Why do we, as yogis, practice physical postures?
Depending on your goals, there may be a handful of answers to this important question. The exercises may increase your flexibility, increasing your ability to move the body without pain or limitation. They may help you relax, spending a little time each day focused only on your breathing and forgetting about your stress. They may help your balance, strength, blood pressure or sleep.
At the center of all these motives is the spine, perhaps the single most important communication pathway of our body and mind. We can live without our arms and legs, but we cannot live without our spine. It provides structure, protection and support for our heart, lungs, organs and head.
Almost every signal sent from around the body, from the fingers to the toes, makes its way to the central nervous system by way of the spinal cord. And almost every command about balance, movement or breath also travels via the spine.
So every exercise, whether of the feet, arms, hips or abs is also an exercise of the spine. Even breathing exercises and meditation require communication through the spinal cord as we control our ribs, abdomen and posture. Paramhansa Yogananda called the spinal cord a "lightning rod for the divine."
Our practices should contain plenty of attention to the health and function of the spinal column (the structural part) and cord (the nervous system part). We should keep the muscles of the spine strong and mobile, as well as doing what we can to protect the bones and discs strong; plenty of forward bending, backward bending and twisting. And we should also keep our awareness on the communicative aspects of the spine: its nerves.
As one of our teachers said: "The arms and legs assist the posture. Every posture is in the spine."
If you are thinking about trying yoga or have just begun, there are a few simple things to keep in mind during your first few classes.
1. KEEP YOUR BREATHING CALM
As you do different exercises, you may notice that you are holding your breath or grunting. This isn't inherently bad or dangerous, but it illuminates tension and weakness in the body. Try to do each exercise and movement with the breath as smooth and calm as possible. Some practices will be easier than others!
2. IT'S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT
It is easy to try to do everything perfectly in the first couple classes. But the practice of yoga unfolds over the course of years. Too often, new students work really hard for one or two weeks before burning out and disappearing, never to return. It is better to be calm and gentle in your practice. Let it develop slowly and you will make far more progress.
3. KEEP AN OPEN MIND
You may be asked to do things that you've never done before: unusual breathing patterns or body positions. (Luckily, as yoga has become popular more and more people are familiar with the basic practices.) Trying something new always feels awkward, but give it a chance.
4. DON'T DO ANYTHING THAT HURTS
At the beginning your body will be stiff, and some of the exercises may be painful. Err on the side of gentleness, especially if you're unsure. The teacher may instruct that the exercise is uncomfortable and that may help you relax. But if you have pain it is best to back off. You will make more progress if you can keep your body and mind relaxed. Over time your strength and flexibility will improve along with your understanding. There is no need to force it at the beginning.
5. ASK THE TEACHER
As you go through the class and the teacher asks you to do things you've never done before, there will probably be a lot of questions that pop into your mind. Am I doing this right? My such-and-such hurts, should that be happening? I don't feel anything...? When you are unsure of what you're doing or why, don't be afraid to ask the teacher after class. The teacher is there to help you learn and progress, so they will be happy to help.
There is a common belief in modern yoga that we are all one on the deepest level. It has the impact of making us feel more connected to each other while also empowering us. It comes from a tradition of belief in which the highest element, called Brahman, permeates all forms of existence including ourselves.
But there is a problem when we---ordinary people going about our lives of work and family---take this belief literally and apply it to ourselves. We live in a world ruled by our body and senses: we get hungry, we respond to emails, we watch movies and cute cat videos, we take vacations to warm beaches, we drink alcohol, etc.
While the belief that we are all one or I am divine may be true on the essential level of existence, it does not apply to the gross body or the minds (like ours) that are attached to it. It only applies to those beings who, as Ramakrishna said, have "overcome the consciousness of the physical self." Otherwise, "'I am [divine]'---this is not a wholesome attitude...He deceives others and deceives himself as well."
The problem is that we associate our self with our body and mind. This association is in our mind, where we imagine our identity and closely relate it to our physical existence. If we then add on the belief that I am divine, the complete meaning is actually My physical existence is divine.
The difficult distinction that we must make is recognizing that our true self does not lie in the body or mind. It is this self beyond the physical realm that is referred to in the phrases we are all one and I am divine.
Put your forehead on your knee!
We've all heard this instruction thousands of times. The phrase and its variations have become synonymous with correct practice of "head to knee" postures. The problem is this: the forehead touching the knee should be a result of the correct muscular usage, not the end goal.
This may be a surprise, but there is little to no benefit in touching your head to your knee. Unless you are making the argument that the head benefits from its contact with the knee (which it might, due to a nerve plexus or gland), or the knee benefits from its contact with the head, it becomes obvious that the value of the position lies somewhere else, even if the well-known signifier of the posture is the famous "head on the knee."
The distinct benefit comes from using the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominis) to bend the spine forward, compressing the organs, glands and intestines; and from forward- bending the neck, compressing the throat. These two foundational elements are then accentuated by what the rest of the body is doing, whether balancing on one leg as in Standing Head to Knee, maintaining external rotation of the opposite hip as in Seated Forehead to Knee, or kneeling as in Rabbit.
Sometimes the cue---to put the head on the knee---and the posture work together. Great! The muscles in the neck and abdomen engage, the spine bends forward, the throat and abdominal contents get compressed, and the head touches the knee.
But often the instruction and the posture don't work together. Our head may be able to touch the knee without the valuable engagement, bending and compression. We get the end result of the cue, so we think we are benefitting from the posture. But the important parts of the posture are left undone.
Those that struggle with "head to knee" poses will get great benefit in finding their abs and contracting them as best they can. Will their head get close enough to touch their knee? Maybe, but maybe not.
Those that are stronger should try to get their head closer to their hip than their knee. This will continue to develop their abdominal strength and compression past the point of their head on their knee.
"Touch your forehead on your knee" can be a great visual cue. However, as practitioners and teachers, we need to remember cues are attempting to make an action happen in the body. They are not the goal in and of themselves.
Sometimes yogis talk about "stuck energy" or "moving the energy" of the body. According to some yogic texts, especially in hathayoga, there are subtle channels in the body along which energy moves. It is difficult to determine whether these channels are intended to be purely mental visualizations, descriptions of what we call the nervous system today, or a separate entity altogether. The details of this vast topic are best saved for another time, but here are 5 postures and exercises that are great and moving and affecting the energy:
1. TWISTING TRIANGLE
Pictured above, this posture goes right to the areas where most of us feel "stuck," the chest, the hips and the breath. By bending forward and then twisting the body, the posture feels like it makes everything tight. The trick is to release tension with short, calm breaths and a relaxed face. This posture also challenges the balance, which focuses the mind and enables a deeper experience.
A huge amount of the sensory and motor processing power of our brain is dedicated to the hands. It is necessary for us to function as we do in the world, picking up objects of various shapes and sizes, carrying things, judging their texture and temperature. But it means that at any given time, the brain has more of its attention focused on our hands than it does on, say, our back.
This function of your brain is represented by the picture above, called the Homunculus. It represents the amount of the brain's sensory power that is dedicated to each part of the body, with greater attention displayed by larger features. The results end up being almost obvious, with a lot of the brain's sensory attention focused on the lips and tongue, eyes and ears, genitals, hands and feet. These are the most sensitive parts of the body.
What does this mean for us as yogis?
In general, it means that it's easy for us to think about our hands. We may be doing an exercise that is focused on the spine, but we will wonder, "What do I do with my hands?" Or while we are balancing or breathing, "How should I hold my hands?" It is easy for our brains to answer this call, since it likes to put its attention on the hands.
But this makes it harder to focus on things---parts of the body or mind---that are not the hands. It is difficult to take the attention away from the hands and put it on the spine or abdomen, or knees.
Next time you do (or teach) a posture, check how much of your focus you put on the hands, their grip and their position. Then ask yourself if they are the central focus of the exercise. See if you can move your attention and effort away from the hands to the part that is most important for each practice. It can be challenging at first, but tremendously beneficial.
As the year turns over, we quickly shift from looking backward---"what happened this year?"---to looking forward. I have mixed feelings about New Year's resolutions because they encourage us to be dissatisfied. It would be better to focus on contentment, as Ida writes in a new blog.
The more I practice, teach and study I am shocked by the way my mind changes. I see things so differently now than I did when I started learning about yoga years ago. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. How could we possibly have clear vision or intention when we are beginning on a new path? Each bit of practical experience and insight necessarily changes our perspective.
Lately, I have been studying the Bhagavad-gita, and it is so clear which passages are speaking to my present situation: Actions should not be undertaken for the benefit of myself or my ego. When I say this out loud, it seems obvious and silly. But which of our actions are not designed to benefit ourselves?
When I say things so people understand my intelligence, I am serving my ego. When I eat the food I "like," I am serving my sensory desire. Even when I study and learn, am I doing it just to develop my sense of accomplishment and my ability to excel in the world?
It is increasingly important to me to recognize and subvert these thoughts and actions. Instead, my actions should be directed toward the service of others. The difficult part for me to understand is do I do this for the benefit of myself or other people? Even that dilemma is addressed in the Gita. One who performs apparently selfless actions for his own benefit is ignorant, while one who takes no credit and accepts no personal benefit is wise.
This is my goal: to serve with no agenda. To recognize the emergence of my ego and discard it, so my actions build the good of the world at large instead of just myself.
Most of us don't know where our psoas (pronounced so-az) muscle is. It is deep in the body, underneath our abs and guts, but it has a huge effect on the spine and hips. The psoas hugs the lower spine, the inside of the pelvis and crosses the hip. Its main function is to move the leg by flexing the hip, but the fact that it connects to the spine makes things a little more complicated. It is commonly ignored or misunderstood since it is not readily visible or easy to feel, but it is a vital muscle for our posture, our spinal and abdominal function, and our hip function.
In the picture above, the psoas and the rectus abdominis (6-pack) muscles are shown. The psoas is deep and close to the spine; and the rectus is on the surface of the abdomen. Ideally the psoas has enough length to allow the pelvis a neutral tilt (as pictured on the left). When the psoas gets overly tight or tense, as it often does when we sit for many hours a day, it pulls the pelvis into a forward tilt (as pictured on the right).
OTHER ISSUES ARISE
When the psoas is short, a handful of other problems arise. The first two problems come from the forward-tilted pelvis. These are 1) weak and long abdominal muscles (as seen in the picture), and 2) weak and long glutes and hamstrings on the back of the hips. These lead to poor posture and poor digestion, which in turn exacerbate the muscular issues of the abdomen and hips.
The other problem that arises with a tight psoas, as you can see in the picture above on the right, is that the low spine gets pulled down and forward toward the pelvis. This creates compression, tenderness and pain in the low back. It also cascades up the spine, creating poor posture in the mid and upper spine, which leads to upper back pain, neck pain and chest pain.
WHAT TO DO
It is worth saying that sitting less will help the psoas stay long. Things like standing desks are useful to this end. Every hour that we spend sitting encourages the psoas to shorten.
It helps to strengthen the abdominal muscles, especially the rectus abdominis. Then the pelvis will have an easier time staying neutral and upright, encouraging a relaxed psoas. Abdominal strengthening, like situps, is invaluable to this end.
It also helps to strengthen the glutes and hamstrings with squatting motions. These muscles of the hip will keep the pelvis neutral and encourage the psoas to be long and relaxed. Even if you can't do something like squats or lunges, it helps to do what is called the "Glute Drill", which basically involves squeezing your butt muscles for a few seconds. Do ten squeezes a few times a day and that will go a long way to balancing the psoas.
One of the simplest movements in the body is bending forward to touch the toes (not that it is necessarily easy!). This position is often called Padahastasana, which means "Foot Hand Posture", basically putting the hands by the feet. It has been around for nearly as long as any standing, athletic yoga posture, which is to say about 100 years. Its instruction, even within this lineage, has varied slightly. This is an exploration of the evolution of the posture from its earliest known iteration in 1938 to the present day.
BIKRAM CHOUDHURY, 2000
In 2000, Choudhury published a second edition of his 26-posture sequence. The written instructions are the same, but the position in the accompanying photograph is slightly different, especially the position of the fingers, which are now underneath the heels.
THINGS WORTH NOTING
Buddha Bose and Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji instruct the posture almost identically, with the palms on the floor in front of the feet and the forehead or nose against the knees. Interestingly, they suggest two different methods for anyone with difficulty. Bose suggest slightly bending the legs while Mukerji recommends grasping the ankles with the hands to pull the head toward the legs.
Ghosh's 1961 instruction to hold the heels and "pull your body" is almost identical to Choudhury's method. These match Mukerji's instruction when there is difficulty putting the palms on the floor, to "grasp both ankles with the hands" and pull the body down more.
The photograph in Choudhury 2000, with the fingers underneath the heels, seems to be an innovation designed to gain more leverage to pull the body down. Interestingly, his written instructions did not change at all from the 1978 version.
It is as if there are two different postures being instructed here, clearly distinguished by the distance of the upper body from the legs. Bose and Mukerji emphasize placing the head close to the legs, but their bodies have visible distance from the thighs. Ghosh and Choudhury have instructed postures with the torso touching the legs and using the arms to pull the body into the position.
The Dattatreyayogashastra, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, is the first known text to explain a system of hathayoga. There are other descriptions of many of its practices in previous texts, but this is the first time when they are given the title hathayoga. Hathayoga is described alongside three other forms of yoga: mantrayoga, layayoga and rajayoga.
Dattātreya said: “Yoga has many forms, o brahmin. I shall explain all that to you: the Yoga of Mantras (mantrayoga), the Yoga of Dissolution (layayoga) and the Yoga of Force (hathayoga). The fourth is the Royal Yoga (rājayoga); it is the best of yogas." - verses 8-11
The sections on the other three forms are brief, but Dattatreya writes in depth about the practices of hathayoga, the yoga of force. Not only that, but the text describes two separate forms of hathayoga: "the yoga of eight auxiliaries known by Yājñavalkya and others" (29), and "the doctrine of adepts such as Kapila" (131).
THE YOGA OF EIGHT AUXILIARIES
Yajnavalkya's yoga of eight auxiliaries is closely related to the well-known eight part system of Patanjali. It begins with Rules (yama) and Restraints (niyama) and proceeds to Posture (asana), Breath-control (pranayama), Fixation (dharana), Meditation (dhyana) and Absorption (samadhi). It is interesting the Dattatreya references Yajnavalkya but not Patanjali.
Of the rules (yamas), "a moderate diet is the single most important, not any of the others. Of the restraints, non-violence is the single most important, not any of the others" (33). Posture (asana) is afforded a healthy couple of paragraphs, mentioning the sacred "84 lakh postures" (34) but describing only one: the Lotus Posture.
Breath-control gets the most attention with more than 30 verses. The section describes alternate nostril breathing, advising 20 breath retentions in the morning, 20 at midday, 20 in the evening and 20 at midnight. The final three auxiliaries get relatively brief treatment before the text moves on to the second form of hathayoga.
THE WAY OF KAPILA
Separate from the above methods are the methods of Kapila, also called hathayoga. "Adepts such as Kapila, on the other hand, practised Force [hatha] in a different manner" (29). "The difference is a difference in practice, but the reward is one and the same" (131).
Kapila's methods entail several mudras and bandhas, which involve the combination of physical position---"He should stretch out his right foot and hold it firmly with both hands" (133)---with breath-control---"he should hold [his breath] for as long as he can before exhaling" (134). The purpose of these practices is to move the winds and sacred fluids around the body.
It is not stated explicitly if the two forms of hathayoga can be practiced together or whether they should be kept separate. Over the ensuing centuries hathayoga became consolidated, combining the practices of the eight auxiliaries with the mudra practices of Kapila. In modern decades, hathayoga has evolved into a non-specific term meaning "the physical practices of yoga".
We will leave you with a final thought from Dattatreya:
"[If] diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice...the wise man endowed with faith who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success. Success happens for he who performs the practices - how could it happen for one who does not?" (40-42).
- All quotations are from: James Mallinson, Dattatreya's Discourse on Yoga, 2013.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- Lock the Knee History
- It Doesn't Matter If Your Head Is On Your Knee
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- The Traditional Yoga In Bikram's Class
- What About the Women?!
- What About the Hips?
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The Central Psoas
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga