The two different kinds of physical exercise essential to good health are stretching exercises such as the yoga postures and aerobic exercises such as jogging. Both are very beneficial for cleansing, relaxing, and revitalizing the body and for helping it function properly.
Although quite different, they complement each other. The postures are relaxed, slow and gentle; they provide systematic stretching to all the muscles and joints of the body and massage the glands and organs. Aerobic exercise is active and stimulates the heart, lungs and muscles. Both kinds are necessary; each has unique effects which the other cannot produce. But they must be practiced regularly, carefully, and in the correct manner in order to attain the desired effect. Doing either beyond one’s capacity does more harm than good.
These days body therapies like massage, chiropractics, Rolfing, bioenergetics, and reflexology are very popular. They all have specific benefits but are limited in two respects: one needs to rely on a therapist to provide the treatment, and the effects tend to be short-lived unless one returns again and again for more treatments. The yoga posture, on the other hand, are perfected gradually. This encourages self-reliance, and as one practices, observing his physical and emotional reactions, he will begin to notice definite positive changes in both body and mind.
An obvious effect of the postures comes from the stretch and stimulation they give to the muscles, ligaments, and joints. This restores elasticity and tone to the body so that it eventually regains its natural shape. In addition, they stimulate circulation, revitalizing the internal viscera, the brain, and the nervous system.
The respiratory system performs more efficiently when one does the postures, for greater amounts of oxygen can then enter the system and more toxins can be eliminated. All the internal organs are massaged and toned, improving not only digestion but also bowel and kidney function. The endocrine system is stimulated and regulated to a fine balance. The postures increase resistance to fatigue and relieve tension. One learns how to relax, allowing the systems of the body to function properly.
So the postures are a good, gentle tonic for the entire personality, making one feel healthy and full of energy. Excess weight is also reduced; the body becomes supple, and one moves with grace and ease. The complexion glows; the eyes shine.
By practicing the postures regularly, one gains control of the body and is able to maintain a steady, comfortable pose for increasingly greater lengths of time. One then begins to observe the finer functions of breath and mind, for only when the body is still can one turn within and begin to know oneself.
The basic goals of the yoga postures are to maintain a healthy body and gain peace of mind. Yoga texts tell us that many physical complaints come about in this way: a psychological disturbance can lead to a functional impairment which, in turn, is often reflected in irregularities in the breathing patterns. If this process continues, it can lead to actual cellular damage and manifest itself in a structural alteration. The yoga postures work first to correct the structural alteration and can be used as an effective therapy (particularly in the early stages) in reversing the above process. Then breath awareness and various breathing exercises can be useful in eliminating the irregularities which have developed in the breathing patterns. They can thereby help resolve the psychological disturbance which created the alteration in the first place. Thus, changes brought about through the practice of postures are not sudden or dramatic; they are deep and permanent.
At first the postures may seem awkward, but they have been systematically developed for centuries, through direct experience and observation, to calm, balance and regulate the systems of the body. When done properly and patiently at a regular time and place, one enjoys them, and they become a habit which brings a deep sense of calmness and much satisfaction.
There are over three thousand yoga postures, but only a few are basic. Among them are the cobra, boat, bow, plow, shoulderstand, fish, forward bend, spinal twist, headstand, and stomach lift. The yogis lived close to nature and keenly observed their fellow creatures. Consequently, many of the postures (for example, the cobra, locust, fish, scorpion, frog) are based on certain unique characteristics a particular animal displays.
Reprinted from “Dawn” vol 4 no 2