Updated: Jul 28
Hatha Yoga is a ancient system of physical training which deals with the topical questions of life, youth, and old age. It was developed by the ancient yogis when they realized the fact that the discipline and control of the physical self is essential to discipline and control the mental, moral, and psychic aspects of humans. Hatha yoga, the Indian system of physical training, primarily benefits, and deals with the physical , human body, in relation to the mind and has been appropriately called as physiological yoga or ghatasya yoga.
A number of misconceptions, prejudices are associated with the Man's mode of life since ancient times as strange customs, rituals and habits of the eras gone by have successfully come down to the modern world which are supposed to have come into existence much before modern science existed. Blatantly discounting the limitations of human mind, today's Man firmly believes that anything that can't be explained empirically must not be believed.
The creators of the ideology, and theoretical conceptions of Hath yoga along with its practical application in life had built up this philosophy against this background of confusion, misconceptions, and prejudices of that era. The basic premise on which the philosophy of Hatha yoga stands is that Man can achieve the highest goal of life only if he keep striving forever higher and higher state of perfection for his body and the mind.
The ancient yogis have always maintained that the desired perfection can be attained by anyone who diligently follow the path of exercise, personal endeavor, and work on one's own development. Perfection in mental and physical health cannot be achieved just by just wishing and prayer, it has to be won through personal effort, will to lead a systematic and disciplined life, eating the right food ( Yoga diet), and properly practicing relaxation for restoration of the body functions to normal after the attempt at effort ( exercise) is made.
How Hatha Yoga Poses Benefit the body?
It is amazing to note that Hatha yoga strives to not only perfect the muscles, or the loco-motor system of the body but the complete individual inclusive of the mind, the nervous system vital inner organs like the heart, kidneys, Vascular vessels, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, endocrine glands etc.
The basic principle of Hatha yoga have been proved to be based on the scientific principles of the modern world. Yoga poses are nothing but static isometric exercise where the muscles are kept contracted with force. An isometric contraction of a muscle means that the muscle is kept activated - by applying force - for a certain duration of time without allowing any change to its length. Different Hatha yoga asanas induce isometric contraction in muscles under their impact in order to impart strength to the affected body areas.
Due to their isometric nature Hatha yoga postures do not produce extra heat like other mode of exercise like running or cycling can produce raising the body temperature to the level where it become detrimental to maintaining the homeostasis of the body. This aspect of the yoga posture suits the warm and humid climates of India, as the heat generated within the body by other mode of physical exercise added to the hot climatic conditions of the country can add up dangerously impacting the well being of the practitioner.
Moreover, the Hatha yoga poses do not draw upon the energy available in the body as a result of which they do not call for increase in the consumption of food. On the other side the isometric contraction of the muscles in Hatha yoga produce a very pronounced physiological effect on the structural formation and perfection of the muscles, bones, joints, and inner organs of the body. As this mode of exercise calls for a considerable nervous control and concentration they particularly have a pronounced effect on the nervous system.
Here the functional aspects of the nervous and the muscular systems are effected by a single, static forceful isometric contraction of muscles on one hand, and by the extension of the counteracting muscles, sinews and their links on the other hand. As the counter muscles get extended - lengthened - the proprio-receptors located in these muscles and sinews become stimulated and thus send afferent nerve impulses - from the source towards the brain - to the central nervous system, in particular to the cortex of the brain.
These nerve impulses activate the centers located in the cortex and hypothalamus of the brain which are responsible for the functioning of the heart as well as the lungs, providing them exercise too which improves their function further. Another peculiar benefit of Hatha Yoga asanas over other modes of exercises it that practicing them doesn't invite deficiency of oxygen ( hypoxia) in the body. Dynamic cyclic exercises like running cause deficiency of oxygen as is evident from the panting, or gasping to breathe more action of runners and cyclists.
The deficiency of oxygen so created has a stimulating effect on the restorative process that follows the effort, the restorative process plays an active role in rebuilding and renewing mental and physical body systems. The hypoxic conditions so created optimize the fermentation process of the body where the extra oxygen so sucked in in response to its deficiency faciliates the energy saving phosphorolysis process within the cells.
Hatha yoga postures do not lead to deficiency of oxygen within the bodyas other modes of exercises do. In fact, some of its techniques make wide use of something known as breath detention, or stoppage of breath. Some of the techniques of Hatha yoga are performed under complete absence of breathing like Uddiayan bandha, and Nauli. These exercises train the practitioner to withstand hypoxic conditions and a considerable deficiency of oxygen.
This has a favorable effect on the ferment systems, blood producing organs and the blood, on the supply of blood to the brain and the heart, by causing their arterial and capillary systems to considerably expand. Thus hypoxia is created artificially with the aid of Hatha yoga exercise. Each of the asanas devised by Hatha yogis has a definite goal : functional effort and therefore, improvement of one, or more organ systems or the entire body. Hatha yoga is independent of its environment and surrounds as it performing these exercises solely depend on the practitioners consciousness and will, it doesn't need any apparatus or equipment for the same.
Hatha Yoga Breathing for Regulating Body Systems
Since the Hatha yoga system calls upon the practitioner to concentrate on the performance of the given exercise and the function of the targeted organ it can help control the function of a organ system at will. The functions of some organs like liver, heart and intestines are controlled involuntarily by the nervous system which is not not under one's will. The working of such systems can be affected indirectly with the practice of Hatha exercises, the functions of the heart can be influence indirectly by regulating the breathing process.
Respiratory system can be regulated voluntarily, the rate and length of inhalation, exhalation and the working of the diaphragm can be controlled at will. While inhaling the pulse accelerates and while exhaling it goes down. One can even impact the function of an organ by just taking one's thought on to it. Just by imagining - ideomotor mechanism - that one is running and climbing up a hill one can accelerate the heart activity.
One can regulate the basic functions of the body like metabolism and blood circulation by consciously regulating the breathing process. It is a known fact that the entire blood of the body passes through the lungs - for re-oxygenation - at a certain rate where the freshly inhaled oxygen is absorbed within the blood flowing through the alveoli present within the lungs. The alveoli act as the interface between the oxygen from the atmosphere and the blood flowing within the body. It has been found that the rate at which the blood passes through the lungs can be regulated by consciously, purposely regulating the rate of breathing.
This way the rate of blood circulation through out the body can be regulated by accelerating or retarding the breathing process. Modern medicine has not yet looked into this possibility at all. Hatha yoga is inundated with the number of breathing exercises which help heal a number of issues related to blood circulation, heart, bronchial asthma, and emphysema.
A number of purifying breathing exercises in Hatha yoga like Kapalbhati are well known. They involve forced inhalation and particularly a strong exhalation. Such breathing techniques not only have a purifying effect on the passages of the upper respiratory system, the strong stream of air produced by them help stimulate the mucus membrane inside the nasal passage, more particularly the receptors situated at the sensory nerve endings inside the mucous membrane.
These receptors when stimulated set natural respiratory reflexes in motion, which expands the bronchi and their sub branches, the bronchioles, speeding up flow of air to the alveoli in the process. Such respiratory exercises naturally help relieve bronchial asthma where the passage of air through the bronchi, and the bronchioles is restricted due to the presence of spasms in them. Thus, in asthma the painful lack of air induced suffering can be relieved as the air passages within the lungs are rendered open, relaxed by the practice of these breathing techniques.
The Hatha yoga breathing techniques on the other hand strengthen the nerve receptors present within the mucous membrane by constantly stimulating them, this makes these receptors immune, insensitive to the allergens from the environment which are known to trigger a bronchial asthma attack in the first place.
Hatha Yoga Benefits Joints and Ageing
The Hatha yoga exercises lay a strong emphasis on the joints. The purpose of the joints is locomotion, lack of motion in the joints can lead to hardening and ossification. This can cause pain in the joints when one attempts to move. This discourages the affected person from making movements, which can further harden the joints leading to arthrosis. On the contrary, movement when performed persistently and systematically, as facilitated and advocated by Hatha yoga techniques, helps improve the health of the joint and even heal the associated pain in the long run.
The way hatha yoga works, it ensures the complete and maximum possible movement of a given joint. In making these movements the strength, weight and force of one's own body is utilized. For example, in attempting the lotus pose one has to use the strength of one's hands to lift the foot and place it over the opposite thigh in order to put the same knee in maximum contraction and the same hip in maximum extension. The inability of these two joints to move to their maximum possible rotation is what prevents one from getting into Padmasana.
As the range of motion of joints increase with yoga exercises the over all flexibility of the body is enhanced leading to a more agile, elastic and beautiful personality. People who regularly practice Hatha yoga exercises have been found to preserve the flexibility of their joints up to their advanced years. This in particular means the crucial joints of the rib cage, chest and the numerous joints present within the spinal cord. Thus, one can avoid the crippling, growing together, or ossification of the joints in old age.
Hatha yoga even help exercise the muscles of the face as well as the neck in order to maintain their youthful tone, and texture even up to advanced age. The facial muscles are crucial to the freshness, flexibility, and expressiveness of the face. With age, if not kept exercises, these muscles fall into disuse and ultimately distrophy. The wrinkles, and sagging skin which are the hall marks of old age are the result of the disappearance of the muscles, and tissue lying under the facial skin, these muscles act as cushions under the overlying skin in youth and add the bounce and tone of freshness to the face.
Ageing is first visible in the muscles of the neck loosing their natural strength and tone with time. Yoga asanas like Matsyasana where the head needs to be thrown backwards, providing an upwards extension to the muscles of the neck helps maintain their tone and flexibility till later in life. Inversions, asanas where the body is inverted along its vertical axis help put the heart above the face, e.g. Sarvangasana, here the flow of the blood to the head and face is accelerated aided by the pull of gravity, the same gravity prevents the heart from pushing the blood upwards into the head. Thus the muscles of the face and head receive adequately nourished blood which keeps them toned and healthy.
Hatha Yoga Restores the Vital Energy
Yogis who practice Hatha yoga attributed the increase in vitality, the energy of the body to a divine principle which remain prevalent within the whole cosmos, the prana. When one practices yoga asana, and pranayama one inhales deep into one's lungs this wonders-working cosmic substance which renovates the body and infuses one with abundant energy.
Yogis of the yore were not aware of oxygen as a subtance pers se which one absorbes from the inhaled air as the rate of breathing gets accelerated with the practice of physical exercises along with the pranayama. But they were surely aware that vitality packed in some form is present in the air which one inhales while practicing Hatha yoga. Oxygen is one of the many constituents of prana. The organism needs food along with oxygen to furnish itself with the other elements which are also filled with energy in another form.
Food suppplies one with the substances containing phosphorous in them like phosphocreatine, and adenosine triphosphate. Oxygen which is inhaled via breath is used up in the process of phosphorolysis within the cells which is nothing but oxydation of the substances containing phosphorus which releases vital energy as a by product. This chemical reaction is known as breathing happening at the cellular level. We will try to understand this process, in context with yoga, in more detail here.
Friedrich Engels, a natural scientist, believed, " life is a mode of existence of proteins. which mode consists in a steady self-renovation of the chemical components of these bodies". Thus life exists because of the self renovating ( re- energising) capabilities of the chemical components which form the structure of the body. It has been proved that the atomic composition of our body is being indeed constantly renovated without disruption and this renovation takes place much more rapidly than the scientists had earlier thought.
The renovation of the living matter takes place very rapidly via the metabolic processes taking place within it. The metabolic processes responsible for perpetual re-energizing the body do not take place automatically, in fact, these are the result of the movement produced, functional effort, in the body. Functional effort produces stimulation, stimulation is the working condition of living matter, living cells or the whole organism. When a gland cell is stimulated it secrets its specific secretion, this is its working condition.
Similarly lifting weight with contracted ( stimulated) muscle cells is its working condition, and flow of nerve impulse through the nervous system on being stimulated is its working condition. All these entities, the gland cells, muscle cell etc. spend stored energy, within them, while carrying out the specific work and become tired and exhausted. This lost energy needs to be refilled, which comes from the decomposition, breaking up of highly energetic substances like glucogene, creatine phosphate, and adenosine triphosphoric acid.
A person first performs a given exercise to become functionally charged which generates stimulation for the working of various body systems, the work done by the cells of the body drains them of the stored energy which leads to fatigue. As the person rests after experiencing fatigue it actively takes in oxygen from the air and energy rich substances as food in order to reinvigorate the spent cells with the renewed energy. Thus active restorative activities take place within the body while it rests after a vigorous functional effort, or exercise.
All this takes place under the action of oxygen which subject glucogene to biological burning to release chemical energy, this chemical energy remains dormant in the form of substances like creatine phosphate, and adenosine triphosphoric acid in the cells which are used up during the work. The restoration of these energy storing chemicals doesn't only happen till the initial level, but surpasses it in a systematic manner after the period of rest. This is known as over-restoration of energy or the state of exaltation.
When the person again feels energetic after a period of proper rest he feels more energetic than before due to the over-restoration of the energy within the cells. Thus a restful restoration over charges the person as it builds more components, proteins storing energy within the cells, muscles. Thus the capacity to work after this increases many fold.
This cycle of metabolic processes starting with exercise, or function charge during which energy is consumed and leads to fatigue, the work ceases here and the restorative processes begin which are characterized by the phenomenon of biological oxidation in the tissues which result in the formation of new energy rich substances which overtakes the previous store by quantity, phase of exaltation, is known as the energy renovating cycle.
When functional charges takes place in a systematic way , periodically, in the form of exercises and training, the increased difference of energy levels in the exaltation phase of each cycle gets added up, and this accumulated increase of extra restorative energy becomes permanent, or the energy boost each restoration provides after a period of regular Hatha yoga training is the energy level of the last cycle of restoration that had taken place. This lifts the organs, or the whole body systems to a new, higher level of structural and functional perfection known as working hypertrophy.
If the physical work, or Hatha yoga exercise is not repeated, the exaltation phase gradually diminishes and disappears. So, the capacity to work sinks to the initial level, and even lower, if the functional charge or physical exercise is not repeated for along time. But if the physical effort is regularly repeated, especially durin the phase of exaltation, the exaltation phase gets consolidated, or added up and also become permanent. The mass , structural aspect, of the exercised organ increases, further enhancing its working capacity, this phenomenon in biology is known as working hypertrophy.
This capacity of the living matter to self-charge itself stimulated with functional exercises what differentiates it from dead matter. Sitting for long hours on the office table doest make one fatigue out of physical work, it is just the drainage of mental energy which cannot be replaced by just resting. Rest is beneficial and restorative only after physical fatigue, when the restorative processes of self-renovation are set in motion. As the restorative processes come to an end the rest should also come to an end. A functionaleffort, exercise should set in to set the restorative cycle in motion.
Rest without physical action leads to atrophy of the organs as in old age. While the functional efforts build and improve the structure of the body. Fatigue therefore is a desirable phenomenon in Hatha yoga system of physical exercise.
Conclusion : Hatha yoga exercises are a set of scientifically synchronized body movements which help enhance the capabilities of the organs systems, or the whole body. The isometric nature of these exercises, or yoga postures prevent any loss of oxygen, and production of heat as one performs the Hatha yoga techniques. The breathing techniques of the physical system can be utilized to effect the functioning of a number of organs which are not under the voluntary control of the mind.
Hatha yoga postures do good in keeping the joints working at their maximum capacity leading to a pain free youth and a whining old age. The functional effort as produced in these physical exercises beget restorative fatigue during which the body gets extra energy hungry, restoring the energy level to much higher than it was to star with.