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Introduction to asana
Patanjali defined asana as 'that position which is comfortable and steady' though today asana can often refer to any body position or sequence of movements. Asana is meant to used to develop the ability to sit comfortably in one position for an extended period of time in order to practice the pranayama and meditation techniques. In hatha yoga, however, asanas are often also used to strengthen the body and focus the mind. Different aspects of hatha yoga can be used to open the more subtle energy channels and help awaken higher centres as well. Asana can be a tool to attain higher awareness, explore of the body, mind and subtle states of consciousness, but it all depends on how they are used.
Asanas work on both the body and the mind. Asanas are techniques, which use the physical body to cultivate awareness, relaxation, concentration and meditation. Along the way we also get increased physical health from stretching, massaging and stimulating the muscles and internal organs, increasing blood flow, increasing lymphatic drainage and energy levels overall. Asanas can be used to prevent disease, promote and increase health and help to alleviate various psycho-somatic stresses and diseases.
The different styles of yoga promoted today tend mostly to concentrate in various amounts either on postures, relaxation and/or meditation with a great deal of variance in the pace and physical challenge involved in the practice of postures.
Yoga is not only for physical strength or beauty. Of course that is OK if that is what you want but it needs to be understood and applied in a manner consistent with the desired outcomes for the student, not the instructor. If the student wants to push themselves harder for the physical benefits, then that is their choice.
The instructor should NEVER push the student or expect the student to be as good as they are or anyone else. If the student wants more relaxation or meditation from the yoga practices, then that should be the approach of the instructor to support and encourage the student’s own discovery on their own path.
It is important to remember that after a sequence of forward bends, a gentle backward bend should be used as a counter pose. The same is also true after a sequence of backward bends, except a gentle forward bend should be used as a counter pose.
It is also important to remember that if you read various yoga books to learn about other teaching traditions, they will most probably describe the asanas differently and may have different preferred breathing techniques as yoga is taught differently from North India to South India. The different asana names can be confusing, but a rose by any other name is still a rose. It is important not to get caught up in comparing one system with another. They all come from the same original source but are interpreted differently by the people who developed them and by those currently teaching.
Breathing in the asanas
Generally speaking and for most of the more gentle asanas as well as in relaxation and meditation positions, the breath should be relaxed, unhurried and rhythmical.
Expand the abdomen first by drawing the diaphragm down, allowing the abdomen to relax a little and the abdominal organs to be compressed, massaging them with each breath. Then the chest expands into a deeper and full yogic breath. Feel the stretch in the diaphragm, feel the intercostal muscles between your ribs opening up and stretching. Lastly bring the shoulders up to allow the lungs to be fully inflated.
Holding the breath in for a moment trains the respiratory centres in the brainstem to regularly allow a more-deeper breath in when you are breathing normally. When breathing out, relax the shoulders then chest first and then draw the abdomen in using the rectus abdominae and the lateral and oblique adominals to assist in the passive return of the diaphragm to begin the cycle again.
This is the most physiologically efficient way of breathing and maximises your exchange of oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gasses, as well as fully charging the body with energy. Breathe as slowly as you comfortably can and you will feel more alive, more healthy and more in touch with every part of your body.
Note: If you have any heart problems, such as high blood pressure or hypertension, then please do not hold the breath in for very long as this may not be good for you. If in doubt, consult your physician.
For certain types of asthmatics, it may be better if the exhalation is done in the opposite order. Breathe out from the abdomen first and then from the chest thus allowing the chest to remain open longer. This allows the bronchial passages to expand more and stay open longer from the mechanical expansion. There are also neurological and cardiological effects from this respiratory sequence that may bring about hypertension of high blood pressure if this technique is used inappropriately.
Again, if in doubt, consult your physician.
Remember a general rule is to breathe out as you are bending forward or twisting to the side and to breathe in as you return back to the start position. When completing a gentle back bend you can perform a gentle in-breath but a stronger back bend requires an out-breath. When raising the arms, breath in. When lowering the arms, breath out.
Bending to the sides or in some more complex asanas may require breathing out or in, depending on the sequence involved and the overall intention of the practice. Some of the more advanced practices may require more detailed awareness and control of the breath.
There are other precautions with certain strong practices that you should consult with your teacher about, as no book can cover all possibilities and you can never replace a good teacher with a book.
By learning to control your breath, you can learn to gain control over your emotions and other mental states as well. The breath is the medium to get in touch with energies flowing in and through each part of our body, in every cell and through each and every organ.
By becoming aware of the breath, we gradually become more sensitive to our mind and to the flow of energy throughout the body. This develops a fusion of mind and body, of mental awareness and a stronger energy-awareness within us. This can be experienced as a current, as electricity flowing throughout our entire body.
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