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There is a seemingly infinite complexity in asanas. Good teachers will point out how to get the most from each shape based on what they can see you doing. Really good teachers will do all of this while relating it to your specific bodily capabilities in each moment.
So who is the best teacher?
You are. You know what your muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems are saying before anyone else. With a good yoga practice, senses become increasingly subtle, which builds self-awareness. If you understand the following principles, you will have the tools you need for an astounding progression in your yoga sessions. Ultimately, you can become a master teacher and realize your perfection in your yoga journey.
1. Elements breath body mind
Awareness should be evenly spread between these three elements. This will help you to recognize when attention is shifting (which it naturally will!).
It’s easiest to dwell in the mind, as it's habitual. It’s harder to keep the awareness on the body, but not as hard as it is to simply observe the breath fully even just a few times. By maintaining the BBM (Breath Body Mind) principle, you can constantly check in with a deep balance, presence, and bliss. Constantly prioritizing the breath will naturally lead to the awareness and capabilities of the body, and challenge us to prevent the mind from taking center stage. When we consciously recognize BBM we know the mind has become louder than the breath or body awareness; we automatically short-circuit the consciousness back into the present moment. Use the mind only to maintain breath, then the breath can inform the physical. This prevents chatter of the mind and allows for the internalizing of blissful yogic centering, of harmony in the nervous system. Notice when the mind crops up and tries to dictate the feeling, it will happen a lot, especially if discomfort is felt. It is a habit to avoid discomfort, but best counter it for the sake of the reality as it is. This will help you grow to reframe the idea of comfort in a practice.
A common misunderstanding of meditation is that doing it “right” involves sitting and stopping the mind altogether. The function of the brain is to constantly work. As long as we’re alive this idea of meditation and complete separation from all thoughts isn't possible. Asanas prepare us for meditation, therefore we benefit from a taste of the splendor and peace that comes with the simpler yet similar approach to yoga. The stage after asana is pranayama, or breath control. More than preparing us for meditation and bliss, yoga asanas prepare us to breathe, so breath, body, mind, in that order. It’s your new mantra.
2. Sthira sukham asanam
“Stable, comfortable posture”.
Anuvittasana back bend, support with strong legs, core and even breathing.
One of the ancient yoga sutras gives the insight that benefits our physical practice and completely transcends it at the same time. We have access to a natural force within and throughout us. A sincere effort down the path of least resistance physically shows us how to adopt this principle in the workings of the mind. When we practice and manifest this intention, it makes the two surrounding principles come so much more easily. We can focus the attention more in BBM and the energetic actions of our pose because the mind is less stressed. We must work with stability, encouraging just enough effort that we achieve the simplest form of the pose while refraining from effort that interferes with the breath or causes shaking or panic. This constant feeding back and avoiding discomfort is a great gift in practice. The letting go of ideals is a big lesson, for beginners especially noteworthy when coming out of postures, especially deep ones like backbends. If you want to come out of any pose quickly, you went too far. Attempting to avoid discomfort by rushing rarely helps anyone. Better to go a little slower, with awareness.
3. Energetic actions
The DNA of asana.
Simple directions in the asanas can affect a cross section of the whole anatomy. The difference between lifting arms in warrior II and reaching through the fingers is a good example. When we simply lift the arms we put a lot of effort into the upper back, neck, and shoulders. The energetic action of reaching out through pointed fingertips, however, awakens more support from the chest and abdominals. The more of the body we involve in each asana, the more nerves are stimulated and the better the platform for a state of physical and mental unity.
If you’re thinking “that sounds tiring” or “more muscles to fatigue”, best reread and understand the last paragraph before continuing. This approach will give a greater sense of ease and balance. The coming together of a yoga practice is bringing the awareness to a state of oneness, and what better way than involving a wider span of the nervous system?
Energetic actions will provide the paths to developing your strength and flexibility. Ensure you have a suitable understanding of the first two principles through practice and you will start to realize these actions through your own observation. The four main energetic actions (modifications, reciprocal inhibition, balanced opposing forces, and breathing rules) below can be used to infinitely progress your self-practice.
Example: Advanced padahastasana (forward bend). Modify by bending knees.
Modifications are simply an extension of “sthira sukham asanam”. For example, to safely get into a forward bend we can bend the knees to protect the low back and get to the energetic actions of lengthening the hamstrings and spine without bending the the lumbar beyond discomfort.
• Reciprocal inhibition.
Example: Vibridrasana (warrior II).
In warrior II, the action of pressing the knees towards external rotation in the direction of the little toes opens the hips more when engaging all the muscles of the gluteus, and quadraceps, while relaxing adductor muscles of the inner legs. Rather than work harder in the already engaged muscles, there may be an opposing muscle group that can relax more. This is a fine way to get to know your own pose more and protect yourself.
• Balanced opposing forces.
Most helpful in balancing postures, these actions are great to build strength in their practice. Different from reciprocal inhibition, this refers to larger areas of the anatomical focus instead of just counter muscles groups. We get deeper into core muscles and ultimately the diaphragm when we engage opposite muscular forces. For example, spreading the arms in that warrior II. More complex versions may be noted in crescent lunge and extended side angle where the action can be balanced by keeping a firm long spine in line with the extended leg and allowing the hips to move closer to the ground opening the bent knee’s side hip joint. In both cases feeling into the complexity of the pose to achieve balance between these larger energetic actions will serve you to progress every practice, every moment. Under this heading also comes mindful transitions, going in and out slow to receive most benefit from each pose.
• Breathing rules.
As a general rule, in a yoga practice it is best to breath slower than normal, through the nose. One breath for one move. Pause when you need. Breath is not merely a count and then the pose is over, we’re using these actions above with the breaths to under some general rules:
Inhale - Expanding / Lifting / Extending / Releasing muscles,
Exhale - Contraction / Lowering / Effort / Reciprocally inhibiting.
A further breakdown of the breathing rules can be viewed as:
Gravitational rule - When lifting use the diaphragm to aid the action with a slow deep inhale. When lowering opposite in equal force. For poses where this doesn’t apply see the next rule.
Anatomical rule - Movement and breath work together to expand the lungs and lengthen the spine. For instance opening the arms in warrior II opens the chest so inhale, stepping forward to Tadasana closes it with arms at side so, exhale. Or less noticeable in twisting, inhale to lengthen the spine, exhale to twist.
While it is great to have a good teacher, it’s not always possible. Beginners and experienced yogis can have a great self-practice if only remembering a few poses by following these tips to enhance their practice. So please go forth and practice great yoga with these observations to hand.
If you have any questions as you put these principles into action, please comment below.