The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is the primary Federal agency for conducting and supporting medical research. In May 2008, NIH held its first Yoga Week featuring yoga demonstrations, classes and speakers each day. The event was free and open to the public.
Yogiraj Alan Finger, was the opening speaker for the 2008 NIH Yoga Week. In this series of seven videos, he describes the system of yoga he developed called ISHTA YOGA, an acronym for the Integrated Sciences of Hatha, Tantra, and Ayurveda. Although it was now 5 years ago, this video series has been very popular and the content is timeless, so we thought to share it with our readership.
- The Purpose of Hatha Yoga (this post)
- Power of Breath
- Tantra Cosmology
- On Ayurveda
- On Yoga and Trauma
- Yoga and Modern Science
- Integrating Yogic Sciences
The word yoga really comes from the root word unite or bring together and I prefer the scientific term of homeostasis. We are trying to create homeostasis, a balance in our being. In order to do this we start with the body because the body is what we can really see, it’s what we can grasp, it’s what we can change. We study the body in hatha yoga very accurately and notice that there are two things: there’s ha and tha.
In the body there are areas that become strong and tight, these areas are ha, which means the energy of the sun. Then there is tha, the energy of the moon that is relaxing and easing. In our lives, we become stressed and have to overcome challenges in order to survive. That is the ha part. In our body that transfers to muscle strength, to tight muscles and to what we would commonly relate to as stress. Tha is what we do at night, we sleep and try to release the tension from our being.
So hatha yoga is really about the balance between strengthening and relaxing. In our actual body our musculature system works like that. When you do a yoga pose, even a simple pose, there is this incredible balance between ha and tha. For example in order to stretch our arms to the side, there are certain muscles that have to grip and other muscles that have to stretch. In every asana we are trying to apply that strength and stretch to all areas of our body in order to release tension that is choking us, knotting us and stopping us from being healthy and free.
So hatha yoga starts with the asanas and uses the asana to release the stress from the physical body, to strengthen muscles that have become weak and to remove stress from other muscles that have become tight. We can see this in life, muscles become weak, for example our bellies begin to hang, our muscles begin to droop and eventually we can’t even stand up because certain muscles that are needed to be strong, to hold us up are not utilized. Those are the muscles of ha. The tha muscles are the muscles that are taking stress into your system and becoming so tight that they are pulling you into awkward positions.
When you see a little baby, the baby doesn’t sit and say ‘oh my god, I’m so tight.’ It just sits on the floor totally open. A little baby can stretch down in front, play with something and come back up, so easily and so gracefully.
What happened to us? We were all babies at one point and we all did that. What happened to us that we lost that flexibility, that we lost that ability to be free and move like that? It’s called stress. It’s called life.
The muscles become tight and inhibited so we try to release all of that stress to become freer. We want our skeletal system to find its correct balance again. When the muscles in our body are so stressed or weak, when we don’t practice hatha yoga, when we don’t have the right muscles strong, and the correct muscles stretched and relaxed, our skeletal structure starts to be thrown out of alignment and our organs can’t function properly. So all the asanas, the postures of yoga, are designed to work the different muscles groups and to realign them so that the skeletal system and the muscular system can work together to keep you in a healthy place. When aligned, circulation will start working and all your organs will work correctly. If you are sitting slumped over and your muscles can’t hold you up, you can’t breathe properly, your diaphragm can’t work properly, your lungs can’t work properly, and your digestive organs are compacted and pushed into a weird position, then all of the functions of your body can’t work properly.
Realigning ha and tha, strength and release, and getting that incredible balance in you is what starts to make you feel clearer, more open, more strong, more alert and more healthy. That is what all the poses are about, reaching different areas to work and to balance. There are so many muscles and bones in our system and to get them all working in harmony is the purpose of the asanas. When you first start yoga and start to do the poses correctly, you immediately start to feel the benefits, you realign and you start feeling yoga, union, homeostasis.