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Yoga Theory and Practice

 


The Purpose and Preparation of Asana

“…the practice of asanas results in feeling well, improved health, better posture, or increased self esteem. Although these are wonderful attainments, they are not cited in the text (Patanjali), which infers that they are not significant attainments in Classical Yoga.”

This quote from Mukunda Stiles illustrates a point that although many Western yogis have felt the need to promote yoga by concentrating on asana and the tangible physical and emotional benefits that practitioners experience, ultimately the practice of asana in yoga is intended to work not just on the physical level but also on a spiritual or philosophical level.

The practice of asana is intended to maintain the body’s health as it is believed that a healthy body will lead to a healthy mind. Diseases and other physical afflictions disturb the mind and disturb the yoga students’ ability to concentrate and practice regularly.

“The posture of yoga is steady and easy. It is realised by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity. Then one is unconstrained by opposing dualities.”

Patanjali’s verses on asana summarise the ultimate purpose of asana which is to allow the body to be comfortable and still for long enough for a yogi to be able to practice meditation and begin to experience other states of being such as Samadhi.

“Prostrating first to the guru, Yogi Swatmarama instructs the knowledge of hatha yoga only for (raja yoga) the highest state of yoga.”

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly states that the practice of asana is “only” a preparation for raja yoga. My own experience of asana agrees with this. I spent years thrashing about on my mat determined to bind or to do poses in Padmasana without actually appreciating fully that;

“In truth it matters little how far you can bend forward or how far you can twist, for wherever the point of resistance lies is the place where you have the greatest opportunity to learn and to change.”

It was as I began to meditate regularly that I began to appreciate why it was so important for the body to be healthy and the mind to be undisturbed. Minor ailments such as colds and flu and aches and pains in my knees from my astanga practice actually added up to considerable breaks between days on which I practiced meditation. The sense of well-being felt in meditation was more important to me than my ashtanga practice and my dislike of fruit. So I adapted my yoga practice and my diet to make sure my posture would continue to be comfortable and steady.

“Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of body and mind; diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs.”

As I understand it, this is the purpose of asana. Asana works on the Annamaya kosha, balancing energies flowing through the nadis and strengthening the body and preparing it for work with the Manomaya and Pranamaya koshas.

The asanas have different qualities and traditionally the asanas practiced by a student would be given to them by their guru specifically to help them on their path to enlightenment.

This tradition is emphasised in Krishnamacharya’s approach to yoga and could simply be illustrated by students with sedentary lifestyles being taught energising vinyasa whilst people with a physical lifestyle are taught recuperative asanas. Age is also taken into consideration with the dynamic practices considered appropriate for one’s youth being gradually replaced by meditative practices as one grows older. The idea behind this is to balance the energies and to balance the person.

The Gherandasamhita lists 32 essential asanas out of a possible 1600 important ones, but only comments briefly on their purpose in a few cases. Padmasana , “is useful for the purpose of attaining moksa.” , whilst Bhujangasana, “removes all ailments, invigorates the body and awakens the serpent goddess.”

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes the purpose of the postures such as Matsyendrasana saying it, “increases the digestive fire to such an incredible capacity that it is the means of removing diseases and thus awakening the serpent power and bringing equilibrium in the bindu.”

Increasing the digestive fire and becoming free from diseases are also mentioned as benefits for Paschimothanasana, Mayurasana, and Siddhasana which “opens the door to liberation” , and “purifies the 72,000 nadis.”

The purpose of asana in the west could simply be to, “feel calm and centred after the class….practice took the edge off anxiety and depression.”

Having students feel better after an asana class is not the main purpose of an asana practice. Ultimately the asanas will make the spine stronger, open the hips and enable the students to concentrate with awareness for longer periods of time. These are preparations for yogic meditation and although many students may feel satisfied with simply feeling better, ultimately they will discover that their minds and bodies are ready for meditation and if conditions are right in their lives they may decide to practice and follow the guidelines suggested by the Bhagavad-Gita.

“once seated, strive to still your thoughts…..hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering.”



T he benefits that may accrue from practicing asana

The main immediate benefits of practicing yoga are increased flexibility, strength and the ability to concentrate as well allowing us to release tensions from our minds and bodies. Long term practice of yoga keeps practitioners healthy and flexible into old age by stimulating and regulating all the systems of the human body including the muscular, glands, nervous system and organs.

When the body’s systems are working well we achieve one of the goals of yoga which is, “The goal of asana practice is to live in your body and to learn to perceive clearly through it.” The focus of asana is on the efficient functioning of the muscles of the body, or in yogic terms the Annamaya kosha.

The following list is taken from Job’s Body and gives an interesting insight into how many muscular functions the body has apart from just moving our limbs through space. It is also worth considering how emotionally attached we are to these functions and how disturbing it is to our peace of mind when problems arise with any of them.

o They hold the joints of the skeleton in place and suspend all body parts from our frame – stability.
o They pattern the overall arrangement of that framework in space – posture.
o They create movements around the joints – gesture.
o They orchestrate these gestures to move us around – locomotion.
o They fill and empty our lungs – primary respiration.
o They provide the pumping mechanisms for all the body’s fluids – secondary respiration, intracellular circulation, lymphatic drainage.
o They seek out nourishment, pick it up, bite, chew, swallow, move food through gut tube, collect waste products, urinate, defecate and clean up afterwards.
o They are the means by which all the skills of survival and the arts of civilization are realised.
o They copulate, support gestation, and deliver the infant into the world.
o They start and stop the secretions of every gland.
o They aim and focus our special senses (eyes, ears, taste, smell, equilibrium).
o They mobilise and shape our sense of touch.
o They are sense organs themselves, contributing enormously to our own body image and to our sense of the mass and extension – the substance – of the world.


There are hundreds of asanas to choose from when practicing yoga and by following a balanced practice of forward bends, backward bends, inversions, balances, spinal twists and lateral flexes all the above functions should be enhanced. By tending to the well being of our physical bodies through the practice of asana we allow our minds to put plans into practice in the physical world which is a great source of satisfaction.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika comments that;

“Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha yoga. Having done asana one gets steadiness (firmness) of body and mind; diseaselessness and lightness (flexibility) of the limbs.”

Perhaps the diseaselessness of this verse refers to the efficient functioning of the muscular systems listed above.

Another important system which is not mentioned above is relaxation.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika informs us that Savasana “…removes tiredness and enables the mind (and whole body) to relax.” The counterpose to the stimulation of the body during asana practice is Savasana when the body and mind are given time to rest and recuperate.

The benefits of Savasana are much more profound than the feeling of relaxation might indicate. The main physiological benefit is a reduction in blood pressure as the autonomic nervous system responds to asana by balancing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The simple act of reducing blood pressure, which is one of the commonest undiagnosed conditions to be found in any middle aged yoga class, can reduced the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Savasana and Yoga Nidra also have aspects of them which are related to hypnotism.

Savasana is more than a posture in which to contemplate the ephemeral nature of life, it gives yogis access to their unconscious minds and allows them to plant seeds or samkalpa that will lead to transformations in their lives.


The question of counterpose.

“No special order seems to be required. I was permitted to vary asanas according to my own desire.”

This quote form Theos Bernard’s “Hatha Yoga” seems to be an exceptional reference to counterpose, and looking through his book it is clear that the poses he practiced included forward and backward bends, standing and inverted poses. Perhaps due to the dedicated nature of his practice formal use of counterposes was not considered necessary. Swami Satyananda Saraswati illustrates why counterpose is useful in regular classes in the west,

“This concept of counterpose is necessary to bring the body back to a balanced state.”

The state of balance referred to is not simply structural but also energetic. An example of counterpose would be to follow Sirshasana by Balasana. In this instance the increased blood pressure in the head caused by the inversion is given time to equalise during a period at which the head and body are at the same general level.

As Sirshasana is a full body pose during which the body is energised, the time spent in Balasana allows the mind to centre and the muscles to recuperate.

Balance is restored in the mind and body and it is then safe to proceed to the next asana. Safety is one of the main reasons that counterposes are practiced. If students practice an energising Bhujangasana bending backwards and opening the spine the abdominal muscles are stretched and the sternum is opened along the front of the body. Along the back of the body the erector spinae are contracted and the scapulae are drawn together.

If Bhujangasana was continuously practiced without a counterpose, in time this spine would develop a serious imbalance with weak overstretched abdominal muscles and overdeveloped erector spinae. Bhujangasana is an energising pose, so this too would affect the yogi in the long run.

A counterpose for Bhujangasana would be Paschimothanasana in which the movements of Bhujangasana are reversed with the erector spinae being stretched and the abdominals contracting, energetically the pose is a calming centring pose which would help to balance the energising effects of Bhujangasana. The practice of both poses would help to maintain the structural integrity of the spine.

Making sure both sides of the body are balanced equally is important as it avoids developing structural problems in the spine and hips which could cause lordosis, kyphosis and scoliosis.

Counterposes are normally practiced for about half as long as the main asana. In the course of a yoga practice balance is also maintained in other ways throughout the class, an example would be practicing energising Suryanamaskar at the beginning of the class and balancing that with a relaxing Savasana at the end.

Counterpose is an essential part of a yoga practice which allows the body to return to a sense of balance after being moved in a particular direction. The mind body connection between physical balance and mental equilibrium is important to consider when planning appropriate counterposes to asana.

Ultimately asana and counterpose lead us to a sense of energetic balance which begins simply by exertion and relaxation, flexing and contracting, as the body finds it’s sense of structural balance the mind too becomes more centred and ultimately reaches a state where the yogi experiences; “that conceptual point where sacred reality impinges upon profane reality, where time and eternity meet, and where all dualities are resolved.”



The need for strength in addition to flexibility in asana.

Our normal range of motion in our joints becomes gradually atrophied by our sedentary lifestyles and the effects of dehydration in adult tissues.

Through the regular practice of asana the muscles are stretched and; “stretching slows the process of dehydration by stimulating the production of tissue lubricants. It pulls the interwoven cellular cross-links apart and helps muscles rebuild with healthy parallel cell structure.”

The main focus of stretching within the muscle is not the muscle fibres themselves which are able to stretch to up to 150 percent of their normal length. This should be enough to be able to move into most asanas with ease. What holds the muscles back is fascia and the nerve endings used in proprioception.

These nerves or stretch receptors are programmed to inform the brain of where a muscle is, how stretched it is and how fast it is moving . The nerves are pre-programmed by previous experience to send out messages, sensed as pain, which will prevent the muscle from being injured.

Fascia is an inelastic fibrous membrane thought to make up to 40 percent of a muscles’ resistance to movement. Rolfers believe that fascia is the physical key to our emotional bodies, fascia hardens and becomes less flexible not just as a result of physical injuries such as repetitive movements but also as a result of emotional hurts.

An example would be how people who have reacted to problems with depression might have spines that are bent forward in a protective gesture. Rolfing works by intense deep tissue massage of the fascia to bring about deep emotional and physical release.

Asana also works in this way gradually allowing the practitioner to access areas of the unconscious mind. Back bends such as Bhujangasana and Ustrasana open the chest, arch the spine and shoulders back and stretch the fascia in an area notorious for storing tension. The result is an energising pose which makes you feel better.

“benefits of stretching are joint lubrication, improved healing, better circulation and enhanced mobility – are related to the healthy stimulation of fascia”

There are many benefits to stretching and in many peoples minds flexibility and stretching are the main point of practicing yoga, however; “If you only increase passive flexibility without developing strength to control it, you make yourself vulnerable to a serious joint injury.”

The principal behind movement of our limbs into asana is that as one muscle contracts the other releases in a process known as “reciprocal inhibition”. For example the muscles which flex and extend our arms are the tricep and bicep. As the bicep contracts the tricep relaxes and as the tricep contracts the bicep relaxes.

If you had arms that couldn’t extend fully just working on flexibility and lengthening in the bicep would weaken it in the long run. To achieve the full range of movement it is important to strengthen the tricep to allow it to contract more effectively and extend the arm more effectively.

“a tight muscle is often weakened, in that it cannot pull your body through it’s full range of motion.” It may be necessary to do exercises which both stretch and strengthen the muscle.

It is important to consider muscle strength in it’s relation to flexibility because many asanas require greater flexibility but when muscles surrounding a joint are weak it can cause hyperextension of joints. For example weak quadriceps can lead to hyper extended knees which can lead to ligament and cartilage damage.

Therefore in standing poses such as Trikonasana and Virabhadrasana it would be important to develop strength in the quadriceps to ensure the knees remain safe. One of the problems of muscle weakness is that the body can compensate by using adjacent muscles which can lead to a chronic weakness in the primary mover.

An awareness of muscle strength is needed when more complicated asana are introduced and it is important to be able to assess students’ strength. In shoulderstand a good level of general strength is needed to be able to hold the pose otherwise the spine will slump if the erector spinae and abdominals are weak, the arms will slide outwards if the deltoids are weak, the legs will wobble back and forward if the hip extensors and flexors are weak too.

In the classical pose without props it would also be important to ensure the sternocleidomastoids in the neck were in good condition too.

For students to be able to progress safely towards the more complicated asanas it is essential that they develop the core strength necessary to be able to hold the poses. In the classical style of yoga practiced by Theos Bernard he was considered to have learnt an asana when he was able to hold it for three hours. For many of us even simple poses such as Dandasana are a challenge to hold for a few minutes.

Traditional teachings of yoga recommend the practice of twelve Suryanamaskar a day as a minimum requirement for general health so I think it is important not to neglect the muscular yoga practices because it is through the strength developed in these that asana finally becomes comfortable and steady.

I have been to two workshops by Glen Ceresolli, a senior Iyengar instructor who emphasises strength in asana practice and whose teachings have lead to my understanding of the role of strength in asana. By holding poses for longer the muscles are challenged beyond their normal range of endurance, however it is important to differentiate this from simple body building because the attitude to strengthening practices is all important.

Maintaining a sense of mental and physical equanimity and equilibrium determine the quality of the pose and the effect it will have. Holding poses for too long will simply cause emotional and physical stress and will be the experience you take with you out of the yoga practice.

By holding the asana for long enough to challenge the muscles, the mind and breath can relax areas of the body not being used directly in the pose and direct energy to the muscle in use. After each practice the muscles are used for a little bit longer and strength is developed.

If the pose is held too long the mind loses its sense of equanimity, however if the pose is held for long enough to extend the length of time equanimity can be maintained then skills useful for a yogic approach to the world can be learned.

We become better equipped to face up to stressful situations in everyday life in the knowledge that we are better prepared to maintain a sense of equanimity and balance through our yoga practice.

 

Rupert Linton 2004

Bibliography

APMB, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga, 1999.
Hatha Yoga, Theos Bernard, Essence of Health Publishing, 2001.
Hathayogapradipika, commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda, Yoga Publications Trust, 2001.
Job’s Body, Deane Juhan, Station Hill Press, 2003.
Yoga And The Quest For The True Self, Stephen Cope, Bantam, 2000.
Yoga in Daily Life: the System, Swami Maheshwarananda, Ibera Verlag, 2000.
Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, Donna Farhi, Newleaf, 2000.
Yoga Sutra attributed to Patanjali, trans. Barbara Stoler Miller, University of California Press, 1996.
Stretching Without Pain, W.Paul Blakey, Bibliotek Books, 1994.
Structural Yoga Therapy, Mukunda Stiles, Weiser, 2000.
The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath Easwaren, Nilgiri Press, 2001.
The Original Yoga, Gherandasamhita, Shyam Ghoshe, Munshiram Manoharlal, 2004.
The Sacred Mountain, John Snelling, EastWest Publications, 1983.
What Science can teach us about flexibility, Fernando Pagés Ruiz, www.yogajournal.com/practice/209.cfm

 

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