Physical exercise hardly needs explanation as a discipline that makes demand upon conscious control of the body musculature through movement.
However, there are differing approaches to the style of movement preferred in various cultures and amongst different individuals. This we observe in the western world in the numerous sports that prevail. Most are approached as competitive sports as we are challenged to greater effort through an ambition to better the next person. Those who are less assertive, and find competition unattractive, find alternatives that include the eastern exercise programmes of tai chi and in yoga.
Yoga, as a system of self culture, aims at self mastery without the challenges of competition. Each exponent focuses upon his or her own body, making new advances in self control by gentle command over the physical body by kindly persuasion and for a particular purpose, beyond the sheer muscular action.
The classic and mosot advanced example of this is in the Surya Namaskara or Sun Exercise sometimes called the Salute to the Sun. In this exercise of twelve movements (12 being the number directly related to the Sun) each offers a particular stimulation to physiological organs and processes. Further than health benefits to maintain youthful body or to aid rejuvenation, the series of movements help to psychically open out to expand one’s feelings of self confidence and vitality. The spiritual keynote is added by the repetitions of sacred mantra or in the case of Christians, the Lord’s Prayer.
However, as with most exercises, systems are developed by the individual teacher as there are few traditional exercises that are known or have been revived. The principles in Yoga, nevertheless are firm.
Any yogic exercise system is based upon ahimsa (non violence) and upon application of what is known in western exercise as the isometric principle that uses a person’s use of resistance to build muscle without external tools and aids. This is the preferred option although others choose to follow western gym training, in addition.
In Hatha Yoga the approach to exercise follows the philosophy in recognition of the natural differences between the sexes and the different psychic energies that are released or stimulated by different movements. For example a tough, demanding exercise based upon muscle contraction and strength cannot help but generate male energies and feelings as a gentle rhythmic one will result in feelings of feminine softness and grace.
As exercise or movement is needed to build any body structure, the aim is particularly to build strength is particularly applied to male students and the exercises they practise. The desire for a lithe and graceful body influences the choice of more rhythmic movements of females. And there is a group of exercises that can be incorporated in all programmes to act as general balancing movements, ideal for both sexes.
Perhaps the most interesting factor in Yogic approach to exercise is the attitude towards the degree of difficulty. Here there is reversal of western ambition for speed. An exercise that is performed at some pace is considered to be the easiest. As the timing is slowed down it becomes more and more difficult until slow motion is judged as the most challenging in self control of the body, and the mind.