Principles of Hatha Yoga Asanas
Even if Hatha Yoga were to be practised at its basic and physical level, it is still vastly different from any other form of exercise. What makes it unique are the principles on which it is based. Without them, Hatha Yoga degenerates into circus acrobatics - building human rubber bands and nothing more. Unfortunately, many schools of yoga ignore or are unaware of these principles and go against them in their practice and their tuition. Aches, pains, injuries and other problems come up - and yoga is blamed! People then get the wrong idea of yoga – that it is dangerous, difficult…..
So here are the principles of Hatha Yoga, or the correct way of doing asanas
1. No use of force or violence
The first principle of Yoga is "ahimsa" or non-violence. There must be no force or violence done to the body when doing any pose. It does not matter if the violence or force is self-inflicted or inflicted by another person.
Suppose you are trying to do "paschim-uttan-asana", a forward bend where you sit down on the floor with your legs extended straight out in front of you. Now you attempt to bend forward and grasp your toes, trying to place your head on your knees. Obviously an intense stretch. Very few would be able to do this at first attempt. Some will be able to just touch their toes with their hands; others may not even be able to do that.
WHAT MUST NOT BE DONE, AT ANY COST is to force your head down to (try to) touch your knees. Someone else sitting or pushing on your back can do immense damage to your spinal cord, hamstring muscles and other body parts. Do not overstretch yourself beyond your capacity. Do not try and force your body into what it is not currently ready to do. Aches and pains, strains, muscle pulls, tissue tears, ligament damage, and worse – could result.
How then should the pose be done?
2. Slow and gentle movement
This is how a yoga posture is meant to be done. Slowly and gently. Don't be in a hurry to get it over with. You are not doing aerobics. When doing "Paschim-uttan-asan", for example, start by slowly raising your hands above your head - as if in a slow-motion movie. Then slowly bend forward, reaching towards your toes as much as you can. Keep watching for any strain or pain. If it appears, then stop pushing further immediately. If you feel the pain is pleasurable; if you think you can hold it at that stage, do so. If not, release the pose by coming up a little. Then slowly come up.
3. Co-ordinate Breathing with the pose
Going into a pose, staying there and coming out of it - these are the three phases of any pose. Typically you are either supposed to inhale, exhale or hold your breath in each of these phases. When done properly, the breathing and the pose help and support each other.
Let us come back to "paschim-uttan-asana". In the first stage, going into the pose, when you are raising your arms, you will naturally inhale. Your chest is expanding as you raise your hands - and this facilitates the inward breath. Now, as you bend forward, you will be compressing your chest and abdomen and deflating your lungs- so you will exhale. When you reach your limit, you will hold the breath. When coming up, you will inhale.
A backward bend is accompanied by an inhalation, while a forward bend or twist goes with an exhalation. This is is not rocket science but common sense. If you try to inhale while bending forward or twisting your spine, you will realise how it feels.
4. Awareness in the pose.
This cardinal principle is probably unique to yoga. It insists that the awareness, consciousness or mind should be focussed WITHIN the body on the pose. During "paschim-uttan-asan" for example, you would probably be paying attention to your hamstrings and back. Only if you are paying close attention will you realise if you have reached your limit, are over-doing the pose or simply stopping - far short of your capacity. If you are listening to music, watching TV or thinking of what to eat for breakfast while doing yoga, then it is not yoga any more. It degenerates into physical exercise. Real yoga is done with body, breath and mind. In that way, yoga can be called dynamic meditation since the useless mental chatter and clutter automatically slows down when you focus on your body and breath.
5. Begin where you are
While doing yoga, you have to recognise your current capability and position and begin there. An Olympic gymnast may want to try a handstand, but you probably should not.. A sure-fire way to injure yourself is to try something – that you are not sure that you can do. It is better to play safe and begin with simple poses before attempting anything more complicated.
6. Stay within your capabilities
This is a part of the principle of non-violence. Don't do harm to your body by overextending yourself. Aches and pains have no place in yoga. Be aware when you are doing the pose and push yourself to your limit and no further. Stay there for as long as you can. But don't go beyond your limits and invite trouble.
7. Slow and steady progress
If the first day of "paschim-uttan-asan", your hands only touch your knees, no matter. Do what you can and slowly, day by day, try to improve. After a few days, try and do a little more. This is the secret to steady, problem-free progress. You will be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your body adapts. You will soon be doing the "impossible" - just by practising regularly. But remember the previous principle of staying within your capacity. Some people are not born to do a four-minute mile and never will, no matter how much they train.
Similarly, if you just cannot do a pose after giving it your best shot for a while - don't fret or bother. Do what you can and just move on. It is not worth spending one year to perfect one pose! Perfection is not essential. It's enough if you get the form right and don't do it wrongly, causing harm to yourself.
8. Static and dynamic poses
Going into a pose and immediately coming out of it, without staying in it for more than a fraction of a second, is called doing a pose dynamically. Often it is easier than staying in the pose. For example, dynamic "paschim-uttan-asan" will comprise of raising your arms, and then slowly bending forward as much as you can, and then immediately but slowly getting up again. There is no pause in the middle.
When you stay in the pose, in the final position, for a few seconds or minutes, it is called a static pose.
If you find that you cannot do the static pose comfortably, start with the dynamic pose. After a few days or weeks of practice, you will soon be able to hold it for a few seconds and then for longer and longer. This is a gentle way of making progress. Doing a static pose that your body is not ready for- could create problems.
9. Pose and Counterpose
Every yoga pose puts the body into an unusual position that the body is not accustomed to. This produces a strain , which you should relieve immediately, with a pose that has the opposite effect. For example after "paschim-uttan-asan", a forward bend, the counterpose will be a mild back bend such as "dwi-pada-pitham". The counterpose should be easier than the main pose. The idea is to relax that part of the body which has been strained- not to tax it further.
10. Avoid use of props
A prop is anything you use to be able to do a pose, other than your body, the ground and a small rug or blanket or towel. Many people use belts, ropes, bricks, sticks, chairs, tables, etc - to assist them in their postures. While these help you to do poses you otherwise cannot, you may be over-exceeding your capacity. Your body is obviously not ready to do that pose. By using a prop, you may be forcing it to do something beyond it's capacity, which could easily lead to harm.
A classic case is doing "shirs-asana" or the head-stand, taking the support of a wall. Yes, the wall is a prop, too! Shirs-asana is a delicate pose. The entire weight of the body is being borne on the head, neck and arms. The neck is designed to take the weight of the head. Now you are putting the whole weight of the body on it! Similarly, the delicate blood vessels and capillaries in the brain are only used to the mild pressure of blood being pumped through them by the heart, against the pull of gravity. Now, all the blood in the body is gushing down, aided by gravity, when your body is in the inverted posture.
Therefore you have to be very careful. The body will tell you if you are ready for the pose. When you have had enough, you may feel breathlessness, pain, discomfort or fatigue. It's time to exit the pose. Using a prop, like a wall, gives you a false sense of security. You can now stay upside down for much longer. Still, the damage is being done, as the muscles of the neck and the capillaries in the brain get strained beyond their capacities.
11. No going out-of-breath
If you follow all the above principles, you will never go out of breath while doing yoga. Going out of breath or having difficulty in maintaining normal breathing, is the first indicator that you have overstepped your limits. Pain etc. comes much later. If you pay close attention to your breath, you will know when it is becoming laboured or abnormal. That is the time to stop.
12. No comparison with others
One of the dangers of doing yoga in a class with others is that you are continually comparing yourself with others to see how they are doing. If people are doing it better than you, you feel embarrassed and push yourself to do what you should not. Or if you are doing it well, you may be tempted to show off, by staying in the pose longer than you should.
This comparison brings about serious problems. You may over-reach and strain or injure yourself. Secondly, comparisons have no meaning. For an exceedingly flexible person, just putting his head on his knees, may not bring him benefit. He would probably need to clasp his wrists around his heels or do a more challenging variation. A stiff person would get benefit even if he reaches up to his ankles. Going further will cause him problems. The idea is to go up to your capacity and not further. If you try to imitate others, you are asking for trouble.
Besides, when looking at others, your attention is not within - but outside, on the others. This is not yoga. Yoga is something you do by yourself - for yourself. It is not a spectator sport. You are the observer and the observed. That is the uniqueness of yoga.
13. Energised vs fatigued
If you follow all these principles faithfully, you will emerge from the practice energised and not fatigued. That is the real test of Hatha Yoga!
For further information, please refer to "Heart of Yoga" by Shri T K V Desikachar.