There is a beautiful saying in one of the Hindu scriptures that says: “The body comes first. Before you begin to do anything, whatever your action is going to be, you need the body to do it.” The body is really and truly your buddy. People who want to be well and do well should take care of this wonderful, physical instrument.

Some stories about a well-known Tamil saint named Thirullavar say that he used to meditate for a whole year, without opening his eyes or saying a word. As one story goes, after a year, he would  open his eyes and express a single beautiful idea in the form of a small composition before sinking back into meditation again for another whole year. In one of these he says, “When the body dies, the life departs, and therefore it cannot attain liberation or supreme knowledge.” That means that the body is needed for each of us to complete our spiritual journey and that is the ultimate reason why we are given a physical body in the first place.

As the Pure Essence, when we desired to have certain experiences for our spiritual growth, Mother Nature gave us a body, which developed from a single cell. We have actually passed through many different bodies, gaining all kinds of experiences and, ultimately, we are given the human body.

Only through the human body, can we experience final liberation or the final knowledge. In the Bhagavad Gita there is a sloka that states that the highest realization is to know That, by which, knowing it, everything else can be known. But if the body falls ill, you miss many of the joys in life, many of the experience in life. Therefore, we should make every effort to develop the kind of regular practice that will help us to remain in good health. And Hatha Yoga is one such approach.

In my own experience, I have not seen any better way of preserving the health of the body and keeping it in good condition than Hatha Yoga. And the benefits of such a practice are not limited to only the physical level. Hatha Yoga harmonizes the positive and the negative forces within us. Ha is the sun, tha is the moon and through your regular practice, those two opposite forces are harmonized. Hatha Yoga also includes certain dietetic principles. Without a proper diet, Hatha Yoga alone will not be as helpful. That’s because people don’t fall sick just because they don’t practice Hatha Yoga. The cause of ill health is often rooted in improper eating habits. You might have heard the common expression “You are what you eat.”

The ancient yogis referred to the physical body as “The city of nine gates.” We must be careful about what we allow to enter our “city.” Each opening is a “gate.” We should not allow anything and everything to enter the mouth, the ears, the eyes and so on. Instead, we should place a gatekeeper at each gate. Then we can control what comes in and only allow in those things that are helpful to us.

We should be very careful about what we eat, what we listen to, and even what we look at. Think of everything that goes into your system as a kind of food. That is the meaning of the age old saying, “See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.” At the same time, remember that what comes out of the mouth is even more important than what goes in. We are given two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, but only one mouth—for a good reason. The sense of taste and the words we use when we speak are very hard to control. Our gatekeepers must be vigilant at all times!

To maintain optimal health—physically and mentally—we should watch everything that goes in or out very carefully. If that is done we probably don’t even need to talk about Hatha Yoga because you wouldn’t need any of those practices. If you already have good health, you don’t need a doctor and you don’t need medicine.

In the past, most of us have allowed unhealthy things to enter our bodies and so there are many toxins in the system. I often put a twist on the word “toxins.” You can call them toxins, or just “xins/sins” because these impurities go “in.” And we have saturated our system, with these “sins” through our eating, thinking, and hearing. Hatha Yoga practices help us to eliminate toxins. Then, once the body and mind is relaxed, refined, and cleaned it becomes a beautiful instrument, ready to receive fresh energy and to function better.

The postures or asanas, are not physical exercises. Exercise involves a lot of vigorous movements, but in Hatha there are no vigorous movements; it is all done gently, with grace. You bring the body into a position, and you stay there for a few seconds. In fact, asana means a steady, comfortable position. Whatever position brings steadiness and comfort, is a Hatha Yoga position.

Sometimes we see all kinds of jumping around, doing rigorous things, and someone calls it “Hatha Yoga.” This is incorrect; a misconception. Certainly you can do a few preliminary movements to “warm up” the muscles a bit, but these are not part of Hatha Yoga. Most of the postures are connected with the spine, the nerve centers, and the glands. The yogis believe that the greater part of our ailments are caused by the improper function of the nerve centers, glands, and also the rigidity of the spine. This situation develops due to all the accumulated toxins and causes health problems.

Once, in Connecticut, many chiropractors assembled for an annual conference and they invited me to come and give them a talk. When I arrived, no one was sitting erect in their chairs. Most of them were leaning this way and that way. So I asked, “Are you chiropractors, or do you all need some chiropractic adjustment? You speak about the spine but none of you seem to be having a spine. Come on, sit straight!” Of course, they all laughed as they got the message!

The spine is very important. You are only as young as your spine. When people grow old, you call them “aged” people. That’s because the spine gets rigid. Who is a human being? The one who has a vertical spine. So keep the spine supple because it’s from the spine that almost all of the nerves emanate. They extend out from in-between the vertebrae, controlling our entire body. And when the spine becomes rigid, the flow of energy gets blocked. The nerves suffer from lack of energy and lack of proper movement. Then the pads between the vertebrae become hardened. Calcium deposits form and the spine becomes so rigid that you cannot stand up straight or bend anymore. The Hatha practices take care of the spine and keep it supple. Then, the energy flows freely again, contributing to optimal overall health.

By Sri Swami Satchidananda