The Power of Yoga Asana Practice
During yoga the student practices a combination of dynamic movements alongside applied concentration. One class covers strength building, stretching, balancing and restoration. The greater the attitude of curiosity the student brings, the greater potential there is to develop heightened awareness and sensitivity. Focal points in class range from body movement to interoception to posture and muscular activation.
As the student practices the pose, she navigates the balance between challenge and maintaining smoothness. Challenge comes through the relatively full activation of the proper muscles held for an extended period of time. Smoothness comes through sustaining attention on the breath while also moving into and between postures with alignment and integrity.
When smooth, the practice is an unbroken stream of movement and breath, like a choreographed dance. It doesn't have to look beautiful. One simply needs to move with awareness. How pretty a pose looks is much less important than the embodied understanding of where one's personal line is between effort and surrender. A masterful practitioner weaves these two opposites together seamlessly.
This principle of effort and surrender, strength and ease, or steadiness and comfort, is elucidated in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras Book Two, Sutra forty-six, “The posture should be steady and comfortable.” Very few verses in the Yoga Sutras speak about yoga postures. This lack of emphasis may indicate that it is not the poses themselves that are significant but the reciprocal attitude one brings to them while practicing and the attitude they render to the student in life.
A steady and comfortable posture is both masculine and feminine. It represents life's dual principle of the aggressive and receptive. Herein lies a hidden secret in yoga: embracing duality tills the soil for presence to grow.
Yoga is the art of feeling into the present moment and honoring the gifts of one's own self no matter what state. The practice of presence is a matter of transforming automatic and unconscious movements be they mental or physical into conscientious movements. Mindful movement heightens the intelligence of the body and intuition.
Reflections on the Core Hatha Fall Course:
This last semester I have been focusing on core strength. This didn't occur through exercises like repeated pushups, sit-ups, chatarangas or long warrior holds. Instead it happened through learning to use the deeper layer of muscles that stabilize the joints. Some of the major stabilization muscles we focused on were the transverse abdominis and the gluteus medius.
The transverse abdominis lies deep to the rest of the abdominal muscles and wraps around the entire torso like a corset. When we take full exhalations, the transverse starts squeezing toward the center from all sides. This keeps the organs and spine protected and helps support good posture. Alternately, the gluteus medius lies on the outside of the hips and glutes. When we press the hip centrally, we have to use the gluteus medius, thus keeping the hip joint in place.
Smaller stabilization muscles throughout the body help to prevent it from inappropriately relying on the mobility of the tendons and ligaments around the joints. When we hang into our joints, they destabilize the body instead of securing it. When a muscle takes a job it isn't intended for, the whole body must shift around. The result is chronic tightness.
This kind of attention to detail during the practice necessitates a reorientation toward movement even for the experienced student. This is because it requires significantly more mental and physical energy to concentrate and engage small muscles during practice. Class becomes more rigorous even though the emphasis is on micromovement instead of large sweeping movement. At the end of class there is a comprehensive fatigue throughout mind and body that aids in arresting the mind's ceaseless chatter. The student receives the reward of effort in the form of relaxed awareness.
Upcoming Semester Reflections:
Over the next holiday semester we will continue to build on the foundation of core activation, spending at least twenty to thirty minutes of each class training the little muscles. This will be followed by an apex pose that challenges strength, balance and flexibility.
What's new this semester is the complementary element of restoration and surrender. I have chosen this theme to align with the spirit of winter and the holidays. While life may be busy we want to use the Yoga practice to slow down and relax. This will happen not only through exploring therapeutic poses but also through exploring a restorative and meditative perspective on regularly practiced poses.
Such reoriented perspectives on the practice include awareness of the body moving through space, sensation inside and around the body, the impact of visualization and intention, what embodied stretching feels like and the power of circular/spiral movements to facilitate meditative awareness. Learn more about my winter classes here.