to Yoga is taught to pay particular attention to breathing and to breathe deeply in a way that supplies abundant oxygen for circulation throughout the body.
We start out in life breathing correctly from the. However, before long we learn to constrict the respiratory muscles so that breathing becomes shallow and restricted, resulting in less oxygen being distributed throughout the body. Having learned incorrect breathing habits, we often continue this way of breathing throughout our adult lives.
Many Asanas encourage correct – that is, deep – breathing simply because stretching lifts tension from the chest, diaphragm and abdomen. This smooth, deep breathing in-creases vitality, relaxes the body, enhances concentration and clarity of thought, and improves the ability to respond to complex problems without becoming stressed. It is thought to have far-reaching benefits, such as curing insomnia, reducing headaches and even helping people to lose weight, stop smoking and improve their sex lives.
Dhyana, or meditation, is an important part of Hatha Yoga. It is not essential, particularly for beginners, but many people find that it is a natural progression to make once they have become competent in the Asanas and yogic breathing techniques. The human mind is constantly active, moving from one thought to another. Meditation steadies and focuses the mind, bringing deep relaxation to both mind and body. Regular meditation can improve concentration levels and help relieve stress. It is thought that meditation may even slow down the rate of decay in brain cells so that the mind stays active and learning powers remain undiminished in old age. Meditation may also improve physical health. Research conducted in the US found that people over 40 who meditated regularly visited a healthcare practitioner 74 per cent less often than people who did not meditate.
Meditation can be practised while sitting in a cross-legged position. Brief meditation sessions are often included in Yoga classes after practising the Asanas.
Hatha Yoga specifies various purification techniques known as Shad Kriyas. These cleanse the stomach, colon, respiratory system, nasal passages and eyes. Some of the techniques are alarming to Westerners. A technique known as Dhauti, for example, is used to cleanse the oesophagus and stomach. It involves swallowing a long strip of wet cloth (which has been soaked in a dilute salt-water solution) while holding on to one end. The cloth sits in the stomach for 15 minutes, where it absorbs bile, phlegm and impurities, then it is slowly pulled out again. An alternative to this involves self-induced vomiting by drinking salt water. These purification techniques are not considered necessary in Western Hatha Yoga. The only practices recommended are emptying the bladder and bowels, blowing the nose and washing the hands and face.