Hatha Yoga: Past, Present and Beyond, with Sue Elkind and Naime Jezzeny

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

By Sue Elkind and Naime Jezzeny
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Experienced yoga instructors Sue Elkind and Naime Jezzeny introduce the WebMD audience to Hatha Yoga.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Sue Elkind and Naime Jezzeny have been practicing and teaching yoga for the last decade. They are the co-owners of City Yoga, the immensely popular yoga studio in Los Angeles. Sue and Naime, welcome to WebMD Live.

What is yoga?

Jezzeny: The word yoga means "union" or like "to yoke," to bring together. The term yoga is generally considered to be about the word first appeared about 5000 years ago in some ancient texts called the Vedas. Yoga as we know it now, there are many different types. Yoga as we know it now, which is practiced as Hatha yoga and that's the physical yoga. It translates to the yoga of force. Yoga is just a term that is a way to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Hatha yoga is just one way to achieve spiritual enlightenment by using body. Practitioners of Hatha yoga believe that to purify the mind, you had to purify the body first.

Moderator: Does that have to do with a certain amount of detachment from the material world?

Jezzeny: Yes. Ultimately the way, the ultimate goal of yoga is considered to be to calm the fluctuations of your mind. Basically the fluctuations in our mind are attachments to everything outside of us, external from the self. It's just a way to detach yourself and more clearly see the true self, your true nature.

Moderator: What makes "Hatha Yoga" different from other types of yoga?

Elkind: As Naime has said, most yoga as we know it today falls under the category of Hatha. There are many styles of Hatha yoga. All include the physical body as a means to attain that mental and spiritual freedom. The other types of yoga where the physical practice is not as important include Bhakti yoga, and this is translated to devotional yoga and it's through chanting and ancient scriptures. The next would be Jnana, and that's translated to yoga of wisdom and that's more -- a good example is Krishnamurti. That's Jnana yoga intellect. Karma yoga translates to yoga of action. If you practice karma yoga, you practice selfless service. You do good deeds without self interest. You find a lot of these types of yoga practiced more in India.

Moderator: So not all yoga is a physical activity?

Elkind: Exactly.

Moderator: When did Hatha yoga originate? What are the roots of Hatha yoga?

Jezzeny: It only started about 1000 to 1200 years ago. Hatha yoga was originally believed to have started to be practiced somewhere around the 9th or 10th century. It was originally looked at as being a lower form of yoga. Probably the bible of Hatha yoga is called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It's a text written about practices involved in Hatha yoga which involve both postures, asanas and pranayama (breathing techniques). In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, they only mention about 14 or 15 postures in about 750 pages that this book is. Most of the postures are variations on the cross-legged seated position. Meditation is very important. Basically Hatha Yoga--the postures were to prepare the body to be able to sit comfortably and meditate.

Moderator: How important do you feel diet is to the practice of yoga?

Elkind: I believe diet is very important. I believe that, without sounding too radical, you are what you eat !! I don't necessarily believe you need to be vegetarian, but you need to be sensitive to how your body feels when you're eating. Many times we eat to quench our emotions .more than to nourish our bodies. I believe that, as much as you can, my philosophy is to eat organic and natural. If you don't know ingredients, chances are they're not going to give you highest nutrients. That really affects your mental state. I believe certain foods have vibrations. If you eat natural organic meat, at least you're taking on less of a harsh vibration. I think diet is important and I think it says a lot about how you feel about yourself. You treat your body as a temple and you nourish it because you feel it's important.

Moderator: What do you think makes yoga so popular today?

Elkind: I think yoga is most popular in the West because of the physical benefits. I think most people in our country are a little bit obsessive about our bodies. They've found a means to really get in shape. I do believe that people are attracted to the spiritual aspect as well. When most people come to yoga, it's because they want to get more flexible and a beautiful body. Once they're practicing, I do believe they tap into something greater. They find more meaning in yoga than any other exercise.

Moderator: What are the benefits of Hatha yoga?

Elkind: Hatha yoga strengthens the muscular body as well as the many systems of the body, like the circulatory system, the immune system, the endocrine system. It improves flexibility, it calms the mind, it decreases stress by making you less reactive. It especially opens the spine and the hips and the shoulders where all the stress hides. It makes you more comfortable in your body. When you feel better in your body, you feel better about yourself and act better towards others and that's the goal.

Moderator: Do you have to be flexible or in shape to do Hatha yoga?

Jezzeny: You do not.

Elkind: It helps if you come to yoga with your body more open. Basically someone who is the tightest person in the world could take yoga and at end of class feel as good as the person who is most flexible.

Jezzeny: It's only relative to the individual.

Elkind: I believe it's the attitude that you bring into the class. You're not going to be happier if you can touch your toes.

Jezzeny: We know people who have unbelievable physical Hatha yoga practices and aren't necessarily the nicest people in the world. It doesn't have anything to do with the other.

Moderator: What would you recommend to someone that doesn't have full use of his or her hands or limbs?

Elkind: I absolutely encourage them to do what they can. Hatha yoga is not just moving your physical body. It's also your breath and a big part of yoga is getting more comfortable inside through meditation. I think Hatha yoga can be adapted to the individual. There are many things you can do and I think if you found the right teacher to work with one-on-one, I think you can do a lot.

Jezzeny: We know a teacher in L.A. who has multiple sclerosis and he specializes in teaching people who are wheelchair bound and the like. People who don't have full use of limbs or hands can enjoy the benefits as much as anyone else.

Moderator: How many classes per week do you recommend for someone who wants to practice yoga and really see its benefits?

Elkind: I recommend that the first thing you do is not put pressure on yourself so you don't find it to be a chore. You can go twice a week for a little while but eventually you really want to do it three times a week. When you get serious about yoga, it's like brushing your teeth. We practice yoga six days a week, no problem. It's something you have to ease into slowly, depending on your level.

Moderator: Is yoga a solo exercise or can people have partners?

Jezzeny: People can have partners. Partner yoga is growing. There are many postures that are continually being invented to serve partners, to be practiced in tandem.

Moderator: How does partner yoga work?

Elkind: What's nice about working with partner is when you can't get further in a pose, you have someone to put a little weight on you and help you get there. What we do at City Yoga -- we did an amazing Valentine's Day partner yoga and we put everyone seated back to back and got our breath synchronized. We worked back to back in standing poses. It's fun to feel the balance of somebody else. You can do the same poses you would do alone and have a partner help you in them, move deeper. It's a lot of fun and you can do an entire practice with a partner. I highly recommend partner yoga.

Moderator: How much has your life changed after yoga and meditation?

Elkind: I've been practicing yoga for 11, 12 years and I haven't been seriously practicing yoga that long, but I've watched how yoga has helped me through hard times in my life and that's when I realized how important it was to me. It's been a gradual process, and spiritually I was meditating and practicing the spiritual aspects before I did the physical aspects. It was just a natural process of unfolding.

Jezzeny: I've been practicing yoga on a daily basis for about 7 years. I've seen it affect every aspect of my life from physical to mental to emotional to outlook, perspective. I tend to be that way with most things.

Moderator: You sound like you're a bit of a scholar about this. Where did that come from?

Jezzeny: I tend to be that way with most things. I love to read and learn and study from that aspect and I feel it improves my understanding of things. I usually delve into everything that I love that way.

Moderator: What advice do you have for parents who have children who want to learn yoga?

Jezzeny: Yeah there's definitely--it's actually growing a lot. We're starting a class for age 7 and up, once the attention span is there, but I would also recommend a great video called "Yoga for Kids." It's a brilliant video. It was done by woman who was a teacher, elementary school teacher. It's brilliant.

Elkind: I think kids get a lot out of yoga and all the poses have animal names. You can make it fun. When I was a kid, I remember my father had a book and showed me the lion's breath and I remember the cobra. I thought it was the coolest thing. When I finally found yoga, I completely was excited because I remembered it. Children are so smart and they can learn at a young age more than the physical but they start to get a better sense of themselves. I think it's great.

Moderator: What do you feel during meditation?

Elkind: Meditation is -- imagine if you could plug yourself into a light socket and feel how bright the light is inside the bulb. When you absorb yourself in meditation, it takes over. It feels very light. It feels like you're touching maybe your spirit. You don't really feel your physical body so you lose that limitation. It's an expansive, peaceful feeling. There's no one right way to meditate. Just getting quiet is a level of meditation.

Moderator: Do you feel that there are curative powers to yoga, like arthritis, cancer, and other diseases?

Jezzeny: Definitely. My brother has rheumatoid arthritis and started practicing yoga and felt a huge difference. It's a holistic--definitely an artistic science that bears healing and can definitely have powerful benefits on the entire system.

Moderator: Do you have people who come to you with physical problems?

Jezzeny: I personally deal with a lot of people who have injuries and find incredible differences through practicing yoga.

Moderator: How is Hatha yoga being redefined in the West?

Elkind: I think that there's much more of an emphasis on the strength aspect and also on the technical aspects. I think Hatha yoga has become more sophisticated than in the past. If you were to go to India, many places you would do yoga wouldn't emphasize alignment as much. Alignment is the position that you place your body in in the poses. Alignment is very important. Alignment will heal your body or hurt your body if you're improperly aligned. I think in the East, the emphasis on yoga is more towards the meditative and the self realization and more of a commitment to God. I think in the West it's become a bit more physically emphasized.

Moderator: Do you think that the current yoga craze in America reflects a desire for inner serenity and peace or just a desire for the physical benefits?

Elkind: I think that's how it began. I don't know if it's the future of Hatha yoga. I think partially people...

Jezzeny: I think it's what attracts people initially and oftentimes they realize what an overall state of well being they can experience when they're doing it.

Elkind: I think a good example is to look at all of the gyms. There's not a gym that exists that doesn't offer yoga now. Some of the gyms offer about 9 classes per week. They're the fullest classes, 50 to 70 people.

Moderator: What is power yoga?

Jezzeny: Power yoga is just a phrase that was coined by someone and is a type of yoga, form of Hatha yoga derived from type of yoga called Ashtanga. Ashtanga yoga is a very physical yoga that utilizes what is called Vinyasa. It's basically linking every posture or pose, it's continual movement, through what is called a sun salutation. It's a flowing, moving, very physical type of yoga. Power yoga has become the connotation of a very physical type of yoga where you sweat a lot and get really strong. That's what power yoga is.

Elkind: It's just a name.

Moderator: Is it yoga or is it just a name?

Elkind: It's yoga. It's a form of Hatha yoga.

Jezzeny: The phrase is basically coined to attract people who are attracted to the physical aspects of yoga. It's like using a name to bring people in.

Moderator: What interested you in yoga and where did you go to learn about it?

Jezzeny: Originally I think I've always been a very thinking, philosophical person and I was interested in philosophical aspects of yoga. I used to be a runner and I started practicing yoga to balance out my running and to keep myself injury free. It slowly just took over because I felt so good that I stopped running. I first started doing yoga with Sue in studios around the L.A. areas, various studios and teachers, international teachers by attending workshops.

Elkind: My first experience with yoga was in New York in a gym. Then when I moved to Los Angeles, I looked for it and practiced for many years with the same teacher. When he left town, I ended up taking over the class. I became the teacher without formal training. Then I decided that I needed to get formal training. We're so fortunate in Los Angeles to have almost every great teacher to come here. They have all the background of senior Iyengar teachers. I dove into my studies for at least four years doing every workshop, got very enthusiastic about it. I was just so interested and the more information I could have, I realized the more I could give. I have always been meditating, so yoga was natural for me. What interests me now is how yoga can heal. My job to help people heal.

Moderator: How did you come to start City Yoga?

Elkind: City Yoga came out of the need for a bigger space. My partner and I had private classes in the neighborhoods and we needed bigger spaces. We came together to create a community.

Moderator: How does yoga help with stress, depression, guilt and anger?

Jezzeny: The breathing techniques are calming to the system. The overall benefit of yoga is, as far as things like guilt or anger go, is making a person realize that as they are is enough. That you don't need the external things to make yourself happy, ultimately. Yoga has been shown to have very strong benefits in situations of cardiac patients, of depressed people. There's a doctor in the San Francisco Bay area who has a wellness center where they treat chronically depressed people or people who are terminally ill with meditation, yoga and diet. His name is Dr. Dean Ornish. That's how he first discovered yoga and meditation, because when he was in medical school, he was chronically depressed and attempted suicide. Someone took him -- they wanted to put him on medications and someone introduced him to yoga and meditation, and he changed his diet and it changed his life.

Moderator: Do you think there might be a hesitation on some people's part to take up yoga because they see it as connected to a religion?

Jezzeny: Yes. That's a common thing. Essentially yoga has no religious associations at all. In India, it is practiced by people of every philosophical and religious tradition. It's a common misconception that people think -- especially when anything like chanting or the scriptures are introduced, it can be scary to people.

Moderator: Where do you see Hatha yoga going in the future?

Elkind: I think that yoga complements so many other activities that we do in our life and already we see yoga studios popping up in every neighborhood. I see Hatha yoga getting more popular and more recognized as a means to physical and mental clarity and freedom.

Moderator: How long does it take to learn yoga?

Jezzeny: A lifetime.

Elkind: Many.

Jezzeny: It's a constant process.

Elkind: People ask me because I still -- all of us are constantly studying and people ask me all the time, how much more do you really need to know? There's so many levels and layers of understanding and healing and alignment and just getting the body free and open. I still feel like I have a long way to go.

Moderator: Do you see yourselves moving away from Hatha to another form of yoga in the future?

Elkind: I don't ever see myself not doing the physical process of yoga because benefits are so great. To me, it's like I take a shower everyday. I need to move my body and to move energy and kind of clear out stuff. Maybe as I get older, my meditation will become more of a central focus. That seems like a natural process but I'd like to think that I'll be doing Hatha yoga well into my 100's.

Moderator: How does yoga for prenatal care differ from the yogas for someone who isn't pregnant?

Elkind: I'm just putting in a prenatal class that I will be teaching. There are so many different schools of thought on prenatal yoga. Even in Hatha yoga, there's definite do's and don't's. I think when a woman is pregnant, it's important that she gets comfortable with being pregnant. In our country, people think they don't want to use their body. I think prenatal yoga needs to emphasize a more internal connection with process that's going on. You don't want to strain your abdominals. Any deep twists are not really good either. It depends on the trimester. As you move on into your pregnancy, many women will not want to invert. Being on your head might be too much pressure. We emphasize strengthening the inner thighs and the muscles that we need to give birth. There's a lot of great benefits and differences between prenatal yoga and Hatha.

Moderator: Can prenatal yoga take the place of Lamaze classes?

Elkind: I would say yes. I don't know if everyone would agree. Hatha yoga emphasizes breath so we could very certainly prepare women on how to breathe.

Moderator: What other holistic treatments for body and soul are there?

Elkind: There's a lot of complementary holistic. I love acupuncture. I think it's a wonderful complement to keeping the system open. Qi Gong and Tai Qi are both...

Jezzeny: They're all systems of movement that affect the energetic body as a whole.

Moderator: Where do you see yourselves as teachers in the next 5 -10 years? Will there be more City Yogas?

Elkind: Good question. Certainly if it came up where we were asked to go to a different city, we would. We're not trying to rush the process at all, but we are looking to expand in Los Angeles right now. Where we see ourselves in five years is continuing to grow and learn and to give back to community what we get from our practice. I see us doing more travel to other studios. Networking is getting much smaller around the country. We get to meet other people from different parts of the country. There's different conferences where large groups of people can come and have yoga introduced to their city. Yoga retreats are great, so we want to keep doing those. Great way to get away and have yoga with you.

Moderator: Sue and Naime, thank you for joining us today. WebMD members, please join us next Friday at 1 pm EDT here in the Body Beautiful Auditorium for Exercising and Eating for a Healthier Lifestyle with Scott Rabinowitz.

Jezzeny: Thank you.

Elkind: Thank you. That was fun.

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