Hatha Yoga For Beginners

Learn about yoga, the ancient exercise that may provide natural relief for many ailments. In this article, read about introductory asana poses.

| January/February 1982

  • Hatha Yoga
    The Cobra pose is just one of the wonderful asanas of yoga.

  • Hatha Yoga

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."

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