Practicing More Than Asana

Today there are many teachers who excel at teaching wonderful asana classes.

There is more to Yoga than asana. If one explores the Ashtanga Path as defined by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras or the Hatha Yoga path as outlined by Svatmarama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, asana is only one aspect of Yoga. The classical texts include even more techniques.

A basic listing of techniques includes: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi, shat karma, mudra, bandha, drsti, mantra, multiple forms of meditation and ayurvedic attunement to practice.

You may be familiar with many of the practices. How many techniques do you practice? Practice is the door to real understanding.

How many techniques do you integrate into your classes? Granted, it is difficult to “lead” dharana, dhyana and samadhi in a yoga class, as these are the inner experience of Yoga. Class does create the safety and the space for students to experience these levels of union. The other methodologies listed facilitate the opportunity for students to find and explore the meditative practices fully.

It is important to start with an understanding of yoga and need for practices. Yoga is union. It is the quieting the mind. It is action in inaction. To do this effectively, we must maintain our prana instead of continually allowing ojas (a particular yogic form of reserves) to escape by releasing energy through the nine gates (eyes, ears, mouth, nose, anus and uretha) or by spreading ourselves so thin in a multitude of activities we have no way to sustain inner stamina or ojas.

Many of the techniques are about containing and channeling prana and sustaining ojas. The practices are about opening the channels in our body so the prana can flow in our body fluidly. As you practice your own sadhana, notice if you are doing practices to contain and sustain prana or if your practices allow prana to escape.

In this months’ YTOC newsletter, I will define the practices. If there is interest, I will be glad to continue to contribute articles exploring the techniques in an experiential format. The methods are listed the following in alphabetical order as I feel each is equally important.

Asana practices can be done as a stretch or with an internal awareness. Asana can be done with gross muscles or an inner attention to the intrinsic muscles. Asana can be done with containing energy or throwing energy away. Which factors do you consider when practicing asana?

Ayurveda is not really a practice. It is the sister science of Yoga which addresses our health, balance of life and lifestyle. We can do asana, pranayama and other techniques, which do not support our inner balance. For example, too many fire breaths or warming asanas are not good if you are already a fiery person. Understanding and integrating ayurveda knowledge will allow you to develop a balanced flow to enhance your life.

Bandha means “lock”. The major purpose of bandha is to lock energy into a specific region of the body, stimulating the vayu or prana. There are three major locks that are emphasized in the Hatha Yoga writings. They are the mula bandha ” root lock”, jalandhara bandha “throat lock”, and uddiyana bandha “stomach lock”. The locks are used to contain the prana in the subtle bodies. They can be used in pranayama practice or in asana to hold in or lock energy into a specific area for focus, for healing, creating agni and channeling kundalini to the sushumna if the vayus are balanced and the nadis are open.

Drsti is gazing at various points of the body, which changes the energy flow. The most common gazing areas are the chakras or the lingham. Lower gazes root into the earth. Mid body drsti is normally on the heart and creates a calming cooling effect. Third eye gazes can be warming and invigorating as well as deep penetrating energy. Explore a pose such as Paschimottanasana with your gaze at the root chakra and then the ajna chakra. How does it feel?

Mantra is the use of vibrational sound. In the context of the Vedic tradition, essence comes first and sound represents an essence. We therefore, chant sounds that stimulate or awaken aspects of physical, emotional or spiritual body when we use mantra. Mantras are energy based and often have no “translation.” Mantras are chakra based, representing the petals of the chakras. Mantra energizes prana and can be likened to purifying fire. Mantras quiet the mind Mantra can be chanted externally or internally. Do you do dhun, bhajan or vedic chanting with you practice?

Meditation is more than setting and stopping the mind. It is an unfolding process to quiet the mind, a practice that for some is simple, others very difficult. Therefore, in the yoga world there are many styles of meditation to accommodate different types of persons, whether you are more audio, visual or kinesthetic. (These parallel vata, pitta and kapha.) Examples of meditation include: chanting, mantra, japa, nada, ratak, Sambhavi, jyotir, pranayama, inner visualization, subtle body focus, Vipassana, metta. Are you doing a meditative practice, which supports your dosha and feels effortless?

Mudra have two forms both which are used to channel energy in the body. The classical mudras are asana practice with the energy contained by bandhas and channeled with drsti. In more recent years we have developed hand mudras. Each finger has a different energy, planet, organ, part of the body etc. which it effects when touched. Various angles of the hand impact a nadi. By aligning the hands in different positions with the fingers touching, energy is channeled. For example, we can change the breath from the right lung to the left lung, upper lobe to lower lobe just be the position of the hands and fingers!

Pranayama practices can heat the body, cool the body, stimulate or balance different doshas, calm us down or excite the body. We can do breathing practices or pranayama. Breathing practices allow us to strengthen our breath. Pranayama increases life force and sustains prana in the body. Pranayama should not deplete our energy. Do you use pranayama in a way to augment your practice and lifestyle?

Pratyahara is commonly defined as the withdrawal of senses. Have you ever been so engrossed in a book you became oblivious to movement around you — pratyahara. As a yogic technique, we do it as an inward focus rather than through external concentration. Bringing our senses inward, or pratyahara, is the first step of meditation; we can practice pratyahara doing asana by attending to the inner sensations rather then the external alignment and detail.

Shat Karmas or Kriyas are the practices of cleansing the body. Energy cannot flow through the body channels if they are clogged physically. The basic shat karma practices are an internal cleansing of the dhatu’s (tissues) and srotas (body channels). The practices include: neti (nasal cleansing), dhauti (cleansing of the body through washing and vomiting), vasti (enema), trataka (candle gazing), nauli (intestinal wash) and kapalabhati (a breath for “skull shining”).

Yama and niyama are, in my humble opinion, the two most important steps in a yoga practice, and the ones most often forgotten. If we are not living right livelihood, containing our energy appropriately, being distracted by our actions in the world, etc., we will be restless. Our mental time will be spent evaluating and examining ours and others actions. Yoga practice really begins with conscious thought to Yama and Niyama. (Note: there was an article on the Yama and Niyama two issues past.) I find students enjoy the inclusion of different aspects and techniques of yoga. More important is for me to enjoy, benefit and understand the practice. Once I “get” the practice, the inclusion in class comes from my personal experience, not a surface or book knowledge of the technique. Try them . . . you may enjoy the results.

This article was first published in 2010 by Hansa Knox and is still relevant today.

The Beauty of Breath by Roseanna Frechette

Within our breath lies the fundamental essence of yoga. Without the sustenance of breath our human selves would not even be alive to experience the vital life force, the pranic essence of yoga. Without breath we lose the connection to that universal life force energy, the joining with which brings us into a state of yoga.
But how many times a day do we find ourselves lessening, stalling and even holding the breath? We get busy with the never-ending list of to-do’s and all the details of our day-to-day existence. Our attention constantly goes out of ourselves. We feel rushed and stressed. We forget to breathe!

Try this. Take a moment just to notice the immediate quality of your breath. Is it shallow or deep, quick or slow? Is it sporadic or steady, incomplete or full? Just notice at first. Watch the breath coming and going. You may begin to feel the sensation of your breath against your nostrils–cool as it comes in, warm as it moves out. You may begin allowing the breath to slow down.

As you continue to consciously breathe, you may try allowing the breath to drop down to the belly. Imagine you are filling a balloon in the belly with breath. Try this several times. Next allow the breath to widen the rib cage. You might imagine you are playing an accordion by allowing the breath to move the ribs in and out, sideways. Try this many times. Now allow the breath to warm the upper regions of your lungs where the heart center lives. You may feel the breath move front to back as if you had doors opening to the front side of your heart and doors opening from the back side of your heart. Let the winds of your breath move freely in and out of the doors to your heart.

Now try moving the breath like a rhythmic breeze slowly, smoothly, in and out. Feel the expansive quality of your breathing as you fill the belly and rib cage as well as the upper lungs. Hear the sound your breath makes. Feel a vital life force, the pranic essence, filling you over and over. And when you empty the breath, let it empty all the way from the belly, rib cage, and upper lungs. You might allow tensions and mental debris to flow out on the exhalation. Or you might choose to send a beautiful force back out of yourself through your breath.

As you move forward from here, try carrying this quality of breath with you. Make a decision that you will honor your breath throughout the day. And from here on, when you catch yourself tensing, stalling, holding the breath, give yourself just a few moments to repeat the above exercise. You may need to practice with the written instructions many times at first. You are training yourself to breathe the full yogic breath. But like many things, with consistent practice you will eventually just know how to do this. You won’t need instruction. Only awareness. Then, as often as you like, you’ll be able to let your devoted awareness bring you back to the beauty of your breath.

 

This article was originally posted by Mandi Ashbrook in 2010