Basic Premises

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Xhe last half of the twentieth century saw many schools of hatha yoga take root in the West. Some are based on authentic or al traditions passed down through many generations of teachers. Some are pitched to meet modern needs and expectations but are still consistent with the ancient art, scicnce, and philosophy of yoga. Still others have developed New Age tangents that traditionalists view with suspicion. Picture this title placed near the exit of your local bookstore: Get Rich, Young, and Beautiful with Hatha Yoga. I've not seen it, but it would hardly be surprising, and I have to admit that I would look carefully before not buying it... .

Giver human differences, the many schools of hatha yoga approach even the most basic postures with differing expectations, and yoga teachers find themselves facing a spectrum of students that ranges from accomplished dancers and gymnasts to nursing home residents who are afraid to lie down on the floor for fear they won't be able to get back up. That's fine; it's not a problem to transcend such differences, because for everyone, no matter what their age or level of expertise, the most important issue in hatha yoga is not flexibility and the ability to do difficult postures, but awareness— awareness of the body and the breath, and for those who read this book, awareness of the anatomical and physiological principles that underlie each posture. From this awareness comes control, and from control comes grace and beauty. Even postures approximated by beginning students can carry the germ of poise and elegance.

How to accomplish these goals is another matter, and we often see disagreement over how the poses should be approached and taught. Therefore, the guidelines that follow are not set in stone; their purpose is to provide a common point of reference from which we can discuss the anatomy and physiology of hatha yoga.

focus your attention

Lock your attention within the body. You can hold your concentration on breathing, on tissues that are being stretched, on joints that are being stressed, on the speed of your movements, or on the relationships between breathing and stretching. You can also concentrate on your options as you move in and out of postures. Practicing with total attention within the body is advanced yoga, no matter how easy the posture; practicing with your attention scattered is the practice of a beginner, no matter how difficult the posture. Hatha yoga trains the mind as well as the body, so focus your attention without lapse.

|8 A.\,n<)M\ OF HATHA lOf.VI be aware of your breath

We'll see in chapters 2-7 that inhalations liit you more fully into many postures and create a healthy internal tension and stability ill the torso. You can test this by lying prone on the floor and noticing that lifting up higher in the cobra posture (fig. 2.10) is aided by inhalation. Paradoxically, however, exhalations rather than inhalations tarry you further into many other postures. You can test this by settling into a sitting forward bend and noticing that exhalation allows you to draw your chest down closer to your thighs (fig. 6.13). But in either rase you get two benefits: diaphragmatic breathing assists the work of stretching the tissues, and your awareness of those effects directs you to make subtle adjustments in the posture.

While doing postures, as a general rule keep the airway wide open, breathe only through the nose, and breathe smoothly, evenly, and quietly. Never hold the breath at the glottis or make noise as you breathe exccpt as required or suggested by specific practices.

build foundations

As you do each asana, analyze its foundation in the body and pinpoint the key muscles that assist in maintaining that foundation: the lower extremities and their extensor muscles in standing post ures; the shoulders, neck, spine (vertebral column), and muscles of the torso in the shoulderstand; and the entirety of the musculoskeletal system, but especially the abdominal and deep back muscles, in the peacock. Focus your attention accordingly on the pertinent, regional anatomy, both to prevent injury and to refine your understanding of the posture.

Then there is another kind of foundation, more general than what we appreciate from the point of view of regional anatomy—the foundation of connective tissues throughout the body, especially those that bind the musculoskeletal system together. The connective tissues are like steel reinforcing rods in concrete; they are hidden but int rinsic to the integrity of the whole. To strengthen these tissues in preparation for more demanding work with postures, concentrate at first on toughening up joint capsules, tendons, ligaments, and the fascial sheathes that envelop muscles. The practical method for accomplishing these aims is to build strength, and to do this from the inside out, starting with the central muscles of the torso and then moving from there to the extremities. Aches and pains frequently develop if you attempt extreme stretches before you have first developed the strength and skill to protect the all-important joints. Unless you are already a weight! ifter or body builder, stretching and becoming flexible should be a secondary concern. Only as your practice matures should your emphasis be changed to cultivate a greater range of motion around the joints.

BASIC' PREMISES 19

moving into and out of postures

Being in a state of silence when you have come into a posture is soothing and even magical, but you cannot connect with that state except by knowing how you got there and knowing where you're going. If you jerk from post ure to posture you cannot enjoy the journey, and the journey is just as important as the destination. So move into and out of postures slowly and consciously. As you move, survey the body from head to toe: hands, wrists, forearms, elbows, arms, and shoulders; feet, ankles, legs, knees, thighs, and hips; and pelvis, abdomen, chest, neck, and head. You will soon develop awareness of how the body functions as a unit and notice quirks and discontinuities in your practice which you can then smooth out. Finally, as you learn to move more gracefully, the final posture will seem less difficult.

honor the suggestions of pain

Do you honor or ignore messages from aches and pains? If you have back pain, do you adjust your posture and activit ies to minimize it, or do you just tough it out? And do you keep a deferential eye on your body, or do you find that you get so wrapped up in some challenge that you forget about it? If you do not listen to messages from your body you will be a candidate for pulled muscles, tendinitis, pinched nerves, and ruptured intervertebral disks. To avoid injuiy in hatha yoga you have to develop a self-respecting awareness.

Begin your program of hatha yoga with a resolution to avoid pain. Unless you have had years of experience and know exactly what you are doing, pushing yourself into a painful stretch will not only court injury, it will also create a state of fear and anxiety, and your nervous system will store those memories and thwart your efforts to recreate the posture. Pain is a gift; it tells us that some problem has developed. Analyze the nature of the problem instead of pushing ahead mindlessly. With self-awareness and the guidance of a competent teacher, you can do other postures that circumvent the difficulty.

cultivate regularity, enthusiasm, and caution

Try to practice at the same time and in the same place every day. Such habits will make it easier to analyze day-to-day changes. Mornings are best for improving health—stiffness in the early morning tells you where you need the most careful work and attention. Later in the day, you lose that sensitivity and incur the risk of injury. Cultivate a frolicsome enthusiasm m the morning to counter stiffness, and cautiousness in the evening to avoid hurting yourself. And at any time, if you start feeling uncommonly strong, flexible, and frisky, be careful. That's when it is easy to go too far.

20 ANATOMY OF HATHA ) t HiA

take personal responsibility

Study with knowledgeable teachers, but at the same time take responsibility for your own decisions and actions. Your instructor may be strong and vigorous, and may urge you on, but you have to be the final arbiter of what you are capable of doing. Because many hatha yoga postures make use of unnatural positions, they expose weaknesses in the body, and it is up to you to decide how and whether to proceed. One criterion is to make sure you not only feel fine an hour after your practice, but twenty-four hours later as well. Finally, honor the contraindications for each posture and each class of postures; if in doubt, consult with a medical practitioner who has had experience with hatha yoga.

cultivate patience

Learn from the tortoise. Cultivate the patience to move forward steadily, no matter how slow your progress. Remember as well that the benefits of hatha yoga go beyond getting stronger and more flexible, and that if you are monitoring only that realm, you may be disappointed. For any kind of beneficial result you have to be patient. The main culprit is thinking that you should be able to accomplish something without making consistent effort. That attitude has two unfortunate side effects: first, it diverts your attention from the work before you to what you believe you are entitled to; and second, it makes it impossible to learn and appreciate what is taking place this minute. So resolve to practice being with your experience in the present moment, enjoy yourself no matter what, and let go of expectations.

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Lessons in Raja Yoga

Lessons in Raja Yoga

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