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The Essence of Yoga:
Tips for Making It Your Own Immersion into Reality
Yoga is an extremely complex and delicate subject, a global cultural phenomenon that has made its mark on the consciousness of the contemporary individual both in the East and West. So much has been said and written about Yoga, it has changed dramatically during the last one hundred years, in India and elsewhere, and it is being practiced in an infinite variety of ways all over the world. The practice sometimes fulfils its ancient promise of bringing more peace, more power and more wisdom into the life of an ardent practitioner, but more often than not it fails to achieve anything more than mere recreation countering the drawbacks of modern sedentary way of life, mostly providing temporary relief from stress, offering superficial “spiritual” entertainment or securing a “yogic” life-style pattern for practitioners and teachers alike. That is, if it is not hurtful. And too often it is painful, injurious and even destructive for a host of different reasons, mostly ignorance and ambition. It is very sad and utterly unnecessary.
Find a good teacher
So, how to make your Yoga truly effective, completely safe and deeply pleasurable? Well, simply by making it truly your own. First find yourself a really good teacher whom you can trust and start exactly from where you are. A good teacher really cares about your well-being, actually practices and lives what s(he) is teaching, and has a valuable experience of being properly educated in an authentic lineage of direct Yoga transmission from teacher to student (guru-shishya-parampara). Then assess your situation realistically and determine your immediate, short-term and long-term goals as clearly as possible with the help of your teacher. And then start practicing your Yoga for the sheer pleasure that a well-adapted personalized and personal practice inevitably brings with it. This pleasure will help you fall in love with Life over and over again and so it will motivate you to keep on practicing and, in time, widen and deepen your practice that will keep changing as your life changes and as you change through the practice. Concentrate on developing your regular home practice, and only secondarily and very carefully engage into group practicing if you feel like it.
Use the full spectrum of all Yoga practices
At first, especially if you have some health issues, and we often do, begin with something very simple or even practice Yoga as therapy (yoga-cikitsa), if appropriate or necessary. Or emphasize relaxation if you are tensed up or stressed out. Yoga practiced as a spiritual discipline (yoga-sadhana) aiming mostly at personal transformation is the next logical step. And it must be different for each individual simply because we are all different. You can enter the virtually unlimited spectrum of varied Yoga techniques through any of the following avenues: 1) you can start with some philosophical or psychological enquiry (darsana) if you have some burning questions that need to be answered or difficult problems to be solved; 2) you can start by exploring the limitations and possibilities of your body and breath (asana and pranayama) if that seems a reasonable way to delve deeper into yourself; 3) if you are intuitive, stable and healthy, you can go straight to meditation (dhyana) and get a direct insight into the workings of your mind or the depths of your Heart; 4) you can also experiment with the inherent power of human voice and sonic vibration (mantra) to affect the various aspects of your psycho-somatic organism; 5) if you are religious in any way and like ceremonies and rituals (puja), you can use Yoga as a means to support that interest or preference; 6) and if all that is not attractive or interesting enough for the time being or for any reason whatsoever, you can just hang out (sat-sanga) with your teacher, who ideally is your equal friend, or exchange ideas and experiences with the like-minded. The point is to use all the tools of Yoga in a meaningful and comprehensive way so that all your needs are eventually met and all the aspects of your personality are skilfully included into your practice.
Develop a personal practice that is right for you
However, for most people, a good way to start practicing Yoga is to pay closer attention to the way we breathe and move in relatively short, very enjoyable, highly individualized, well-structured, well-balanced and well-rounded practices, and so develop a deeper awareness of ourselves as natural, living and breathing bodies functioning in complex relationships with the natural world and social environment. Essentially, Yoga postures, or yogasana, are dynamic pranayama, or conscious breathing, supported by body movement whose main purpose is to enhance the breath in a way and at a pace that is appropriate for each practitioner. When the breath becomes conscious, deeper, slower, stronger, audible, rhythmic, refined and prolonged through simple movements that a person can do and the movements are coordinated with breathing in such a way that each movement is initiated and enveloped by the breath, the practicing individual becomes capable of transcending the limitations of the body and can focus exclusively on the movement of the infinite breath within. When it eventually slows down and gets more subtle, our mind automatically brightens up and our Heart gets purified. Then meditation, or dhyana, can start. Peace (santi) then infuses our lives and insights (jnana) simply dawn on us, and our creativity awakens, which enables us to find the right direction in life, win our autonomy and step more decisively on the path leading to true humanity.
Relax, regenerate and be transformed through your practice
A Yoga practice that doesn’t give us the strength (sakti) to live out our insights in our daily life as a being in relationship does not deserve its name and it must be reshaped to empower us to do precisely that – face reality whatever it is and cope with the challenges of being humans no matter how hard they are. This awakening of true strength happens only if we know how to relax and can actually tap into the source of the inexhaustible power of human emotivity located in our spiritual Hearts (hrdaya). Then transformation starts, and it is simultaneously an inward mutation and an outward revolution. So, everything starts with our relaxing into our reality – our body, our breath, our mind, our consciousness, our emotions and our relationships – and then regeneration or healing can take place in the innermost corners of our being. And we need this regeneration and this healing on a daily basis, just as the world needs love and kindness that we first have to give to ourselves, in this case through the practice of a Yoga that is right for us. In this way we can viscerally feel the merge of opposites in our Heart: the outer meeting the inner, the above fusing with the below, heaven merging with earth, and especially the inhale and exhale interpenetrating each other, and Yoga and life slowly but surely become one organic unitary process of continuous, harmonious and holistic human growth.
Tips for making Yoga your own immersion into reality
So, the essence of Yoga is personal (re)integration, moral integrity and cosmic integrality, for we are absolutely unique and absolutely beautiful human beings that are at One with ourselves, we are absolutely connected with everyThing and everyOne else, and we are absolutely united with the Whole of Existence. Yoga simply empowers us to feel it and live it, no matter what happens in our lives and in spite of anything or anybody suggesting otherwise. So, here are some practical tips for making Yoga your own immersion into the mystery and miracle of Life whether you are an absolute beginner or an advanced beginner, and beginners we all are, since every day we start anew:
Inhale softly into the chest by slowly expanding it in all directions with the feeling of stretching the spine up, relaxing the whole body and drawing the fresh energy from outside deeply into the body.
Exhale slowly from the base of the body by firmly contracting the lower abdomen between the navel and the pubic bone with the feeling of squeezing out all the dross matter you don’t need in the body and mind.
The inhale is the “feminine” receptivity from above. Feel it.
The exhale is the “male” strength from below. Engage it.
Move the arms to facilitate the breathing process. First do it in the lying position on the back, and then in simple standing, kneeling and sitting asana. Only when you get stronger (and softer!) through a sustained, well-designed and well-adapted Yoga practice that is right for you, you can experiment with strong asana too, without ever forcing your breath or overstretching your body.
While inhaling move the arms up, in circles if standing, kneeling or sitting, or up and down if lying on the back, and keep them soft all the time to be able to receive the inhale, as well as the belly, shoulders and neck. In time, you can introduce simple leg movements and combine them with other types of movements in more complex exercises done in all bodily positions.
While exhaling move the arms down, and feel the chest collapsing and the lower abdomen contracting. All forward bends, lateral stretching and twists are done on exhale, whereas back bending and upward stretching are done on inhale. If in doubt, always do a movement on exhale. Keep the knees and neck soft and avoid putting too much weight onto the joints. And never practice inversions without individual instruction and direct supervision of your teacher.
Feel the merge of all opposites in your Heart all the time while breathing and moving or just breathing.
Enjoy the process and give yourself some quiet time after the practice to absorb its positive effects and reflect on them, either by lying down or sitting up, or both.
First relax, then regenerate and finally be transformed through your practice.
Try it and see what happens. Be open and don’t let your previous experience in Yoga prevent you from getting it right for you. If, for any reason, you cannot move your arms or have any kind of respiratory or health problems, please consult with your physician before you start doing any kind of Yoga. Safety is the first priority, and joy is the first step towards freedom. And Yoga is about freedom!
Uniting Asana, Bandha and Pranayama:
Moving the Spine in All Directions, Binding the Torso and Breathing with the Whole Body
According to T. Krishnamacharya, the practice of asana and pranayama is the primary Yoga practice; it is yoga-sadhana (“that which can be done”) par excellence, not just the two fundamental pillars of hatha-yoga. In asana, the most important thing is to move the spine in all directions in a very structured and precise way, and to breathe consciously, deeply and evenly with the whole body, especially moving the whole torso while breathing. In this way, asana becomes moving, dynamic pranayama adequately preparing for static pranayama proper, most often done in a most appropriate form of the archetypal Yoga seated position with the legs crossed, hands forming sacred gestures, jaw relaxed, chin tucked in and the back erect, eventually including some of the breath suspensions done in an appropriate way. This fundamental practice of asana and pranayama in synergy, one within the other and one after the other, naturally prepares for meditation as the crown practice of Yoga, and it happens within a certain context. The right Yogic context for it is the everyday life based on moral integrity (yama) and consistent discipline (niyama). Also, the Yoga that we practice must generally be safe (not dangerous), it must be effective (not ineffective) and it must be pleasurable (not painful). If it is dangerous, ineffective and/or painful, you can be pretty sure that what you are practicing or teaching is not Yoga. This is what I got from my teacher Mark Whitwell immediately, and soon was empowered by him to transmit it to others. The act of transmission was and is love, a genuine care for the well-being of others. And this sincere relationship between teacher and student is the primary Yoga. All the rest happens more or less naturally and spontaneously.
Of course, no human activity, including Yoga, is 100 percent safe and therefore it is always somewhat of a challenge. Of course that its effectiveness is quite relative and so varies with different people. And of course, not all the Yoga sessions must be entirely pleasurable because it is probably impossible. However, these are the principles that help create a right context for personal transformation that Yoga is supposed to provide. If these three basic preconditions for developing a personal practice are not there, it will become virtually impossible to develop the practice and no transformation will take place. The student must bring in her/his willingness to practice and change for the better, and the teacher must secure the context for this transformation to bloom, and then be there for the student while going through the challenges of transformation as long as the student doesn’t become her/his own teacher. At least, this was/is my experience with Mark as his student and my experience with my students. And there must be some spontaneity in one’s practice, and it grows as we grow in our practice so that we actually do our yoga anew each day, ideally giving ourselves exactly what we need at a particular moment of our human development through Yoga. No system of Yoga can do that for us. At least that is what I think and know from my own experience in practicing and teaching Yoga.
When it comes to the practice of yogasana, each Yoga practice session should ideally be planned in such a way as to insure the proper movement of the spine in all directions. This is how T. Krishnamacharya classified asanas and this is a safe way to progress in our Yoga practice. First, the spine should be gently activated (sometimes with the help of simple head movements of increasing difficulty or simply by stretching the spine gently in a seated half forward bend) and then stretched upwards. Lifting the arms above one’s head on inhale is a good way of doing it, either sitting, standing or lying on the back. Then, the spine is stretched forwards on exhale, as for example in the standing forward bend. The spine can then be stretched backwards (on inhale) and sideways (either on exhale or on inhale), first in simple and then in more complex movements. And finally, the spinal twists can be done after the spine was properly prepared in previous movements, since they are the most complex movements of the spine. They are usually performed on exhale and must be followed by a gentle forward bend as a counter pose. In this way, the spine will be both softened and strengthened, which are the qualities a healthy spine must have and retain as long as possible so that the good health of the entire organism is ensured.
Also, a special care should be taken to balance posing and reposing in a Yoga practice. Modern styles of postural yoga are usually either too dynamic or too static, and often lack this delicate sense of balance between moving into and out of postures, and staying in them, either holding the breath or subtly breathing in the postures. This is very important since we must have both: a dynamic exploration of our limitations and a static relaxation into our limitations once we have detected them. Then the breath takes over and leads us across our physical, psychological and spiritual boundaries if IT wants to go there. Since the breath is moving the body, it is the inner teacher that must be obeyed at all times. The final/ideal/classical/desired position is never the goal, only an orientational point of reference. The goal is to feel good while we are exploring our limitations and relax into our reality.
Asana practice is also the right context to learn most of the mudras of hatha-yoga, especially the three bandha-mudras: jalandhara, uddiyana and mula-banda-mudra, or tri-bandha. At first, special attention is paid to learning jalandhara-bandha-mudra safely without creating any undue tension in the neck. The neck is very sensitive and can be stretched safely only with great caution. Jalandhara-bandha is first done dynamically with the shoulders lifted up before lowering the chin towards the lifted sternum, then dynamically with the shoulders kept down, and only then statically with the chin comfortably tucked in while performing any samasthiti-asana (the one in which the spine is erect or extended). So, before introducing jalandhara-bandha into any pranayama, it must first be practiced in appropriate asanas, first dynamically and then more and more statically until it becomes natural and easy. It will stretch the spine, open the rib cage and enable the practitioner to breathe in deeply and fully. In due time, its connection with the other two important bandhas (uddiyana and mula-bandha) and its deeper significance at the vital and spiritual levels will also be known. Jalandhara-bandha (tucking the chin in as far as comfortable) is applied in all the postures where the spine is straight and elongated in the upward direction according to the capacity of the practitioner. Mula-bandha (contracting the lower abdominals plus the perineum) is occasionally practiced mostly in deep forward bends on exhale by contracting the lower abdomen and the muscles of the perineum in and up. Uddiyana-bandha can be first practiced in various twists during a full exhale (including some other simpler postures promoting the deep sucking of the upper abdominals in and up) and later on in some mudras like tadagi-mudra, viparita-karani-mudra and maha-mudra. By inhaling into the chest and exhaling from the base of the body consistently throughout asana practice, the whole torso is slowly and systematically engaged into the breathing process and the movements of the arms and legs in various positions help the practitioner breathe deeply with the whole body. There is no straining either of the body or the breath.
It is very important to start your Yoga practice properly, that is mentally prepare yourself for the practice, and then actually start practicing. Ending your practice properly is of equal importance, and then you actually start living your life. The main point of a Yoga practice is to feel what is happening inside, especially at the end of the practice when all the positive effects should be absorbed deeply into the body and mind, and we need to give ourselves some time to feel it. That is the reason why we cannot end our practice abruptly, but instead deepen it by blessing ourselves through certain movements and gestures that help us feel the subtle changes of the energy currents in our system. And finally, we should never forget that one of the principal reasons for doing asana is preparing the whole organism for long sitting in pranayama and meditation, so the basic cross-legged sitting position must be carefully and consistently built up until sitting with ease like a majestic mountain becomes possible without straining one’s body or torturing one’s mind. Any kind of obsession with the form or custom, like insisting on sitting in the lotus posture (padmasana) if it is not possible or comfortable for whatever reason, is very unproductive and should be avoided. Easier sitting postures can be practiced instead, and a chair can be used too in some cases. All kinds of props can be employed and there are technical details and little secrets about how to sit well without forcing either the body or the mind.
There are many ways of performing Yoga postures and here are some of the possibilities that came out of my personal practice:
I. ASANAS PERFORMED INDIVIDUALLY
a) free and deep ujjayi breathing while going into and out of an asana
b) inhale and exhale of approximately the same length
c) inhale or exhale (or both) deepened with each repetition of one asana
d) inhale or exhale (or both) deepened with each new asana
a) breathing freely and deeply in an asana with small movements of the body
b) breathing freely and deeply in an asana with only the torso moving
c) inhale and exhale of approximately the same length while staying in an asana with the same ratio as in dynamic performance of the same asana
d) inhale and exhale of different lengths, usually 1:2 or 2:1
a) subtle inaudible breathing in the deepest comfortable position and easing into the final position with each new breath to the extent IT wants to go
b) subtle inaudible breathing in the final position and merging with the infinite
c) holding the breath and stopping every movement in an asana either after inhale or after exhale (or both if the breath is also held in the starting position)
d) breathing in ratios with holds while in an asana, as in static sama-vrtti or vishama-vrtti-pranayama (or with movement if the breath is held in the starting position)
In Steps (asana-krama):
a) performing an asana in 2, 3 or more steps with one breath in between step
b) performing an asana in 2, 3 or more steps while holding the breath
II. ASANAS PERFORMED IN SEQUENCES (vinyasa-krama)
connecting 2 asanas into a meaningful whole
connecting 3 or more asanas into a meaningful whole
compressing 2 or more asanas into one breath
III: ASANA VARIATIONS
Varying the form:
a) without the use of props
b) with the use of props
c) changing the ideal/classical form
Varying the breath:
a) inhaling where exhaling is usually done and the other way round
b) moving while holding the breath
Varying the focus and sphere of attention:
a) moving the focus from where the maximum action is to other less prominent areas
b) moving the focus to a number of different points, from various parts of the body to deeper emotions
Varying the rhythm:
a) slowing down and/or speeding up either in breathing or moving from one asana to another
b) resting more or less than usual
Varying the order of execution:
a) changing the preparation for an asana or an asana-vinyasa
b) changing the order in which asanas/vinyasas are usually executed
Varying the counter poses:
a) doing the usual counter poses in different ways
b) doing different counter poses
IV. ASANA WITH MANTRA
mantra articulated out loud to extend the breath
mantra articulated softly to calm the system
mantra articulated silently to improve concentration
combining all three ways of articulation in one asana session to get the combined results
V. ASANA WITH MUDRA/BANDHA
combining asana with bandhas
combining asana with other mudras
VI. ASANA WITH DRSHTI
using external gazing (bahir-drshti) in some postures
using internal gazing (antar-drshti) in some postures
using both drshtis in one asana session
VII. ASANA WITH BHAVANA
physical (focus on the body and breath)
mental (focus on the mind and feeling)
devotional (focus on emotions and surrender)
The ability to breathe with the whole body that was developed in asana practice is then effectively used in pranayama, where there is no movement of the limbs, but there is a lot of movement of the trunk: the chest expanding on inhale and the base contracting on the exhale; the spine moving up on inhale and moving down on exhale. The basic pranayama is ujjayi-pranayama and ujjayi breath is used in performing asana. Namely, the hissing sound produced at the back of the throat by slightly constricting the vocal cords both during inhalation and exhalation is first used in asana to facilitate the coordination of the breath and movement so that the breath starts and ends each movement. Then it is used in static ujjayi-pranayama. T. Krishnamacharya realized that the coupling of the ujjayi breath with the movement links asana with pranayama into one functional whole and so asana is no longer practiced as a separate set of bodily exercises done haphazardly without the breath being the moving force behind the body. Instead, it is actually the breath that is moving the body, so after ujjayi breathing has been consistently applied while performing asana, it naturally turns into a static ujjayi-pranayama, where it is used as the basic means to prolong, feel and deepen the breath. First, inhale (puraka) and exhale (recaka) are prolonged, and finally holds, or suspensions, after both inhale and/or exhale (abhyantara-kumbhaka and bahya-kumbhaka), are slowly and carefully introduced. The respiratory components can be all of equal length or of different lengths. Sama-vrtti means all the phases of breathing are of the same length: inhale, exhale and hold (if there is one) are all of the same length. Vishama-vrtti means that the four phases of breathing are not of the same length: inhale, exhale and hold (if there is one) are of different lengths, usually with the ratio of 1:2 (exhale twice as long as inhale) and later on 1:4:2:0 (holding the breath after inhale is four times as long as inhale while exhale is twice as long as inhale with no holding after exhale). More complex pranayamas of the ujjayi type – anuloma, viloma and pratiloma-ujjayi-pranayama – can also be used for different purposes.
Nadi-sodhana-pranayama is the second most important type of pranayama, the one that makes use of the alternate nostril breathing with the help of a hand gesture called mrgi-mudra by which the nostrils are pressed or released using the thumb and the last two fingers of the right hand (inhale into the partially closed left nostril, exhale through the partially closed right nostril, inhale into the partially closed right nostril and exhale through the partially closed left nostril, making one breathing cycle in this pranayama) to achieve various psycho-physiological effects in the practitioner. If done without holds (kumbhaka) to cleanse the subtle channels (nadi) in the body, it is called nadi-suddhi and it is not considered pranayama proper. Only if it involves holding the breath it is considered to be a real pranayama. And, if accompanied with bandha and mantra, it is in fact regarded as the supreme pranayama that effectively calms the mind and so adequately prepares for mediation, or dhyana. It is probably the oldest type of formalized pranayama. It was widely used in ancient India and is often thought to be the paradigmatic pranayama that should be done daily with the minimum of 12 breaths per one session, 2-4 times a day. Two other pranayamas of the same type – surya and candra-bhedana-pranayama – can also be used for various purposes.
Bandha-mudra is a type of hatha-yoga-mudra which involves delicate muscle contractions in the torso to make pranayama as efficient as possible in each particular case. Jalandhara-bandha involves the neck and chest in such a way as to lower the chin at the end of inhale towards the lifted sternum. It maximizes the inhale since it stretches the spine and opens the rib-cage. Mula-bandha is a complete exhale or contraction of the perineal muscles in the pelvic floor (or vaginal muscles in women), including the lower abdominal muscles. It maximizes the exhale since it effectively contracts the base of the body, both above and below the pubic bone. Uddiyana-bandha is an intensification of mula-bandha done in such a way as to lift the upper abdomen (the portion above the navel) in and up with mula and jalandhara-bandha properly engaged. It is usually done after a complete exhalation (that is, with mula-bandha firmly in place), with great care, and is released slowly so that the next inhale can be done without gasping. Jalandhara-bandha is also applied throughout the process. Uddiyana-bandha massages the vital abdominal organs, including the heart and liver, and facilitates the merge of prana (the energy of inhale) and apana (the energy of exhale) in the Heart (hrdaya), which is the very essence of hatha-yoga. On the physical level, all three bandhas effectively bind the torso so that all the muscles of the trunk cooperate intelligently in such a way as to support the breath. On the energetic level, the three bandhas seal the torso off so that no vital energy is leaking out of the body, but is instead channelled into the core of the body. On the spiritual level, tri-bandha is a devotional practice of integrating the mind located in the head and the instincts located in the base at Heart located in the chest; the mind is bowing to the Heart and the instincts are sublimated in the Heart.
The principles of vinyasa-krama when planning and practicing pranayama are often applied in the same way as in planning and practicing an asana sequence (that is, it includes the three continuous phases of preparation, culmination and conclusion): first we take a few preparatory breaths, then we take a few middle breaths with some complications (usually introducing suspensions, visualizations, mantra and/or bandhas that are in focus of that particular pranayama session) and then we ease up by taking a few relaxing breaths without any complications (except for jalandhhara-bandha, which is usually held throughout all types pranayama to secure a straight spine and a deep inhale).
Throughout a pranayama session, we make sure that inhale is done by first expanding the rib-cage and stretching the spine upwards and then secondarily protruding the abdomen, whereas exhale is done by first contracting the base and then secondarily deflating the chest over the contracted base. Inhale is the opposite of effort and is done with the idea of receiving the life-giving energy from the outside deeply into the organism along the frontal line of the body, whereas exhale is done actively with the idea of releasing the consumed energy up and out of the system along the dorsal line of the body. There should be no strain in the neck while doing jalandhara-bandha and no spasms while doing mula-bandha. As jalandhara, mula-bandha can be engaged throughout the entire pranayama session, but they are never firmly fixed: jalandhara is slightly released during exhale, and mula-bandha during inhale. Since uddiyana-bandha is very strenuous, the most delicate and most complex of the three, it is done only occasionally and its practice should not compromise the quality of breathing. The minimal requirement for it is the ability to hold the breath after exhale for at least 15-20 seconds with ease, and all the bandhas must be carefully learnt only from a competent and caring teacher in a private one-on-one teaching situation.
The logic behind the entire idea of a Yoga practice, from the vital perspective of an uninhibited flow of prana in the body, is the following: asana opens the nadis, nadi-suddhi cleanses them, pranayama (with kumbhaka) fills them with prana, and dhyana concentrates, directs and merges prana with Isvara, or the Source of Life in the spiritual Heart felt somewhere in the chest. This, in fact, is the traditional definition of pranayama; namely, it is the stretching (ayama) of prana throughout the whole body so that it could be stretched back or surrendered to the Whole of Life.
In conclusion, the important points to understand about pranayama are the following:
According to T. Krishnamacharya, “pranayama is central to yoga because the breath is central to life”.
Asana is essentially dynamic pranayama, and pranayama done in some stable (usually sitting cross-legged) position is stationary pranayama, or pranayama proper.
The two most important pranayamas are ujjayi and nadi-sodhana: the first one is first applied in moving while doing asana, and then as the first static pranayama to further connect with the breath; the second one is then used to calm the mind.
Pranayama, if properly practiced, strengthens the breath and calms the whole system, facilitating deep relaxation conducive to healing and meditation.
Pranayama prepares the practitioner for meditation because conscious breathing first clears the mind and the suspensions then effectively cut off the train of thoughts and so make meditation possible, natural and easy.
In essence, “pranayama is conscious breathing” (T. K. V. Desikachar); and “when we are with our breath, we are with That which breathes us” (Mark Whitwell), we become aware of prana-sakti that we actually are as Life Herself flowing through us as we flow through our life on this breathing planet Earth.
The Sun Salute Sequence of Postures Understood and Practiced as a „Whole Body Prayer to Life“
Worshipping the Sun, especially at the junctures between day and night, that is at dawn and dusk, is an ancient Vedic form of meditation acknowledging the fact that there would be no us without the Sun, which is the visible living God – the Giver of Life, Manifestation of Love and Repository of Inspiration. That the Sun gives life with its warmth and light is obvious. It is also a personification of love because it shines equally on all living beings, making no differences and no preferences. And the Sun is a great inspiration because it makes the whole world visible with our eyes open and is the basis for the inner light guiding each individual on his or her path to goodness, wholeness and transcendence when we close our eyes. So, the Sun is worthy of every worship and more. The basic daily ritual of the Hindu brahmanical culture that is a religious expression of this worship is called samdhya-vandana and is the worship of the Sun performed daily at sunrise and sunset, at the mystical junctures when night becomes day and day becomes night. It is undoubtedly the cornerstone of Vedic religion, as it is obvious in its quintessential savitri/gayatri-mantra, the chanting of which occupies the central place in the ritual and is an invocation of the Power of the Sun to inspire us to wake up spiritually, and then meditate on sunlight seeking self-knowledge and liberating wisdom. Those special moments of transition in the movement of the Sun, that is the Earth, are the quietest moments of the day when meditation becomes easy and insights come naturally while the Sun steps into the daylight and then withdraws into the dark. The tantric cultures also worship the Sun, not just the Moon, and it is probably among the tantrika worshipers that it got its bodily form in the nowadays widely known and globally practiced Sun Salutation Sequence of Postures – surya-namaskara-vinyasa – in which the Sun is adored in a series of special body movements (vinyasa) comprising specific Yoga postures done by closely synchronising the movement with the breath, which are the immediate and intimate manifestations of Life happening right here and right now as our own breathing and enlightening embodiment.
The origin of the ritual is unclear and it was probably performed in different forms for different purposes throughout the centuries by various groups of people and many inspired individuals. Some researches think that it is very old and was perhaps revived in the 17th century state of Maharashtra while some think it is the product of the 19th or even 20th century asana and physical culture revivals within and outside of hatha-yoga. It is sometimes practiced in various forms as part of the Vedic prayer to the Sun God Surya known as aruna-prapathaka, or surya-namaskara, where a round of surya-namaskara-vinyasa together with some nyasas (placing appropriate mantras into specific parts of the body using special hand gestures) or other rites can be done at the end of each of its 32 sections. Most often, only the full prostration, or sashtangasana-namaskara is done. The recitation/ritual is usually performed on Sunday and it is believed that it can help in curing all diseases, especially those of the eyes, promoting good health, vitality and longevity. It seems that the Sun Salute was not practiced in the hatha-yoga traditions until the second half of the 19th century, and in the first half of the 20th century it slowly took an important place in modern postural Yoga as well as in many segments of popular physical culture, both in India and abroad. It might have developed from the old ritualistic practice of the cicumbulation around a holy object by repeated whole body prostrations until the object is ceremoniously fully circled by a pious falling and rising with the whole body while the devotee prays for the atonement of the past sins or simply expresses deep whole body gratitude for God’s grace. It can still be seen in modern India, and usually a little stone is thrown in front to measure the body length before lying prone on the ground with the hands clasped into the praying gesture with the forehead devotionally touching the ground. Later on, this elementary movement was perhaps extended into a series of movements done at one place facing the Sun with the basic prostration forming the centrepiece of the practice comprising 12 postures, which are symbolic of the 12 months of the solar year. Some of the Indian martial arts and traditional gymnastics also used movements similar to this, usually known as danda (“stick”) exercises, to strengthen the whole body and develop agility and fitness needed for their specific purposes. So, it is obvious that the significance, origin and history of the Sun Salute are quite complex, and its place and importance in modern Yoga practice are still quite controversial for many reasons. The connection of the Sun Salute with modern Yoga is ambivalent primarily because the influential and ancient Yoga texts, including the classical hatha-yoga works, do not mention the Sun Salute as part of its practice and it got somehow mixed up with physical culture, health regimens and gymnastics, especially recently, although it must have originally been a religious practice used by both brahmanical and tantric cultures all over India.
In my teacher’s words, the Sun Salute Sequence of Postures is a “whole body prayer to Life“, or to the Sun as the Source of Life. It is a “prayer” in the sense of expressing deep gratitude for the invaluable gift of Life, with our whole body, to both our Father Sun and our Mother Earth. When the hot energy of the Sun unites with the moist energy of the Earth in the mid-space of Atmosphere, all Life is created, including the human being as a divine conductor of Cosmic/Life Energy between Heaven and Earth. So, the Sun Salute is a delicate and intricate ritual of expressing total devotion to the cosmic powers of Father Son, Mother Earth and the Infinite Space in between them where all Life, at the very point of their connection, is happening right here and right now as you and me, as the Whole of Existence. The point of the „exercise“ is to feel the opposites merging in the Heart as the Whole of Life that we utterly are. The way to achieve this Whole-Hearted participation in the Wonder of Life is to let the breath initiate and envelope all the movements, which should be slow and yet fluid, with a longer pause of natural breathing in the middle, in the total devotion of danda-samarpana. The movements must be soft, which means that the whole body must be relaxed while inhaling from above and stable while exhaling from below. The chest spreads infinitely in all directions while inhaling and the base of the body contracts into one point while exhaling. The San Salute begins and ends with the palms softly touching in anjali-mudra, symbolizing the integrity of the Heart. Everything comes out of Heart and everything goes back to Heart. From silence we move and then back to silence we return, feeling with our whole body that we are One with the Cosmos.
The Sun Salute is not just a warming-up or limbering-up exercise, or one of the vinyasas, and it is not complete without its central component, the face-down prostration, the sixth posture known as danda-samarpana-sthiti, or sashtanga-namaskara, where the complete union of the male energy of the Sun and the female energy of the Earth is realized as infinite gratitude and immense adoration. The connection with the Sun is made in all the postures with the face looking up and hands reaching out, and the connection with the Earth is made in all the postures with the face looking down and hands touching the ground. In the essential danda-samarpana, where all eight body parts (feet, knees, chest, head and hands) are touching the ground, their union is to be felt as the integrity of our embodied existence and our interconnectedness with everything else. The healing warmth of the Sun is fully released into the Earth by putting the forehead onto the ground, and the refreshing moist of the Earth is received through the open Heart with the chest fully spread on the ground. Visualizing the light of the Sun probing the Earth as beams of light coming out from the eyes and forehead, and then visualizing the healing vapour of the Earth surging through the chest can help in feeling this overall immersion with the Whole of Existence more vividly and more clearly. By intoning appropriate Vedic or non-Vedic mantras, and especially the surya-bija-mantras – om hram hrim hrum hraim hraum hrah – first when moving towards the central danda-samarpana, one in each asana silently, and then once again when moving away from it towards the starting standing position, or simply intoning them all out loud in the central position, the whole ritual acquires the additonal vibratory power with a religious flavour. The mantra recitation can be accompanied with a visualizition of the ascent of Life Energy through the spine, and then the descent of it back into the Heart as the absolute point of union of all opposites, and so this process of recognizing our supreme identity with the Whole of the Universe is intensified and enhanced. The point of the ritual is to feel the opposites merging in the Heart as the Whole of Life that we utterly are in our wonder-full presence on the face of this supporting Earth and under the protection of the loving Sun.
Special attention should be given to proper breathing and a sense of devotion should run throughout the sequence. Deep conscious breathing connects all the movements into a graceful and meaningful whole whose main point is total devotion to the cosmic forces of the Sun, Sky and Earth. Man and woman are nothing but a vibrant confluence of these forces, so the exercise is nothing but a “whole body pray to Life”, as my teacher Mark Whitwell beautifully expressed the essence of the Sun Salute. Therefore, the middle posture of total devotion (danda-samarpana) is the peak of each Sun Salute sequence and should not be left out, as it usually is in modern Yoga. The hands can be either clasped into anjali-mudra or both palms can be touching the ground. Furthermore, most people should first do simple variations that avoid caturanga-dandasana, or deep plank, which can be quite difficult for beginners or women. Later on, the classical version, the one including both upward facing dog (urdhva-mukha-svanasana) and downward facing dog (adho-mukha-svanasana), can be practiced moderately. Overdoing it and over sweating while doing it to the point of exhaustion, sometimes even doing it 108 times or more, is not Yoga but some form of tapas, fitness or detoxification, and it should be avoided by most people. In time, some other variations can be created by individual practitioners and may include other postures with both the lateral bending and twisting of the spine in the basic striding positions (parsvottanasana and virabhadrasana), such as utthita-parsva-konasana, utthita-parsva-konasana-parivrtti and virabhadrasana-parivrtti. When lateral bends and twists are included in the Sun Salute, the spine gets all the possible movements and surya-namaskara-vinyasa can also be seen as a whole body set of exercises that is beneficial for the whole system. In its most advanced form, it can include jumps (utpluti), usually from the first utkatasana to caturanga-dandasana and back from adho-mukha-svanasana to the second utkatasana. This is especially useful for the young and athletic people if they want to dynamize their practice and make it more interesting and challenging. The Sun Salute can also be done on the knees, not just standing up. Furthermore, there is a less known and less practiced sequence called the Moon Salute (candra-namaskara-vinyasa), of equally unclear origin, most often comprising 16 postures, probably symbolic of the 16 phases of the waxing or waning Moon, with a deep squat usually performed in the middle.
An important point to notice is that the Sun Salute can be a basis for many creative vinyasas that can enrich our Yoga practice and so open some new perspectives on ourselves and our practice. Mere mechanical repetition of a prearranged set of movements whose only or main purpose is to be a warm-up exercise misses both the whole point of the Sun Salute and Yoga in general. The point is to do it as a ritual of consciously feeling and appreciating the overall interconnectedness of Everything with Everything; the point is to feel with our whole Heart that we are totally interrelated with everything that is making up our world. And it is meant equally for both men and women, and women can, in the central sashtanga-namaskara, touch the ground with their whole body (breasts and womb included), contrary to what the male patriarchal authorities were suggesting and prohibiting in India for centuries. Doing an appropriate form of the Sun Salute is actually a great opportunity to take a little time for a little meditation beginning with the question: Where would I be without the Sun? This is how Mark was teaching me the Sun Salute, never as a mere warming-up exercise or as a dynamic preparation for the practice of asanas or as a debilitating fitness regimen. And that is how T. Krishnamacharya used to teach it. Some people still wrongly believe that he invented the Sun Salute or introduced it to modern Yoga, basing their misconceptions on the way he was teaching Yoga to the young boys in a group setting at the palace of the Maharaja of Mysore in the 1930s and 1940s or on the ways the Sun Salute is practiced in some of the modern styles of Yoga deriving from Krishnamacharya. The truth is that he did use many of the forms of the Sun Salute that were practiced in India in the first half of the 20th century to make the practice of Yoga more interesting, more dynamic and more challenging to children and young men that he was teaching at the time, and he was using those forms and adapting them to teach individual asanas in the middle of it with the first half of the Sun Salute used as a preparation for the posture done in the middle and the second half as an equally long series of counter poses leading out of the central posture. This inevitably included the athletic jump throughs that required and developed a lot of strength, putting a lot of additional load onto the joints. He had good reasons why he did that, but it was not the only way he was teaching the Sun Salute and certainly not the only purpose for which he was teaching it. Krishnamacharya definitely practiced the Sun Salute himself within his elaborate version of samdhaya-vandana ritual, which, among several smaller rituals, also included pranayama with gayatri-mantra done in the squatting and standing positions. For him, just like any other Yoga technique, it was pure devotion. And that is the essence of the Sun Salute Sequence understood and practiced as a whole body prayer to Life. It is Life praising Herself through us while we are praising the Sun, Earth and the Space between them as the nurturing Forces of Nature sustaining all Life, our own included. Try doing it like that and see a world of difference:
Total devotion to Father Sun and Mother Earth,
and to everything and everybody that inspires us…
Total devotion to Life with the whole body, felt at Heart,
received with gratitude and given without asking anything in return…
That is all we need from the world,
and the world needs from us…
The Classical Inversions of Hatha Yoga:
The Technology, Benefits and Risks
Practicing and teaching the classical inversions of hatha-yoga is undoubtedly a very tricky and hazardous business. All the possible risks (which are many) and benefits (most of which can be achieved through other less risky, similar and easier postures) must be carefully taken into consideration in each particular case, and then the well-known classical inversions – which are shoulderstand (salamba-sarvangasana) with arm support and headstand (salamba-sirshasana) with arm support – can be very discriminately and very gradually practiced by and taught to only some people, let’s say one in five, or less. There are good and effective substitutes for them like ardha-sarvangasana, halasana, urdhva-prasrta-padasana, dvipada-vipraita-karani, dvipada-pitha, sasakasana, apanasana, balasana, uttanasana, pascimottanasana, stretching the legs against the wall at a comfortable angle while lying on the back or putting the legs on a chair bent at the knees and many more. I usually teach only viparita-karani-mudra (a half-shoulderstand in which there is a slight angle between the legs and the torso) to avoid the pressure on the neck (which is significant if the body is fully straightened as is the case in full shoulderstand) and get all the benefits or almost all the benefits from a Yogic inversion. I personally practice both classical inversions, but only occasionally and very carefully, and I have an extensive background in complex movement through artistic gymnastics that I practiced for ten years in my teenage years and martial arts that I am still practicing. The first principle in teaching Yoga for me has always been safety. And when practicing and teaching the inversions, safety is definitely the most important factor to be considered. If we are serious teachers, we need to put emphasis on our actual practicing/teaching experience rather than on common stereotypes, which abound in modern Yoga and sometimes affect our practice and our teaching to such an extent that we keep injuring ourselves and others (falsely) thinking that we are practicing and teaching Yoga. Of course, none of our activities is absolutely safe, but that is one of the reasons why we adapt everything to our personal needs and the needs of our students: to reduce the risks to the minimum and achieve maximum results. Perhaps there is no other human activity that exemplifies this truth better than Yoga, if it really is Yoga.
Practicing and teaching the classical inversions is very complex and delicate, and it all boils down to respecting individual needs and differences. Some people can benefit immensely from the inversions and can practice them until the end of their lives, with or without props, while others can be severely injured or even killed. There are also many technical details that need to be known about the safe practice of the inversions that most Yoga teachers simply don’t know. Most notably, I am referring to the principles of vinyasa-krama-yoga, or the intelligent structuring of a Yoga practice and the principles of the viniyoga of Yoga, or the efficient adapting of the Yoga techniques to a particular practitioner. Without the practical knowledge of these principles, Yoga cannot be taught safely and effectively. In short, a Yoga practice must be well-structured and well-adapted to each individual, instead of being taught indiscriminately in group classes as it is usually being taught, where the instructors more or less mechanically follow some arbitrary standardized patterns of the innumerable styles of “yoga”. This is the main cause of most injuries, including the injuries that happen in teaching the inversions to people who don’t need them or are not ready for them, and very often in the ways that are not appropriate for them.
In my careful approach to practicing and teaching the inversions, I am not disregarding Krishnamacharya’s authority (who emphasized the practice and the benefits of the inversions more than any other modern teacher). On the contrary, I respect it by actually applying the principles of vinyasa-krama-yoga and the viniyoga of Yoga to the way I am practicing and teaching all Yoga. And Krishnamacharya’s authority in the field of Yoga is primarily based on his clear and comprehensive formulation of these principles. And, in the final analysis, the authority of my personal experience is the ultimate authority when it comes to deciding what to teach and what not to teach. And my personal experience tells me that teaching the inversions in a group setting (especially if I don’t know the abilities and needs of the people I am teaching) is a very unsafe and unreasonable activity. I have been teaching Yoga for more than 20 years now and have met only 4 or 5 people who were ready for all the inversions and so could really benefit from them. On the other hand, I have seen too many people who were taught the inversions in inappropriate ways, and so either got injured or received no tangible benefits from them. So, if you are a Yoga teacher, I urge you to reconsider what you know or think you know about the inversions and perhaps modify your teaching accordingly, so that the possibility of injuries is reduced to minimum or hopefully is totally removed. If you are a Yoga student, I am asking you to find yourself a competent and caring Yoga teacher, and be very careful in the practice of the inversions, so that you are sure you are practicing the Yoga that is right for you and all the potential injuries are totally avoided.
It goes without saying that the inversions are to be taught only in a one-on-one private setting, never in a group setting because teaching them in a group class can be extremely dangerous. Almost anything can happen: a person who has never gone into a headstand might do it because other people are doing it or is encouraged by the instructor, and then either hurt only himself/herself in many different ways or fall down and badly injure himself/herself and/or somebody practicing close to him/her, even causing a domino effect of a few people falling down in a row if the place is fully packed. However, if the group is composed of experienced practitioners/teachers who are practicing the inversions on a regular basis with benefits, it can be done relatively safely, but I wouldn’t recommend it even then. Did you know that my teacher’s teacher, T. K. V. Desikachar, almost killed his first student (in a one-on-one class!) by having him lift his arms overhead a few times?! He thought: What can be the most simple and safest thing to do? However, the man had a weak heart, was obese and probably hadn’t lifted his hands overhead for 20 years or more, so he fainted, went all blue and Krishnamacharya, who was fortunately in the adjacent room, had to resuscitate him. He almost died. And his teacher Desikachar went into a state of shock and taught Yoga under the close supervision of Krishnamacharya for the next five years until he felt competent enough to teach independently. So, the point is to get a good Yoga education and know your students very well. Then you will not teach what you are supposed to teach (mechanically following a pattern) or what your students want you to teach (also mechanically following some pattern), but what you feel is the right thing to teach as an informed intuitive response to the real needs of each particular individual and the unique situation you both find yourselves in. And, as clearly stated in Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra (2.46.), each asana, the inversions included, must have the dual quality of stability (sthirata) and comfort (sukha), and the way to get there must also be stable (safe) and comfortable (joyful).
Let me now focus on a proper sequencing for a safe and effective performance of the two most important inversions – supported headstand (salamba–sirshasana) and modified, so called half-shoulderstand (ardha–sarvangasana, also known as viparita-karani-mudra). There is a lot of controversy and misunderstanding about how these quintessential Yoga postures should be performed. Their safe and effective performance is quite an achievement since most people nowadays who practice or insist on practicing these inversions do not understand the basic requirements or the purposes for which these highly coveted Yoga postures (actually, the seals, or mudras of hatha-yoga) should be practiced. So, the point of this article is to show and explain in clear terms how and why these postures can be practiced without causing any health problems, and so really give their full benefits to a cautious Yoga practitioner.
Inversions, like all cultural asanas (as opposed to those used for mediation) for that matter, seem to be a relatively recent development in the history of Yoga, or more specifically hatha-yoga. And in the oldest hatha-yoga texts they are usually described under the general category of viparita-karani-mudra, whose main purpose is to stabilize the effects of asanas and pranayama, and are therefore higher, more subtle practices. Many modern Yoga innovators, including Sri T. Krishnamacharya, emphasized the practice of inversions as being very important in producing various medical and spiritual results. However, the dangers of an incorrect practice of inversions, especially those due to the exceeding pressure exerted on the neck and the increased blood pressure in the head and eyes, have not always been dealt properly by those teachers. It is true that Krishnamacharya, although a fervent practitioner of inversions himself, had said that headstand was good only for healthy people who are well-versed in Yoga and never taught inversions indiscriminately, it is still quite unclear what the purpose of inversions really is, how they should be practiced safely and why they are so important in the overall Yoga practice.
In my experience, shoulderstand holds all or almost all the benefits of headstand, excluding most of the risks present in performing headstand, especially its modified version in which there is virtually no pressure on the neck, which is also sometimes specifically referred to as viparita-karani-mudra. Headstand may be “the King of asanas”, but shoulderstand is definitely “the Heart of asanas”, especially the above-mentioned modification. Therefore, for most people, the efforts should be made to learn that posture and forget about headstand for a long time or for ever! Only adequately prepared practitioners can venture into practicing headstand and it is always done under supervision of a highly competent teacher. A person must be technically well-prepared (have all the technical information) physically well-prepared (have the muscular strength of the whole body to do it, especially in the neck, shoulders and arms), psychologically well-prepared (since inversions literally invert our experience of ourselves and the world) and spiritually well-prepared (that is, be in a real need of doing the inversions). People who have psychological problems, who are obese, have high blood pressure, glaucoma, weak heart, respiratory difficulties, any kind of neck problems and many others must all avoid headstand. Possibly some of them could try half-shoulderstand, and most of them can do half an inversion (any lying posture on the back in which the legs are lifted above the pelvis) or one third of an inversion (just holding the knees while lying on the back), especially if they are older or have low energy for whatever reason. And this can be decided only in consultation with both their Yoga teacher and their physician.
An effective practice that includes one or both classical inversions could be artfully and intelligently designed within only a 20-minute-long yogasana session, with the proper preparation and adequate counter posing included. According to the principles of vinyasa-krama-yoga, inversions are to be done in the middle of an asana practice as its peak, since they require adequate preparation in the form of the postures leading to them, and then adequate counter poses leading out of them to annul the possible negative effects they can have on the organism. Being very strenuous and demanding postures, especially in terms of the significant muscular effort needed to assume them and the necessity of deep breathing while holding them, they must be done with great caution and immaculate precision, and due effort must be made to make deep inhalations in inversions. Namely, it is easy to breathe out in them since the gravity pulls the abdominal organs downwards pressing the diaphragm, but it is quite difficult to perform a good inhale in them, for the same reason. If a practitioner does not inhale properly, tension will immediately be developed in the whole body, the breath will soon shorten and exhaustion will eventually set in, and no benefits will be accomplished in these postures. In the most advanced stages, mula and uddiyana-bandha can be applied in headstand and all three bandhas (jalandhara-bandha included) can be applied in shoulderstand, which actually turns them into a mudra, especially if they are held for longer periods of time with deep and even ujjayi breathing. When that is the case, a very strong cathartic effect on the body and mind can be achieved, making the two inverting mudras an excellent preparation for pranayama and meditation.
So, the whole body should be well-prepared through performing standing postures first, especially those involving forward bending so that the head gets prepared for the inverted position, including some postures done from the kneeling position, like adho-mukha-svanasana. The neck is properly prepared with the practice of jalandhara-bandha in each samasthiti posture (those in which the spine is straight and elongated upwards) and especially in the revolved triangle, known as utthita-trikonasana-parivrtti where the neck is properly strengthened in the rotation of the cervical spine. Without a reasonable mastery of the basic standing postures, jalandhara-bandha and (ardha-)sarvangasana it is futile and dangerous to attempt to do sirshasana. Beginners should first do some basic postures lying on the back that involve the lifting of the legs or pelvis for a long time before attempting the inversions, most notably urdhva-prasrta-padasana and dvipada-pitha, especially as a preparation for shoulderstand. To prepare specifically for headstand, other additional postures can be done, particularly dvipada-viparita-karani immediately before going into it. According to Krishnamacharya, if both inversions are practiced within one session, then headstand is always done first, since shoulderstand is done as one of its counter poses to stretch the compressed neck after doing headstand. Other recommended counter poses are balasana and savasana in order to rest the neck, shoulders and arms, and then the whole body. After shoulderstand, appropriate counter poses must also be done, especially those stretching the neck backwards. They are usually back bends done by lying on the stomach like bhujangasana and salabhasana, but matsyasana and possibly its stronger variation uttana-padasana can also be done. When practiced together, the number of breaths taken in both inversions should be the same, breathing is always long and smooth of the ujjayi type, and the eyes should be closed, even in headstand if possible. Headstand has a very stimulative effect while shoulderstand has a predominantly soothing effect on the whole organism, affecting positively all the limbs (sarva-anga), that is the whole body. Both inversions are ideally done on inhale because the legs move away from the body, but they can be done on exhale too, depending on many subjective factors, or they can be assumed in a series of steps. All kinds of props can be creatively used if necessary, especially the wall, but there are teachers who insist on doing them without leaning on the wall, relying on other methodological procedures such as the prolonged assistance of the teacher, finding balance without the help of the wall and learning how to fall safely forwards into a roll if balance is lost. Teaching methodology is very versatile and it always depends on the real needs of the practitioner, the specific situation and the changing circumstances. No methodology is the best one or the only right one. And it is crucial that headstand is always done with support (salamba) of the arms, never without support (niralamba) of the arms as it is often the case in modern Yoga in the tripod variations or even with no hands on the floor. There has to be enough of counter pressure against gravity from the forearms and shoulders all the time because not more than approximately 30 percent of the rest of the body weight should ever fall onto the neck, and the neck must be well-prepared for that heavy load because it is built to bear less than 10 percent of the body weight, that is only the weight of the head. In the classical shoulderstand with support (salamba-sarvangasana) of the arms, special attention should be paid to provide a soft base for the neck, a folded towel or blanket, so as to avoid too much pressure on the cervical vertebrae that can easily be damaged if the base is too hard.
And finally, I must emphasize that the decision whether or not to do headstand, and when to do it is quite a tricky one. Obviously, the risks must be carefully calculated, all the security measures must be applied and the practitioner must be clear what he or she wants to accomplish by doing inversions, especially headstand. The basic purpose of doing them, aside from the many obvious physiological effects that the lifting of the legs above the head and pelvis can have on the entire organism (primarily a better circulation of the blood and lymph throughout the body, especially in the head), mitigating the negative effects of gravity on the whole body (most notably by the rearranging of the misplaced vital organs, slowing down of the respiratory rate and heartbeat, regenerating the vascular system, better respiratory capacity and improved digestion and elimination) and improving all cognitive functions (better concentration, higher mental stability, increased sense of balance, better memory, sharper senses and stress resistance) is getting a radically new perspective on oneself in radical bodily positions we almost never take in our everyday life, knowing that their cleansing effects on the entire organism at all levels are also extremely strong. Doing an inversion can trigger off all kinds of very unpleasant emotions that have been bottled up, since the bottle of the body has been strongly shaken up and turned upside down. So, be wise and don’t hurry into inversions, make an informed decision and then proceed with great caution, supervised by a good teacher in a private setting. And, for most people, headstand is quite irrelevant (or even contraindicated), since some variations of shoulderstand can give us almost all the benefits of headstand without so many (in most cases quite unnecessary) risks involved in doing headstand. Other, more complex inversions like the forearm stand and handstand with all its innumerable variations are relevant only for a small number of young and strong people and are only rarely used in teaching general population. However, the variations and adaptations of the classical inversions can be practiced by those who are learning them or have learnt them well to make them easier and safer, to fight monotony and reap some additional benefits. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, obssessiveness of any kind is detrimental both in Yoga and in life, and should be avoided in the practice of the classical inversions that have proved to be addictive in many cases, which is yet another one among many of the hazards that must be taken into consideration when practicing and teaching the inversions, especially the headstand.
The Great Seal of Hatha Yoga
There is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding concerning maha-mudra, the signature practice of hatha-yoga and first among the hatha-yoga-mudras. First of all, maha-mudra technically is not a posture (asana) although it is sometimes called maha-mudrasana and is often treated as an asana. However, the mudras of hatha-yoga are more complex and more subtle practices than asanas and are generally considered a separate category of techniques with a somewhat different purpose than asanas although they intersect a lot, sometimes to the point of losing a clear distinction between the two distinct sets of practices. Maha-mudra, like all other mudras, is a very special practice typical and unique of hatha-yoga that is connected with the practice of asanas primary in such a way that the basic characteristics of all the main asana groups (defined and classified by T. Krishnamacharya with regard to the five possible movements of the spine) are contained in maha-mudra:
It is primarily a lateral bending (if the straight leg is positioned at 30-45 degrees in relation to the central line of the body, as it should be), but there are also the elements of twisting (owing to the gentle rotation of the pelvis, lumbar and thoracic spine towards the straight leg while the heel of the bent leg presses the perineum and both legs maintain the angle of at least 120 degrees), forward bending (while moving into the mudra from the starting upward seated position and while holding the posture), upward stretching of the spine (in the final position with the three bandhas in place), and even the elements of backward bending (mostly in the upper back in the final position if the whole back is intensely extended, as it should be) and inverting (when preparing for the posture by first bringing the head to knee). It is always done on both legs with an equal number of repetitions when done dynamically and equal number of breaths or breath suspensions when done statically, and it is usually followed by baddha-konasana (sitting straight with the soles of the feet touching, the thighs open and hands holding the feet) to centre the body after the asymmetric stretching of the torso and possibly by yoga-mudra (bending the trunk deeply forward in a seated cross-legged position) to concentrate life energy into the chest and turn the attention deeply within. And it is best practiced at the end of an asana practice as a preparation for pranayama or as a peak of an asana practice if practiced in the middle of the asana part or even after pranayama as a direct preparation for meditation (dhyana).
Maha-mudra is a mudra because its primary function is the development of the overall (psycho-somatic) stability (sthirata) necessary for the subsequent meditative practices of hatha-yoga. “Maha” means “great” or “comprehensive”, and “mudra” means a “seal” or “symbol” or “something that brings intense joy”. So, maha-mudra is a great symbol of a calm mind that comprehensively seals off all the impediments to the state of Yoga in the form of mental and emotional disturbances. It is a comprehensive energy seal that effectively seals all the positive effects of other Yoga practices done before it is done, channels the life energy into the core of the body and finally brings immense joy to the practitioner in the experience of mental stillness and emotional stability. Maha-mudra is maha-mudra only if the three bandha-mudras (jalandhara, mula and uddiyana-bandha-mudra) are applied in it. It is often confused with the asana called janu-sirshasana or it is practiced without some or all three bandhas. If so, it cannot be fully effective. Traditionally, the practice of maha-mudra is immediately followed by two other mudras: maha-bandha-mudra (which is similar to maha-mudra, but the legs are bent in such a way that the practitioner is sitting on the heel of the lower leg while the foot of the upper leg is put onto the thigh of the lower leg) and maha-vedha-mudra (which is usually done in padmasana and includes first the lifting of the pelvis from the ground and then letting the sitting bones hit the ground with various levels of intensity) So, the three mudras (tri-mudra, or mudra-traya) are practiced in this order to secure the channelling of the united energy of inhalation (prana-vayu) and energy of exhalation (apana-vayu) into the central channel called sushumna-nadi, which is the “energetic” purpose of maha-mudra, while good health of the whole organism is the natural consequence or the “physical” benefit of its regular practice.
In Yoga therapy (yoga-cikitsa) it is primarily used for treating various abdominal and metabolic diseases, especially diabetes, and is very useful for neutralizing various kinds of poisons. According to T. Krishnamacharya, it should be practiced daily once it has been mastered because it is the best prevention (rakshana) against all diseases. Since maha-mudra is a very delicate and subtle practice, it should be learnt only from a competent teacher in a private setting and practiced very cautiously. In modern Yoga, it has virtually disappeared and some sincere efforts must be made to reintroduce the practice of maha-mudra in order to obtain its numerable benefits. T. Krishnamacharya believed that maha-mudra should be persistently practiced for good health, vitality and longevity, especially in middle age when health maintenance and energy management are a priority, and pranayama the most important practice. Maha-mudra is a great preparation for effective pranayama due to the application of the three bandhas (tri-bandha) that are later on applied in pranayama too in order to make it as effective as possible. Maha-mudra is something like the essence of hatha-yoga: all the good stuff compressed into one sacred gesture (mudra) of a whole body devotion to Life giving psycho-somatic stability to the practitioner (sthirata) that is very much needed in meditation.
Maha-mudra is usually practiced at the peak of an asana practice (especially by beginners until it is learnt well) after first moving the spine in all directions, especially forwards and sideways, with adequate counter posing coming right after so that a smooth transition towards the end of the asana practice is safely made, preparing the practitioner adequately for pranayama. Although it is primarily a combination of forward and lateral bending, its essence is an intense extension of the spine supported by the three bandhas accompanied with a slight twist in the upper and lower back. So, the spine must be moved in all five directions to prepare well for maha-mudra. The correct positioning of the legs is: the straight leg is positioned approximately 30-45 degrees to the side in relation to the frontal line of the body, the heel of the bent leg is gently pressing the perineum (men) or is gently pressing the pubic bone (women) with both thighs touching the ground and the sitting bones firmly fixed into the ground. As we have already pointed out, maha-mudra is often taught in its simplified version in which the legs are positioned in the same way as in janu-sirshasana, that is with the straight leg put right in front of the body and the heel of the bent leg touching the groin. This is often confusing to people and many tend to mix the two different techniques, the mudra and the asana. Furthermore, different traditions (even within hatha-yoga) have different versions of maha-mudra and also different people often practice it differently at various stages of their involvement with Yoga and according to their level of competence and the purpose for which they practice it. So, when I say “correct” I actually mean according to Krishnamacharya and, of course, according to the changing needs of every practitioner.
The full maha-mudra comprises all three bandhas and it involves breath suspensions: if the breath is held after exhale, all three bandhas are present in it; if it is held after inhale, then only jalandhara, and sometimes mula-bandha, is applied. The trick with uddiyana-bandha in maha-mudra is that it is naturally there after a full exhale with the other two bandhas in place owing to the rotation of the spine creating the lifting of the upper part of the abdomen (part above the navel) naturally in and up. Jalandhara is applied during or at the end of inhale, mula at the beginning or during exhale and a gentle uddiyana happens automatically after a full exhale with the other two bandhas in place. In this way, there is no excessive pressure in the chest. Uddiyana-bandha, however, is quite tricky and demanding. According to T. K. V. Desikachar, you can slowly introduce it into pranayama only when you can hold the breath after exhale at least for 20 seconds with ease. If it is practiced during the asana practice, it is usually not applied in pranayama. It is first learnt in asana practice, especially in seated twists (to learn how to engage the upper abdominals) and two classical inversions (shoulderstand and headstand, in which it is easy to exhale fully), as well as in some mudras, such as tadagi-mudra and maha-mudra. And the other two bandhas must be in place whenever uddiyana is applied. In traditional hatha-yoga, as we have already pointed out, maha-mudra is often combined with its two sister mudras: maha-bandha and maha-vedha, and this is called tri-mudra (these three mudras practiced in succession as a tripartite unit). Also, maha-mudra is always practiced with a strong focus on developing the power of concentration needed for one-pointedness (dharana); it can be on a point on the body (the perineum, pubic bone, navel, heart, pit of the throat, point between the eyebrows, top of the head or all these points in succession) or on something more subtle/mental that is significant to the practitioner. Ujjayi breathing (with the hissing sound produced in the throat by constricting the vocal cords gently) is a must and eyes should be closed throughout the exercise to reduce the outside distractions. Other modes of breathing in maha-mudra, like sitali, are also possible to achieve special results, but ujjayi is used most often for general purposes, especially in the beginning.
Here are some additional technical pointers:
Don’t strive to grab the foot, toes or big toe in the beginning stages, but put the hands somewhere higher onto the shin closer to the knee. Grabbing the foot, toes or big toe of the extended leg is very demanding and can be misleading. The idea is to create a lot of space between the thigh and the chest, and not to go into a deep forward bend, which is difficult when you force yourself or when somebody else forces you to grab the foot before the necessary level of flexibility and strength is reached. The foot might never be reached, but all the benefits can be had nevertheless.
There is a tendency to lift the shoulders, but they should be kept as relaxed as possible. The knee should be straight in the final position, but not locked, and there must be a sense of the spine being soft, with the feeling as if you were breathing directly into and out of the straight hollow tube running through the spine. And maha-mudra should, in the beginning, be done only dynamically by first moving the head towards a bent knee on exhale and then assuming maha-mudra on the next inhale by moving the torso away from the thigh, with both the arms and knee extending simultaneously. When there is proficiency in that, deep ujjayi breathing can be attempted in maha-mudra, only 6 breaths or so.
It is a good idea to use janu-sirshasana as an immediate preparation for maha-mudra and learn the difference between the two similar, but radically different techniques. Janu-sirshasana is basically a deep forward bend stretching one leg and the back at the same time with the primary purpose of increasing the strength and flexibility of the entire back side of the body by engaging the core muscles on exhalation and with the secondary therapeutic purpose of reducing the excessive fat at the waist and thighs. Maha-mudra is essentially an intense energetic practice with the primary purpose of engaging all three important bandhas for their powerful energizing effect on the whole body and the secondary purpose of securing the good health of the entire organism by the joint effects of the bandhas and the essence of all asana groups in just one sacred gesture that sums up everything that is important in hatha-yoga. Janu-sirshasana can also be used occasionally to ease up while still in maha-mudra and to exit maha-mudra as its first counter pose to slowly reduce intensity.
Maha-mudra presupposes a very good quality of breathing to be effective and the first phase in doing it statically is just breathing deeply, evenly and audibly with the rubbing sensation at the back of the throat (ujjayi). Only after deep breathing is happening with ease can the suspensions be attempted in maha-mudra.
Try to experiment with holding your breath first after inhale with jalandhara and possibly with mula-bandha, and only then after exhale with all three bandhas in place and see the difference in the effects and feelings. The breath is usually not held out for longer than 10 seconds, even at the most advanced stage.
In the final phase, all the focus goes to the mental state of having an empty mind, feeling the free flow of life energy along the extended vertical axis and sealing off all the obstructions that might prevent the practitioner to deepen his or her concentration on the central channel in the body that is visualized as if vacant and straight
The idea, eventually, is to hold maha-mudra for a longer period of time, either breathing deeply or suspending the breath – after inhale, after exhale or after both – and so experience a sense of increased strength and stability needed for pranayama, meditation, ritual and life in general. However, due caution must be taken not to over do it. The important role of the teacher is to pace the student and closely supervise the practice until the student is fully competent to continue doing it without supervision.
To be able to breathe deeply in maha-mudra is quite an achievement in itself. It often happens that a person who can do most asanas and can assume the form of maha-mudra with no special difficulty cannot breathe deeply in it. With the right work done in asana practice and with the appropriate application of the three bandhas, breathing deeply in maha-mudra gradually becomes possible, opening a totally new and invigorating venue for the free flow of life in the body, the one leading through the spine towards self-transcendence. The tradition connects maha-mudra with kundalini awakening, and this means having the ability to participate fully and consciously in the union of opposites, especially the one of below with above, of the base of the body with the crown of the head, of sakti with siva. However, the main purpose of maha-mudra, and the whole of hatha-yoga for that matter, is feeling one’s spiritual core at Heart, which is the innermost point of total unity of the whole of our system felt some place deep in the chest, at the very centre of our being. Maha-mudra is an almost forgotten ancient practice that can facilitate that to a great extent and so should be continually researched, carefully practiced and fully evaluated as a supreme tool with a great potential for self-healing, self-empowering and self-transcendence, which it undoubtedly has.