Basic Principles: The Purpose of Yoga Postures
In the main stream of life two currents, especially, may be observed. One is toward an expansion of awareness. The other is a sinking back into sleep and unawareness, a shutting out of reality, a longing for death. Positive and negativein all of us, both of these trends may be observed.
To the extent that we draw the world to us, by an attitude of willingness, appreciation, kindness, joy, we express the positive current. When, by unwillingness, a critical attitude, selfishness, unkindness, grief, we push the world away from us, excluding it from our circle of awareness, we express the negative current. Man, unlike the lower animals, has the freedom greatly to quicken his evolutional climb toward perfect awarenessor, if he prefers, to fall back into the mires of unknowing from which he emerged. It is for him to rejoice in his existence, or merely to wallow in it.
Every growth in awareness is, in the last analysis, a growth in Self-awareness. What we observe in the world depends on our own capacity for observation. An anguished spirit will find in everything justification for its anguish. A joyous spirit will see reasons for gladness everywhere. No amount of pious maxims or lofty philosophy can bring light into man's world beyond what already exists in his own consciousness.
The true purpose of yoga is to facilitate the development of this Self-awarenessnot as a self-enclosure, but as a doorway to an expanded awareness of the surrounding universe, of truth, of very life.
Usually, hatha yoga (the science of yoga asanas, or postures) is taught only from a standpoint of its benefits to the body. And from this standpoint it might well be said that the yoga postures, as a system for achieving longevity and radiant health, stand supreme. We have personally seen old men, practitioners of this science, who might have passed for young men in their thirties. At Allahabad we met an ancient yogi, named Deohara Baba, who was reputed to be 140 years old. His hair was black, his body muscular. He could easily have been taken for a man of about 50.
Old age and sickness settle first in the joints and in the spinal discs. Anatomical studies reveal that these spinal discs often begin to show signs of degeneration as early as man's third decade, which is to say, in his twenties. The yoga postures loosen the joints; they stretch and irrigate the vertebrae, keeping them youthful even late into old age. They promote the free flow of energy throughout the nervous system and assist in the elimination of toxins and poisons from the joints and other body parts where these foreign elements tend otherwise to settle, sometimes permanently. The postures exert a beneficial pressure on various glands and internal organs, flushing and stimulating them. Even a little bit of this practice can produce astonishing improvements in one's general health.
It is small wonder, then, that hatha yoga should be growing in popularity in the West as rapidly as it is. A few years ago an article in California's Palo Alto Times (now the Peninsula Times Tribune) listed the grievances of high school students in a neighboring community. Among the "rights" demanded by those youngsters was instruction in the yoga postures.
Yes, whether for good or ill, the asanas are well on their way to becoming a fad. But the aim of these postures, so far, has generally been recognized to be only the promotion of physical health. Much more is involved.
For by the yoga postures one can improve his mental outlook. He can achieve a richer, more harmonious emotional life. The postures are a definite aid to spiritual development. Particularly, from a standpoint of the approach of this book, they help one to develop a more vital awareness. The hatha yogi (a yogi is one who practices the yoga science) learns to include his body in the general circle of his awareness, to live in his body instead of merely existing in it. By increasing his physical awareness he can free his mind from the imperatives to commonly imposed upon man by his body: weakness, fatigue, physical sluggishness and resistance, discomfort, pain. He is thus able to make the body the servant of his will. Health, as it is usually conceived, is negative: a mere absence of disease. But the yoga postures help to create a joyous sense of vitality and well-being. They make the body an ally, not a neutral neighbor or even a foe, of the soul in its search for expanding awareness.