Category Archives: Asana

Using twists to get the kinks out of your life!

There are a number of reasons why you should include a twisting posture in your home practice sessions.  Even the simplest of twists such as Kati Chakrasana or the waist rotating pose can provide excellent benefits such as the toning of abdominal muscles, massage of abdominal organs and stimulation of the digestive system.

According to Bhaktipoornananda, ” When we twist the body it is the thoracic spine that  twists most, not the lumbar spine. When we have one leg shorter than the  other we get a lot of wear and tear on the junction between the 12th thoracic and the 1st lumbar vertebrae because the twist on the pelvis is imbalanced  as we walk. The lumbar spine does not turn much so this lob-sidedness  increases wear and tear on the first vertebra designed to twist (i.e.  12th thoracic).

Meru wakrasana (spinal twist) and ardha matsyendrasana (half spinal twist) are important twisting practices  which keep the whole spine supple without straining ligaments. They should  be practised initially with one hand resting close to the sacrum and the  arm straight so that it lifts the back upright and supports it.”                        (Swami Bhaktipoornananda Saraswati  2000)

Many of the twists are actually practiced from a sitting position you need to prepare sufficiently by strengthening the trunk and developing flexibility in the legs and back…so having a good sitting posture is important.  Often beginners will need to raise the buttocks slightly by sitting on a folded blanket or firm cushion.

Twisting practices help to improve the flexibility of spinal joints and muscles and stimulate the spinal nerves. They encourage digestion  and energy flow in the abdomen.  Twists also promote strength and flexibility in the trunk muscles.

On a psychic or mental level practising twists and learning to relax into these positions will help  you to realise that you can breathe through the more “knotty”or difficult parts of life. That these “kinks” in life merely serve to strengthen our core if we remain centred and move with the flow of breath.

Often people find a great sense of relief after practising twists ….as if the twist itself has allowed something on a deeper level to be released.

As with all asana practice awareness of where your body is at and it’s limitations is important.  Beginners need to be careful not to twist the trunk more than flexibility will allow and those people with serious back complaints would need to consult with their health professional prior to practising.

Salute to the Sun…Surya Namaskara

As winter settles it can be difficult to keep active and vitalised.  Levels of  energy can drop quickly  and one of the best ways I know to keep the pranic energy active is through the practice of Surya Namaskara or “salute to the sun”.

This practice  combines  several asana or postures into a series of 12 movements each designed to stimulate different parts of  the body and in this way all the body systems are massaged,  charged with energy and finally relaxed.

The sun in Surya Namaskara represents your inner light…it helps you to recognise the radiance and power within yourself…your potential to expand beyond the known into higher realms of clarity and consciousness.

Care must be taken to become familiar with each pose and maintain the correct alignment so slow practice is best to begin with.  This can be accompanied with slow rhythmical breathing to strengthen, stabilise and to take the awareness within the body (pratyahara).  Once you are familiar with the practice you may wish to practise more quickly, making the practice more energising and revitalising.

The practice of Surya Namaskara can be modified to suit different levels of yogic experience and different physical abilities. (you could talk to your teacher about this)

This practice is both a physical and mental practice as you need to concentrate on the transition from one posture to the next  and counting the number of rounds you have decided to do.  Swami Niranjan suggests that 4 rounds each day is sufficient for general health and wellbeing whilst practising 10 rounds each day will lead to higher levels of spiritual development.

You may have experienced practising Surya Namaskara whilst mantras have been repeated for you and if you can learn these they will strengthen  and uplift the mental state making the practice a complete sadhana.

It is wise to always rest in Shavasana after completing the practice of Surya Namaskara.  This allows the full benefits of the practice to be integrated as the para sympathetic nervous system is able to “kick in” so to speak after the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (stimulated by the practice) and the body is brought back into balance.  Resting until the heart rate and breathing returns to normal is recommended.

For more information on solar energy and the practice of Surya Namaskara see the following link:

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/1977/haug77/solar.shtml

A balancing act

How do you get a more balanced perspective on life and develop equanimity?

You are standing on one leg with your arms raised above your head and feeling very wobbly as your teacher asks you to breathe through the practice…to ground yourself in the supporting leg, to focus your awareness and  feel the strength of the pose.

Then one day without realising it you suddenly notice that you are not wobbling anymore.  All the conscious effort in the practice evaporates and the pose seems to flow smoothly as you maintain your awareness on your breath.  What has caused this transformation? How have you been able to ward off the wobbles?

Through balancing asana you develop physical balance but also a mental and emotional balance.  The strength required in these poses develops a strength of will.   You know that you are supported and consequently you know that no matter what life throws at you…. ..you will manage it.

The steady breathing required to maintain the pose is exactly the same steady breathing you need when faced with the ups and downs of life.  All too often we panic when things start to get difficult …we breathe shallowly and allow the mind to race off predicting the future or reliving the past rather than staying present.  It is the balancing poses in particular that teach us to be present.  (you may have noticed that you become wobbly all over again if you let your mind drift and the awareness is lost).  To balance successfully you need to feel your whole body, to focus the awareness, to breathe steadily and ground yourself into the supporting leg.

If you are interested in exploring balancing asana a bit more here are a couple of useful links:

http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/1242

http://www.ayl.com.au/pdf_docs/Adam_asana_25.pdf

What is happening at home?

Home practice is one of the key elements to integrating yoga into your life.  It is often something which people find difficult to apply and the reasons vary from “not enough time’, “nowhere quiet and comfortable to practice” to “I can’t remember all the poses” and “I just don’t know how to sequence practices”.

Some of these may sound familiar to you if you have been putting off starting your own yoga practice at home.  You may well be attending weekly classes but have just not got around to finding time to explore yoga yourself in your own home.  One of the most rewarding things I have done is to establish a routine of home practice for myself. Sure there are times when I am too tired or not well enough but that is ok because Yoga is about listening to your body (but be careful that you are not listening to your mind..which has the habit of finding reasons why this or that is no good or not working!)

So how do you go about it?  Well the important thing is to begin….set aside a short period of time each day either early morning, or late afternoon. Do not restrict yourself with unrealistic expectations like “I will do a one and half hour class every day before I have breakfast.  (this may be quite easy to do at the ashram where you do not have your other obligations of family and work)  Start with a shorter session but try to allow enough time for a few asanas as well as some breathing practices and or relaxation.  This may even be making sure that you allow yourself 5-10 mins lying in Shavasana at the end of your other asanas.

Find a space that feels right.  It does not have to be huge.  You can enhance the energy and atmosphere with a candle and some incense if you have some. I have set up a small yoga room in one of the spare bedrooms but I often just go outside especially if the weather is good. ( I find that nature is the best atmosphere for me)

Let your body tell you what poses are right for you on each occasion.  Some will be repeated perhaps each day but sometimes you will just feel like doing one pose more than others.  Begin with gentle movements and warm the body up then try to balance the practices out a little with a few forward and backward bends, a couple of standing asanas, a twist and if inversions suit your body an inverted pose to increase the flow of blood to your brain (it is also a great way to gain a new perspective on something!)

Swami Niranjan suggested the practices of Tadasana, Tiryaka Tadasana and Kati Chakrasana  as excellent general practices for the spine.

I like to do at least some observation of the natural breath at the beginning and end of my practice and usually incorporate at least one other pranayama or breathing practice.  (A good one for beginners is abdominal breathing )

Do not despair if you find that your practice is a little erratic at times…show compassion to yourself …just roll out the mat once again and begin with stillness.  There is a great article in the current  issue of  Australian Yoga Life Magazine….sequencing a home practice if you would like to read more.

Opening up with back bends

Back bends are probably the most commonly thought of yoga postures when you think of yoga. Just about everyone will have seen an image of someone in the cobra or Bhujangasana pose.

Back bends expand the chest and open the heart space.  Usually performed on inhalation the back bend is a stimulating practice that produces heat and energy. In contrast to forward bending (see previous post) they work against gravity and therefore require some strength especially in the lumbar spine.

With this in mind yoga students should always begin gradually with some of the less intense poses such as the flying locust (Ardha Shalabhasana), as this posture helps to develop the necessary strength in the back.  You can then move on to Saral Bhujangasana (half cobra).  Another excellent practice to prepare for the stronger back bends is Khanderasana (the shoulder pose).   As always it is important to work within the limitations of your body so that strain of spinal joints is avoided.

The stimulating nature of these postures means that they are considered to be more extroverting…allowing the practitioner to be open to life’s experiences.

Back bends should normally be followed by a forward bend like Shashankasana or pose of the child  (see previous post) as this helps to balance out the body and allows the previously compressed vertebra to open up again.

 

 

 

 

Learning to let go….forward bends

These asanas rely on gravity to bring the trunk of the body forward.  In many the hands are raised above the head such as in Pada Hastasana (hand to foot pose).  Forward bending asanas loosen up the back, gently stretching the back muscles and separating the vertebrae whilst the compression in the abdominal area provide a gentle massage for the digestive system.  An exhaling breath is used as you bend forward activating relaxation and there is a general sense of letting go.. “surrendering to the moment”.  When bending forward it is important to lead with the chest, to use the abdominal muscles to support the lumbar spine and to bend from the hips not from the waist.

Of course care must be taken with forward bends to ensure that you do not force the back to bend further than its present flexiblity will allow.  Forward bends also put some stress on the lumbar spine particularly as you pass through the 20 degrees so people with lower back problems especially disc problems need to seek advice from a qualified  yoga teacher and may need to check with their doctor.  Often the practices can be performed in a modified way with shorter levers and for those people with high blood pressure you can ensure that the head does not move below the heart.

Forward bends such as Shashankasana (pose of the child) can be very soothing and are often a good way to release anger.

Forward bending poses should be followed by a backward bending pose to balance the practices out.  A good one especially for beginners is also a relaxation pose known as the Crocodile pose (Makarasana)

Some useful links  for yoga  and the management of back pain are  http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2000/cmay00/back1.shtml

http://www.yogamag.net/archives/2000/djuly00/back2.shtml

So what about Asana?

Asana is the name given to the physical poses or postures of yoga.   It is what most people think of when they think of yoga and is often referred to as Hatha Yoga.  “Ha” meaning sun and “tha” meaning moon, where the sun represents the positive energies and the moon the negative ones.  It is bringing these into balance through postures that is the practice of asana.

Asana are quite different to other exercises though, as you are asked  to be aware of the breath and use the breath to move into and out of asana.  Often the exhaling breath is used to help steady the body and mind and enable the muscles to lengthen or strengthen depending on what the asana is aimed at doing.  You also need  to keep the mind with the practice…..all too often the mind wanders to this and that so the practice of asana helps to balance the wild fluctuations of the mind.

Swami Satyananda says in the introduction to his book Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha that

 “The body and mind are not separate entities although there is a tendency to think and act as though they are.  The gross form of the mind is the body …and the subtle form of the body is the mind.”

In this way  the actions of the body will affect the mind and the activity of the mind will affect the body.   You probably know from your own experience how negative thoughts can make you feel lethargic or more aware of aches and pains and you may also have experienced the “good” feelings you get when you have been out riding a bike, walking in nature or doing some form of exercise.  Most doctors now agree  that exercise is not only good for the body but good for the mind.

According to Patanjali (who is often referred to as the father of yoga) asana is about finding a position that is steady and comfortable.  So the practice of asanas is developing the ability to be steady and comfortable in different poses, bringing the mind and body into harmony. Ultimately the  practice is designed to enable one to sit comfortably in meditation.  However there are many other benefits of asana practice.  Regular practice keeps the joints flexible, the muscles and ligaments are gently stretched and strengthened, tensions and toxins are released and the mind is brought into balance with the body.

So what are you waiting for???.. find a teacher and get onto that mat!