Asana is the third limb of Yoga. This is the physical aspect of yoga. The goal of asana practice is to unite the mind with the body. How can you unite mind with the body? We are all aware of the connection between our mind and our breath. When we are angry, tired, frustrated, or despondent, our breathing is fast paced, shallow, and labored. When we are happy, calm, and contented, our breath is deep, slow, easy, and complete. In a way, our breathing reflects our state of mind. We can also say that there is a direct correlation between our breath and mind. In asana practice, we take advantage of this knowledge and focus on the unity of body movement and breath. This is how we can unite our body with our mind.
One of the challenges I have experienced repeatedly in my asana practice is that my posture is in sync with my breath but out of sync with the class in that setting. Why is this so? Because we all have a slightly different rhythm of breathing, and once you have practiced asana for a while, your breath naturally becomes even paced, deep and controlled. Moreover, challenging poses have a negative effect on our breathing because we are challenged and thus breathing is labored, rapid, and incomplete. No matter how good you are with any particular pose, with time our bodies change, and poses that were once easy become harder causing breath to be out of sync with our yoga posture. Other poses, one’s that were difficult before, may become easier over time resulting in better body-mind connection. Listen to your body and focus only on creating the mind-body connection because this union is yoga. Hence it is essential to incorporate home practice with a focus on mind-body connection in addition to in-class practice.
More than our ability to assume difficult yoga postures, or showcase our flexibility and mastery over certain poses, it is important to achieve mind, breath, body, and awareness connection. This will help us feel the postures rather than go through our yoga workout routine mechanically. Each and every asana must have steadiness, comfort, flow and deep breathing all united together.
Basics of Asana practice
When you are in a posture, any discomfort you may experience takes you away from the breath because the mind remains focused on the discomfort. When this happens, make necessary adjustments to the posture to get rid of the discomfort and focus on the breath. The adjustments I am talking about could be a modified version of the pose, use of props such as straps, blocks or wall support, or backing off from the pose and doing another pose that may offer the same benefit and work the same group of muscles. For example, if headstand (sirsasana) is a challenge, then lie on your back with your legs resting on a chair and knees bent in a 90° angle. Alternatively you could also do a shoulder stand (Salamba Sarvangasana). Remember, accept yourself as you are with all your shortcomings and gifts, and yoga is not something you do for showcasing your flexibility and talents. Rather, yoga is something you do for yourself, something you practice without judgment.
Breathing is as important in yoga as body movement is. Yoga is the proper coordination of body movement with breath. This means that the inhalation and exhalation should be coordinated with movement through the poses. Anytime there is a contraction of the abdomen and lungs, this movement goes with exhalation. When there is opening and expansion of the chest region, the movement goes with inhalation. For example, forward bends are associated with exhalation since this movement contracts the lungs and pushed the stomach back towards the spine. Movements involving coming out of a forward bend and Cobra pose (Bhujangasana) involves expansion of the chest region and movement of the stomach away from the spins and subsequent expansion of the abdomen area are associated with inhalation.
Let’s talk about twists and breathe. In the seated posture, when you twist the torso causing the ribs and spine to rotate, contraction of the abdominal area occurs. Naturally, twist is associated with exhalation. The expansion of the abdomen occurs when you move out of a twist and bring the chest to line up with the front of the room with your pelvis and involves inhalation. The length of inhalation and exhalation should reflect our movement through the asanas. This requires us to control and adjust our speed of movement through the postures to reflect breathing. This helps us remain alert with the asana practice, helps feel the posture, increases our awareness of the practice, awareness of our breath, established mind-body connection, and establish steadiness, comfort, and quality in our asana practice.
Guide to developing Asana practice at home
Earlier I mentioned that the yogasana practice should be well balanced meaning that it should be steady, comfortable and high quality. What does this mean? The practice should begin in manner that will allow progressive development, so that each asana is building upon the previous one. Moreover, the asana sequence should not hurt or injure the body, but rather help in slow warm up, with sensible incorporation of counter poses and rests in between. The starting point for any practice is the point where we are present in our entirety – mind, body, desire and hope. This method is referred to as Vinyasa Krama in the Yoga Sutras. Vinyasa Krama involves starting the practice wherever we are and then taking the correct steps in the correct sequence towards our desired goals.ed, yoga sutras,
Every pose we practice, every action we take has both positive and negative effects. Hence, every pose we practice should precede the counter pose that is at least as difficult. For example, forward bend, Uttanasana, should precede standing gentle backbend, and Paschimartanasana should precede Purvatanasana. The sequence of poses we practice should be determined by our present needs – how does the body feel, how do we feel emotionally, what is that we expect at the end of the session and our long term goals. Each practice session should be dictated by our needs and hence I recommend developing in house practice to complement yoga classes. It is only in our personal practice that we have the opportunity of developing practice that suits our immediate and long term goals. The general sequence should incorporate asanas that will address initial gentle warm up, hip openers, standing poses, sitting poses in between standing poses to provide some rest, seated twists, balancing poses, backbends and counter poses done while lying on the floor, breathing exercises and Savasanam, rest pose to allow for rest, reflection, withdrawal of senses and cool down. Develop each practice session to fit your schedule and time. Use the sequence recommendation as a guide only. Vary the practice each day by going through the poses quickly providing a aerobic benefit, or holding each pose for a while before moving to the next to help you get established in a pose and develop proficiency in each pose.
Remain aware of your body, breath, and feelings in each and every part of the body as you move along through the poses. Be gentle to yourself, do not berate yourself if you are not holding a pose as well as you did the day before, and do not compare your ability to stay in poses with others. Yoga is not a competition rather yoga is self awareness and personal development. As in any practice, this article or books on yoga are no substitute for a good teacher. If you are new to yogasana or you want to get feedback on your practice, find a good teacher and a good studio that suits your needs and ask for feedback from the teacher. Explore, practice, and grow.
Asana and Yoga
Why is asana practice essential to yoga? Yoga is the union of body and mind, self and the object of attention to achieve the state of flow. Asana practice helps in developing discipline and awareness of mind-body connection. Discipline is essential for change within ourselves, a change for something better, and change we aspire. Asana practice helps us become aware of our short comings, experience the discomfort caused by the short comings, provide us with the ability and motivation to persevere despite the discomfort, and treat our bodies with kindness. Asana practice is the first step of the process towards self realization and awareness. It is much easier to see for ourselves the progress we have made in asana practice than in any other yoga tools for developing self awareness and realization such Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (focus), Dhyana (meditation) , or Samadhi (flow). Progress is the catalyst and motivation that is required to continue down the path of positive change because if you don’t see any progress, then it is easy to give up and “fall of the progress wagon.”
About Kammitment: Led by scientist and life-coach Kamalesh (Kam) Rao, Kammitment helps one realize and make a commitment towards self-actualization, through tailored leadership coaching workshops and programs for students and professionals in all stages of their lives, by drawing upon the time-tested principles of Yoga and Mindfulness. Kam has spent 20 years as a scientist and a manufacturing industry professional in the pharmaceuticals industry, and continues to consult with the industry. In his free time he leads executive coaching programs for Fortune 100 clients. A certified Yoga instructor, Kam lives in Oakland, CA and is an active volunteer in the Bay Area community when he is not perfecting the next Pretzel pose in Yoga and its myriad benefits. For further information, please email [email protected]