Hatha Yoga is the physical branch of Raja Yoga. Its purpose is to balance the body and mind through the practice of asanas, so that we can become still and attentive without tension. What intrigues me about hatha yoga is the healing power that students receive when they practice this ancient science. I have been a witness to many students of yoga regaining their health and vitality when they began a practice of these asanas (postures), regardless of their body type or age.
According the National Institute of Health, when people actively seek to reduce the stress in their lives by quieting the mind, the body often works to heal itself.
In 1998 Dr. Dean Ornish published a study in the American Journal of Cardiology stating that 80% of the 194 patients in the study were able to avoid bypass surgery by adhering to lifestyle changes. The changes included a vegetarian diet extremely low in fat, and having patients participate in yoga classes. Patients showed a significant overall regression of coronary atherosclerosis. Medicare has recently agreed to pay for 1,800 patients taking Ornish's program for reversing heart disease. Current research bears out the experience of practitioners, offering evidence that yoga enhances flexibility, improves moods and reduces stress. According to the American Psychological Association yoga can aid in pain management. People with chronic pain caused by fibromyalgia, repetitive stress injuries, arthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome can benefit from yoga classes.
Hatha yoga is gentle. Asanas are natural movements that place a minimum of strain on the body's systems, with a maximum of benefit to them. Students stretch into a pose only a little bit, and then become aware of the tensions that prevent them from stretching further. Through awareness of these tensions, they can learn to release the stress that is behind them. The postures are a process of gradually re-discovering the body's potentials. In hatha yoga, relaxation must be considered at least as important as the stretch itself, because only through mental and emotional calmness can we become receptive to the safe awakening of these potentials.
Stress is the number one menace to our body. It throws our nervous system into a "sympathetic" response, which affects every organ in the body. Heart rate increases, the digestive organs lose a significant amount of blood flow and this dump of hormones into our system's blood affects even our eyesight. Perhaps in the short term this increase of nervous activity will help protect us in dangerous situations, but the long-term application of stress is disease and sickness. Tense muscles are outward signs of more disasters to come. Yoga gets to the core of the problem of relaxing, opening, and releasing blocked energy.
Our greatest problem is the inherent restlessness of the mind. The mind by its very nature is outgoing and unsteady. Often, negative emotions and distractions prevent us from performing even simple tasks. If we intend to restore our health, we need to develop a calm, serene mind. To attain this inner calmness, students of yoga need to develop the voluntary mental process of letting go of their involvement with the outward form of the practice. Instead of affirming that they are a limited body, they can instead begin to attune to the divine consciousness that flows behind the movement of muscles and bones. This consciousness of energy, peace, joy, and love can then be felt if we maintain our comfort and steadiness in the pose.
The yoga postures are an important aid to inner peace. When the student enters a pose with an inner sense of harmony and peace, the very act of assuming that position can help to develop a calm attitude. The thoughts that one has during the practice can also help release the tension, and stimulate the flow of energy in the body. Many of the postures of hatha yoga are related to specific and wholesome attitudes of the mind. Yoga postures then become a kind of meditation in action.
Hatha yoga is not a system of calisthenics. One of the aspects of the yoga postures is that the most beneficial asanas are not always the most difficult. Some of them, indeed, are among the easiest. Increasing our flexibility so we can perform the most difficult of the asanas is clearly not the yogi's goal. The root of the word yoga is "yoji" meaning "unity, or yoke", indicating that the purpose of yoga is to reunite ourselves with our higher nature. Only when we begin to feel this unity of body, mind and soul, will we begin to understand and benefit from the healing power of yoga.
David Ramsden E-RYT 500 is a level two certified Ananda Yoga teacher,
Posture Alignment Therapist, and private Hatha yoga teacher.