Nina Johnson is the founder and Director Emeritus of the Himalayan Yoga Meditation Center, formerly called The Yoga Society. Nina has been teaching classes in Milwaukee for over 40 years. With the blessings of her guru H.H. Sri Swami Rama, and with her own natural compassion, determination and a practical, down-to-earth style, Nina has trained and initiated hundreds of students in the practice of hatha yoga and meditation.
I began practicing hatha yoga in 1965. The reason was merely physical. I had a severe back problem with constant pain in varying degrees and nobody seemed to be able to help. There are doctors in my family and one suggested I try yoga. I had bought a yoga book titled "Yoga and Women" and played with the postures and had fun doing them, but of course didn't know how to breath, much less concentrate on anything while doing them. So, I began looking everywhere and anywhere for classes, and found a recently formed class at the YMCA. I signed up, took only one class and was absolutely hooked. I had never really ever felt such relaxation before; never.
I practiced a lot every day and as I slowly began to feel better and lose some of the pain in my neck, I became quite a pain to my family. I'd change that part if I could, but it's too late! It was their karma too! I'd suddenly learned something new about diet and exercise and wanted everyone feeling as good as I did. Well, it didn't work. But I pressed on with my practice, tried really hard to keep silent (with my family) and eventually our teacher moved away and asked me to teach the class. I said "No," and she said it would all end if I didn't. So, feeling the fate of the nation depended on me, showing up every Monday at the Y from 10-11am , I began.
In 1972 I met Swami Rama of the Himalayas, and he became my True Teacher. During all the years of teaching and learning with him, I found one important thing: Just do yoga. As Swami Veda Bharati, disciple of Swami Rama, has said many times, hatha yoga isn't a physical exercise, it's an "exercise" of prana (the vital force) flowing through us. When it's not blocked somewhere and flowing freely, we're okay; but if something unsettling comes into us through our mind or mouth that throws mind or body out of sync, we get sick or feel upset mentally---which leads to bodily sicknessy.
It's true there are certain postures for certain parts of the body, but in the beginning, just hatha in general is helpful. There will be times when a hip or a shoulder or something will bother you and you may want specific hatha for that certain place, and it's okay to work more on that spot. But if someone says "What is good for bad knees?", for example, I just say, Yoga.
Hatha yoga alone is not enough, you need meditation too. You're not complete if you do one without the other. But be sure you know something about your teacher's background, hatha as well as meditation: Who taught him and so on. Sometimes in the beginning you may start with meditation or hatha, but in the long run you should really do both.
Walking, running, etc. are good too, but that doesn't replace hatha yoga. It's not the same. After running you are tired, but after hatha yoga you are relaxed and refreshed.
If you are serious about your practice, you will feed a need for further changes in your lifestyle. Good habits come forth and bad habits fade--slowly. Eating good food comes into it, too. Watch your mind when you slip. It's all a learning process, and some learn faster than others; it's not a race. Yoga ultimately spreads through your whole life and you will be surprised at how much has changed about you over time.
This is all the good news, but the bad new is you have to do it. Sometimes students think they must do this a long time every day, but that's only half true. You should do hatha every day and meditate to stay fit, to stay "sane" as I always say, but you don't have to spend hours at it. It's probably enough to spend one half hour for both: 15 minutes for each, hatha for 10 minutes, relax 10-15 followed by meditation. There is no set one way, do what is good for you, am or pm--just do it! But, remember, flags will not wave and bells will not ring. It's a subtle science (and it is a science) and if you do it changes are bound to happen: Two and two make four no matter what. Your practice will pay off if you don't quit.