“Balanced Between the Two Extremes, Our Muscles Come into the Optimal Tone”
When we put our bodies in the physical positions called asanas, our aim is to practice ha/tha yoga. We are seeking to achieve the right balance between the ha of directing our energy through the body with the proper level of exertion and the tha of seeing where and how we can let go, soften, release, and surrender. Each asana requires a certain minimum expenditure of energy. The idea of the ha/ tha balance is to not use more, but, rather, to discover and release all unnecessary effort and sense of strain. When we are truly in “the groove” in our Hatha Yoga practice, we can, simultaneously, experience stretching with intensity, as well as relaxation.
Most of us think of exertion and relaxation as two distinct aspects of our practice. I find it helpful to see how they are not truly separate entities. In our ha itself there is tha: we seek to find the right understanding of our effort so that it incorporates easefulness and surrender. And in our tha there is ha: in our relaxation, there is integrity, not collapse. Also, because we are so accustomed to holding on, we need to “work” on letting go.
How to recognize a Tha imbalance
If our practice is so tha that it moves into the realm of tamas, it will have repercussions on the physical, pranic, and mental levels. Here are some identifying traits of a tha imbalanced practice:
The asanas look slouched, sagging downward, and feel compressed (dukha). Since the muscles are hardly engaged, the muscle fibers don’t elongate, causing the joints to collapse into each other. Though we may feel relaxed and may feel that our practice is safe, probably it is not. This lack of spaciousness (sukha) can eventually aggravate some weak point in the system—be it the sacroiliac joint, the lumbar spine, the neck, or some other juncture.
In tha’s attempt to avoid all discomfort, we also avoid engaging the places that resist openness and prefer to remain restricted. Not much is happening, limiting the benefit of the asana, and we find ourselves in the same position, year after year.
The tha predominance not only determines how we practice a pose, but also determines which asanas we choose for our practice. It is one thing to choose asanas that don’t challenge us—at least this is not dangerous. But, if we continually choose poses that augment areas that are already flexible, ignoring the tight spots, we can aggravate an imbalance that can, one day, lead to injury.
The physical signs expressed above reflect the state of our prana. If we continually back away from the closed, tight areas, we miss the opportunity to release and transform the blockages in our energy. We remain pranically congested, and though we may feel relaxed at the end of our practice, we can miss that magical combination of being relaxed and energized at the same time.
Much of what occurs physically and pranically also takes place mentally if tha edges toward dullness. The lack of openness can reflect in the mind as a lack of interest in learning during our practice. “I did my practice like I always do. I feel good. What else do I need to know?”
Certainly, if we are depressed or feeling beaten down, even a lethargic practice is a wonderful thing. And, of course, if we are fasting or menstruating or just feeling low energy, it is appropriate to adjust our practice and proceed extra gently. But if mental tha-ness becomes an ingrained attitude that leads to a lack of enthusiasm, eventually, we will find ourselves less and less motivated to get on our mat.
What can be done?
If you are enjoying practicing lackadaisically, don’t sweat it—literally. You can continue on, since you, no doubt, can still derive pleasure and feel the benefit. One day, it may naturally dawn on you that you’d like to make some real changes in your body and energy level. Then, you will move in the direction of Sri Gurudev’s motto of: “Take it easy, but not lazy.”
If you do choose to add some ha to your practice, you can begin to hold some of the asanas longer or add a few repetitions. You can give some more attention to the poses that awaken the vital force, for example, backward bending asanas, Mayurasana, and Uddhiyana Bandha. Most importantly, you can observe where you have physically collapsed and are energetically stuck. Then, you can breathe some life into the pose, opening up space and generating more dynamism, while still finding enjoyment in what you are doing.
How to recognize a Ha imbalance
We need to become sensitive enough to realize when, in the name of ha, we have slipped past the point of challenge and into the realm of strain. At this point, everything we are seeking to achieve in the asana is tossed aside, and the body mobilizes its neurologic reflexes to protect itself from overstretching. With this defensive reaction, the muscles tighten, waste products build up in them, and the body feels heavy, stiffer, and tires quickly.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Many of us get so used to practicing in this way that we lose our capacity to really hear what the body is actually saying. Or, we’ve seen the picture in the book or what the student across from us is able to do, and we feel impelled to push on just a little further. If we are not already a bundle of injuries from our “Yoga” practice, just wait. We will be.
Because of their physical appearance, it is usually not so difficult to locate those of our students who have a ha imbalance, through. Most likely, you will find them pushing hard to gather all their muscles in a state of hypertonicity and driving their spine and head upward. They may be sweating and shaking, but good luck in trying to convince them that they will get more benefit by backing up a bit.
If we are crossing the border into the land of pain, it is probable that we have lost touch with the flow of our breath. And, if we were able to experience what we looked like, it wouldn’t look too good—we’d be either holding the breath, panting, or breathing very irregularly.
In most cases, a ha imbalance indicates that the energy to do the asana originates from the musculature. When anasana is approached from this perspective, it tends to be exhausting, diminishing our energy level rather than augment it, and there is no sense of relaxation. In the tha imbalance, energy is not awakened much, but at least the person is relaxed.
Ha oriented people have the need to get it right: the form of the asana should look perfect. They feel impatient for the body to “get with the program,” and they are frustrated about the space between their ideal and the reality.
As I mentioned above, if the teacher tries to point out something about adjusting their attitude toward Hatha Yoga, these Type A students tend to react defensively. All they have achieved in their lives has come from their self-willed effort, and they will have a strong momentum to keep pushing. Be careful about subconsciously hoping that they don’t return to your class—they are probably already not enjoying their practice much, and their enthusiasm will eventually wane. So, they don’t need much of a nudge to move them away from Yoga. Either that, or, their injuries may move their Yoga to the back burner.
What can be done?
If you tend toward a ha orientation, you are probably, at this moment, reading this and feeling defensive and argumentative. I was a ha person for some years, and I resisted all notions of backing off and relaxing. Now that I am older and a bit wiser, (or maybe it’s my weakened lower back), I see that more isn’t always better. For myself, the tendency to create too much intensity in an asana was, to some extent, based on the insecurity that if I didn’t try harder I’d become soft, lazy, mediocre, and I would prove that I was never a sincere seeker. My experience now is that less ha can bring more flexibility, strength, and endurance. Now I can say to all of you ha folks out there, “Take your time. Slowly, allow tight or injured tissue to open up by staying with the breath, keeping it smooth and relaxed, and trusting that Yoga works. And, at least with respect to our Hatha Yoga practices, let go of the maxim, “No pain no gain.”
How to recognize the Ha/Tha balance
Balanced between the two extremes, our muscles come into the optimal tone with enough integrity to see that the bones don’t begin to sag into the joints and that they are feeling neither gripped nor compressed. The body feels comfortable, without being collapsed, and spacious. The positive physical expression of ha is experienced mostly through the muscles, whose fibers are designed for stretching, rather than the ligamental tissues, where tha stretching is more appropriate. Sri Gurudev defines a perfect action as one that brings some good to someone and no harm to anyone. Likewise, in the practice of our asanas, we want to bring some good to some part of the body without harming any other part.
You can sense just the right amount of energy to send through each part of the body at any given moment. Though more prana may be focused in a certain area, with one part of the body in ha and another part in tha, no area of the body lacks aliveness.
A large part of getting more out of our asana practice with less effort comes from learning to make gravity our friend. How much exertion is needed and how that effort is experienced is determined by where the energy of the movement originates. This requires a more in-depth discussion than I have space for here, but I’m referring to that magical moment when releasing our body’s weight to the Earth produces an upward rebounding action that effortlessly lifts and lengthens the body, especially the spine. Not only can you feel the Earth’s prana moving clearly through you, but you can also feel the prana around the body—you can call it the Sky prana—supporting that lift.
Possibly, the most important key to this ha/tha balance is our awareness of the flow of our breath. Without recognizing the intimate relationship between the smooth flow of the breath and the balanced expression of our prana, we will not find it possible to discover the appropriate intensity during an asana, so that the practice is neither stressful nor fatiguing. Your exploration of how the breath relates to the ha/tha balance will be one of the most rewarding discoveries you will make in your practice.
The ha/tha balance is expressed on the mental level by the internal state of contentment, combined with a desire to improve. Moreover, the contentment never turns into laziness; rather, it enables us to develop. In fact, we come to respect and honor our limitations.
With such an attitude, we tend to feel that progress can best be made by avoiding the polarized approaches of either giving up or struggling. We experience a sense of trust that life will support us, and this state of mind can, literally, lead one into a meditative state while in the asana by generating alpha waves in the brain.
The number one sign of a ha/tha-balanced practice may be that you love it—not just how you feel afterwards, but your enjoyment of what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Then, our Hatha Yoga becomes training in Karma Yoga: we find the practices, themselves, inherently rewarding, instead of waiting for the fruit of the action to achieve satisfaction.
Swami Asokananda, a monk since 1973, is one of Integral Yoga’s foremost teachers, known for his warmth, intelligence and good humor. His teaching comes out of his own practice and experience, having absorbed the wisdom of his Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda since the age of nineteen. While he enjoys sharing the practical wisdom of the yogic philosophy (especially the great Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita), he also loves his practice of Hatha Yoga, and is one of our primary instructors for Intermediate and Advanced Hatha Yoga Teacher Training. He presently serves as president at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York City. Before this position, he served as the President of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville® and Integral Yoga® International. He will be the lead trainer for Intermediate Hatha Yoga Teacher Training here at Yogaville from August 10-31, 2014.
(From the IYTA Newsletter, November, 2001)