Yoga postures are very different from ordinary calisthenics. It is a mistake even to call these postures exercises, in the usual sense of the word. Their purpose is not to strengthen the muscles. They emphasize relaxation quite as much as they do tension. Unlike most physical exercise, they do not excite; rather, they eliminate excitement from the system.
With these thoughts in mind, the practitioner will understand that he has not “done” a posture once he has succeeded in assuming it. It is only at this point that he can begin truly to derive the benefits of that pose.
An important difference between these postures and calisthenics is that in yoga practice one must never strain. Relax, never force yourself, into the prescribed positions. Stretch only slightly, if at all, beyond the point of comfort. You will be astonished to see how many poses you can accomplish by progressively deeper relaxation.
Yogis illustrate their teaching of relaxation by the example of the cat. Observe this self-contained creature. It never uses more of its body at any given moment than it needs. Lift it up when it is resting, and observe how it hangs, limp, in your hands. Yet, so poised is it that, from a position of complete repose, it can leap to its feet in an instant, ready to defend itself against sudden danger.
The yogi, similarly, should act always from a center of poise and calmness, of mental and physical relaxation. When I first met the great yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda, he told me that, while sitting in a chair giving interviews, he was not even aware of his body below the chest. To be able so completely to relax the body when not using it, it is necessary first to be in full control of it; to be able at will to be fully conscious of every muscle.
Between poses, he should calmly withdraw his energy from the periphery of his body; he should rest within himself. Savasana, the Corpse Pose, is particularly recommended for these peaceful interludes…
The yogi is enjoined to practice moderation in everything. He should avoid eating too much, or too little. He should not sleep too much, nor too little. (More than seven hours’ sleep in a night only drugs the nervous system.) He should be especially moderate in his sex life. Sexual over-indulgence causes a tremendous drain on a person’s natural vitality. Continence, by contrast, provided it has the full consent of the mind, can be a tremendous factor in helping one to achieve full vigor, mentally and physically, and to attain deep spiritual insight.
Yoga practices help one to live in harmony with the forces of nature. The yoga practitioner should assist this harmonizing process by living as much as possible close to nature. He should get out into the countryside whenever he can, there to enjoy the sunshine, to breathe the fresh air. Yoga breathing exercises will help him to gain the greatest possible benefit from nature’s free gift of oxygen.
In fact, the yoga postures should always, if possible, be practiced out-of-doors, or by an open window.
They should be practiced on an empty stomach or at least three hours after eating. It is preferable that the body be warm when performing them. But don’t practice immediately after strenuous activity. Don’t practice so long, moreover, that the postures themselves result in over-exertion and fatigue.
Women should use caution if they wish to do yoga postures during the first day or two of the menstrual period. Pregnant women who want to continue their practice of the postures are advised to find one of the growing number of people who are specially trained in pre- and postnatal yoga.
The postures should not be practiced, save with the greatest of caution, when the body is unwell. Any posture that gives rise to a feeling of pain (other than muscular) in the chest, abdomen, or brain should be abandoned until the cause of pain has been ascertained. People with high blood pressure should avoid all but the most gentle poses…
The duration of each posture must be increased gradually. People beginning these postures after middle age should be particularly careful to start slowly, with the easier poses, only bit by bit working up to the more difficult ones.
It is important, finally, to stress that persons who want to devote a great deal of time to these postures — to become, in short, Hatha Yogis, rather than persons who use Hatha Yoga as a means of achieving a more balanced, normal life — should practice them under a competent guide. Hatha Yoga is not to be gone into deeply on one’s own.
No idle fancy, by the way. Science has proved that matter is energy.