It has been a beautiful weekend so far, and there is still another whole day to dive into. I am hoping to have a short yoga sequence ready to post up next week, with the help of my wonderful videographer/husband/tech guru. If you are interested in dabbling in some yoga (or if you already have an established practice, and want a review), here are some basics tips and tools for starting a physical asana practice.
- Roots and extension: Try to approach any posture in a yoga sequence from the ground up, no matter the difficulty. Creating stability in the base of a pose will keep you safe and strong through the rest of the body. In a standing pose, root firmly and evenly through the corners of the feet. I typically teach the foot as having three corners: the center of the heel, behind the ball of the big toe, and behind the ball of the pinky toe. By pressing down through these three points evenly, you can learn to activate the three arches on the bottom of the foot. This will help to create a stable dome architecture at the bottom of the foot, and will start to activate the muscles of the lower legs. At the same time you are rooting down through the lower body, extend up through the upper body. This may mean extending the crown of the head or the hands towards the ceiling, depending on the pose. The opposition of rooting and extending will help to create more space in the body, including the spine, helping to reverse some of the compressive effects of sitting or standing unevenly during the day. The same idea can be applied to arm balances and seated postures. An added benefit of rooting and reaching is it will decrease the weight being poured into the wrists in poses like arm balances or planks, Rooting evenly through the three corners of the feet in standing poses will help you find proper alignment, avoiding pain in the knee and ankles.
- Sthira/Sukha: In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (an important text on the practice of yoga originating about 2000 years ago), the practice of asana is only mentioned directly once, in line 46 of the second book. The sutra says “sthira, sukham, asanam”. Translated from sanskrit, this sutra speaks of finding both steadiness (sthira) and ease (sukha) in one’s posture. Patanjali is mostly speaking of finding this balance between relaxation and strength in a seated posture for meditation, but yoga has evolved to include many more postures, as we all know! T.K.V. Desikachar, author of The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, explains this sutra by saying, “It is attention without tension, loosening up without slackness.” Finding a balance between these two opposing characteristics in an asana will keep the pose strong without creating needless stress.
Check in next week for some introductory videos! I hope you are having a fantastic Memorial Day weekend.
I first started practicing yoga with my mom in 2007. We would pop in a Wai Lana DVD and move through the class together. It has turned into a wonderful source of bonding now that we live 1,600 miles apart. We discuss classes we have taken recently and attend yoga festivals together every year. Yoga has become a huge part of my life since I first started practicing. It helps to reduce my anxiety and helps me find peace in an often stressful world. I think a great way to get introduced to all that yoga encompasses is to take a look at the Eight Limbs of Yoga mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. This text is considered to be one of the earliest cornerstones discussing the practice of Yoga, and was first put down in writing almost 2000 years ago. The path lists eight steps to personal improvement along the way towards ultimate union of the Self with the Universe.
- Yamas: Ethical restraints, or actions to limit in your life.
- Ahimsa: Non-violence. This can also be translated as compassion for all things, including yourself. This means working to eliminate the detrimental thoughts, judgements, and actions we make against ourselves and others. Ahimsa is considered to be the most important goal to strive for.
- Satya: Truthfulness. Yogis are encouraged to be honest and truthful in all things. If being totally honest will end up causing deep suffering, sometimes ahimsa will trump the importance of satya.
- Asteya: Non-stealing. This includes the stealing of material items from another, but more importantly encompasses the stealing of nonmaterial things. If someone does something impressive, we should not try to steal their joy or feel jealous of their success.
- Brahmacharya: Virtue. Find moderation in all parts of your life, trying not to over-indulge in any arena.
- Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness. Embrace simplicity in life and do not grasp for physical possessions. Notice what is driving you to possess more and more.
- Niyamas: Qualities to encourage and nurture in life.
- Saucha: Cleanliness or purity. Keep both body and mind clean. This includes personal hygiene, eating foods that keep the body clean, and practicing mindfulness to keep the mind clean. Asana and pranayama (discussed below) can help to cleanse the body internally as well.
- Santosha: Contentment. Accept life as it comes and try to find happiness within yourself.
- Tapas: Heat or discipline. It is important to have goals and to work hard to achieve them (without grasping or becoming attached to exact outcomes). Tapas means to have the self-discipline or internal fire to keep striving for the bettering of one’s own life and that of others.
- Svadhyaya: Self Study. Study to learn more about yourself and the world around you.
- Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to God. Yoga does not tell you what religion to follow, or even that you need to follow any religion at all. It encourages developing a form of spirituality in order to find a sense of purpose, serenity, and understanding of your role in the world. By appreciating something outside of yourself, you can avoid the pitfalls of excessive pride and find compassion for others.
- Asana: This is the physical practice of yoga, the postures we think of when we hear someone say they do yoga. The main goal of an asana practice is to encourage flexibility and strength in the body, in order to create flexibility and strength in the mind. By moving the body through various positions, muscles, bones, connective tissues, internal organs, and lymph tissues will be massaged and invigorated. Developing stronger body-awareness over time can be a powerful method of increasing mind-awareness as well.
- Pranayama: Breath Control. Prana is defined as breath, energy or life. The breath is the only vital function of the body that we can consciously control. Controlling the breath can lead to the slowing down of the thoughts and the release of tension in the body. There are countless different methods of pranayama, designed to bring about different results in the body and mind.
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses. This can be as simple as closing the eyes or wearing earplugs. By eliminating one of the senses, the others can become enhanced. The body can more deeply feel sensations, the mind can more fully focus.
- Dharana: Concentration. Once the body is calmed with asana, the breath deepened with pranayama, and the senses withdrawn via pratyahara, the mind can come to a focus on a single point, thought, or idea.
- Dhyana: Meditation. Dhyana goes a step deeper than simple concentration. It arises when one concentrates fully and “body, breath, senses, mind, reason, and ego are all integrated in the object of [one’s] contemplation”1.
- Samadhi: Ecstasy. This is the ultimate goal, the holy grail, of a yoga practice. It is a state beyond consciousness, where body and senses are at rest while the mind remains awake. This results in a deep connection with the universe and an awareness of one’s role within it. This leads to a liberation from fear and eliminates the duality of self and non-self.
If we can even embrace the very first aspect of the eight-fold path – nonviolence – imagine how much improvement could come to our world! If you first come to yoga simply as a form of exercise, you might be surprised by changes you see in other parts of your life.
1. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (New York, Schocken Books, 1979). pp. 51.