The magic and science of Asana practice
An exciting world waiting to be explored
Much has been written, discussed, debated and analyzed about yoga, and more specifically about Asana.
This is not surprising, since yoga has been around for a long time, (it is said, for a few thousand years) and what is more, it has survived, and thrived.
(That is some customer satisfaction and product longevity. But let us keep the story of the continued survival and success of yoga over the ages for another blog, for another day.)
(There is also ample mythology, mystery, magic and mysticism, some rumours, quite a few wild claims, many misunderstandings, and much clear evidence of Asana being the be all and end all of health and well being. And that story, also, for another day!)
Asana practice is the most visible and therefore most photographed practice in yoga. For modern times, it is also one of the most accessible and practical aspects. It makes good replacement for those people who cannot or do not want to get into impact exercise, like weight training and calisthenics, or running or playing sport.
Yoga Asana gives excellent all round exercise, both cardiovascular and aerobic, and provides flexibility, strength, stamina, endurance and most importantly, agility. Asana practice is a way out of aging, and a way back, a return as it were to youth, eternal youth, until we pass on.
“An hour of Asana practice gives me 25 hours in a day”, said one of my students.
The work of the body, aided by gravity’s natural function of pulling you downwards, and that of the breath, which allows energy to pass freely around the body, makes Asana practice rejuvenating, light, and unique. It is a practice in effortlessness, and an act of non-doing, if such opposites can be strung together. Asana practice is a practice of being, not doing.
What is it all about?
Going just a bit deeper into the practice of Asana.
An Asana is a steady posture. Once established, or assumed, there needs to be no further movement. Asana is not a form of exercise or a series of repetitions of body postures or movement of body.
It is therefore important to understand that no special mastery is required to do an Asana, let us say the sitting forward bend (Paschimotthanasana), or the cobra (Bhujangasana). Anyone of even limited ability can hold the body in these postures, and let gravity and breath do their work. The result, with continued practice, for small amounts of time every day, is supreme, and all round fitness. Asana practice infuses you with a special energy that carries you though the day with cheerfulness and optimism.
It is as simple as that.
There are 84 lakhs postures, it has been rumoured. Yes, 84 lakhs! Out of that, the wise sages handpicked 84 important ones, for ordinary folks like you and me, who have other things to do in life, not just yoga practice.
In the Sivananda class as designed by Swami Vishnudevananda, there are 12 basic postures (Asana), in addition to the Surya Namaskar and two breathing practices.
These 12 Asana work on the entire human system – the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies. The spine and the body is moved into its five natural positions – forward bend, backward bend, spinal twist, lateral bend, and inverted positions. Savasana, or the relaxation pose keeps the spine and body in a neutral position.
There are lying down poses (supine and prone – on the back and on the abdomen), sitting poses, and standing poses.
Asana improves blood circulation, optimizes our ability to breathe, increases immunity, strengthens the muscles, especially the heart, synchronizes and harmonizes the endocrine system, makes the lymphatic system efficient, boosts the functioning of the nervous system, creates digestive fire and aids elimination.
Imagine a complete workout like this – all the major and minor systems in the human body are worked upon systematically. The approach is one of non-violent movement and eventual steadiness in a pose. And the results – miraculous.
Let us take an example
In the Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana) for example, the body is upside down (an inverted pose). So are each of the internal organs. Held for three or so minutes at a time (beginners must practice always in the presence of teacher), the benefits of this unusual (peculiar you may say) start to accrue.
Sarvangasana stimulates the functioning of all critical organs and endocrine glands.
It is especially beneficial for the thyroid and parathyroid glands, situated around the throat area. This improves the physical, mental and emotional balance, a benefit, and attribute so welcome to every human being.
The lungs are upside down, and this reverses the breathing pattern, making the intake of oxygen a bit more difficult (strengthening the lungs) and the expulsion of carbon dioxide a bit easier (better detoxification and emptying of the lungs).
The reverse flow of blood from the legs, helps the venous return (the bad blood) to the heart, thereby helping the heart to relax and rest for a while, something so critical to its health and longevity.
The brain, now right at the bottom of the body, gets that extra rush of blood and oxygen, stimulating the master glands, and the nerves and critical areas of grey matter. Not only does this help in better brain function, as a cascading effect, it benefits each and every organ in the body as well.
And for the more psychically and spiritually inclined, the Asana invokes the root lock Moola Bandha, as well as the Jalandhara Bandha, the chin lock naturally. This is the practice of raising of the Kundalini Shakti.
The practice of Sarvangasana helps in giving you better sleep, reduces anxiety, depression and gloominess, promotes deep relaxation, helps in removing varicose veins and provides rest to tired legs. Edema disappears, the face starts to glow, and metabolic disorders start to reverse. The Asana removes tiredness not only from the exteriors, like muscles, but also gives all internal organs rest against the constant pull of gravity, draining, detoxifying and refreshing them for optimal functioning.
Practiced in the morning, Sarvangasana gives you a lighter body and mind to be with through the day, and a sense of balance and harmony with situations and people. Practiced at the end of the day, Sarvangasana removes mental and physical tiredness and empties the daily build-up of unwanted matter, leaving you feeling light and clean, before bed time.
It is not by chance that Sarvangasana has commonly referred to as the queen of the Asana. Swami Sivananda suggests Sarvangasana along with Sirisasana and Paschimotthanasana as the critical three postures that everyone must practice every day.
Yoga Asana reduces anxiety and worry; gives excellent rest and deep sleep; reduces cravings; makes you feel happy, secure and content; makes the body and the mind strong and flexible, youthful and agile; you become confident, light and simple; you reconnect with your own inherent sense of humour and laughter and a habit of being fresh and bright; Asana drives away gloominess, despair and desperation and it generates hope, and wonder, and joy for life.
Asana connects you back to yourself. It is a practice of the rediscovery of the lost kingdom, that infinite realm of peace and happiness.
Come, let us practice a few Asana. Let us fall in love with Asana. Let us blossom!
Endnote - (Not everyone can practice Asana. There are contra-indications – people who are not well, those recovering from surgery, women during menstruation, those with specific medical conditions like neck or lower back pain there are cautions, exemptions, riders. Only a guide or a teacher can provide the right direction. There are also specific approaches – which Asana comes before which one, and which Asana comes after which one, and the role of breathing and relaxation, and a suitable environment. The complex dynamics, threaded together with profound wisdom, personal experience, and the guidance of an able teacher are critical to success in the practice of Asana.)
To be continued.
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