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The One-Straw Revolution

Religiousness in Yoga Part 2: Asana, Sukha, Sthira

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Excerpts from “Religiousness in Yoga” by TKV Desikachar

1: Asana

The practice of Yoga provides us an occasion that might give us a feeling for the meaning of the word Yoga. Despite any incidental benefits, this is the fundamental reason for practice …

In our practice we focus upon the body, the breath and the mind … it is the purpose of Yoga to unify their movement …

āsana means “posture” and it comes from the Sanskrit root, ās, “to stay, to be, to sit, to be established in a particular position.” Patañjali‘s Yoga Sūtra describes āsana as having two important qualities: sukha and sthira. Sukha is the ability to remain comfortable in a posture. Sthira is firmness and alertness. Both qualities should be present in a posture … Without both qualities it is not as āsana

To make this idea of an āsana a reality we must accept ourselves as we are. Therefore, if we have a stiff back, we must acknowledge that fact. Perhaps we are very supple but our breath is quite short; perhaps our breath is all right but our body isn’t ready … It is also possible to be very comfortable in a posture while our minds are elsewhere. This, too, is not āsana … The quality of breath is very vital since it expresses our inner feelings … The breath is the link between the inner and outer part of our bodies.

2: Breath and Movement

… The most important principle is the natural relationship between breathing and movement … As in any physical activity when we squeeze the body, pressure forces the breath out. We breath out in all postures where bending is in a particular direction, such as a forward bend of the back.

… This type of coordination establishes the relationship between breathing and movement … when we contract the body, we exhale; when we expand the body, we inhale … we determine the length of time for our inhalations and for exhalations. This fixes the timing of our movements.

… Deep inhalations expand the chest and move the diaphragm downward … When we exhale, we do the opposite. We contract the abdomen on exhalation and as we do this, the ribs contract.

3: Ujjayi

Our next step allows us to feel the breath throughout inhalation and exhalation. Through this we will gradually improve the quality of our technique of breathing … To give is this feeling of uniformity and smoothness when we breathe, we impose a restriction on the throat which produces a sound. It is as if we had a valve in the throat and we partially closed it to control the breath. We measure the control by the sound … allowing us to hear, as well as feel, the breath as we work toward deeper and longer cycles.

There are two advantages two using this technique. One, we are more involved with the flow of the breath, and therefore, we have concentration throughout the āsana. Two, the sound in our throat tells us when to stop or change an āsana … In beginning practice, we do āsana in the dynamic way … Dynamic movements lead to the second phase, static postures. This in turn leads to longer and longer periods of firmness and alertness in postures (sthira). Beginners often have the problem of not knowing how many times to do a posture … Only the breath will determine this. As long as we can breathe smoothly with the sound in our throat, we are within the limits of our body. The moment we need to take a quick breath through the nostrils, without maintaining the proper sound, we must stop.

4: Holds

Another concept of breathing used during our practice is called “holding the breath.” After we inhale, we hold the breath and at the same time stop all movement. Similarly, after we exhale, we also hold the breath and stop all movement before our next inhalation. As with inhalation and exhalation, holding the breath is a conscious act. The length of time we hold the breath is critical. If it is too long … the body rebels … If the holding of the breath is too demanding, the inhalation and exhalation will be disturbed. Holding the breath should be practiced only as an aid to inhalation and exhalation.

5: Practice Planning

What postures should we choose?

Postures to make us limber are needed and the best of these are the standing ones…

We have postures that counter the great effect that gravity plays in the function of our bodies. Gravitational effects are both good and bad. Yoga tries to undo the latter … We try to reduce the negative effects of gravity by using the body in a different plane. This is achieved through inverted posturessupine postures where we simply lift the legs .. the headstand and shoulder-stand which are the complete opposite of normal posture.

… The effect of gravity also affects the muscles. When we are uncomfortable sitting in a slumped position … it is because the muscles of our backs are unable to take the unusual loads. Also, if we are unable to sit straight, our breathing is inhibited. Therefore, we need prone postures to strengthen back muscles …

Finally, sitting postures help us to sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair so that we can do some breathing exercises.

… Yoga teaches us that with every action there is both a positive and a negative effect … we must stress the positive while we neutralize the negative … by doing a counterpose

… Before we do a posture we should be sure our bodies are ready for it … If we prepare well, there is less need for a counterpose …

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