Saturday, 8 April 2017

Introduction to Yogasana - yoga for beginners

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there is a concise definition of
yogasanas: "Sthiramsukhamaasanam", meaning 'that position
which is comfortable and steady'. In this context, asanas are
practised to develop the ability to sit comfortably in one position
for an extended period of time, an ability necessary for
meditation. Raja yoga equates yogasana to the stable sitting
The hatha yogis, however, found that certain specific body

positions, asanas, open the energy channels and psychic

centres. They found that developing control of the body
through these practices, enabled them to control the mind
and energy. Yogasanas became tools to higher awareness,
providing the stable foundation necessary for the exploration
of the body, breath, mind and higher states. For this reason,
asana practice comes first in hatha yoga texts such as Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
In the yogic scriptures it is said that there were originally
8,400,000 asanas, which represent the 8,400,000 incarnations
every individual must pass through before attaining liberation
from the cycle of birth and death. These asanas represented a
progressive evolution from the simplest form of life to the
most complex: that of a fully realised human being. Down
through the ages the great rishis and yogis modified and
reduced the number of asanas to the few hundred known
today. Through their practice, it is possible to side-step the
karmic process and bypass many evolutionary stages in one
lifetime. Of these few hundred, only the eighty-four most
useful are discussed in detail. yoga-ttc-in-rishikesh-india
Animal postures
Many of the yogasanas described in this book are named after
and reflect the movements of animals. Through observation,
the rishis understood how animals live in harmony with their
environment and with their own bodies. They understood,
through experience, the effects of a particular posture and
how the hormonal secretions could be stimulated and control-
led by it. For example, by imitating the rabbit or hare in
shashankasana they could influence the flow of adrenaline
responsible for the 'fight or flight' mechanism. Through imi-
tating animal postures, the rishis found they could maintain
health and meet the challenges of nature for themselves.
Yogasanas and prana yoga-school-in-rishikesh
Prana, vital energy, which corresponds to ki or chi in Chinese
medicine, pervades the whole body, following flow patterns,
called nadis, which are responsible for maintaining all individual
cellular activity. Stiffness of the body is due to blocked prana
and a subsequent accumulation of toxins. When prana begins
to flow, the toxins are removed from the system ensuring the
health of the whole body. As the body becomes supple, postures
which seemed impossible become easy to perform, and
steadiness and grace of movement develop. When the quantum
of prana is increased to a great degree, the body moves into
certain postures by itself and asanas, mudras and pranayamas
occur spontaneously. (For further information on prana, see
the section on pranayama or the Bihar School of Yoga
publication Prana, Pranayama, Prana Vidya).
Yogasanas and kundalini
The ultimate purpose of yoga is the awakening of kundalini
shakti, the evolutionary energy in man. Practising asanas stimu-
lates the chakras, distributing the generated energy of
kundalini all over the body. About thirty-five asanas are spe-
cifically geared to this purpose: bhujangasana for manipura
chakra, sarvangasana for vishuddhi, sirshasana for sahasrara
and so on. The other asanas regulate and purify the nadis
facilitating the conduction of prana throughout the body.
The main object of hatha yoga is to create balance between
the interacting activities and processes of the pranic and
mental forces. Once this has been achieved, the impulses
generated give a call of awakening to sushumna nadi, the
central pathway in the spine, through which the kundalini
shakti rises to sahasrara chakra, thereby illumining the higher
centres of human consciousness.
Hatha yoga, therefore, not only strengthens the body and
improves health but also activates and awakens the higher
centres responsible for the evolution of human consciousness.
(For a fuller discussion of chakras, nadis and kundalini, see
the chapter Psychic Physiology of Yoga.)
Yogasanas and the body-mind connection
The mind and body are not separate entities although there is
a tendency to think and act as though they are. The gross form
of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the
mind. The practice of asana integrates and harmonises the
two. Both the body and the mind harbour tensions or knots.
Every mental knot has a corresponding physical, muscular
knot and vice versa.
The aim of asana is to release these knots. Asanas release
mental tensions by dealing with them on the physical level,
acting somato-psychically, through the body to the mind. For
example, emotional tensions and suppression can tighten up
and block the smooth functioning of the lungs, diaphragm
and breathing process, contributing to a very debilitating
illness in the form of asthma.
Muscular knots can occur anywhere in the body: tightness
of the neck as cervical spondylitis, the face as neuralgia, etc.
A well chosen set of asanas, combined with pranayama,
shatkarmas, meditation and yoga nidra, is most effective in
eliminating these knots, tackling them from both the mental
and physical levels. The result is the release of dormant en-
ergy; the body becomes full of vitality and strength, the mind
becomes light, creative, joyful and balanced.
Regular practice of asana maintains the physical body in an
optimum condition and promotes health even in an unhealthy
body. Through asana practice, the dormant energy potential
is released and experienced as increased confidence in all
areas of life.
Yogasana and exercise
Yogasanas have often been thought of as a form of exercise.
They are not exercises, but techniques which place the physi-
cal body in positions that cultivate awareness, relaxation,
concentration and meditation. Part of this process is the
development of good physical health by stretching, massaging
and stimulating the prank channels and internal organs.
Although asana is not exercise it is complementary to
exercise. Before the difference between the two can be under-
stood, it is necessary to know a little about the latter. Exercise
imposes a beneficial stress on the body. Without it the muscles
waste, the bones become weak, the capacity to absorb oxygen
decreases, insulin insensitivity can occur, and the ability to
meet the physical demands of sudden activity is lost.
There are several differences in the way asana and exercise
affect body mechanisms. When yogasanas are performed,
respiration and metabolic rates slow down, the consumption
of oxygen and the body temperature drop. During exercise,
however, the breath and metabolism speed up, oxygen con-
sumption rises, and the body gets hot. Yoga postures tend to
arrest catabolism whereas exercise promotes it. In addition,
asanas are designed to have specific effects on the glands and
internal organs, and to alter electrochemical activity in the
nervous system.
Yogasanas classified
The asanas are classified into three groups: beginners, inter-
mediate and advanced. It is not necessary to perform all the
asanas in a particular group. Regular practice of a balanced
programme, tailored to individual needs is recommended for
maximum benefit.
The beginners group should be performed by those who
have never practised yogasanas before, who are infirm in any
way, weak or sick and who are therefore unable to perform the
more difficult practices. This group consists of elementary
techniques designed to prepare the body and mind for major
and meditation asanas. These practices are in no way inferior
to the advanced asanas and are very useful in improving
physical health. Included in this group are the pawanmuktasana
series, eye exercises, relaxation, premeditation and meditation
poses, asanas performed from vajrasana, standing asanas, surya
and chandra namaskara.
The intermediate group consists of asanas which are rea-
sonably difficult and are recommended for people who can
perform the beginners group without discomfort or strain.
These asanas require a greater degree of steadiness, concen-
tration and coordination with the breath. Included in this
group are asanas performed from padmasana, backward and
forward bending, spinal twisting, inverted and balancing
The advanced group is intended for people with extensive
control over their muscles and nervous system, who have
already mastered the middle group of asanas. Practitioners
should not be too eager to start these asanas. It is preferable to
practise them under the guidance of an adept.
Dynamic and static yogasanas
Dynamic practices often involve energetic movements of the
body. They are not intended to develop muscles or make the
body fitter but to increase flexibility, speed up circulation,
loosen the muscles and joints, release energy blocks and remove
stagnant blood from different parts of the body. These asanas
tone the skin and muscles, strengthen the lungs, encourage
movement in the digestive and excretory systems. Dynamic
practices are particularly useful for beginners. They include
series and postures such as the pawanmuktasana series, surya
namaskara, chandra namaskara, dynamic paschimottanasana
and dynamic halasana.
Static practices are performed by intermediate and advanced
practitioners. They have a more subtle and powerful effect on
the pranic and mental bodies. They are performed with little
or no movement, the body often remaining in one position for
a few minutes. These asanas are intended to gently massage
the internal organs, glands and muscles as well as to relax the
nerves throughout the body. They are specifically concerned
with bringing tranquillity to the mind and preparing the
practitioner for the higher practices of yoga, such as meditation.
Some of them are particularly useful for inducing the state of
sense withdrawal, pratyahara.
General notes for the practitioner
The following practice notes should be thoroughly under-
stood before going any further. Although anybody can practise
asanas, they become more efficacious and beneficial when
performed in the proper manner after correct preparation.
Breathing: Always breathe through the nose unless specific
instructions are given to the contrary. Try to coordinate the
breath with the asana practice.
Awareness: This is as essential to the practice of asana as it
is to all yoga practices. The purpose of asana practice is to
influence, integrate and harmonise all the levels of being:
physical, prank, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual. At
first it may appear that asanas are merely concerned with the
physical level because they deal with the movement of different
parts of the body. Actually, however, they have profound effects
at every level of being if they are combined with awareness.
Awareness has many connotations, in this context, but it
may be understood as consciously noting the physical move-
ment, the posture itself, breath control and synchronisation,
mental counting, sensations in the body, movement of prana,
concentration on an area of the body or chakra and, most
important, any thoughts or feelings that may arise during the
practice. Implicit in the concept of awareness is the idea of
acceptance of any thought which comes uninvited to the mind;
'good' and 'bad' thoughts should be accepted equally, without
judgement. In the final analysis, thoughts are energy, neither
good nor bad. This awareness is essential in order to receive
optimum benefits from the practices.
Relaxation: Shavasana may be performed at any point
during asana practice, especially when feeling physically or
mentally tired. It should also be practised on completion of
the asana programme.
Sequence: After completing shatkarma, asana should be
done, followed by pranayama, then pratyahara and dharana
which lead to meditation.
Counterpose: When practising the middle and advanced
group of asanas particularly, it is important that the pro-
gramme is structured so that backward bends are followed by
forward bends and vice versa, and that whatever is practised
on one side of the body is repeated on the other side. This
concept of counterpose is necessary to bring the body back to
a balanced state. Specific counterposes are recommended for
certain asanas described in this book. However, in some cases,
when practising a particular asana for therapeutic reasons, a
counterpose may not be needed.
Time of practice: Asana may be practised at any time of
day except after meals. The best time, however, is the two
hours before and including sunrise. This period of the day is
known in Sanskrit as brahmamuhurta and is most conducive to
the higher practices of yoga. At this time, the atmosphere is
pure and quiet, the activities of the stomach and intestines
have stopped, the mind has no deep impressions on the
conscious level and it is empty of thoughts in preparation for
the long day ahead. The practitioner will probably find that
the muscles are stiffest early in the morning compared to the
late afternoon when they become more supple, nevertheless
this time is recommended for practice. In the evening the two
hours around sunset is also a favourable time.
Place of practice: Practise in a well-ventilated room where
it is calm and quiet. Asanas may also be practised outdoors but
the surroundings should be pleasant, a beautiful garden with
trees and flowers, for example. Do not practise in a strong
wind, in the cold, in air that is dirty, smoky or which carries an
unpleasant odour. Do not practise in the vicinity of furniture,
a fire or anything that prevents free fall to the ground, espe-
cially while performing asanas such as sirshasana. Many
accidents occur because people fall against an object. Do not
practise under an electric fan unless it is extremely hot.
Blanket: Use a folded blanket of natural material for the
practices as this will act as an insulator between the body and
the earth. Do not use a mattress which is spongy or filled with
air as this does not give sufficient support to the spine.
Clothes: During practice it is better to wear loose, light and
comfortable clothing. Before commencing, remove spectacles,
wristwatches and any jewellery.
Bathing: Try to take a cold shower before starting. This will
greatly improve the effect of the asanas.
Emptying the bowels: Before commencing the asana
programme, the bladder and intestines should preferably be
empty. If constipated, drink two or three glasses of warm,
slightly salted water and practise the asanas given in the chapter
on shankhaprakshalana, namely tadasana, tiryaka tadasana,
kati chakrasana, tiryaka bhujangasana and udarakarshan
asana. This should relieve the constipation. If not, practising
pawanmuktasana part two should help. Choose one time daily
to go to the toilet before doing asanas. Do not strain; try to
relax the whole body. After some weeks the bowels will
automatically evacuate at the set time every day. Try to avoid
using laxative drugs.
Empty stomach: The stomach should be empty while do-
ing asanas and to ensure this, they should not be practised
until at least three or four hours after food. One reason why
early morning practice is recommended is that the stomach is
sure to be empty.
Diet: There are no special dietary rules for asana practi-
tioners although it is better to eat natural food and in
moderation. Contrary to popular belief, yoga does not say
that a vegetarian diet is essential although in the higher stages
of practice it is recommended. At meal times it is advised to
half fill the stomach with food, one quarter with water and
leave the remaining quarter empty. Eat only to satisfy hunger
and not so much that a feeling of heaviness or laziness occurs.
Eat to live rather than live to eat.
Foods which cause acidity or gas in the digestive system,
which are heavy, oily and spicy, should be avoided, especially
when asanas are practised with a spiritual aim. Specific dietary
restrictions are recommended for certain diseases, (see chapter
Therapeutic Index).
No straining: Never exert undue force while doing asanas.
Beginners may find their muscles stiff at first, but after several
weeks of regular practice they will be surprised to find that
their muscles are more supple.
Age limitations: Asana may be practised by people of all
age groups, male and female.
Contra-indications: People with fractured bones or who
are suffering from chronic ailments and diseases such as stom-
ach ulcer, tuberculosis or hernia, and those recuperating from
operations, should consult a yoga teacher or doctor before
commencing asanas.
Termination of asana: If there is excessive pain in any part
of the body the asana should be terminated immediately and,
if necessary, medical advice sought. Do not stay in an asana if
discomfort is felt.
Inverted asana: Do not practise any inverted asanas if there
is gas or fermentation in the intestines, if the blood is exces-
sively impure, during menstruation or in later stages of
pregnancy. This is important to ensure that toxins do not go
to the brain and cause damage, and, in the case of menstrua-
tion, that blood does not enter the fallopian tubes.
Sunbathing: Never practise asanas after a long period of
sunbathing as the body will be overheated.