The Ananda Course in Self-Realization Step 2
by Swami Kriyananda
The Art and Science of Raja Yoga
Step One - Section II. Yoga Postures: Special Guidelines
The student is urged to study these lessons, and to practice at least a little bit from them, every day. He should not, however, "bolt his food." My great guru cautioned me on this point: "Do not get excited or impatient. Proceed with slow speed." Read the first section on philosophy first. It is important for a right understanding even of the yoga postures, lest one fall into the common mistake of seeking only the shallowest benefits from this great science—slim hips, or a glowing complexion. In a forest strewn with rubies, why fill one's sack with pine needles?
Don't overdo. A half an hour to an hour at a time is quite enough for most people. The beginner, especially, should start slowly and work up gradually. (How slowly and how gradually will depend upon his health, and upon the limberness and vitality of his body.) If you want to do two or three hours of yoga postures a day, get yourself a qualified personal teacher. All the yoga books are firm on this point. But don't imagine in any case that long hours of postures are necessary for glowing health or even rapid spiritual progress. "Keep exercised and body fit for God realization," my guru once wrote to me; yet he stressed the greater importance of mental and spiritual development even for lasting physical well-being.
Age is not in itself an obstacle to practicing these postures, except for the stiffness and other ailments that often accompany old age. Some of the stiffest people I have seen, however, have been young men in their twenties, and I have known old people who were remarkably supple. Interestingly, it has been my observation that physical stiffness often accompanies a certain mental inflexibility, a tendency toward dogmatism that is not necessarily limited to any age bracket.
A general precaution for everyone is simply to take stock of one's own physical condition, and to proceed with common sense. When unwell, be extra cautious; it may be safest for the time being not to do the postures at all. There are people with extreme physical problems who ought never to do any but the simplest poses. If you have very high blood pressure, for example, or a weak heart, exercise great caution; Savasana (the restful "Corpse" Pose) may be all that you should attempt.
Women in menstruation should avoid the stomach poses (Uddiyana Bandha and Nauli), and the other poses, too, unless they are in sound health. Pregnant women, and women who have recently (within the past twelve weeks) given birth, would do best to avoid especially the forward-bending exercises (Janushirasana, the Jackknife Pose, etc.), and the stomach exercises. Many of the other yoga positions, however, may be practiced with benefit during pregnancy, and have been found to ease the difficulties of child birth.
If you experience pain (other than muscular) in the chest, abdomen, or brain while doing any posture, discontinue that pose until the cause of the pain has been ascertained. If you have any serious doubts about your fitness to do the yoga postures, please consult your physician (or, in the case of spinal problems, your osteopath or chiropractor) before attempting them.
Bear in mind, however, that hatha yoga is one of the best systems known to man for the relief of physical distress. Cautions must be borne in mind, but they ought certainly not to be viewed with alarm. The yoga science is safe for anyone who uses it with common sense. It is not a system of vigorous calisthenics, but of gentle, natural movements that place a minimum of strain on the bodily system, with a maximum of benefit to it.
Remember, it is important never to force oneself into a pose. The postures are a process of gradual discovery of the body's potentials. Think of them as an adventure in awareness. Through growing awareness of tension, for example, one will be able to release that tension and thereby to perfect a pose. By perfect relaxation the whole yoga science can be mastered. This is as true for raja yoga as it is for hatha yoga, for relaxation must be taken into progressively subtle realms, through mental and emotional calmness to spiritual expansion and receptivity.
Stretch into a pose only a little bit, if at all, beyond the point of comfort. Be aware of the tensions that prevent you from stretching further. Relax them. (To relax, think space at the points of strain.)
Don't worry if it takes a long time to do a pose well. There is no such thing as failure in a pose, short of simply not doing it at all. Any stretch in the general direction indicated will be important for you. The stiffer you are, indeed, the more important it will be for you to make an effort—even if you can only reach your fingers as far down as your knees when the instructions clearly state that you should be holding your toes. There will always be someone better than you are. So also will there always be someone worse. Compare yourself only with yourself. Are you a littler freer in your body now than you were a few days or weeks ago? So long as you are progressing in the right direction, you have cause for nothing but self-congratulation.
One of the gratifying aspects of the yoga postures, however, is that the most beneficial of them are not always the most difficult. Some of the best of them, indeed, are among the easiest.
Here are three easy ones to begin with. Try them.
Sasamgasana (The Hare Pose—First Phase, also known as Balasana, the Child Pose)
"I relax from outer involvement into my inner haven of peace."
Sit on your calves with your feet outstretched behind you, your right big toe over the left big toe. If you cannot sit down all the way, never mind for the purposes of this particular pose.
Lean forward gently, exhaling, until your head touches the floor in front of you, close to your knees. Put your hands backward and down by your side. Rest in that position, breathing normally, thirty seconds to one minute.
Benefits: The gentle inversion of your body will bring blood to your brain. It will benefit your sinuses. This position is refreshing to the brain; it helps to banish mental fatigue. If you can squat down completely on your calves, the gentle pressure of your weight on your legs, feet, and abdomen will help to relieve fatigue in the lower body.
In a later lesson a variant of this pose will be taught to relieve headaches and a feeling of pressure in the brain.
Bhujangasana (The Cobra Pose)
"I rise determinedly to meet all obstacles."
Or: "I rise joyfully to meet each new opportunity."
The reader who has any knowledge of the yoga postures will probably be familiar with this pose. The Cobra Pose is easy to assume; its benefits are great.
Lie face downward, with the palms flat against the ground at about the level of the shoulders. Keep the elbows close to the body. The forehead should rest against the ground.
First Phase: Slowly raise the forehead, feeling the tension at the back of the head. Concentrate not on the tension itself, but on the causal gathering of energy in the spine.
Second Phase: Draw the head slowly farther and farther back, until the shoulders become lifted off the ground. Now draw the back slowly upward, until you can raise it no farther by its own strength.
Third Phase: Then, with the arms, push yourself upward as far as your body will bend, without raising your navel from the ground. As you raise your back slowly, feel the gradual course of energy downward from the head through the spine with the tensing of each successive portion of the neck and back.
After attaining the final position, relax: You will find that you can bend farther still. Visualize yourself as rising bravely to meet the challenge of all obstacles in your life. Affirm mentally: "I rise determinedly to meet all obstacles," or, "I rise joyfully to meet each new opportunity."
After 5 or 10 seconds in this final phase (more, of course—up to 3 minutes—for adepts), return slowly to the prone position, reversing the sequence of tension and feeling the energy flow back up the spine gradually to the brain. Repeat this posture, if you like, 3 to 7 times, resting briefly after each practice.
Beginners may breathe naturally, but after proficiency is attained one should inhale slowly while bending upward, and exhale slowly while returning to the first position.
Benefits: The Cobra Pose is wonderfully relaxing to the spine. It refreshes the brain. It strengthens the back muscles, and exerts a gentle, beneficial pressure on the visceral organs. It helps one particularly to overcome flatulence after meals. The psychological and spiritual benefits are more important. Psychologically, the Cobra Pose increases one's strength to overcome obstacles. Spiritually, it increases awareness of, and hence control over, the subtle energy in the spine.
Utkatasana (The Chair Pose)
"My body is no burden; it is light as air."
First Phase: Stand up. Inhale, raising your arms straight out in front of you, palms upward, and rise up simultaneously on your toes as you raise your arms. Crouch down part way, as if you were sitting down, but were so light that you needed nothing but air to rest upon. Affirm mentally: "My body is no burden; it is light as air."
Second Phase: For the second phase of this posture, squat down all the way, remaining on your toes. In this position, place your hands on your hips.
When you are ready to come up again, sweep your arms forward and upward, with the palms turned up; inhale as you come up, and raise your arms in a graceful sweeping motion over your head, backward, and down as you settle back onto your heels, exhaling.
Benefits: Some of the yoga postures are beneficial primarily for their psychological and spiritual effects. This pose is one such exercise. Its physical benefits are simply that it tones up the leg muscles and helps (in the second phase) to relieve tired feet. Psychologically, the Chair Pose is far more valuable. It suggests to the mind a sense of lightness and vitality, a freedom from bondage to the heavy, downward pull of earth.