Many websites and books provide detailed instructions on how each pose is done; how to begin, where to place the foot and the hands, which muscles to contract or stretch, when to rotate the hip, how long should you hold a pose, what should be the breathing pattern, and so on.
For a beginner clear instructions are imperative. Some teachers give minimal instructions leaving you wondering if alignment was appropriate. Others may talk more, confusing at times, shortening the space to experience a pose to its fullest. It also depends on how the class is listed: in a beginners class you should hear more instruction; an intermediate class where you have been a regular, you may notice fewer instructions spaced with longer silences, allowing you to go deeper into the pose. Bottomline, teachers have different styles of teaching; it doesn’t hurt to try out classes with different instructors to find one that works for you.
If you are just starting to develop your practice and wondering where to begin, you are not alone. The basic components of āsana practice are:
Each component is briefly discussed below. Pick one component to experiment in your personal practice and notice how your practice unfolds.
- organs of action – arms and legs, head and neck, back, torso
- skeletal system – muscles, ligaments, bones and joints
Here, alignment plays a big part. Following step by step instructions when learning new poses is important. According to Patanjali, the word āsana, seat has to be steady and comfortable. However, āsana as poses, that open tight hips as in Kapotāsana, pigeon pose, or release tense neck muscles as in Greeva Sanchalan, neck rotations or strengthen biceps as in Santolāsana, Plank pose, are only to prepare for this steadiness and comfort to be able to sit in meditation for long periods of time.
For example, in Warrior 1, Virabhadrāsana Ékam, take the right leg back and place it a little wider than the distance of your hips. The taller you are greater the distance. But if you are nursing knee pain or injuries, the stance will be closer with lesser knee bend. Be mindful the knee is at a 90 degree angle-meaning the knee should not go over your toes.
Remember to steady the back foot with the outside of your foot firmly anchored to the mat activating the muscles in your feet, ankles, calves, and hamstrings. The angle of the foot inward or forward, is based on your flexibility and comfort.
Then, with your hands on your hips, rotate them to face forward. Engage your core and gluteal muscles to hold your hips in place. Raise your arms by rotating shoulders out, opening the chest and heart. Don’t push your stomach forward – this creates and arch in your back.
If you have back issues, this arch will aggravate the discomfort. You may notice a dull ache later in the day. Keep your spine elongated. This strengthens the muscles alongside the spine. It’s crucial to engage the abdominal muscles to support your lower back and then arch backwards.
Inhale allowing your spine to lengthen, exhale allow your shoulders to relax. Settle into the rhythm of your breath. Type of breath may be dirgha, deep or Ujjayi, victory or ocean breath. Rest your mind on your intention.
- organ systems of digestion, respiratory, circulation, central nervous system
It helps to remember that each āsana has multiple benefits.
For example āsanas categorized as forward bends while providing the physical benefits of stretching the hamstrings and calves, improving circulation, lengthen the spine, etc., also improves digestion and eases symptoms of menopause, reduces fatigue, and relieves stress. Forward bends are considered cooling poses. Try a forward bend after an energizing practice and notice it’s cooling effects.
Backward bends are heating poses and being opposite of forward bends stretch the abdominal muscles. They strengthen the muscles that support the back and bring the spine back to its natural flexion improving one’s posture.
For example, Warrior 1, Virabhadrāsana Ékam, is a standing backbend where you need to have a steady base to assist in supporting the arch in the back. This promotes better breathing and refines the quality and capacity of your breath. Try a simple, supported backbend and notice how it gives your energy a boost.
Similarly, when you study other groups of āsana such as side bends, twists or inversions, you will find the benefits listed. However, don’t just read the list; practice the poses and discover first hand ‘how’ they promote healing in all organ systems so you can radiate health and well being.
- emotional and mental (nervous system)
There are times we all walk into class feeling stressed looking for a way to return to a calm state of being. Your mind may be restless with your habitual family or work-related thoughts creating agitation and anger or sadness and depression.
One by-product of stress is physical tension. You hear people complain about neck and shoulder pain or back tension, because of stress. While these seem the common areas, yoga places stress in the hips and hamstrings, calf muscles and quadriceps, as these are bigger spaces in the body to store stress.
Let’s quickly look at what really happens during stress.
During stress, sympathetic nervous system is activated to set off the fight-or-flight responses preparing the body for intense physical activity. Stretching through yoga triggers the parasympathetic nervous system creating an opposite effect, i.e., relaxation response in the body. If tension is explained as a constriction of tissue, decreasing range of motion and creating soreness and discomfort, then, stretching is the lengthening and releasing of tissue, reducing and eliminating the tension. Hence, yoga poses to relieve stress target the areas that are holding the most tension.
Most people store tension in more than one place, which is why a well-rounded yoga routine targets major parts of the body. A class starting with effective warm ups, followed by an energizing Surya Namaskar, Sun salutations, a few invigorating standing and balance poses for strengthening is a great practice. This can be followed by seated forward bends, lying down twists, and finishing with inversions and relaxation in Śvāsana.
Attention to the breath can bring you to enjoy the āsana experience by allowing you to become aware of each movement and moment. In being present you have discovered unexplainable satisfaction of being on the mat that you will want that same feeling again and again. The relaxation response kicks in, calmness unfolds and emotional balance is somewhat restored.
- Yama, restraints, Niyama, observances
- mudras – hand seals
- driśti – eye gaze
- japa – remembrance of Holy Name
Yet all this practice is superficial without addressing the actual mind-state. Most of this tension is coming from our minds; how our mind responds to the environment as well as to the types of thoughts we have. This is where relaxation in Śvāsana, corpse pose followed by breathing practices and meditation become vital. We must begin to bring the qualities of meditation into the yoga poses, so the poses become meditation in action.
Training the mind to become more aware in poses by noticing our thoughts and responses, gives us a choice as to whether we want to continue to enable the habituated types of thoughts and responses. Here, embarking on study of the five Yamas, restraints and five Niyamas, observances and applying them to āsana practice is the foundation of a successful Raja Yoga practice.
For example, in Warrior 1, Virabhadrāsana Ékam, applying the restraint, ahimsa, non-harming or observance, tapas, right effort, allows us to steer ourselves into being less competitive and more compassionate during pose practice. In another words, by fighting through the urge of how great we look in Warrior 1, we notice how much our bodies support us throughout the day and evoke a sense of gratitude. And having won the battle of will we transform into heroes – just in that moment.
Another practice is that of driśti which provides physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits.
For example, in Warrior 1, Virabhadrāsana Ékam, allow your eyes to rest on your fingertips and soften your gaze. Driśti enhances Pratyāhāra, sense withdrawal and redirects the senses and the mind inward. Then, begin the practice of Ujjayi breath, noticing the ocean-wave like sound lapping across the shore of your mind. Adding mental repetition of OM, can spiritualize āsana practice. Here, the yogis advice the practice of gratitude and surrender are gateways to pure joy, ānanda.
more practice tips
The instructors’ purpose is teach the student, you, correct and safe ways to do a pose and encourage experiencing it with ease. For this to happen, you must be present.
For example, in Warrior 1, Virabhadrāsana Ékam, instead of following your teachers instructions on autopilot, watch how your breath powers your movements. Next, observe how your body moves with the flow of breath making your āsana practice like a dance that even the greatest showman will dare to take a second look.
You can also notice the beginning, middle and end of your movement in one āsana with your intention leading the way. Watch how you initiate this āsana. Do you come into alignment the same way each time? Do you always start with the left and finish on the right in Surya Namaskāra? Do you inhale when your arms go upward and exhale as you bend forward?
As you settle in an āsana, are you aware that you are holding your breath? Are you restless to come out of the pose or too comfortable that you can stay there for 10 breaths? Maybe you are wondering how long you should be in a pose. It’s not the time in seconds or minutes that matters. The smoothness of your breath and ease in an āsana will determine the length of ‘time’ you can stay in it without crossing the edge into territory of pain.
Or do you catch yourself drifting off to the last vacation or to next week’s submission, completely bypassing the present moment. If this is the case, gently anchor the mind back to the breath as many times as it takes to experience the present.
Over the years, I set a daily intention based on the health of the body and mind at that given moment. There are days when I need to foster extra care to protect my knee or my tight lower back; or use an energizing breath like Ujjaiyi to combat lethargy, restlessness or perform more side bends and twists to regulate digestive issues. Remember each day the practice varies. Your body may be tired, mind stressed – which affects the day’s performance.
Be aware that coming out of an āsana is as important as going into it. Ease out of it with conscious awareness, taking your time. Do not to let the senses whisk you away into the external world too quickly. Instead, notice what has changed in your body. Observe if you are energized and if your breath is free flowing. Watch if your thoughts are moving in slow motion. If they are, do not fast forward them to your to-do list. And just maybe, without your knowledge your lips may have begun to carve out a smile lifting your mood and sending up a surge of comfort and joy. If you pay close attention, there are so many lessons to learn through āsana practice.
If you noticed, the above discussion briefly targets how āsana components can be used in Warrior 1, Virabhadrāsana Ékam, only. If you have to remember these components – in all the poses – every time you step on the mat, imagine how many times you have to practice them so that the habit of observation and transformation can happen in an instant. This is perhaps the most important reason to cultivate a strong, disciplined Abhyāsa, practice.
If you are using āsana components to hone your practice each time you step on the mat, then, no peer throwing a judging glance can distract, no brand of tights can fit the stance of poise you have found at that moment and no teacher need to step up to entertain. Moreover, it will be impossible for the word boredom to arise from the depth of your yoga practice.