How many of you, sisters and brothers, find in yourselves the unmistakable signs of disease, declining health, vim, vigour and vitality? How many of you, may I ask again, feel actually the grip of premature old age? Why do you unjustly throw the whole blame on heredity without for a moment realising that for nearly thirty or thirty-five years you have been flouting the laws of life? Thirty-five years of wrong living! Thirty-five years of wrong feeding! Thirty-five years of wrong breathing! Thirty-five years of wrong thinking! Thirty-five years spent in abject ignorance of the relationship between brain and brawn! Thirty-five years, in fact, spent in doing everything possible to develop the disease of “Old Age!”
Now suppose the whole situation is reversed, and in place of wrong living, wrong feeding, wrong breathing, etc., there is introduced right living, right feeding, right breathing, and so forth, what will be the effect? Will physical and mental degeneration give place to physical and mental regeneration? The answer given by the Seers of the East is an emphatic “YES.” The Indian Yogins have conclusively proved that by following a regimen it is quite possible to rebuild the human body, to reconstruct the human mind, to regain lost youth, strength and beauty. The key to accomplish this remarkable feat according to the Saints, Sages and Rishis of yore is to be found in Yoga-Asanas.
You know what the word “Yoga” means. It is union of the individual soul (Jivatman) with the Supreme Soul (Paramatman). Asana is an easy and comfortable seat or pose or posture. Thus the term Yoga-Asanas means certain postures by assuming any one of which the individual soul is united with the Supreme Soul quite easily by the Yogic practitioner. The relationship between mind and body is so complete and so subtle that it is no wonder that certain physical training will induce certain mental transformations.
Some of my own students who are specialists in this branch of Yoga can do the various exercises with amazing grace and finish. It is wrong to suppose that these Yoga-Asanas are merely physical exercises founded by the ancient Rishis of India just as so many systems of physical culture have cropped up now both in Europe and in America. There is something spiritual, something divine at the bottom of this system for it awakens the sleeping Kundalini-Shakti, helps the Yogic student a lot in establishing himself fully in meditation and finally makes him taste the nectar of Cosmic Consciousness.
It is important to know what an ideal system of physical culture should be, so that you will be able to judge for yourself the value of Yoga-Asanas in the light of the ideal. That system can be safely said to be an ideal system which requires the smallest amount of energy to be spent in order to secure the greatest amount of benefit; which can effect a maximum increase in the vital index; which can build up a healthy nervous system; which can ensure health for the excretory organs of the body; which can take care of the circulatory system; and which can also develop the muscular system.
Yogic physical culture is only a means to an end, and not an end in itself. You need not, therefore, attach undue importance to this branch of Yoga alone to the gross neglect of the others. All the Asanas mentioned and illustrated in this book can be successfully practiced without the personal contact of a teacher. Thousands are benefited in various ways by regularly practising these Asanas. The various exercises given in this book have been so arranged that strict adherence is expected of you. All Asanas should be done invariably in the morning, and not in the evening as you will find in some books on the subject. The reason for this emphasis is that in the evening everybody is tired of a day’s work and as such will not be able to do the various exercises with a feeling of exhilaration and freshness which he or she would otherwise feel in the morning. There should absolutely be no feeling of depression or fatigue either before or during the performance of these exercises. This is an important point to remember, if you wish to enjoy the benefits of these exercises in the fullest measure. You need not go through the whole course everyday, but you must by all means be regular and systematic in the very little that you do, and be a master of all the exercises given in this book. Another point to remember is that the amount of energy expended in these exercises should on no account strain your system. Those of you who wish to do muscular exercises may do so in the evening. All Yoga-Asanas must be done on an empty stomach; but there is no harm if a small cup of milk, light tea or coffee is taken before commencing the exercises.
Asana is the third limb (Anga) of Yoga. If you are firmly established in Asanas, you will not feel the body at all. When you do not feel the body, qualities of the pairs of opposites will not affect you. When you are free from the effect of the pairs of opposites such as heat and cold, pleasure and pain, you will be able to take up the next higher step viz., Pranayama and practice it with an unruffled mind. Therefore you should select that posture [for pranayama and meditation practice] which is easy and comfortable and in which you can remain long, say, three hours. Lord Krishna says: “Having in a cleanly spot established a firm seat, neither too high nor too low with cloth, skin, and Kusa grass thereon; making the mind one-pointed, with the actions of the mind and the senses controlled, let him, seated there on the seat, practise Yoga for the purification of the self. Holding erect and still the body, head and neck, firm, gazing at the tip of the nose, without looking around, serene-minded, fearless, firm in the vow of godly life, having restrained the mind, thinking on Me, and balanced, let him sit, looking up to Me as the Supreme.” (Bhagavad-Gita Ch. VI-11, 12, 13).
Yoga aims at developing, will-power. A man of strong and dynamic will-power will always sit upright and walk with his chest thrown in front of his head; but a weak-willed person will change his posture often and often, while sitting or standing, will walk in a zigzag fashion, betraying infirmity and want of resolution of mind in every step. The practice of Asanas is of vital importance, and though the practice may be found to be painful and troublesome at the outset, when once the habit of sitting on one Asana for a considerable length of time is formed, you will feel a peculiar thrill and pleasure while seated there, and you will not like to change the pose on any account.
According to Patanjali Maharshi, posture is that which is firm and comfortable. He does not lay any special stress on either Asana or Pranayama. It was only later on that the Hatha-Yogins developed these two limbs of Yoga, and, no doubt they are of tremendous help to the Yogic student. While the Hatha-Yogins aim at the control and culture of the body, the Raja-Yogins aim at the control and culture of the mind. And as body and mind are interdependent, physical culture is a sine qua non to mental culture.
Source: Practical Lessons in Yoga, “Lesson VI -Yoga Asanas” by Sri Swami Sivananda