Yoga Pt III Breathing and Posing Third in the series, The Debt I Owe to Yoga
We now arrive at asanas. This is limb number three of yoga that gets called, well, “yoga.” Actually, it is properly named asana, or , posture. These are the poses you see in advertisements for yoga paraphernalia or poses by bodies that grace the covers of Yoga or health related magazines . These postures practiced in asanas, comprise the third limb and the breathing exercises or pranayama comprises the fourth. If you have been reading this series so far, you will know that asana is not a fitness system or a series of gymnastic exercises but part of a larger process of spiritual rebalancing. 1, 2
Asana has become commercialized and promoted entirely as exercise. Asana has been shown to have several health benefits including lowering blood pressure, and relief of arthritis. I have personally found it to be a great stress reliever, helpful with balance, arthritis relief and general agility. To yogis, the body is “Gods temple”, or a temple for the spirit, the care of which is important for our spiritual growth. Practicing poses, or asanas helps us develop the habit of discipline and concentration ability both of which are necessary for meditation.
I have had some yoga instructors who did a round of breath exercises just before starting the actual asana practice, and the really tuned in instructors, will follow with meditation afterwards. Of course for the super secular, most places will simply start the asanas and finish with a great “Aum” in unison and that will be that.
Asanas in their pure form were meant to prepare the body for meditation. That is why breathing is combined with postures. It was believed that in order to meditate for lengths of time that one’s body had to be acclimated to maintaining correct postures without fidgeting or strain. Traditionally, the two, pranayama and asana go together, and done correctly, the breath will be used to help foster the connection between the body, mind, and the emotions. The literal translation of pranayama, is “life force.” Yogis believe that proper breathing not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself.
is a great place to see and learn breathing techniques. The demonstrations are simple and easily done.
Once I learned the value of pranyama I have found it is good for calming me when something evokes my ire, or when I just need to feel inwardly refreshed.
For the most part, although this is not carved in stone, the pre meditation asanas are Hatha Yoga. Hatha deals mostly with body and breathing exercises that help the student to become aware of his or her internal status. Hatha yoga exercises help to make the body a healthy and strong resource for the student. From http://www.swamij.com/yoga-meaning.htm>
Another form of asanas is vinyasa Flow. Often called flow, it is done at faster pace than Hatha and is called flow because the poses flow from one to the other with a smooth yet comparatively quick succession. The same poses are used in both but the flow is a bit more athletic while the Hatha is a bit more contemplative. Nitra yoga is a meditative yoga designed to keep the mind conscious during deep sleep. As opposed to meditation it is practiced in a lying position, (not a sitting one), and is one of the most popular meditation techniques. It induces a profoundly deep state of rest. It is effortless, enjoyable, soothing and recuperative. As it is practiced today, Yoga Nidra is a technique that carries awareness deep into you, layer by layer. This process is called introversion, or pratyahara in Sanskrit. The pratyahara of Yoga Nidra induces deep relaxation. I can attest to the deep relaxation associated with this practice. I have encountered it mostly in temple environments but I go to a wonderful studio where a few instructors conduct it.
The list of asana practices is pretty long in that exercise composers always come up with new “wow factors” on the fitness front. One type with which I am familiar, but have not tried include Ashtanga Yoga which
is a system of yoga that was brought to the modern world by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. If you attend an ashtanga class at a studio you will be led nonstop through one or more of the ashtanga series, while being encouraged to breathe as you move from pose to pose. Each series is a set sequence of asanas, always in the same order. It is typically fast-paced, vigorous and physically challenging. Bikram yoga, which is commonly called “hot yoga”, poses are standardized and each studio has the same routine. I like this yoga and the sweat feels like I have really exercised. I don’t do Bikram with spirituality in mind, to me it is just “gym”. The process is designed to allow a deeper move into the poses as the body heats, and the profuse sweat helps rid the body of toxins. I have been told that this should not be done too frequently because it can cause tendons to stretch and unlike muscles they do not shrink back.
Yoga is a pretty easy activity to find. (well asanas are). Most gym memberships include yoga posture classes. However if you seek a spiritual connection with your practice, the best place by far to go is a Hindu Temple, many of which offer asanas and meditation. There are many independent studios who offer meditation, and brief pranayama. Some are more spiritual than others, and some allow the different instructors to design their class structure as they see fit. It has great benefits not only physically but spiritually. Recently I meant another fellow in Phoenix, AZ who started taking yoga, got fascinated, and is now also an avowed Hindu. I wonder how many more of us there are….