Health and Hatha Yoga

From Hatha Yoga Book 2: Hatha Yoga and the Mind. From the teachings of two great luminaries of the 20th century, Sri Swami Sivananda Saraswati and Sri Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Why does yoga place so much importance on attaining optimum health and relaxation?

Swami Niranjanananda: Generally, one of the two energies, physical or mental, is unbalanced in everyone. A person may say that he is healthy, but at some point in life he has to face anxiety and stress, frustration and tension, and physiological as well as psychological illness. When asana and pranayama are practised, the first job is to eliminate the blockages from the nadis, thereby ensuring that the body and mind attain a state of optimum health.

The experience of optimum health is a transcendental experience where one does not experience any limitations, where one does not experience any stressful situations, and where there is a free flow and full awakening of energy. With these effects in mind, many scientific experiments have been conducted to see how the practices of asana and pranayama influence the structure of the body and mind.

Yoga says that both physiological harmony and tension are felt by the mind. Conversely, mental relaxation and tension are felt in the body. When there is harmony, equilibrium and a feeling of optimum health in the body, one experiences it in the brain, and also in the mind. This state eventually influences the dormant areas of the mind, awakening the potential that is inherent within them. This is the concept of total health.

When we talk of health, we are not talking about the health of the body's muscular system. When we talk of health, we are not talking about the alleviation of physiological problems. When we talk about health, we mean harmony, balance, equilibrium at each and every level of the personality, in each and every dimension of the personality.

When this experience is attained, the state of true and complete relaxation is achieved. The sensory perceptions become introverted. In this state of relaxation, awareness of the worldly sense objects is also introverted. Awareness has been of external experiences but not of internal experiences, and the aim of yoga is to make one aware of internal experiences. It is to make one aware of both realities, external and internal, which in turn helps one to transcend or understand one's own capacities, limitations and potentials. Therefore, yoga is considered to be a science of the body, mind and spirit; it is a science for the total health of the whole being.

Many people become exhausted by life – how can purification through hatha yoga solve this problem?

Swami Niranjanananda: In order to make the body and mind free from disease and disorders, purification is important. Shodhanam, which means purification, is listed in Gheranda Samhita as the first of the sadhanas necessary for a sadhaka.

Generally, people pursue physical pleasure or follow thought processes through which they seek to advance themselves. Because of the effort they put into it, they naturally come to expect success. When failure comes instead, disappointment follows. In normal life a person then feels tired, physically, mentally and emotionally, but a yogi does not feel tired. Here tiredness does not mean the way the body feels after physical labour. It means virakti, disinterest.

Many people say that they are tired of fighting with life. There is no interest in doing anything; the mind does not like anything, as if there is no desire left. Sometimes this state of tiredness is so deep that there is no interest in the family, eating, reading, writing and so on. Lack of interest is evident in every field of life. There is depression. However, there is no such lack of interest in the dictionary of yogis.

These deep feelings of exhaustion and disinterest are created when the past keeps revolving in the mind side by side with concern about the future. When the past is related with the future and not with the present, a state of virakti, indifference, disinterest, is created. A yogi remains unaffected by such physical and mental activities. When physical and mental purity are attained through hatha yoga, this affects the inner self, the antahkarana. Ahamkara, buddhi and chitta are the three main components of the antahkarana.

Why do yogis use the breath to harmonize the body and mind?

Swami Niranjanananda: The breath is the reflection of the state of mind. If one is agitated, the breathing is rapid; if one is angry, the breathing is short and shallow; if one is relaxed, the breathing is long and deep. The states of mind are reflected in how one breathes. Sometimes the breath may not even be noticeable, it is so gentle.

By watching the breath of somebody, one can know what kind of mood that person is in, whether it is an aggressive mood, a quiet mood, a depressive mood or a frustrated mood. All the symptoms of mental behaviour and mood can be observed in the way one breathes in and out.

For this reason, yogis use the breath to regulate and harmonize the physical systems, like the nervous system. They use the breath to tranquillize the functions of the mind.