Question: In the January–April 2004 issue of Yoga Studies, Richard Rosen responded to the question: “I’ve been teaching for a number of years, always leading clients in standing âsana with the left foot or left side. I have always done this because that was what I was taught. Could you please send me any literature references or other references giving the reasoning behind this practice? Does it extend to all âsana, standing or not?”
In this issue, Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, chairman of Yoganjali Natyalayam and the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research in Pondicherry, India (http://www.icyer.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), further elucidates from the traditional Indian point of view: I felt that I have to try and address some of these core issues for non-Indian Yoga practitioners, as we often have our Western students (never an Indian student!) ask these same questions.
The major problem facing Yoga in the West is the fact that Yoga has been cleaved from Indian culture (sanâtana-dharma; editor’s note: lit. “eternal teaching,” the name traditionally given to Hinduism by adherents). Without an understanding of the Indian (Hindu) culture and way of life from which Yoga originated, it is difficult to find answers to such questions.
The concept of polarity, or balancing the opposites, is vital to both Yoga and Indian traditional life. The right side of the body is related to the solar/positive/masculine flows of energy that are manifest by the sûrya-nâdî, which is related to the termination of the pingalâ-nâdî. Similarly, the left side is related to the lunar/negative/feminine flows of energy that are manifest by the candra-nâdî, which may be said to be the termination of the idâ-nâdî (editor’s note: nâdîs are subtle energy channels).
Traditionally in Indian culture, all daily activities are always started on the right side, because the right side is considered to be auspicious. If an Indian (a traditional Indian, that is) were given an offering by the left hand, he or she would consider it an insult and refuse it! Similarly, receiving anything with the left hand is totally out of the question! Modern Indians tend to be as uninformed as Westerners in this regard, and I am not considering their example here.
When a newly married bride in India comes to her in-laws for the first time, or when we enter the premises of a newly constructed building or any such new “starts,” we always use the right leg first (as in “put your best foot forward”). Thus, to my mind, the traditional answer to the question would be to start on the right and then make sure you follow it with the left for balance.
In spinal twists, the turn is always clockwise first, as the concept of pradakshina or circumbulation around Hindu temples is always clockwise. It is interesting to note that the Hindu swastika turns clockwise, whereas Hitler’s swastika turns anticlockwise. (Speak of opposite energies bringing about opposite effects! Auspicious in the first and inauspicious in the second.) Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri also always taught us that the energy in the cakras moves in a clockwise direction. If you take ten traditional Indians and ask them to turn around, they will all, at least almost all, turn in the clockwise direction. Twists are thus done first to the right, then to the left.
Regarding the forward and back bending âsanas, when we bend forward we stimulate the solar plexus, and so this is termed the loma, or positive action. When we bend backward, we relax the solar plexus, and this is termed the viloma, or negative action. In practice it is thus better to do forward bends before back bends if we follow the polarity concept.
Some interesting research in South India (at VK Yogas Bangalore) showed that relaxation practices done following strenuous activity provided greater benefit than the pure relaxation practices done alone. Viewed from the standpoint of right and left, if we do the right, or active, side first, then we may benefit more from the practice by ending with the left. This will lead to a state of balance (of steadiness, relaxation). On the contrary, if we do the left, or passive, side first, then we may end up stimulated (hyperenergetic, imbalanced). As Yoga is the science of balance, performance on the right side before the left side may help us to maintain homeostasis (samatvam).
We must also remember that even the term Hatha-Yoga has the right side placed before the left in its esoteric association of ha with the sun and tha with the moon (editor’s note: hatha lit. means “forceful”).
With regard to the common question of how to tell whether one is doing the left side or the right side in standing poses, I would say that the side that bears the maximum weight of the body in the pose is the side one is doing. For instance, many students get confused when they first stand in natarajâsana on the right leg with the left arm and foot raised behind the back, thinking that they are doing the left side because both the left arm and leg are being used, whereas they are actually doing the right.
Of course, all of the above discussion applies to normal, balanced individuals, of whom very few seem to practice modern Yoga! In cases where stimulation is required, as in patients with depression, excessive sleepiness or drowsiness, and so on, then right after left may be preferable.