Joining the Sun and the Moon

Hatha Yoga is about balancing the opposing forces of the body, just as opposing forces are balanced outside of the body. Sun and moon, male and female, day and night, cold and hot—the universe is filled with opposites. Maybe you've heard of or seen the yin/yang symbol. This ancient Chinese symbol (see the following illustration) represents the universe of opposing forces. Notice how a white dot sits in the center of the black swirl, and a black dot sits in the center of the white swirl.

The yin/yang union.

Yin and yang are commonly associated with many different complementary qualities. Yin is primarily present in the moon, the night, cold, female energy, and heaviness. Yang is primarily present in the sun, the daytime, heat, male energy, and lightness. And since every force has an opposite, and also contains a bit of its opposite within, male energy contains female energy, female energy contains male energy, night contains a bit of day in it, day a bit of night, and so on. So the universe goes—ultimately interconnected.

And so our bodies go, too. We are filled with opposites: a left and a right side, blood flowing to the heart and away from the heart, the delivery of nutrients and the removal of waste, our inhalations and exhalations, our hunger and satiety, sleeping and wakefulness, being with others and being alone, joy and sadness, birth and death, growth and decline. If any of the thousands of opposites and intricate balances within us become unbalanced, our bodies and minds won't work as efficiently.

Hatha Yoga balances us in many ways. Forward-bending postures are followed by backbending postures, contractions are followed by extensions, upright positions are followed by inversions, and so on. The practice of Hatha Yoga also balances our mental and spiritual energies—for what we do with the body affects the mind and the spirit (that triangle again!). Ultimately interconnected.

On a subtler level, the movement of prana is balanced through muscular exercises called bandhas. As prana is drawn into the body through the inhalation of breath, apana is the energy generated in the body by exhalation that moves away from the brain and carries impurities out of the body. Bandhas are exercises, or muscular locks, designed to lock the flow of energy in the body.

The three primary bandhas are ...

> At the chin (called jalandhara bandha). This bandha strengthens and builds prana's upward movement by bringing the chin to the chest.

> In the pelvis (called uddiyana bandha). This bandha strengthens and builds apana's downward movement by pulling your navel up and back toward your spine.

> In the area of the rectum (called mula bandha). This bandha keeps prana from escaping from the lower body by contracting the perineal muscle (the muscle you sit on, in front of the rectum).

Know Your Sanskrit

Apana is the energy generated in the body by exhalation that moves away from the brain and carries impurities out of the body. Bandha means "to bind" or "to lock," and bandhas are muscular locks used during postures and breathing exercises to intensify the energy of prana and apana so it can eliminate impurities from the body. The three primary bandhas are anal ormula bandha (MOO-lah BAHN-dah), stomach or uddiyani bandha (ooh-dee-YAH-nah BAHN-dah), and chin or jalandhara bandha (jah-lahn-DAH-rah BAHN-dah).

Bandhas keep the system of balances in check by pulling everything toward a center point, intensifying the energy. Practicing these bandhas together while sitting in a meditative pose such as the lotus pose is a particularly powerful technique for concentrating and intensifying prana in the body.

A Yoga Minute

In Hindu culture, cobras are considered reincarnations of important people. The Aztecs worshipped a snake god who symbolized light, luck, and wisdom. In Africa, some cultures worship pythons, and killing snakes is a crime. Egyptian kings wore snake representations on their crowns, and the crosier of Asklepios (the Greek god of medicine and healing) is still a symbol of the medical profession.

A Yoga Minute

In Hindu culture, cobras are considered reincarnations of important people. The Aztecs worshipped a snake god who symbolized light, luck, and wisdom. In Africa, some cultures worship pythons, and killing snakes is a crime. Egyptian kings wore snake representations on their crowns, and the crosier of Asklepios (the Greek god of medicine and healing) is still a symbol of the medical profession.

The result is that prana and apana are retained within the body, joining together within sushumna—that hollow passageway through your spinal cord. Their mingling generates an intense energy that can help awaken the kundalini serpent power. This joining of opposites, of prana and apana, of sun and moon, of ha and tha, is at the heart of Hatha Yoga's power. Maybe you aren't too concerned with awakening your serpent power, especially since you aren't too sure exactly what it is—or even whether you want to know. Maybe you just want to feel more balanced, healthier, more in shape. Most Westerners don't practice Hatha Yoga to the extent that they're even aware of the importance of kundalini energy, but traditionally, this awakening of the "serpent power" is one of the primary purposes of Hatha Yoga.

Physical fitness—making the body feel good and look good—has traditionally been a peripheral benefit, but it has shifted to the primary focus for Westerners. If fitness is your motivation for beginning a Hatha Yoga practice, that's great. You'll benefit in many ways, no matter what reason brings you to the practice. But while fitness is important in Hatha Yoga, it means more than cut shoulders and washboard abs. Total fitness—of the mind, body, and spirit—is a far cry from body obsession. Body obsession is fitness gone awry.

If fitness is your goal, it doesn't hurt (and may even be ultimately helpful) to be aware of the power of balanced opposites inherent in your practice. This knowledge may steer you away from the path of body glorification—a possible side effect of heightened body awareness—and toward the more advanced paths of mental control (Raja Yoga) and spiritual awakening.

Think how much time you spend worrying about your body! Check all the following statements that have ever crossed your mind:

Hatha Yoga joins the opposites of sun and moon within the body. Here the energies are drawn into the centered position of respect and thanks, namaste, or prayer pose.

Lessons in Raja Yoga

Lessons in Raja Yoga

An easy to understand book on the principles and practices of Raja-Yoga alike. It teaches the eight steps

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