The Cobra pose is just one of the wonderful asanas of yoga.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ADAM 121
Not many exercise regimens can boast having no special
requirements for space or equipment, a rich spiritual
background and techniques that can be mastered by
anyone between the ages of 5 and 95 while also virtually
guaranteeing their followers increased agility and energy,
plus trimmer bodies and clearer minds. Yoga, however, can
make such claims, because it's no ordinary training
program: It's an integral part of a centuries-old Hindu
philosophy that concentrates on helping the practitioner to
realize his or her true nature, and — as a result of
that achievement — to feel a sense of closeness with
what the Eastern tradition calls the Universal Spirit.
Yoga — which was first described in 2,000 B.C. in the
Sutras of the Indian scholar Patanjali — takes
its name from a Sanskrit word meaning bond, attachment or
union. Yoga is divided into several branches, which
include the yoga of action, the yoga of mental mastery, the
yoga of knowledge and the yoga of devotion. These and
other practices are traditionally considered landmarks
along the path to liberation of the self
that takes as its starting point hatha yoga (the
yoga of physical force).
Masters of yogic philosophy believe that, in order to
purify their minds (and thus enable themselves to
experience a state of cosmic consciousness), they must
first gain control over their physical bodies through a
series of cleansings, breath control exercises and the
peculiar positions — or asanas — of hatha
yoga. Over the past few years, a growing number of
Westerners have become familiar with that physical aspect
of the regimen, and hatha yoga is now commonly taught in
recreation centers, theaters, schools, retirement homes,
prisons and athletic clubs across North America.
The term hatha is derived from the Sanskrit "ha"
(sun) and "tha" (moon), and symbolizes the duality of body
and mind (the twin complementary parts of the whole self,
which form a complete being when brought together).
Although it's basically a preparatory discipline to be
mastered prior to tackling the more meditative branches of
yoga, hatha can be studied by individuals who have no
intention of pursuing the more advanced yogic techniques. Many Westerners have found that surprising
results — both physical and mental — can
be achieved by conscientious practice of the asanas.
Benefits of Yoga
Although yoga can't provide the heart-pumping workout possible
with aerobic exercise, it does offer quite a few long-range
benefits for both the body and the mind. The slow, measured
movements of the asanas develop balance, agility and
flexibility as they massage the body's muscles and joints
through repeated sequences of contraction and relaxation.
Furthermore, the physical benefits are usually reflected in
an improved mental equilibrium. In other words, the student
experiences the tranquility of a quiet, free-flowing
state of mind. Finally, the novice yogi or yogini — by
learning to sustain each posture for several
seconds — often develops a fine-tuned power of concentration that can be an aid in his or her daily work.
Through its wide range of postures, hatha yoga aims to tone
the whole body. Although the practice doesn't always
result in weight loss, it does — when kept
up — help the body to redistribute weight in ways that
fit a person's bone structure. Most asanas — especially
those that involve upside-down positions — are also
said to help regulate the metabolism by putting beneficial
pressure on the glands and stimulating their action with a
gentle "inner massage."
The physical branch of yoga helps to break down the painful
connective tissue that can grow in joints, too, so it
can ease the aches and pains of such chronic ailments as
rheumatism, arthritis and bursitis. Yoga is often said to
alleviate migraine headaches, as well as constipation and
other digestive problems. It can also
effectively lower blood pressure by improving circulation.
What's more, many of the basic hatha yoga exercises involve
breath control, thereby increasing the amount of
life-giving oxygen absorbed by the blood.
Hatha yoga, then, is a wonderful form of exercise! In fact,
after just a few days of experimenting with the beginning
postures, you can expect to experience increased energy, a
heightened sense of awareness and the first indications of
a firmer, better-toned physique. Not long thereafter, as
your complexion starts to glow and your hair takes on a new
sheen, you should also be able to see the
difference yoga can make.
How to "Posture"
The word asana comes from the Sanskrit term for
"seat" or "sitting method," and it's generally believed
that the intricate set of hatha poses now familiar to yoga
students evolved from a few simple meditation positions.
Each hatha asana is referred to by a Sanskrit term
(which usually ends in "-asana"), but many have also been
given more easily remembered names of animals,
vegetation, farm implements and various Hindu deities.
There are only a few basic guidelines to be observed while
practicing yoga. First, posturing should always be done on
an empty stomach, so wait at least three hours after eating
a full meal or one hour after a snack before
beginning your asanas. Many think that the exercises are
best performed immediately after waking each day. However,
you'll probably find that your body is less flexible in the
early morning, so you may prefer to do some of the more
difficult postures later, perhaps as a means of
Practice your yoga in a quiet, airy room that's warm enough
to keep your muscles "primed." (What could be more pleasant
on chilly winter evenings than a few minutes of yoga in
front of the fireplace or wood stove?) Be sure you're
working on a level surface and use a towel or blanket to
pad the floor underneath you.
Start with the easier asanas and then progress as your
body becomes more flexible. There's really no substitute for a
competent teacher who can see (and correct) your mistakes
as you develop. To find a class in your area, check with
the community recreation department or the YMCA/YWCA.
Or — if you live in an urban area — inquire at a
local dance school. The institution may well have a
staff member qualified to teach yoga.
The most important thing to remember when practicing your
postures is to move slowly. The benefits of yoga are gained
only through gradual, controlled movements, which
should be performed with a fluid grace that feels — and
looks — beautiful. Assume each asana slowly, hold
it — keeping as still as possible — and then ease
back to the starting point. (In most poses, try to maintain
position for 15 to 30 seconds . . . but never hold
any asana beyond the point where the stretching becomes any
more painful than "normal" exercise.) You need to adopt
each posture only once (or twice at most) in the sequence,
and — through it all — breathe slowly and deeply,
without forcing your respiration to keep time with the
exertions of the exercise.
Here, then, are descriptions of a few postures to initiate you into the technique of hatha yoga.
These positions represent the basic moves that, together,
form a foundation for the more difficult asanas practiced
by master yogis — and they're familiar parts of most
beginning yoga classes. (Although the poses pictured here
are all on-the-floor exercises, there's also an entire
system of standing postures which can be learned
by the novice.)
The Folded Leaf: This is a composite of several classic
embryonic/fetal postures and is a good opening position
for your hatha session, since it relaxes and
stimulates the whole body. Sit on your calves — with
your feet turned under and your toes pointing
back — and then drop your torso forward till it rests
on your knees. Now, place your arms loosely beside your
legs (with the palms facing upward) and bend your neck
until the crown of your head touches the floor in front of
your knees. Rest in this position for about 30 seconds,
while breathing slowly and allowing your mind to turn away
from any distracting thoughts.
The Forward Sitting Stretch (Paschimottanasana): Start from a seated
position with your legs extended directly in front of you. Then, keeping your back as straight as possible, lean
forward — sliding your palms down your legs — and
try to catch your toes or the soles of your feet if
you're already fairly flexible. At the same time, rest your
face on your knees and breathe normally (this may be the
most difficult part of the exercise!). The
Paschimottanasana tones the abdominal organs,
stretches the spine and massages the heart muscle. It also
sends an increased blood flow to the pelvic region, so it's
often recommended as a self-help treatment for sexual
The Camel (Ustrasana): This pose is helpful in correcting
stiff or rounded shoulders and it can also develop leg
muscles and expand the chest and diaphragm. To go into the
pose, kneel on the floor with your knees and ankles
together and your palms on your hips. Then, bending from
the knees, curve your spine backward and grasp your heels
with your hands. Contract your buttocks, arch your back as
far as possible and allow your head to fall back. Remain
in the Camel position for up to half a minute, breathing
Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana): The beginning series of asanas continues with Sarvangasana. Begin by lying flat on
your back, then bend your legs and bring the knees up to
your chest. Move the trunk of your body into a vertical
position and support it by placing your hands against the
small of your back. Then, without losing balance, slowly
raise your legs straight up so that your body forms a
vertical line from shoulders to toes. Now, move your chest
toward your chin and center the weight of your body on your
shoulders and neck. Breathe freely and remain in this
posture for at least 20 seconds . . . during which time
you'll enjoy the benefits of added blood flow to the brain,
scalp and facial tissues.
The Shoulder Stand also strengthens the spine and relieves
congestion in the legs, pelvis and abdomen (making this
asana a potential boon for sufferers of varicose veins,
menstrual disorders and digestive ailments). For obvious
reasons, however, the Sarvangasana — as well
as all other inverted postures — should not be
practiced by anyone with high blood pressure, spinal
malformations, angina, sinusitis or severe head or neck
Plough (Halasana): A natural successor to the Shoulder Stand is
Halasana. Lower your legs from the vertical
posture, over your face so that your toes touch the
floor in back of your head (you'll end up looking at your
thighs). You can either leave your hands in the
back-supporting position, or — after you have practiced
the asana a number of times — stretch them out on the
floor and touch your toes.
The Plough offers the same physical benefits as does the
Shoulder Stand and it can reportedly relieve
headaches, tired eyes and sore necks.
Cobra (Bhujangasana): This is an excellent toner for
the whole body, and is especially good for the abdomen,
buttocks and chest. Its great value is in the way it
stretches and exercises the entire length of the spine,
from the lumbar region up to the neck. This pose can also
sometimes relieve constipation, and is said to increase
blood flow to the reproductive organs.
Lie down on your stomach with your elbows bent and hands
placed flat on the floor a few inches in front of your
shoulders. Slowly raise your head, your neck and then your
spine — vertebra by vertebra — until you've reared
up in the "strike" position of an attacking cobra. Let your
upper back do most of the lifting work. Continue to rise
until your arms are straight (or as nearly so as possible)
. . . keeping your body, from the navel down, flat on the
floor. Hold the final position for 10 to 20 seconds, then
slowly lower your torso.
Locust (Salabhasana): This is an appropriate
follow-up to the Cobra, since it exerts a different kind of
pressure on the spine. In addition to strengthening the
lower back, this posture brings blood to the neck and
brain, and enhances the tone of the pelvic muscles. Again,
begin by lying face down on the floor. But this time,
press your arms — with each hand clenched in a
fist — under your hip bones. Next, slowly raise your
legs as high as possible while balancing on your arms,
chest, shoulders and chin. Stay in the pose for 10 to 15
seconds, then gently lower your legs to the ground.
Bow (Dhanurasana): This combines the beneficial
effects of the Locust and the Cobra, and it's said to be an
especially healthful pose for women. Lie on your stomach,
bend your knees, then reach back and grab your ankles in an
effort to lift your thighs and chest off the floor.
Initially, you probably won't be able to manage the feat — but it'll be easier to pull the "bow" taut if you
spread your legs wide apart at first.
After your muscles have strengthened, you'll be able to
keep your legs together as you lift off the ground and
balance only on your stomach. Hold the drawn-bow pose for
at least six seconds (once you achieve a good balance, you
can even rock back and forth slightly in this asana), then
release your ankles and move back into the starting
position. The Dhanurasana promotes freer
circulation in the whole body, and you should feel a
healthy glow as you come out of it. Abdominal and stomach
muscles are massaged, too, and the Bow tends to
stretch and firm the legs, chest, throat and
jawline. It's also wonderful for loosening and limbering
the spine, the hips and the shoulders.
Corpse (Savasana): You can finish up your hatha session with a few minutes of
relaxation in the appropriately named corpse pose. Lie on your back with your legs and
arms outstretched, close your eyes and relax your body as
completely as you can. Keep your arms slightly away from
your body and your legs apart, and don't try to point your
toes or straighten your fingers, since doing so could
create unnecessary tension. Concentrate on your breathing
for a minute or two — or until it becomes quiet and
even — then allow your attention to travel through your
body in a conscious effort to relax each part. Begin at the
feet and move upward through your legs, torso, arms,
shoulders and head . . . instructing each muscle to "let
go" and allowing the tension to drain out of it.
If your attention wanders, patiently guide it back
to your body and continue the relaxation sequence. This
posture — when you indulge in it for 15 minutes or
so — can help eliminate fatigue and soothe the nerves,
leaving you refreshed, recharged and looking forward to
your next session of hatha yoga!