What “Hatha Yoga” can do
Yoga, at last, is coming into its own in the Western world. After many years of being dismissed as a bizarre cult attractive only to eccentrics, it is today recognized as a fundamental art and skill. More than that, many of its most bitter opponents, people who were among the first to cry down Yogic culture, have now embraced it as a way of life. The ancients who formulated the science of Yoga were way ahead of us in our modern world of stress and hurry. Recognizing, thousands of years ago, man’s basic need for discipline to counteract the physical and spiritual deterioration caused by the mere fight for survival, they evolved a science which is at once as ancient as India herself and as modern as the space age.
The law of Yoga is the law of Life. Yoga embodies the secrets of successful living and combines profound and age-old truths with a way of life acceptable to the modern mind. It was evolved from the Veda, one of the most ancient scriptural books known to mankind in which Indian saints and sages taught that the Universe is one and that all religions are paths ascending the same mountain towards Eternal Truth. The great modern saint, Sri Ramakrishna, is often quoted as saying, ‘As many faiths, so many paths.’
But Yoga is not a religion, nor is it a mystic cult. It is a Hindu system of philosophic meditation and asceticism designed to effect the reunion of the devotee’s soul with God. It is a philosophy which integrates the individual life and the world surrounding us to achieve a basic harmony and equilibrium in the heart and mind of man.
How is physical health a part of so spiritual a philosophy as Yoga? Simply that the trichotomy of our lives, divided into body, soul, and spirit, is echoed in the complete Yogic philosophy whose three approaches—asana (posture), pranayama (breath control), and meditation—are unified as one approach to self-discovery.
One of the fundamental doctrines of Yoga is that God is within each one of us but He reveals Himself only in conditions of purity, both spiritually and physically. To function on a higher level, either mentally or physically, the first step must always be to rid the body of the impurities that cause disease and which impede spiritual development. One can draw the analogy of the window which must be cleaned before one can see the light clearly through it.
This basic principle of purification underlines all Yogic practice and at the same time, it aims at establishing a balance in the body so that it functions, as it were, like a perfect machine. When this state of physical balance is achieved the mind can then be controlled and can realize the ultimate in pure thought and reason. I have yet to meet anyone who can successfully employ the techniques of mind control while plagued with indigestion, asthma, a thumping headache or any other of the ills and stress symptoms which plague modern man. So first things first. Physical ills drag one downwards and the disciplinary science of Hatha Yoga was evolved that the body would be freed from pain and disease.
This book is primarily concerned with this Yoga of the physical body known as Hatha Yoga. While the body and the mind cannot be separated and the health of one affects the health of the other, I have laid stress on the day to day problems and ailments of the average person who wishes to improve his general health. Not everyone has the mystic vocation to achieve union with God, the Universal Spirit, which is the primary aim of all Yoga, but everyone would like to know how to improve his health.
Many Westerners, moving as they do in a world of hurry and stress, feel that Yoga holds nothing for them and that the whole philosophy is rather remote, vague, and impractical. In this book, my aim is to show readers how the ancient system of Yoga provides an effective answer to the many problems of our modern life. You can take an active part in the hurly-burly of everyday living and Yoga will act as a protection from the numerous stresses of your environment. While best results are obtained by exercising and practicing breathing and relaxation alone, nevertheless you need not become a hermit to achieve success and improved health through Hatha Yoga.
Recognizing then that you are not a mystic and you do not wish to spend years in meditation and mental discipline to find the true meaning of God and Life, how then can Yoga help you? Let us consider your problems. Are you overworked and tense and do you find it impossible to relax even in bed at night? Are you overweight yet lack the will-power to diet? Do you sometimes find yourself unable to cope with the dash and tumult of everyday life? Are you irritable, worried, nervous? Are you plagued by indigestion and other stress symptoms? Or simply do you seek something, you know not what, which goes above and beyond the superficial level of everyday living?
Yoga awaits your interest, your inspection, your first hesitant experiments. It is here, it has always been here, it is yours for the taking. Those who have delved into its profound philosophy and studied for years with patience and devotion to learning more and more have found something unique, priceless, and indestructible.
The uninformed often speak of Yoga as some dark, hidden practice of magical rites for attaining wondrous powers. While it is an indisputable fact that some advanced Yogis are indeed possessed of such powers, they reached their state of heightened consciousness, not by bell, book, and candle, but by the disciplining of the mind for which the first step is the perfecting of the physical body, through Hatha Yoga.
The inner power of Yoga becomes apparent when one realizes that it has something to offer every thinking person, here and now, yet it is an ancient Hindu philosophy, its beginnings shrouded in the mists of time. The idea may sound fanciful but the proof is manifold.
Hatha Yoga is the preparation for all the higher forms of Yoga and, because of its benefits to the body and the mind, it is the most popular form of Yoga and the most acceptable to Western habits of thought. At the same time, it is the most misunderstood science on the face of the earth. Many well-meaning, but misguided individuals have a disparaging attitude towards Hatha Yoga because its special province is the physical body. But the sages who formulated the disciplinary science of Hatha Yoga recognized that the first thing man desires and needs is health, so they devised the best means of attaining and preserving it. While Hatha Yoga is the cause of much apprehension among people who affect to despise things physical and concentrate on higher matters, it has always been a source of interest to me how anyone can meditate on Higher Things while doubled up with pain or suffering any kind of physical discomfort.
Having declared then that Hatha Yoga can help you towards better health and calm your mind so that you can solve your personal problems, I do want to stress two facts. Firstly, that the aim of Hatha Yoga is not the acquisition of a superior muscular physique but the discipline and the purification of the body that we may forget our earthly shell enough to reach a state of heightened awareness through the control of the mind. Secondly, that Hatha Yoga is neither the easiest nor the fastest system of physical culture to show results. Why then Hatha Yoga for your health? Why not weightlifting, club swinging, athletics, or even dancing? All of these will improve the circulation, the figure, and strengthen the muscles. What has Hatha Yoga to offer in addition to this? Simply that Hatha will provide an extraordinary control over the body and awaken the mind and spirit, the higher self if you like, as no purely physical culture system could possibly do. Also, the above-mentioned activities are beyond the capabilities of a large section of the community, the aged, the infirm, the lame, and the physically frail. Those activities involve violent movement whereas Hatha Yoga is essentially a static science. Basically, one gets into a Yoga posture or asana and remains so for as long as possible. Stress is laid on the pressure of certain organs, glands, and muscles rather than on movement. When movement is necessary for Hatha Yoga it is always gentle and graceful, therefore anyone can benefit from Yoga regardless of age, sex, race, walk of life, or religious belief. It is a universal science. It can lead to more abundant living and a new awareness of higher things through ridding your body of the pains and diseases which drag your mind back into the earth when it wants to wing its way upwards towards the light.
It is reported that Lord Buddha, whose philosophy is based on the Veda from which Yoga was evolved, said that the first step on the way to spiritual freedom and salvation is perfect physical health. So if you are drawn towards Hatha Yoga do not be put off by others who might tell you that you will never reach a state of heightened consciousness by turning your body upside down or sitting in various leg-breaking postures. Tell them that if the blood is impure then the brain, the nerves, the psycho-spiritual life, yes even the thoughts, cannot but be affected. Tell them that a man cannot control his mind until his body is made pure and healthy. Even if you do not aim at mental discipline, and many of you I know do not, you can with persistent practice improve your general health beyond belief.
You will find that Yoga knowledge, once accumulated, will begin to influence and help you in your daily life, whoever you may be. It will gradually invade every part of your life, from your attitude towards your fellow men to the way you sleep, breathe, think, and even eat. Did I say eat? What has eating to do with Hatha Yoga? It has very much to do with it. It is a strange fact that Yoga’s doctrine of non-violence very soon influences even the most enthusiastic meat-eater to think again about a vegetarian diet. As the senses become acuter through the practice of Yoga, one begins to experience a distaste for al! forms of killing and violence. Meat becomes unpalatable because many devotees of Yoga are actually able to see the astral bodies of the slaughtered animals as they tuck into a thick, juicy steak. Their senses gradually becoming awakened, they think on things that never occurred to them before and in the case of slaughtering helpless animals, they begin to understand and revolt at the hideous practices that go on in abattoirs all over the world. So you have been warned! You, who are reading a book on Yoga for perhaps the first time in your life, you who have eaten and enjoyed meat and fish for many years and intend to go on doing so, you will suddenly discover, if you practice Yoga, that meat is not quite so delicious as you hitherto thought and that other foods, cheese and vegetables, and fruits, taste much better.
You see it is impossible to practice Hatha Yoga as a kind of hobby and hope to keep it aside from your everyday life, like knitting or woodwork. Inevitably it must influence your whole life and thought and make you, not a different person or even a better one, but into your real self ‘denuded of all false pretense, of false values, and of unreasonable fears and inhibitions. If I have alarmed you in any way or made you feel that Yoga is going to prove far too complicated a thing in your orderly life, let me hasten to assure you that the influence of Yoga cannot be otherwise than beneficial. While Yoga is not, as I stressed at the beginning, a religion, nevertheless those men who devote their whole lives to it become saintly and intensely spiritual. This applies to devotees of Hatha as well as the other Yogas which proves conclusively that though Hatha’s province is the physical body and its perfection, in the last analysis Hatha Yoga is a spiritual discipline.
You may consider Hatha Yoga either as a special subject in itself or as an adjunct to other forms of Yoga. Whatever your reason (and there can never be a bad reason for doing something good) Yoga can help you with your everyday problems on all levels. As you grow healthier and more relaxed you become more gentle, less inclined to fits of irritation and temper. Yoga provides the counter-weight so urgently needed to the ever-increasing nervous, mental and physical tensions of our modern life.
All the exercises or asanas of Hatha Yoga are based on the formula of stretching, relaxing, deep breathing and increasing the circulation of the blood and the powers of concentration.
Yogic culture is divided into eight sections.
Pranayama—breathing exercises and control of the breath.
Pratyahara—withdrawing of the senses from external objects.
It is with 3 and 4 that this book is primarily concerned for these sections are the beginning of all Yoga without which you cannot hope to gain mastery over yourself and learn the secrets of the Universe. According to the Yoga Shastras, the Yoga asanas total the staggering number of 840,000, but the important ones number only 84. Of these, I have described all but the most difficult. This is a book primarily for the Westerner and the beginner in Yoga and as such it does not contain postures suitable only to advanced students who are able to practice many hours a day. The asanas included in this book will suffice to bring the health of the average person to a far higher level than hitherto experienced and, combined with the other practices described in this book, will open out a new horizon beyond the banalities of everyday existence.
Let me warn you that Yoga is another word for hard work, indeed some say it is all work and no play. That may be so, but all the same, if you have read thus far your mind must be searching for something and if that something is Yoga then you will not be deterred by the mere thought of hard work. Rather you will glory in it for there is a sense of great achievement in self-discipline. Yes, Hatha Yoga is discipline all the way. I can show you the path up the mountain but it is up to you to climb. With the best will in the world, I cannot do the hard work for you. But if you choose this path all you need to follow it is determination. If you have it you cannot fail. If you lack it you cannot begin.
“There is an innermost center in us all Where Truth abides in fullness, and to know Rather consists in opening out a way Whence the imprisoned splendor may escape…”
Relaxation and stretching
No one, I think, would disagree with me when I say that the pace of modern life, especially in the big cities, is destructive. Why, but why is everyone intent on doing something all the time? Do they imagine they are missing something if they go to bed with a book, or sit and think, or just sit? Some people cannot tolerate being alone. Their own company is inexpressibly boring and depressing. But why? If only these unfortunates could catch even a solitary glimpse of the rich inner life of the spirit and the awesome power of clear thought.
People who rush about in a frenzy are often not the ones who get the best results. What about the man who has had the time to think? Who has made the time to think? While others rushed dizzily past him he has been evolving ideas, building, and planning in his slow but constructive mind. It has been said that much of the good work of the world has been done by the dull man who has done his best.
Yoga will not teach you to be dull, rather the contrary it will teach you to be more magnetic, but it will show you the importance of knowing when to slow down. The ancient Chinese believed in the theory of ‘masterly inactivity’ and this served to lay down the foundation of a unique civilization. By ‘inactivity’ I do not mean idleness, laziness or mental inertia. Yoga is not for the lazy. No, Yoga’s inactivity serves as a breathing space among the bustle of everyday life so that one can recharge the batteries of one’s physical and mental processes to pursue life with renewed energy and clearer thought.
Yogis realized, centuries ago, that the mind always functions better in a state of relaxation. Force yourself to work and the result is a headache, weariness, and a lack of spontaneity. In those fields of work where creative ability is constantly called into play, this spontaneity is of vital importance. No one wants to read, hear, or look at something dragged from a fogged and tired brain. Yoga’s first lesson, then, is how to relax. I do not wish to be an alarmist but the sheer inability to relax sends many millions of people to their graves ten, twenty, sometimes forty years before their time. So let us first consider how you are, here and now, going to cheat the undertaker of those precious years of your valuable time.