Friday, May 2, 2014

Introduction to Hatha Yoga

In the previous blog I discussed what "yoga" is, now let's go over some basic principles of hatha yoga, what to do and what to expect.

I greet you with hands folded before my heart in prayer position  (anjala mudra) saying, "Namaste'."   Like "aloha" in Hawaiian, "namaste" is used both in greeting and farewell.  "Namaste" literally means, "I bow to you," but the implication is that I greet you with respect as one divine soul to another; I greet you from that place where we are one.  Or as Ram Dass, one of my teachers, put it:   "I  honor the place in you where the entire Universe resides.   I honor the place of love, of light, of truth, of peace.  I honor the place within you where if you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”  The hands join at the heart chakra because this is the focus of yoga, the place where everything becomes one - above meets below, left meets right, inhale meets exhale.  The palms and fingertips touch and the hands remain soft with space in between, a mirror of the place in the heart where divinity resides.

Hatha yoga is all about the breath.  The word for breath is "prana" which also signifies "vital life energy."  This is similar to "chi" or "qi" in martial arts, and is a concept that is common throughout various spiritual traditions.  E.g., in Judaism the breath, "ruach" is also "spirit," which is why the Bible says that God  breathed the breath of life into Adam's nostrils and "he became a living soul."  There are different breathing exercises which are used in more advanced yogic practices, but we will begin by simply taking deep breaths.  We receive the inhalation by first lifting the chest, then expanding the rib cage, then finally dropping the diaphragm as if filling the belly with air.  We will let the breath rest for a moment at the end of inhalation and then exhale, squeezing out the air from the belly up to the top of the lungs, pause for a moment, and then begin the next breath.

Each posture or "asana" has a breathing sequence that goes with it.  In fact, the asana exists for the breath!  The basic pattern is:  Inhale (expand) with extension, exhale (contract) with flexion.  So for example when we are looking up, reaching up with our arms, arching our back and opening our chest, we inhale.  When we are bending forward, reaching down and contracting our chest and stomach, we exhale.  This is fairly intuitive and with a little practice it will become easy and natural.

Another important aspect of hatha yoga is balancing of opposites, above and below, right and left, front and back. We will follow extension postures (e.g., cobra) with flexion postures (e.g., downward dog); backward bends are followed by forward bends.  Likewise, whatever we do on one side of the body, we also do on the other side.  If we stretch the right leg, we will then stretch the left leg.  Ideally we want to express symmetry, but in reality this is rare; nearly everyone will find one side easier than the other.  This is why we are right- or left-handed; very few people are born ambidextrous.  If you find one side more difficult than the other, don't worry, this is normal.  Just keep consistently practicing on both sides.

Yoga is not about making difficult poses look good, it is about how asana makes you feel.  Yoga is supposed to be pleasurable!  It should not hurt.  A key element of yoga which is absolutely necessary is listening to your body and learning to distinguish between "actual pain" versus the minor discomfort we may feel when stretching to our limit.  In some athletic traditions we hear the motto, "No pain, no gain!" but this does not apply to yoga.  If you feel real pain then you are probably pushing yourself too far too fast and may even incur an injury.  Pain is the body's way of saying something is not right, slow down, be careful!  This is especially true in the beginning when you are unfamiliar with the postures.  As you become more experienced you will develop more attunement to your body and will learn exactly how far you can go without inflicting actual pain or injuring yourself.

One of the neat things about yoga is that it is adaptable to every person's abilities.  We each approach yoga from where we are today.  Yoga is not a competition!  It doesn't matter if the person next to you in class can wrap their legs behind their head while you might be happy just to touch your head to your knees.  It is not even necessary to compete with yourself.  Challenge yourself, perhaps, but do not stress out.  Yoga is supposed to be pleasant and relaxing, not stressful.  If you find a pose too difficult, simply modify it.  Maybe you cannot bend forward and put your hands flat on the floor or grab your ankles; maybe you can only reach your knees.  That is fine.  Or maybe you can reach the floor if you bend your knees.  That is ok, too.  Reach as far as you comfortably can, and remember to keep breathing!  Whenever you have a particularly tight muscle, visualize that you are actually breathing prana into that area.  Feel the breath flowing through your body, especially that part.  With each breath you may be amazed to find that you can reach further as your body relaxes more.  Over time, you will be able to exceed your previous limitations and reach new levels of flexibility, balance and strength that you never thought possible at first!

As you practice the asanas, remembering to breathe deeply, you may at times feel a strange tingling sensation or even find yourself trembling as the prana flows through your body and blockages of physical and/or emotional energy are released.  This is normal and is actually a good sign of progress.  In more advanced forms of yoga practice you will learn to do this consciously.  For now, just keep breathing, relax and observe.

By the end of the class your body should feel warm and energized.  The final pose is savasana, or "corpse pose," where we lie on our back and basically feel ourselves melt into the floor.  In this pose you will feel total relaxation and will probably be able to feel the prana flowing through your entire body.  Now that the body is completely relaxed, you are in a very good situation to practice pranayama with sitting meditation, which will be addressed in a future blog entry.  Namaste.

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