If a friend tells you, “I’m going to a yoga class” you would probably understand her to mean that she is going to do some physical exercise. Asanas are the most popular and most widely known practice of yoga in the West.
However, asanas are quite different from most other forms of physical fitness, in many ways. They do not attempt to develop your muscles through mechanical movements; instead they demand your full attention. Therefore they make your mind steady, concentrated and ready for meditation.
A better translation for the word “asanas” would be pose, position or seat. The term implies much more than physical exercise. Asanas work on every aspect of your physical being, not just your muscles and joints. They massage your internal organs, stimulate circulation and enhance respiration. Its roots are connected to the idea of being fully present in the moment and being firmly grounded in your body.
Yoga sees your body as a vehicle for your soul in its journey towards perfection. When practiced regularly, they develop your mental capacities, broaden your consciousness and ignite your spiritual yearnings. Good health and physical fitness are a much-welcomed by-product, but not the final objective of the practice of asanas. The real goal of asanas, as of all yoga practices, is inner peace.
Asanas emphasise slow, gentle, non-violent movements. One of the basis tenets of yoga is, attempting to do no harm to any living being, including yourself, in thought, word or deed. Non-violence involves being non-competitive with others and not being too harsh or judgement with yourself. It if best if you never force your body into any position.
To master the asanas, work steadily but slowly. Fast movements often result in a build up of lactic acid in your muscles, leaving you feeling tired and stiff. Increasing the amount of oxygen you bring into your cells can neutralise the lactic acid. This is one of the reasons that asanas are usually accompanied by an emphasis on deep breathing. Each asana is a position that puts pressure on a certain point(s), much as acupuncture or shiatsu does. As you hold the pose, you breathe deeply. Rather than thinking about something else, you actually focus on the tension and consciously “breathe” it out of your body. You begin to develop your abilities to control your own body by using your mind.
Rather than burning up energy, as do most forms of physical exercise, asanas tend to leave you feeling invigorated and more energetic. This is because they enable you to let go of tension that you have been holding in your muscles. With practice, asanas assist you to releasing energetic blockages. The energy that was stagnating becomes usable; it begins to circulate throughout your body and you feel invigorated!
Warming up: Neck stretches
If you are stiff, especially if you are practicing in the early morning, you may want to start by giving your body a good shake. Let your fingers and hands go limp; shake them from the wrists. Then shake your arms, shoulders, feet and legs.
Sit or stand to do your neck stretches – these are especially helpful in this day of increased neck problems as a result of using ipad and other tablets.
Forward and back: drop your head down towards your chest, so that your chin touches (or almost touches) your breastbone; hold this for 2-3 seconds to allow your neck muscles to relax and stretch out. Then lift your chin up towards the ceiling as you bring your head back as far as you can. Visualise the back of your head touching your spine, hold for 2-3 seconds.
Repeat these movements 3-4 times in each direction. Return your head to its upright neutral position.
Stretch side to side: bring your head down to the left side so that your left ear comes as close to your left shoulder as possible. Do not allow your neck to twist or your shoulders to lift. Bring your head back to centre and then stretch to your right.
Repeat these movements 3-4 times in each direction. Return your head to its central upright position.
Turn your head from shoulder to shoulder: without moving your shoulders, turn your head to look over your right shoulder, as though you are trying to see behind your back. Then turn to the left.
Repeat these movements 3-4 times in each direction. Return your head to its central position.
Standing up straight is a simple, yet profound, action. It enables you to connect with and draw up energy from the earth. You ground yourself and feel that you are fully present within your own body.
Practice tadasana for as long as you like. It is an asana in itself and also the starting point for many of the other poses.
The traditional wisdom that “you are as young as your spine” defines the primary benefit of this excellent 12-part warm-up exercise. The sun salutation stretches your spine forward and back, while promoting flexibility in other limbs as well. Each position is connected with your breathing.Begin by standing erect in tadasana. Have your feet together and your arms relaxed along side your body. Inhale deeply and prepare yourself mentally to begin.
Begin with 6 sun salutations daily. Try to gradually increase it to 12 rounds.
CAUTION: if you are pregnant, do a modified sun salutation. This is best learned from a teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
Being upside down can offer interesting opportunities to enhance your views of life. To maintain an inverted position, you must be fully present in the here and now. These poses encourage lightness of thought as well as enhancing the grace of your physical body.
The dolphin strengthens your arms and shoulders. It is a preparatory exercise that gets you ready physically and mentally for the practice of standing on your head.
If your arms are weak and you find it difficult to move forward and back, practice only steps 1-4. Practice the dolphin for several weeks before attempting the headstand.
Practicing the headstand is not as difficult as you might imagine; if you have practiced the dolphin before attempting it. Many yoga teachers refer to it as the “king of the asanas”.
The headstand involves facing and overcoming fears and self-imposed limitations. It rests your heart by inverting your body and allowing gravity to assist in the venous return of the blood to your heart. The headstand strengthens your respiratory and circulatory systems. It also:
AVOID the headstand if you have high blood pressure, glaucoma, detached-retina, a cold or blocked nose, or if you suffer from whiplash or other neck injuries. Do not practice the headstand, or any other inverted poses, if you are menstruating. An adapted headstand may be done up until your fourth month of pregnancy, but this is best learned from a teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
DO NOT attempt the headstand in later stages of pregnancy
The Sanskrit name of the shoulderstand is “sarvangasana”, meaning “a pose that benefits all parts of your body”. The shoulderstand helps to relieve your mental lethargy. Practice it daily, if you work at a computer or stand on your feet a lot.
As you hold the pose, you will notice how your chin presses on your throat. The shoulderstand strengthens and balances your thyroid gland, which is located at your neck. Your thyroid controls metabolism and all of the other endocrine glands. Energy is focused on your throat chakra.
It helps to drain stagnant blood from your lower extremities. The cervical region of your spine is stretch, as well as your shoulder and upper back muscles. Many people find the shouldstand to be an excellent remedy for tight neck and stiff shoulders. New evidence seems to be arising that it can help even you to heal torn rotator cuff.
Avoid the shoulderstand if you suffer from neck injuries or are menstruating. If you are more than four months pregnant, you may be able to practice a half-shoulderstand variation, which is best learned from a teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
The plough is an excellent pose for stretching your entire spine; its particular focus is on your neck and shoulders.
DO NOT attempt the plough if you are pregnant or menstruating. If you suffer from kyphosis of the spine, do not try to force yourself into this pose; just do as much as you comfortably can.
The bridge is a relatively easy backward bending pose that helps you to create an experience of expansion, in contrast to the introversion of the shoulderstand. The bridge provides a counter-stretch to both the shoulderstand and the plough; it relieves pressure from your cervical region (neck and upper back).
The bridge pose strengthens your abdominal and lumbar (lower back) muscles. It also enhances the strength and flexibility of your hands, wrists and spine.
The Fish is a wonderful chest-opening pose that is usually done immediately after the Shoulderstand and Plough, as a counter-pose. As you stretch backward, you increase the flow of prana to your neck, upper back and shoulder areas. It also helps to enhance your breathing capacity. This means that you will probably find it really helpful if you hunch over a computer all day.
If you tend to breathe shallowly, have panic attacks and/or have asthma, you will probably find that regular practice of the Fish can help you to overcome your breathing problems.
DON'T do the Fish if you have a whiplash or other recent neck injury, high blood pressure or suffer from migraine headaches. Also, never attempt it when you are having an asthmatic or panic attach – or any other breathing problems.
Many yoga texts suggest that the best time to practice yoga is first thing in the morning, facing the rising sun. This means that your back is towards the west, hence the Sanskrit name of the seated forward bend “Paschimottanasana – the “western” stretch”.
Beginners may hold the position for 10 seconds before coming up and repeating the stretch again, 3-5 times. As you become more advanced, gradually increase the time you hold the pose up to 3 minutes.
If you are pregnant, try practicing this pose with your legs apart. But, remember that it is always best to learn from and practice with a teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
The Cobra is a wonderful pose that tunes your body and mind to the vibrant energy that is exhibited by the king of snakes. The pose enhances the general flexibility of your spine and back muscles, and it helps you to release the tension of hunched shoulders and a rounded back. It is an especially good asana to practice if you sit at a computer a lot. If you practice the Cobra regularly, the range of motion of your entire spine will increase. The pose massages, tones and strengthens your back muscles, particularly in the lumbar region. It also helps to strengthen the internal muscles of your abdominal and chest cavities.
DO NOT practice the Cobra if you are pregnant – or any other asana where you are lying on your abdomen. There are many other excellent backward bending alternatives that you can do; these are best learned from a teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
The Half-Locust, sometimes referred to as the grasshopper, strengthens your lower back and brings flexibility to your neck, shoulders and upper spine (cervical region).
To do the Half-Locust:
DO NOT practise the half-locust if you are pregnant or have had a recent neck injury.
Immediately after doing the half-locust, practise the full-locust. This pose provides a comprehensive backward stretch to your neck and the cervical (upper back) region of your spine. It strengthens your lumbar (lower back) region and gives a powerful massage to your internal organs. The starting position for full-locust is the same pose as for the half-locust. Lie face downward on your abdomen; have the tops of your feet on the ground – do not tuck your toes under. Keeping your arms straight, bring them beneath your body and clasp your hands together. Try to have your inner elbows as close together as you can. Place your chin on the ground and slide it forward as much as possible. Take 2-3 deep breaths to prepare yourself physically and mentally for the full-locust.
On an inhalation, slowly lift both of your legs off the ground as high as you can. If you are a beginner, you may be able to lift them only a centimetre or two. However, with regular practice, you will probably find that your lifting power improves rapidly.
Try to hold the position for 3-5 seconds, making sure to breathe as you hold it. Also, make sure that your chin remains on the ground the entire time. Gradually build up to holding the full-locust for 30 seconds.
Slowly re-place both legs on the ground. Repeat the full-locust 2-3 times.
DO NOT practise the Locust if you are pregnant!
The Bow is a wonderful backward bend that combines and enhances the benefits of the cobra, half-locust and full-locust poses. When you practice, you stretch your entire spine and the all of the muscles of the various parts of your back. At the same time, you also give a gentle massage to your internal organs.
If you sit at a computer all day, as most people do, you probably have the tendency to hunch your shoulders. The bow will help you to counteract the negative effects this has on your shoulders and back. With regular practice, the bow can help to prevent you from becoming round-shouldered.
When you practice the bow, you expand your chest an pull your shoulders back. This is of particular benefit if you suffer from asthma or other respiratory problems.
DO NOT attempt the Bow if you are pregnant or have had recent abdominal surgery.
The Sanskrit name for this pose is “ardha-matsyendrasana”; it is named after Matsyendra-nath, one of the first teachers of hatha yoga. As one of the most powerful twisting poses, it rotates your body, squeezing out physical impurities and mental tension. The half-spinal twist also assists you in maintaining your spine’s elasticity and its side-to-side mobility; it gives a lateral stretch to your back muscles, massages your internal organs, and stimulates and purifies your solar plexus chakra.
DO NOT attempt the half-spinal twist when you are pregnant. There are a number of variations that do not put pressure on your abdomen; these are best learned from a teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
Be careful of the half-spinal twist if you have had a hip replacement.
If you’re a beginner or are pregnant, you can practice this variation of the Spinal Twist
Sit in a simple cross-legged position.Place your right hand on your left knee and your left hand behind your back – on the ground or on a blockTwist to the left as much as you can, keeping your spine perpendicular to the ground. Look over your left shoulderHold the pose for about 10 seconds, gradually increasing the time to 1 minute; make sure that you breathe through your nose. Return to centre and repeat this on the other side, with your left hand on your right knee.
This is a fairly easy variation for beginners
Sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your right knee and bring your right leg over your left leg. Place your right foot flat on the ground with your right knee up.Bend your left arm, twist to the right. Bring left arm to the outside of your right knee. With your forearm up, push against your right knee with your left elbow.Place your right hand on the floor behind your back; try to keep your spine upright. Don’t lean over. If you are unable to reach the floor, use a block.Hold the pose 10 seconds on each side, gradually increasing to 30 seconds.
DO NOT attempt this pose when you are pregnant.
This simple variation releases tension in your lower back while gently stretching your shoulders and upper back.
Lie on your back. Stretch your arms out onto the floor at shoulder level.Bend your knees up towards your chest and bring them slightly to your right.Place your left hand on your right kneeKeeping both shoulders firmly on the ground, bring your knees to the floor to the right of your body.Turn your head and look at your left hand, which is still stretched out on the ground at shoulder level.Hold the pose for 10-30 seconds; return to centre and repeat steps 2-5 on the other side.
This is a simple, yet powerful position. It is a full forward bend, involving your entire body. Among the benefits you will derive from practicing it are:
Increased spinal flexibility
Breathe as you remain in this position, with your weight on the balls of your feet. Keep your hips up. Hold this position for 10 seconds, gradually increasing to 1 minute.When you are ready, inhale and stretch up again. Relax your arms and body for a few breaths and then repeat the ‘Standing forward bend’ 2-3 times.
NOTE: Do not attempt the standing forward bend if you have a cold or if your nose is blocked for any reason. If you are pregnant, practice this pose with your legs apart, preferably under the guidance of a yoga teacher who specialises in pregnancy yoga.
This is a standing pose that gives your spine and backmuscles a lateral stretch, increases the flexibility of your hips and improves your circulation. If you practice regularly, the triangle helps you to maintain a youthful gai
This is a challenging, yet fun variation of the basic triangle pose that does wonders to tone your spinal nerves and abdominal organs. Also, it stimulates the energy in your solar plexus region and helps to balance the ‘manipura’ chakra. You might want to practice the triangle pose for a while before attempting this slightly more advanced variation.
NOTE: do not attempt this pose if you have high blood pressure
The Tree pose enhances your physical and mental balance and helps you to develop a firm foundation for your spiritual practice.
One of the more enigmatic of the asanas, the Peacock pose tones your digestive system as it brings flexibility to your hands, wrists and fingers – and strengthens your arms and shoulders.
On an energetic level, the Peacock stimulates and helps you to balance your manipura (solar plexus) chakra. When you have mastered this pose, your body resembles a beautiful proud peacock with its tail feathers spread.
This pose helps you to develop mental and physical balance. It strengthens your forearms and wrists as it brings flexibility to your hands and fingers. The crow is a powerful pose to counteract many of the negative effects of working at a computer.
The ideal posture for meditation is stable, straight and comfortable. Your spine, maintaining its natural curvatures, should be perpendicular to the ground to take advantage of the natural energies of the earth. It is also important to give your lungs the space to expand fully. An upright spine helps you to concentrate and promotes the flow of energy throughout your body.
Simple cross-legged position – sukhāsana
This simple cross-legged position is an excellent way to stop energy from ‘leaking’ during meditation and facilitates your inner focus. Sitting with your legs loosely crossed, with your feet under the opposite knee or thigh, physically contains your energy. Your legs form a sort of infinity symbol.
It is important that your knees are lower than your hips. If you are a beginner or your hips are stiff, sit on a cushion, yoga block or folded blanket. This will lift your buttocks and relieve any tension you might be experiencing in your lower back and hips. However, don’t sit too high, otherwise your back will arch. Try to place your knees on the ground or else support them with cushions or rolled-up blankets.
Adept’s pose – siddhāsana
Sit on the ground with your legs stretched forward. Bend your left knee and place your left heel just in front of your pubic bone, as close as possible. Then fold your right knee, lift the right foot and tuck it behind the left calf.
Half-lotus – ardha-padmāsana
This pose is simpler than the lotus pose, but gives many of the same benefits of stability and grounding your body. Begin by sitting in a simple cross-legged position. Bring one foot on top of the opposite thigh, with the sole of your foot facing upward. The other foot can remain folded under the top leg, beneath the knee or thigh.
Lotus pose – padmāsana
Bend your right knee and gently place your right foot on top of your left thigh, as close to the trunk of your body as possible. Then bend your left knee and place your left foot onto your right thigh. The soles of both feet should be facing upwards.
It important to have both of your knees are on the ground in the lotus pose. Remember that this is an advanced yoga pose, requiring a great amount of hip flexibility. Do not try to force your legs into this position. It is not suggest that you attempt the lotus pose if you have knee problems, varicose veins or problems with your legs falling asleep during meditation.
Sitting on a chair
If sitting on the ground is not a feasible option, use a straight-backed chair. It is not a good idea to sit on a bed or other soft furniture.
Have your knees and feet hip-width apart. The lower legs, from the knees downward, should form two parallel columns that are perpendicular to the ground. Place your feet flat on the floor with the toes pointing forward; this helps you to ground yourself. Never cross your legs or your ankles. If your feet don’t reach the floor, rest them on blocks, or on a cushion or folded blanket.
Once you have brought your body into one of these sitting positions, you can rest your hands in your lap, on your thighs, or bring them into a mudra.
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