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The Principles of Yogasana Practice According to the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar Tradition of Yoga
Modern so called “postural yoga“ emphasizing the practice of yogasana, or Yoga postures, has its ancient roots in traditional hatha-yoga, but it does not practice hatha-yoga in its entirety nor does it understand the place and purpose of asana within the complex structure of hatha-yoga or in the intricate schematics of Yoga in general. To correct that, a lot of research work on Yoga principles, philosophy, history and techniques should be done by the practitioners of “postural yoga“ and they should perhaps look beyond the confines of the “style of yoga“ they are currently practicing. Some new insights then might prompt them to start experimenting with the ways of doing asanas that actually connects them to the whole of hatha-yoga, which is the right context both for the right understanding of asana and its safe, effective and enjoyable practice. Otherwise, most of “postural yoga” will remain just that: mere posturing and affected posing, mediocre and dangerous gymnastics or superficial and ineffective body work.
The central practice of hatha-yoga is undoubtedly pranayama, and asana actually prepares for effective pranayama. That is the reason why the deep connection between asana and pranayama should first be explored and understood. According to Sri T. Krishnamacharya, asana is essentially dynamic pranayama where the appropriate and individualized movement of the body is used to deepen and prolong the breath, suspend and refine the breath, feel and listen to the breath, know and follow the breath as the supreme inner teacher leading the practitioner deeply within to (re)connect with her or his spiritual Heart, which is the very essence of meditation as the crown Yoga practice. Therefore, asana is a spiritual practice of the highest order and the primary tool for self-knowing on the Yoga path. However, the so called “meditative yoga” practiced all over the world, including in many orthodox Indian religious groups advocating some form of meditation as the way to self-knowledge and self-liberation, is often prone to ignore, neglect or even deny the essential role of asana in the practice of Yoga, as if the body was not the primary locus of all spiritual work and the tangible manifestation of spirit itself! Simply put, without a strong foundation in asana, which gives the necessary firmness (drdhata) and health (arogya) to the body, no development of the subtler Yoga practices like meditation and ritual is actually possible.
With all that in view, I wrote this relatively short and quite compact text on the practice of Yogasana dealing primarily with the practical principles, but also including some other useful information that can be consulted by both the practitioners of “postural yoga” and practitioners of “meditative yoga” to improve their overall understanding of actual Yoga by giving the practice of asanas its proper place and ultimately obtain all the benefits of Yogasana in particular and Yoga in general. My Yoga education comes entirely from the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar tradition of Yoga as transmitted to me by Mark Whitwell, my Yoga teacher for more than 20 years, and I got convinced through my personal practice, persistent research and intense teaching that this tradition’s modern interpretation and consistent application of ancient hatha-yoga is unparalleled in the diverse world of Yoga spreading globally for more than one hundred years already. The subject of Yogasana is very vast and complex, so what follows here is only an overview of some of the most pertinent points serving mostly as an inspiration for going deeper into the practice of asana or a reminder of what is important to know about the fruitful practice of asana. I hope it will be useful to all open and serious practitioners and teachers of Yoga.
The general principles of Yoga practice according to the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar Tradition of Yoga
It is a well-known fact that Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989) rescued from obscurity a great number of Yoga techniques and, most importantly, all the key Yoga principles that almost got lost for posterity. He was also a great innovator and he quite radically reformed the remnants of Yoga in India in the first half of the 20th century together with some other great Yoga innovators. His middle son and worthy student Sri T. K. V. Desikachar (1938 – 2016) translated all that precious knowledge and vast experience, mostly conceived in Sanskrit, into modern English, while his student and my teacher Mark Whitwell (b. 1949) formulated the general principles of doing Yoga effectively in a simple and practical way like this:
- The breath movement is the body movement, and the body movement is the breath movement, which means the whole body, especially the torso, must be engaged and participate in the process of breathing.
- The breath initiates and envelops the body movement, which means that both the inhale and exhale are initiated slightly before the movement is started and they are finished slightly after the movement is finished.
- The inhale is receptivity from above and the exhale is strength from below, which means that we inhale softly into the chest, and exhale strongly from the base of the body in both our asana and our pranayama practice.
- Consistent use of the (hissing, throat) ujjayi breath establishes a central focus for asana practice and prepares for pranayama; it calms the organism and helps the practitioner coordinate the breath with the movement.
- Asana creates bandha, and bandha serves the breath. Namely, the three most important bandhas (jalandhara, uddiyana and mula-bandha) channel the life energy into the core of the body, tone the vital internal organs and make pranayama fully effective.
- Asana allows for pranayama, and pranayama allows for meditation. This means that meditation naturally arises when the power of breath clears the mind and softens the Heart.
- Asana, pranayama, meditation and life are one seamless process, and so Yoga is the direct participation in the wonder of Life that we utterly are as autonomous living beings in our total interrelatedness with Everything.
The practical principles of doing Yogasana safely, effectively and joyfully
Essentially, Yogasana is meditation in movement since the body, breath and consciousness work in unison to connect the mind to the body via the breath. The mind then becomes free to feel, enjoy and explore the body; it gets freed from its obsessive habits to force, denigrate or ignore the body. In order for that to happen in our Yoga practice, certain principles need to be known, fully understood and consistently applied. So, here are the basic principles, formulated by me, of how to do Yogasana successfully. Of course, a lot more needs to be known to be able to obtain all the possible benefits from a well-adapted and well-designed Yogasana practice, but these principles will be very helpful both to beginners and experienced practitioners wishing to make their practice deeper and more powerful:
- Keep your neck, arms and knees soft wherever possible. Move gracefully and naturally with ease. Avoid all extremes and enjoy your practice. No pain should be felt anywhere in the body at any time.
- Gently stretch the spine in all directions, breathing deeply and evenly, constantly producing a hissing sound in the throat, without ever losing your breath, and feel what is really going on inside you right here and right now. This will do much more for your Yoga practice than mechanically following someone else’s arbitrary pattern of bad, mediocre or inappropriate gymnastics looking astonishingly.
- Since the main point of doing yogasana is stretching the spine to facilitate the movement of the breath through the whole body, the reasonable mobility and good health of the spine is the primary focus of yogasana, so the movements are organized in such a way as to move the spine upwards, forwards, backward, sideways and twisting, in that order, with mild forward bending done to counterpose for twisting as the final and most complex movement of the spine. Various inversions can then be carefully used to counteract the negative effects of gravity on the spine and the whole system.
- Inversions are a special case that needs a lot of precise physical and psychological preparation, and adequate counterposing. Special emphasis is put on moving all the joints without putting too much pressure on them, and the movements of the limbs are mainly used to move the breath, that is the spine, the chest and the base of the body.
- Advanced, or strong asanas, are the ones that both develop and demand a lot of strength, stamina, endurance, flexibility, coordination, focus and balance, and are mostly hand balances or inverted hand balances that exert a lot of pressure onto the joints. The safe way to do them is to prepare well for their execution and do the appropriate counterposes immediately after them without attempting to breathe or stay too long in them.
- Asanas are always first done dynamically to prepare for their static execution. Only then the postures are done half-statically, that is deep breathing is maintained while holding a posture with smaller movements, and/or are held statically in the final comfortable position with natural or deep breathing or with short breath retentions. As the practice advances, static holds will probably become more prominent, especially in some foundational asanas, but an appropriate amount of movement should always be present in the practice of Yogasana.
- Asanas are done for the breath and by the breath, so all the “alignment” comes from the breath and the so called ideal, classical or perfect forms of asanas are only orientational and methodological tools helping us obtain their functional usefulness, not the goal of the practice.
The basic principles of breathing in Yogasana
Since the main function of doing Yogasana is improving the quality of the breath for each and every practitioner, here are the basic principles of how to achieve that in the practice of asana. Some people, especially beginners, might need to use some props due to inflexibility, illness or old age. They can and should be used wisely to help people breathe easier and deepen their breath without creating unnecessary tension anywhere in the body. Actually, deep breathing is used as the main tool to relax the body and mind (and alleviate pain if applied therapeutically), and so make meditation possible. The following principles are a reliable guide on how to breathe well and safely while doing asanas, with or without using props to facilitate that:
- 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.
- Move the arms to facilitate the breathing process. First do it in the lying position on the back, and then in simple standing and sitting asanas. All kinds of props can be used to back up this process if necessary. 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 or sitting, or up and down if lying on the back, and keep them soft all the time to receive the inhale, as well as the 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.
Obtaining benefits from the practice of Yogasana
There can be many benefits of doing Yogasana for the body in terms of better health, greater vitality and general fitness, but an asana is always first analyzed for its benefits for the breath because the primary purpose of doing asanas is the facilitation and advancement of the critical respiratory function of the body. The basic idea is to move the body by the power of the breath and so the breath should in turn be slowly strengthened by performing adequate movements, such that an extension of the spine and expansion of the chest can happen on inhale and so enhance the inhalation. This should be happening in asana with minimum effort. Conversely, a strong exhale is done by consciously contracting the lower abdominals with the intention and effect of enhancing the exhalation. So, the key is to choose those asanas and modify them if necessary in such a way that can help a practicing individual achieve this goal with ease and pleasure, meaning that the practice of Yogasana must be highly individualized, properly adapted or adequately personalized to be really and fully beneficial. Although each asana has its specific benefits, they can only be experienced and obtained within a whole practice in which the asanas that precede and the ones that come after the asana or group of asanas in focus are done in such a way as to make the benefits possible and maximize them without any adverse effects. The posture in focus and its counterpose(s) should first be done only dynamically and positioned into the center of the asana practice as its peak with the preceding part preparing the practitioner for the posture and then easing out towards the end of the practice. Later on, some postures can be done more and more statically to fully obtain their benefits. The preparation for doing the desired posture is done in a series of steps (vinyasa-karma) that simultaneously serve as a series of checks of readiness of the practitioner for the posture, usually in the form of different preparatory asanas or simpler variations of the main asana. The subsequent counterposing, if necessary, is done immediately after the main asana was performed in the form of one or more easier counterposes compensating for the possible negative effect(s) it may have on the body and mind. In practice, this is even more complicated than it sounds and usually requires a lot of careful planning and ample help of an experienced teacher. The principles governing an intelligent and logical structuring of a Yogasana practice, and the whole of Yoga for that matter, are called vinyasa-krama-yoga in the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar tradition and I will say more about them towards the end of the text. The important thing to say here is that it is very naive and potentially dangerous to rely solely on pre-arranged and arbitrary sets of asanas in one’s practice and then practice that indefinitely and mechanically thinking that is the right way to practice Yogasana and obtain its benefits. It most definitely is not.
In choosing an appropriate asana or any other Yoga technique for ourselves and our students we need to respect this principle above all else: IF THE POTENTIAL RISKS OF DOING AN ASANA OR ANY OTHER YOGA TECHNIQUE ARE HIGHER THAN ITS POTENTIAL BENEFITS, WE SHOULD NOT BE DOING/TEACHING THIS PARTICULAR ASANA/TECHNIQUE AT A PARTICULAR TIME OR PERHAPS NOT AT ALL. In order to be able to ascertain this, we first need to acquire some knowledge and gain certain experience in practicing and teaching Yoga with a teacher rooted in some authentic tradition. Otherwise, we really have no way of knowing what to do in our own practice or what and how to teach others. And we really need to know the people that we teach; otherwise, we can do more harm than good. Teaching Yoga is extremely demanding and an enormous responsibility, and as such, it is both a service to a local community and humanity at large.
It should be clearly explained to the public and our beginner students that Yoga has nothing to do with attaining a bodily form, that it is essentially about breathing freely and about freeing oneself from social conditioning, for example from the idea that we should look good according to the criteria defined by the fashion and fitness industries and then, for example, advertize that on social media to feed our narcissism or attract misinformed students if we are Yoga teachers. If our potential students or beginners keep on insisting on being taught inappropriate techniques that are dangerous or irrelevant for them, then we can give them some less risky alternatives and keep them busy doing something that is really useful to them. If even that doesn’t work, we can deny teaching them useless stuff plain and simple by saying to them we teach only what is safe and useful for them. If they cannot accept that, they are free to find another teacher who will teach them the opposite, and there are, unfortunately, too many such “teachers”! So, they should be clearly warned and our responsibility as teachers ends there. And there is so much dangerous stuff dished out irresponsibly to the naive public that most people should avoid for many reasons. So, safety comes first, then all the rest if and when it is meaningful and useful for each particular practitioner. Yoga is the opposite of misusing or abusing yourself and others; it is being kind to yourself and others. All violence must go. Then compassion only will remain; an infinite ocean of compassion that will both protect and nourish you and the world. In order to be really effective, safe and pleasurable Yoga must not only be breath-centered, but also process (not goal) oriented, integrated into our daily life, well-structured and well-adapted, personalized and personal. And the teacher must empower the student to practice it independently of the teacher, teachings and community. Then it is truly beneficial and it is not duplicating someone else’s commercial and arbitrary patterns of grotesque bodily gymnastics or superficial spiritual gymnastics. And it is a relief from any kind of (over)achieving, a pure pleasure of being alive, breathing and moving. It is never about crossing our limitations, but about knowing them and merging with them. This is what frees us, not our culturally programmed heroic attempts at transcending our so called limitations. There is nothing to achieve and nothing to transcend, we only need to relax and start enjoying our lives. One of the best ways to do it may be through a daily non-obsessive practice of Yoga that is right for us, starting with asana and emphasizing relaxation, not overstretching and over sweating.
Standing postures, especially the basic ones in which the back is straight and stretched upwards – the samasthiti type of asana – are very important in Yogasana, especially for beginners. They can learn how to breathe well by moving the arms up on inhale and down on exhale, and can learn how to be stable and comfortable both when moving and standing still in a posture. Later on, other types of standing asana (moving forward, backward, sideways and twisting) are introduced in that order, with special given to the standing asana with the head down since they prepare for inversions. Of course, the peak of standing postures are one-leg balances as the final host of standing asanas done before going down onto the knees or lying down for rest. Beginners, if they are healthy, should often start their Yoga practice with standing postures and put a significant emphasis on them since they develop the qualities – strength, flexibility, sense of balance, improved concentration, deepened breathing and psychophysical stability – necessary in all other types of postures and other subtler Yoga techniques. The basic standing “at attention posture” (samasthiti) must not be overlooked or neglected because it is the very foundation of all standing postures. At first, it is done with the feet spread hip-width apart and then with the feet put together and the weight shifted slightly onto the front of the feet for better balance. It is very important to understand that a lot of attention must go to maintaining good balance while practicing standing postures in order to understand the effect of gravity on the body, gain greater stability and prevent injuries. The force of gravity and the sense of being firmly connected to the ground through the feet are used to achieve that. Later on, when assuming “corpse posture” (savasana), the basic lying on the back samasthiti type of asana, we can deeply relax, totally forget about balancing and focus entirely on being comfortable in our own bodies, our sacred embodied existence. Standing on one foot is actually a special kind of Yogasana mostly used to experiment with balance more intensely, strengthen the legs and enhance the power of concentration. If done excessively, it becomes a form of tapas (ascetic penance) and can cause serious injury. It is best done moderately on each foot at the end of the standing asanas and followed by squatting as a counterpose to remove a possible excess of accumulated tension from the ankles, knees and hips.
Generally speaking, the so called difficult, complex, advanced, strong, fancy, spectacular asanas that are often seen in Yoga adverts and videos have a very limited application in the realistic practice of Yoga. They are mostly used in teaching children and young athletic people to keep them interested and help them develop physically. In middle age, they can be useful to some people whose profession, interests or hobbies demand a high level of flexibility and strength. In old age, they are practically irrelevant, except for some people who have practiced Yoga their whole lives and so can still do difficult asanas with ease. Otherwise, focus is on what is actually relevant for each particular person and emphasis is always put on practicing asana as an adequate preparation for effective pranayama and dhyana, or meditation, always bearing in mind that asana essentially is dynamic pranayama designed primarily to deepen the breath and prepare for long sitting needed in meditation and ritual. It should be kept in mind that the basic meaning of the word “asana” is to abide, be present and simply be. The second meaning, mainly outside of the scope of Yoga, is the seat upon which to sit. Then, in the context of Yoga, it primarily means a sitting posture and finally, within the late mediaeval hatha-yoga teachings, it means any kind of poised posture contributing significantly to the development of the psychosomatic qualities needed in pranayama and dhyana. Over the centuries, thousands of asanas were invented and developed by creative practitioners and teachers, but only those asanas should be known and practiced that are actually useful for a particular practitioner at a certain point in time. Teachers of Yoga, of course, should have the experience of a bigger number of asanas so they can teach different people with different needs and abilities, but they should be careful not to think that knowing a great number of asanas is very important in teaching Yoga, for asana is just one, although foundational, tool of Yoga.
Types of asana according to Sri T. Krishnamacharya
Sri T. Krishnamacharya clearly classified asanas according to the movement of the spine since that is their main function at the physical level. There are five fundamental movements of the spine: samasthiti (upward), pascimattana (forward), purvottana (backward), parsva (sideways) and parivrtti (twisting). Inversions, or viparita, are additionally classified as a special kind of asana (asana-visesha) and together with the five spinal movements comprise the core of the asana portfolio of hatha-yoga. All the rest, like one-leg balances (eka-pada), hand balances (hastadhara), jumps (utpluti), circles (mandala) and so on, is less important although useful in some cases and for some purposes. Some hatha-yoga-mudras, especially bandha-mudras, most notably jalandhara, uddiyana and mula-bandha, are practiced and learned within asana practice and then applied in pranayama in various ways, mainly to make pranayama as effective as possible. Hatha-yoga-mudras are very closely connected to asanas and should be carefully included into the daily practice, especially “great seal” (maha-mudra) and “seal of inverted action” (viparita-karani-mudra), but they are usually held longer than asanas and are always accompanied with deep ujjayi-breathing and longer breath retentions. Carefully chosen mantras can also be practiced in conjunction with asanas in many different ways to achieve different results, mostly to prolong the exhale if intoned out loud, improve concentration if whispered and turn attention deeper within if repeated only mentally. Other tools like hasta-mudras (sacred hand gestures), drshtis (intense gazing techniques), kriyas (purification procedures) and some others can also be used in synergy with asanas to obtain specific results. And creative visualization (bhavana) can and should be used in Yogasana to deepen its meditative flavor and spiritual power.
Samasthiti type of Yogasana refers to the most fundamental way of moving the spine in the upward direction while doing Yoga postures with the direct consequence of stretching the spine, expanding the chest and maximizing the inhale. Such asanas are often accompanied with the lifting of the arms overhead on inhale and lowering of the arms on exhale directly contributing to deeper breathing. If the chin is lowered to the lifted sternum either while inhaling or at the end of a full inhale, then the effect of extending the spine up and expanding the torso in all directions is also maximized. If this is done standing up, it is known as “tall tree posture” (tadasana), and is one of the fundamental Yoga postures. However, samasthiti-asanas can be performed in all bodily positions where the spine is erect, and since their main purpose is the deepening of the breath, they are of paramount importance in the practice of Yoga, especially for beginners, and the basic movement of the arms going up and down synchronized with the breath in the way that the breath starts and ends each movement is the most basic and most healing Yoga exercise mostly done in the basic standing, kneeling, sitting and lying positions. They are also the best opportunity to practice the lowering of the chin to the lifted sternum – jalandhara-bandha-mudra – during or at the end of a full inhale, first dynamically and then more and more statically until it is also applied in some other asanas and mudras, and especially in pranayama. The upward movement of the spine and lifting of the arms overhead is not a natural movement for most people, but is vital for good health, vitality and longevity, and so must be practiced systematically in big quantity, often as the very first movement opening the practice that often is also the starting point for many other types of asana done on the subsequent exhale. These movements are also very important for preparing the practitioner for long sitting usually done with the spine erect and legs crossed in pranayama, meditation and ritual. In fact, all seated postures in Yoga with the spine erect are the samasthiti type of asanas and have an extremely important place in Yoga since they make possible all the refined work done in them after the asana practice is done. And finally, meditative postures, like “lotus posture” (padmasana), “half-lotus posture” (ardha-padmasana), “swastika posture” (svastikasana) and so on, since they are all the bodily manifestation of human dignity because the spine is upright and disposition receptive, naturally instigate in the practitioners a sense of righteousness and tolerance needed in everyday life after the whole practice is done. Of course, adequate counterposing must be done after long sitting in the cross-legged position to compensate for possible stiffness in the back, knees and ankles, and so secure a smooth transition into walking and other daily activities.
Forward bends, or pascimattana, are an important type of asana that include very natural folding movements done on exhale and are mainly used to extend the spine forwards by contracting the lower abdomen and using gravity for the same purpose if done in a standing position. Of course, they are also used to stretch the legs, but due caution must be given to softening the knees and neck, and strong pulling with the arms should be avoided. All kinds of complex and complicated asanas can be done with a forward bend as its basis, but beginners should do only the simple ones until the spine is sufficiently stretched, which is an indication that the tendons and muscles in the legs can perhaps be stretched with a bit more intensity if required. However, the main purpose of forward bends is to enhance the exhalation, that is to make it stronger, longer, uninterrupted and smooth. With that in mind, they are a perfect opportunity to introduce mula-bandha-mudra, or the appropriate contraction of the pelvic and pelvic floor muscles into the practice of Yogasana, just as the samasthiti type of asana (stretching the spine upwards on inhalation) is used to introduce and practice jalandhara-bandha-mudra, or the lowering of the chin towards the lifted sternum. Later on, both bandhas are done in conjunction when doing a forward bend that is usually preceded by an upward stretch of the back. When the lower abdominal muscles can contract well, together with the pelvic floor muscles, forward bends will be most beneficial and the same action in the base of the body will then be applied in pranayama making it maximally efficient. Simple forward bends done in the standing or seated positions with soft knees, neck, shoulders and arms, like “intense stretching posture” (uttanasana) and “bending of the back posture” (pascimottanasana), can be introduced early on into the asana practice of the beginners and should also be used as a counterpose for twisting, especially at the very end of asana practice since the seated twists are usually done last because they are the most complex type of spinal movement. Forward bends also promote introspection and turning the attention within, which is also a good reason to often do a seated forward bend immediately before doing pranayama, after an appropriate rest and mental transition from asana as dynamic pranayama to static pranayama proper. Since there is a sort of obsession with the prowess in doing forward bends in modern “postural yoga” as well as the need to do a lot of them due to the sedentary way of life of modern humans, a possibility of injury in the knees, hamstrings, lower back and neck is very high so a lot of patience, expertise and sensitivity must be employed when practicing forward bends. This is even more important when they are done statically in long holds or in combination with twisting or inversions, so it is crucial to have the right kind of guidance just as in any other aspect of Yoga.
Backward bending (purvottana) is the type of Yogasana in which the spine is bent in the backward direction to achieve better mobility of the spine and strengthen the muscles of the back, but the primary purpose is of course to open the chest and deepen the inhale. It is very important not to hurry into difficult back bends because that can cause bad habits and bad injuries. Progress should be made very slowly by first doing only simple back bends mostly lying on the back and lying on the stomach to get used to that kind of movement and slowly learn how to use it to work on the breath. There is a certain fascination with backward bending as it can be seen in contortionism where most of the spectacular postures are intense back bends. The same is true of modern Yoga where people often want to practice too many difficult back bends too quickly and often totally unrealistically, mostly the “wheel posture” (urdhva-dhanurasana) and “camel posture” (ushtrasana). This leads to all kinds of injuries, not only in the neck and back, but also in various joints. This can all be prevented by realistically designing a good practice plan in which most emphasis is put onto doing modified, adapted and easy back bends for a long time before attempting to do more difficult ones if needed and if appropriate. A continuous curvature of the spine while doing them is a must as well as a good quality of inhaling both while doing them dynamically and statically. Yoga clearly distinguishes backward bending from upward stretching so the scientific distinction between the extension and flexion of the spine doesn’t really apply in Yoga. Upward stretching and forward bending are used to prepare the spine for the postures with stronger extending of the spine that are considered to be distinctive back bends, the most simple being the various forms of “warrior posture” (virabhadrasana), “cobra posture” (bhujangasana) and “grasshopper posture” (salabhasana) postures plus very simple postures like “cat posture” (cakravakasana) and “bridge posture” (dvipada-pitha). Simple forward bending is also used for counterposing after doing back bends, especially if they are more strenuous ones. It can be quite difficult to breathe in demanding back bends and if that is ignored, spasm and stiffness will be the natural consequence limiting our ability to inhale fully and so causing constriction in the chest instead of removing it. Also, a lot of attention should be paid to the movement of the head while moving into and out of back bends. Namely, if the shoulders are down, as they should be while doing many back bends, like for example in “upward-facing dog posture” (urdhva-mukha-svanasana), the chin is not moved upwards, just as the head is kept in line with the spine in most other back bends. The chin can be moved up only if the shoulders are lifted towards the ears in some back bends like in small “cobra posture” because that prevents the hyperextension of the cervical spine that can easily lead into a neck injury. Moving out of some of the back bends must also be done very carefully by first bending the back forward and then moving the chin towards the sternum. The bad habit of lifting the chin too much is ubiquitous in modern “postural yoga” and is the cause of many injuries and chronic stiffness in the neck. So, doing Yogasana safely with a qualified teacher cannot be overemphasized.
Lateral/asymmetric bending of the spine (parsva) in Yogasana is a very important movement and this type of asanas should play a significant role in almost every Yoga session. They enhance the awareness of the right and left side of the body, connect them into a functional whole and correct the lateral misalignment of the spine if used therapeutically. As a middle position between two sideways movements, an upward stretch is used if a lateral bend is done on exhale and, as a counterpose, usually a simple forward bend is used to center the body or regain a sense of the overall symmetry of the body and stretch the spine naturally forward. Lateral bends can be done both on exhale and inhale depending on which effect we want to achieve. If we want to emphasize the compression of the inner side of the body, they should be done on exhale. On the other hand, if we want to emphasize the expansion of the outer side of the body, they are done on inhale. And they require some preparatory work since they are not natural movements and so must be done very carefully. Usually, the three most basic movements of the spine – upward, forward and backward – are done first in carefully chosen asanas and then appropriate lateral bending is done right before twists as a good preparation for them since they are the most demanding movements of the spine. Simple asymmetric asanas like moving only one arm or one leg at a time are not lateral bends in the strict sense of the word because the spine doesn’t move laterally, but they can be used to gently explore the body asymmetrically and so prepare for proper lateral bending. For beginners, emphasis should be put on simple lateral bends in the standing and sitting position, like “lateral tall tree posture” (tadasana-parsva), “intensely stretched triangle posture” (utthita-trikonasana) and gentle lateral bending in “comfortable posture” (sukhasana) with one raised arm leading the sideways movement. When combined with forward bending, inversions and twisting in one asana, like for example in “revolving triangle posture” (utthita-trikonasana-parivrtti), lateral bends can be very demanding and so must be practiced very cautiously. When used primarily for self-exploration, they are an excellent tool in feeling the natural asymmetries in the body and the close interrelatedness of the right and left side of the body. They can be then used to enhance the sense of the underlying symmetry present in the body and deepen the awareness of the whole body as a union of opposites, including other polarities such as up and down, front and back, inner and outer and so on. People suffering from scoliosis and other spine problems must be extra careful because lateral bends can either help them if practiced correctly or make things worse if practiced incorrectly. Therefore, an adequate supervision of a competent teacher is the only safe way to practice them successfully if used in Yoga therapy.
Twists (parivrtti) are among the most complex movements in the practice of Yogasana, especially when they are double twists (the neck rotates in the opposite direction of the rest of the spine) or when they are combined with other types of asanas like forward bends, inversions, one-leg balances or even hand balances. In principle, they are never combined with back bends and must be practiced for a long time in their basic forms standing, sitting and lying with the spine first elongated upwards on inhale and then rotated carefully on exhale starting from below before trying out the complex combinations. They are always done on exhale because the squeezing of the abdominal muscles (starting from the base of the abdominal wall below the navel and then continuously moving onto the upper part above the navel towards the end of the twist) makes the twisting of the spine possible and they twist together, activating the muscles along the spine. So, the main purpose of the twists is to strengthen the exhale while giving deep rotational movement to the spine and prepare the abdominal muscles for uddiyana-bandha-mudra before it is fully introduced into certain other asanas like “downward-facing dog posture” (adho-mukha-svanasana), “shoulderstand” (sarvangasana) or even into some mudras, like tadagi-mudra and maha-mudra. Uddiyana-bandha happens when the upper part of the abdominal wall, the one above the navel, is lifted in and up at the end of a full exhale or during the retention after a full exhale by consciously lifting the diaphragm up while simultaneously expanding the chest as if inhaling. Twists facilitate this action and additionally have a strong effect on the internal abdominal organs, diaphragm and heart, which is then concentrated and intensified in uddiyana-bandha done in some select asanas or pranayama in the most effective and safe combination with jalandhara and mula-bandha firmly in place. Some twists can be done on inhale too if they include the expansion in the chest with the arms usually spreading to emphasize that instead of focusing on contracting the base of the body. Since twisting is the most complex movement of the spine, it is usually done towards the end of an asana practice with some simple forward bending as a counterpose to gently stretch and fully unwind the spine. Although most of the twists are done in some seated postures, especially the numerous variations of “half-Matsyendra’s posture” (ardha-matsyendrasana), beginners should mostly do them while lying on the back and standing. Complex seated twists, like “Bharadvaja’s posture” (bharadvajasana), demand a lot of flexibility and systematic preparation. Overdoing them can have a very negative effect on the body and mind, and special attention should be given not to become addicted to twists as it is often the case in modern Yoga where people are inclined to misuse the twists in their often obsessive drive to “detoxify” themselves. Moderation, therefore, is the key to success. Twisting, being as complex as it is, requires a lot of adequate preparation and deep sensitivity to be truly effective, safe and enjoyable. If done inappropriately, it can cause a lot of damage both to the body and mind.
“Headstand” (sirshasana), and inversions in general, are quite a complex subject and most modern Yoga instructors, with all due respect, are not qualified to teach inversions as it is more than evident on the scene of modern “postural yoga”. The classical hatha-yoga inversions – “supported shoulderstand” (salamba-sarvangasana) and “supported headstand” (salamba-sirshasana) – are actually “bodily seals” (kaya-mudra) falling under the category of “inverted sealing action” (viparita-karani-mudra), not asanas. As such, they are more complex than asanas and their primary purpose is to strengthen the breath and prepare for meditation by significantly enhancing psychosomatic stability and concentration. They are always practiced and taught with great caution only in a private setting and only if the desired benefits are much greater than the possible risks for each particular person. They require a lot of practical knowledge to practice them safely and effectively, and there are adequate much less hazardous substitutes having the same or almost the same effect. In the Krishnamacharya-Desikachar tradition they are known as half-inversions (when, for example, the straight legs are lifted above the head in the lying position or leaned against the wall) or even one third of an inversion (when, for example, the legs are bent at the knees and held by the hands or lifted onto a chair) because they have almost the same effect as full inversions, but require double or triple time to achieve the same or similar effect without involving any risk in their performance, especially for the neck, and are, therefore, accessible to older, heavier and even ill people.
General guidelines for making a judicious, practical and safe progress in the practice of Yogasana in particular and Yoga in general
Although in the beginning asanas are mainly done one by one and repeated several times each until done half-statically and statically, another important way of doing them is in logical sequences called vinyasas. Sri T. Krishnamacharya was again the one who greatly elaborated on this aspect of asana practice and developed a vinyasa system of doing asanas where he used the well-known sequence of postures known as surya-namaskara-vinyasa (the Sun Salute sequence of postures) to teach individual asanas in the middle of the vinyasa to children and young people. In this way, he could make their practice more dynamic, more interesting, more demanding and at the same time support their growth and development by using more robust movements and longer holds. Of course, all kinds of vinyasas can be freely created by both students and teachers instead of relying on a few standardized ones, as it is often the case in the so called modern dynamic styles of “postural yoga”. And they can be used for many different purposes, providing they are formed intelligently and practiced moderately. In most case, it is best to combine the practice of individual discrete asanas with the practice of simple and complex vinyasas, mostly using the former to prepare for the latter. Then the challenge is to find the right ratio between one and the other in each practice session depending on the current needs of each practitioner. Here are some important principles on how to develop a personal practice of Yoga in stages with special emphasis on Yogasana:
- First do simple and short asana practices with most emphasis put on the body-breath coordination with the help of the ujjayi breath, comfortable relaxation and deep breathing in the lying position.
- Then introduce more complex asanas that stretch the spine in all directions, do simple pranayama in the sitting position and stay sitting quietly in a short meditation at the end of the practice.
- Next, add simple vinyasas and simple inversions or half-inversions if and when appropriate and gently practice the three bandha-mudras in asanas and in other mudras, like yoga-mudra and maha-mudra.
- Later on, experiment with more complex vinyasas and more difficult asanas, like the classical inversions, one-leg balances and hand balances if and when appropriate, slowly introduce breath suspensions into more complex and longer pranayama exercises together with the three bandhas, and make the meditation part longer, more versatile and more demanding according to your abilities and requirements.
- Spice your practice with inspiring mantras chanted in Sanskrit or your native language and deepen your practice with personal or religious rituals – puja.
- When you become more experienced and at times when you feel energetic and have a lot of time for longer and more complex practices, don’t exhaust yourself by doing too many too difficult asanas; rather, direct your energy towards deep relaxation, intense meditation and continuous self-knowing.
- And finally, channel your practice towards devotion as your Heart directs you.
Final remarks on the essence of Yoga and the fundamentals of teaching Yogasana
As I have pointed out already, a good structuring of Yogasana practice and adapting it for the individual needs is a great art that each student must acquire and each teacher must perfect. All the asanas must be chosen very carefully, expertly modified for the real needs and abilities of each practitioner, and then artfully strung into a well-designed practice that actually fulfills all the requirements of each practitioner in a specific situation, within the current circumstances and at a particular point in time. First and foremost, Yoga is applied (viniyoga of Yoga) according to the immediate overall goal of each aspirant, which is usually better health (yoga-cikitsa/Yoga as therapy) or human development (yoga-sadhana/Yoga as a spiritual discipline), and it is usually structured (vinyasa-krama-yoga) in three more or less distinct phases: preparation/ascent, culmination/peak and finalization/descent. That which is the most difficult, most complex or is in the focus of a practice is usually positioned into the middle of the practice. It is built up carefully and then built down gradually. Even though an asana practice can start from any position, it is good for beginners to start from a standing position and then move to kneeling, then to lying on the back and put inversions, if included, in to the middle of the practice, followed by resting, lying on the stomach and sitting up. Then pranayama arises naturally from asana, and dhyana arises naturally from pranayama in a seamless process constituting a whole and holistic Yoga practice. As a practitioner advances in his or her practice, spontaneity becomes more and more important, and thinking about the structure fades away. In time, when the practitioner becomes more competent and self-confident, the practice changes on a daily basis and perfectly reflects and fulfills the real and changing needs of the practitioner. The goal is not only greater skillfulness in Yoga, but most of all greater intimacy with ourselves at all levels of our being, and integrating them into a harmonious and truly functional human whole. Progress in Yogasana most definitely is not made by endlessly multiplying the number of increasingly more difficult asanas, but by relaxing wholeheartedly into our reality, whatever it might be, and delving ever-deeper into our Heart, whatever it turns out to be. Receptivity, softness and sensitivity in the hands as an extension of our Heart, and the whole frontal line of the body, and especially in the crown of the head and in the middle of the chest, are simultaneously the basic preconditions for actual Yoga to happen and the primary results of a truly effective Yogasana practice. The strength that then abundantly flourishes in its natural context of receptivity is endurable, sustainable and revolutionary if needed. In a nut-shell, 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. And Yogasana is a necessary stepping stone in this wonderful adventure with Life.
However, there are many serious problems in modern asana practice, or what looks like an asana practice, ranging from totally unnecessary physical injuries to inappropriate hands-on adjustments on the verge of sexual harassment and beyond that can and do cause deep psychological injuries. Also, “postural yoga” is mostly taught by the so called “yoga instructors”, who got their improvised biomechanical education at the so called “Yoga Teacher Trainings” in a group setting during a few weekend courses, not by actual Yoga teachers, who have practiced and studied the whole of Yoga, often for decades, with their teachers in a one-on-one teaching situation. Most “yoga instructors” are not only incapable of teaching Yoga individually, but also are not aware that it is and was the traditional way of learning and teaching Yoga. Mass, one-size-fits-all type of teaching is a rule. Furthermore, the whole of Yoga is not only compartmentalized into “postural” and “meditative yoga”, but also into many other sets of fragments, and so much so that many people nowadays that practice Yoga “in its totality” actually practice pranayama in the morning, asana in the afternoon and meditation in the evening, often according to three totally different systems and mostly at Yoga seminars and retreats, at Yoga research institutions and alternative hospitals, in Yoga studios and communities, but very rarely in the sacred privacy of their homes. Such absurdities and misconceptions abound in the so called “yoga community” and any kind of criticism of that is usually received as unspiritual and malicious or both. Additionally, there is very little discussion in the “yoga world” on any relevant topic, and very often modern science, like biomechanics of human movements, applied anatomy and kinesiology, is used as an inadequate substitute for the lack of traditional knowledge and experience in teaching Yoga posturing, and so on. On the other hand, modern Yoga scholars are mostly interested in the history of asana practice or perhaps hatha-yoga, even when they are practitioners too, instead of in finding the concrete ways to improve the quality of modern Yogasana practice. Actually, it is very indicative that this phrase “asana practice” exists at all in the modern language since it did not exist in the past. The traditional syntagm was either yoga-sadhana or yogabhyasa, meaning the practice of Yoga, which always included other aspects, or “limbs” of Yoga, not just its most obvious “physical” aspect. And there is nothing physical about asana at all! It is a full-fledged spiritual practice; it was the commercialization of Yoga that led to the current state of affairs where modern person usually chooses only the “physical aspect” of Yoga practice under the influence of the mainstream consumer capitalism because the form and packaging are the most important aspects of a commodity sold to clients on the “spiritual” market, whereas the content and meaning are irrelevant. Asana is mostly reduced to a work-out, a fitness program or body work. But, it is not that at all. And this needs to be clearly understood and promptly corrected. It can easily be demonstrated how corrections can simply be made, for example, in just one aspect of modern Yogasana teaching; namely, in assistance. The whole teaching of modern “postural yoga” is based on assisting practitioners when practicing asanas, usually to help them “go deeper” into an asana or to achieve the “perfect posture”, whatever that means. It is actually over-assistance and can easily turn into blatant violence. It is often done forcefully by pushing people into postures they are not ready to do, sometimes without the explicit permission from the practitioner and occasionally overstepping personal boundaries, consciously or unconsciously. It can and should be corrected simply by minimizing assistance and so allowing the practitioner to find her or his own way into Yoga instead of “guiding the practitioner in the right direction”. Gentle assistance can be done in some special situations, but generally speaking, touching the practitioner for whatever reason is always potentially problematic for a host of reasons and often quite superfluous. Teaching Yogasana is not a manual therapy although some healing touch is welcome in certain therapeutic situations and especially in assisted relaxation where the practitioner is taught how to relax well so that he or she can achieve that without assistance later on. However, when that is the case, there must be a clear understanding between teacher and student on what exactly is to be done and to what purpose. No instructor can negotiate that, and a competent teacher knows what is appropriate in each situation and respects the student at all levels of human existence.
In conclusion, the point of practicing Yoga is not to become a yogi; the point is to be a human being. Passion, compassion and integration, in that order! So, Yoga is not a life-style; it is a possible and powerful way to feel and live our humanity. Just as being a teacher of Yoga is not a profession; it is the highest and hardest way to make a really useful contribution to the world in which we live. Namely, the contribution is our personal serenity and community peace. And teaching that is a privilege, not only a necessity. The first thing to realize about Yoga is that it is traditional knowledge (sampradaya) and an ancient set of practices (sadhana) that we have inherited from our ancestors who gave it to us in a more or less unbroken chain of transmission from teacher to student (guru-sishya-parampara). So, the only way to learn Yoga is to find a good teacher who is deeply rooted in a living Yoga tradition and is able and willing to teach us the Yoga that is right for us. Anything else but that is probably unreliable and potentially dangerous. Authenticity is very rare and very rarely recognized. Alienation from ourselves, other human and non-human beings, and the Whole of Nature, is quite common and makes us susceptible to manipulation and exploitation. On the other hand, if we cut right through it by doing a Yoga that is right for us on a daily basis and so wholeheartedly promoting intimacy instead of imposing estrangement, we immediately stop manipulating ourselves and others, and realize we are One with Nature, the Nurturing Power of Life empowering us naturally to be a unique integrating force in a disintegrating world that we ourselves have created out of ignorance, greed and fear. This is why Yoga is here and that is its main purpose. Yogasana, as the primary spiritual practice and personal responsibility of (re)connecting with our breath and enhancing intimacy with our sacred embodiment within the whole of Yoga, is the unavoidable basis for the subtle superstructure that is naturally built upon that foundation. If it is solid, the rest of the structure will also be solid. If not, there is nothing to build upon.
A Short Reflection on Yogic Meditation as Described in the Yoga-sutra Attributed to Patanjali
The Yoga-sutra, or The Thread of Yoga, is the famous classical work attributed to the legendary sage Patanjali and it is a seminal, rather systematic and very influential work on Yoga. It is sometimes even considered to be the most important, most comprehensive and most revealing work ever written on the subject. This complex, delicate and difficult subject of the so called „classical Yoga” usually associated with Patanjali’s foundational work and its traditional commentaries (more than 20 of them until the end of the 19th century, the earliest and most important one being that of the enigmatic sage Vyasa called Bhashya) can be critically approached from many different perspectives, but usually it is studied in its historical, linguistic, philosophical and practical aspects.
Historically speaking, the Yoga-sutra is still and probably will always remain a huge mystery, since very little has been so far known concerning the origin, creation and authorship of the Sutras (195 or 196 of them, divided into 4 chapters). It was probably first transmitted only orally within a closed group of practitioners and then written down sometime between the 2nd century B. C. and 5th century A. D. It was composed in classical Sanskrit in the literary form of a sutra, which is the most compact way of expounding the principles of some school of thought, art form or any field of human knowledge. The school that produced it, if there was one, hasn’t survived but the text did and consequently was interpreted in many different ways by many different people. As already pointed out, next to nothing is known about its proposed author, the semi-divinity Patanjali, often considered to be an incarnation of the cosmic serpent Ananta, Adisesha, or Nagaraja, and so it is possible that the work was created in patches by a few different authors over decades or even centuries until it got consolidated in the form known to us for the last thousand years or so. It is also possible that Patanjali and Vyasa, or Vindhyavasa, may have been one and the same person commenting on his own original work, which is the practice well-known in India for centuries.
The philosophical analysis shows many influences, most notably from Buddhism and Jainism, but its philosophical basis is a form of sankhya, arguably the oldest philosophical system in India whose origin is most probably outside of the Vedas. However, by the 14th century or so, Patanjali’s yoga was recognized as one of the six orthodox philosophical systems (darsana) within the fold of Brahmanism and usually classified in three pairs, together with sankhya, nyaya and vaiseshika, purva-mimamsa and uttara-mimamsa. Unlike classical sankhya as described in the Sankhya-karika and Sankhya-sutra that are an atheistic radical dualism of spirit (purusha) and nature (prakrti) with a rather intellectual approach to the philosophy of human liberation, or soteriology, the type of sankhya expounded in the Yoga-sutra is sort of theistic since a kind of god, or Isvara, is admitted into the system, and it is decidedly pragmatic since the main theme of the Yoga-sutra is the meditative liberation of spirit from nature.
The well-known fact is that the main intention and orientation of the whole of Yoga is practical and so the same is true of the Yoga-sutra. This is the reason why it was not studied only by scholars, but also by very different practitioners of Yoga throughout the centuries in its various forms with the idea to understand and apply the techniques presented in it in quite different philosophical and psycho-cultural contexts. The central theme of the Yoga-sutra, as we have already pointed out, is the ending of human suffering by means of an intense Yogic meditation as the crown of all the preceding Yogic efforts to soothe the disturbed and therefore confused mind. They were very systematically delineated by Patanjali in his famous eightfold Yoga path. The first four sutras (here all translated by the author) of the first chapter give the definition and purpose of yoga, and constitute the core of the teachings:
1.1. Now the authoritative instruction in yoking (yoga).
1.2. Being yoked (yoga) is the arrest of the whirling of consciousness.
1.3. Then the seer abides in its own form.
1.4. Otherwise, conformity with the whirls.
The second sutra of the first chapter is probably the most famous and best known ancient definition of Yoga within Hindu tradition – yogascittavrttinirodhah – and Yoga is here unambiguously defined as the deep meditation and clarity of the mind that makes possible a deep insight into the true nature of reality and selfhood. The desired result of the practice of Yoga that is right for the practitioner (viniyoga of Yoga) is the stoppage of all the mental activities that cloud a clear vision of actuality. In this state of being yoked (yoga), in the arrest (nirodha) of mental confusion (citta-vrtti), or with mental collectedness (samadhi) fully established, there is a spontaneous clarity of consciousness (citta-prasadana) and truth-bearing wisdom (rtambhara-prajna) that cannot be obtained by any other means. In the second chapter, the well-known eight-limbed Yoga, or ashtanga-yoga, is described like this:
2.28. From the fervent pursuing of the limbs of yoking (yoga), after the impurities have been destroyed, there is a light of knowledge leading to discriminative insight.
2.29. The eight limbs are abstention, observance, posture, restraint of the breath, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and integration.
While in the second chapter the first five external limbs are described, in the third chapter, Patanjali explains the three last internal limbs that actually comprise the three phases of Yogic meditation also known as constraint (samyama) when practiced in succession as one unit on one object and they are succinctly defined like this:
3.1. Concentration (dharana) is the binding of consciousness to a point.
3.2. Meditation (dhyana) is one continuous flow of ideas in relation to that.
3.3 Integration (samadhi) indeed is this shining forth of pure essence, as if emptied of its own form.
So, dharana is concentrating our whole attention on one object of our choice: the connection between the subject and object is still interrupted by moments of inattention. Dhyana is delving with continuity into the object of concentration: the connection is well established and there is an uninterrupted learning about the object. And samadhi is merging totally with the this same object of meditation: the communication is total and cognition of both subject and object is perfect. In that state of the highest possible concentration of attention to one point (eka-grata) there is a feeling of losing one’s subjective identity while the object of cognition simultaneously reveals its essence.
Samprajnata-samadhi/cognitive integration always has an object on which attention is focused and its goal is a complete absorption (samapatti) into the object of concentration with the aim to know it completely. Asamprajnata-samadhi/non-cognitive integration (which is Vyasa’s term not found in the Yoga-sutra) is „the other” type of samadhi whose aim is to empty consciousness of all its content so that only pure consciousness remains, just pure subjectivity (asmita-matra, or buddhi) in its pristine form (sattva), and samprajnata-samadhi, also known as sabija-samadhi (“with seed”) is its precondition. Nirbija-samadhi, or seedless integration, on the other hand, is the highest form of concentration in which all the subliminal determinants (samskara) and unconscious imprints (vasana) are totally eliminated from consciousness, not just its conscious content (citta-vrtti). When consciousness is so pure that it is equal in purity with spirit, it is known as powerful awareness (citi-shakti), which is kaivalya, the final goal of all spiritual aspirations, or aloneness of spirit in its full independence. One first needs to know prakrti, or that which is not spirit (purusha), but the instrument to know it, that is one needs to know the mind/consciousness as the most subtle and most useful form of matter. Only then, by means of a discriminative insight (viveka-khyati) supported by profound meditation, can one know spirit, or more precisely, can spirit know/cognize itself as the real and unchanging subject of all changing experience, which is radically different from what it is experiencing and therefore absolutely free from all enslaving and painful materiality (prakrti), including individual mentality (asmita).
In the Yoga-sutra, nirbija-samadhi is considered to be a more refined state than sabija that can only be reached via sabija, or samprajnata-samadhi, that is slowly developed in four distinct phases (vitarka, vicara, ananda and asmita, in which gross and subtle thinking about the ever more refined objects of meditation are transcended in the feeling of pure bliss and finally in the strong feeling of one’s own existence). Asamprajnata-samadhi seems to be an intermediary state between sabija and nirbija in which only the mental concepts are fully terminated, but still some subliminal determinants remain in the depths of consciousness. Nirbija is very close to kaivalya, only kaivalya is permanent, and nirbija is not, so when one is firmly established in nirbija, kaivalya is only a question of time, and when kaivalya is there, there is no time any more. There is also a type of samadhi quite poetically called dharma-megha-samadhi, or integration rain-cloud of righteousness, described in the fourth chapter of the Yoga-sutra like this:
4.29. Integration the rain-cloud of righteousness always results from discriminative insight in the one who is disinterested even in the subtlest contemplation.
However, it is quite unclear what its relationship to nirbija actually is. They may be the same thing or it is an even higher state than nirbija that only has the content of pure righteousness, or truthfulness, which seems to be a state of complete fullness when spirit finally shines forth after consciousness first emptied itself of all its content that is not spirit in nirbija-samadhi. Thus automatically ends all the action leading to suffering, says the following sutra. And spirit is irrevocably and utterly free from nature.
As a matter of curiosity, T. Krishnamacharya, „the father of modern yoga“ and an avid student and teacher of the Yoga-sutra who even wrote a traditional commentary in Sanskrit (Yoga-valli), didn’t value nirbija-samadhi much because he was only interested in what he called bhagavata-dhyana, or meditation on God, in his case on Narayana, or Vishnu. Nirbija was too empty for him to be considered a valid goal of the spiritual life because he was a bhakta, a devotee of God, not a sankya-yogi like Patanjali. However, in Patanjali’s system there is no place for a divine intervention; it is superfluous. One’s own effort to liberate oneself should be enough. If someone needs a divine support(er), there is devotion to Isvara (Isvara-pranidhana), but It is not the God that creates the world or liberates souls, only an ideal type of a special soul that is primordially and absolutely free, and so can be a model for imitation or a perfect object of concentration for achieving samadhi quickly for those who are religiously inclined. For others, who are self-sufficient and self-reliant, no idea of god, with a form or without it, is necessary.
The goal is not a union with/ascent to the Divine or a grace/descent of the Divine, only aloneness of a spirit that is completely absorbed in itself and so totally free of all experience because it requires absolutely nothing else. This of course feels very dry and void to many aspirants, and that is precisely the reason why there are very few serious practitioners of patanjala-yoga and why there are so many interpretations that would like to soften Patanjali in one way or another. In this sense, Patanjali’s goal is much more similar to the Buddhist nirvana than to Vedantic moksha, but, unlike Buddhism, he admits that there is a soul that should be liberated, although it is essentially free, and that there is a kind of a god that can be helpful on the difficult path of Yoga, although it is not essential for reaching the final goal. However, for most people this goal is actually impossible to achieve and its very nature is quite controversial from many perspectives, but this exceeds the limits of our present discussion and will be addressed on some other occasion.
Undoubtedly, the Yoga-sutra has a strong liberating potential for the human psyche even today, around 2,000 years after it was offered to the world, because it insists on self-reliance and independence when it comes to understanding and obtaining human freedom. However, it must be clearly understood that essentially a very radical solution for the fact of human suffering given in the Sutras may not be and usually is not the right response to being alive as a concerned human being in the complex world of the 21st century. Some less radical and more suitable ways of doing Yoga effectively must be and are being developed. Still, the inspiration, experience and insight offered by Patanjali certainly have they relevant place in our own attempts at finding a creative way to live out our full human potential in spite of all the destructive tendencies prevalent in this decisive time of the globally pervasive human and spiritual crisis.
An Introduction to Yoga
Yoga is one of the best known terms of Eastern spirituality in the West and one of the most successful products of India on the international spiritual market. Of course, Yoga is much more than this, but its true nature and authentic purpose got quite fuzzy after it got mixed with Western culture some 130 years ago and with Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures much earlier. Furthermore, Yoga was already quite complex even earlier than that in the country of its origin, and it has always been a multitude of different (often conflicting) traditions, never one unchanging monolithic tradition. Also, the origin (or origins) of Yoga is not known and there are many holes in its long history. The relationship between the traditional Yogic lore and its modern expressions is therefore extremely confusing. Here are some important considerations, both theoretical and practical, that can help beginners in Yoga get oriented in the fascinating and perplexing world of modern Yoga.
The purpose of Yoga as a spiritual discipline
Essentially, Yoga can be applied for two different and yet connected purposes. The first one is for spiritual/human development (yoga-sadhana) and the second one is for prevention/therapy (yoga-cikitsa). Unfortunately, the first purpose is almost forgotten in modern Yoga, both in the so called “postural yoga” and so called “meditative yoga”. One of the reasons for that is the overall medicalization of (hatha-)yoga that happened first in India in the first part of the 20th century and then worldwide in the second half of the 20th century. Other reasons are the watering-down of Yoga in the capitalist mass production of “yoga” on the global “spiritual” and fitness markets, the “branding” of Yoga into the popular “styles of yoga” and a host of others. Therefore, most practitioners of Yoga today are unaware of the original and authentic spiritual purpose of yoga, that is of the primary use of Yoga for spiritual awakening and human growth.
On the other hand, the connection of Yoga and therapy is very old and often Yoga as such was understood as an ultimate remedy for human suffering in general, a kind of a deep healing that paves the way to a systematic exploration of true human potentials. And the other way round, a natural continuation in the application of Yoga after it has been used as therapy because an aspirant was ill and needed first to regain his or her health is to then use it for a harmonious, life-long and holistic human development. However, the primary purpose of Yoga (yogartha) is to trigger off and sustain a lasting desire for self-knowing and provide deep intimacy with the inner reality, with our Heart, so that the right kind of relatedness can be established with the outer reality, the world at large. In this way, the inner and outer conflicts can perhaps be understood better and hopefully ended, giving us an unlimited access to an infinite pool of creative energy that can be skillfully used for the benefit of all.
The spirit that Yoga (capital Y because there is actually only one authentic Yoga, your own Yoga that is right for you!) was supposed to reveal is not some kind of abstract immaterial identity, “our true self”, the knowledge of which will magically obliterate all our problems and bring us automatically into a state of permanent bliss and perfect enlightenment. On the contrary, the spiritual awakening that Yoga can give us if we practice it wholeheartedly is the realization that we are free to love and that love is a matter of action, not abstraction. Then the very act of falling in love with life through our practice and loving life beyond the practice frees us from all social conditioning and imagining that we are “less than” in our social interactions. We are the fullness of Life happening right here and right now, and that is our natural state, the state of Yoga, of being One with ourselves, the world in which we live and the Whole of Existence that we are.
A Yogic view on health
Many people nowadays connect Yoga with some kind of alternative or complementary therapy, a way to achieving and maintaining good health. However, according to the old teachings of Yoga, good health (arogya) is not just the absence of ill health (roga). It is an overall sense of well-being (svasti) based on the strong presence of life force (prana-sakti) in the body. And there are physical, mental and emotional/spiritual aspects of wellness. A healthy body depends on a sound mind, and the mind in turn rests on a developed emotional core. When all five layers/aspects of the human being – body, breath, mind, consciousness and emotions – are balanced and integrated, there is a profound feeling of being healthy, or being able to engage into action by interacting intimately with our reality, both within and without.
When applied as therapy, Yoga can be used for prevention (rakshana) and treatment (cikitsa). However, its primary strength lies in preventing and correcting mild imbalances leading to severe illnesses, but it can also be very successfully used for curing people with various diseases, including the so called incurable diseases. The basic practical tools of Yoga used as therapy (and as a spiritual discipline after good health has been restored) is to cleanse the body of detrimental waste (tapas), promote self-knowing (svadhyaya) and encourage devotion (isvara-pranidhana). Asana (specific postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) are helpful in removing the excesses (langhana-kriya), providing what is needed (brmhana-kriya) and balancing (samana-kriya) all the necessary elements for maintaining good health, increasing vitality and supporting longevity. Dhyana (engaging into meditation), mantra (intoning powerful utterances) and puja (performing rituals) are then used to deepen our sense of liveliness, to be at peace with ourselves and to creatively make a difference in the world. The healing process starts with disconnecting from what is hurtful to us (viyoga) and (re)connecting with what is beneficial to us (samyoga), especially with the people whose company is good for our personal growth (sat-sanga). Dietary changes, that is eating moderately (mitahara) and eating what is right for us (hitahara) can also be introduced, including life-style changes (vihara), and some medicinal herbs can sometimes be used (oshadhi) as well.
Of course, Yoga therapy can be combined with other systems and methods of medical treatment, alternative or official, ancient or modern, holistic and specific, and so become even more effective in each particular case. The crucial point to understand is that our health is in our hands regardless of who is helping us heal and ultimately we are the ones that heal ourselves with the full freedom to use whatever we feel is right for us. The element of faith in the possibility of healing, in the healer’s abilities to help us and in the power of medicines to make us feel better, plus our willingness to receive help and finally the discipline to follow the therapeutic instructions to the very end of the healing process are the key ingredients in successful healing. And finally, health is not the goal of a human life. The goal is to love life and be free in our making love with life. Health, vitality and longevity are here to help us in that, to make us capable of truly enjoying our lives and finally meet death without fear as the natural ending of a biological organism that we are.
Finding a good Yoga teacher and developing a personal practice
Since Yoga is a very special kind of traditional knowledge, it can only be learnt from a competent teacher. That kind of a teacher must be deeply rooted in some living Yoga tradition and must be able and willing to give to the student what he or she really needs, and such a teacher is very difficult to find. On the other hand, it is even harder to find a sincere student, the one who is really eager to learn and is ready to do that for the right reasons. Most aspirants have all kinds of misconceptions about what Yoga is and what it is for, and so are initially very confused about what they really want to study and practice. The quality and level of their motivation is also questionable in most cases. Some clarity about one’s intentions and needs is therefore necessary to have at the beginning of one’s search for the right teacher. And a bit of good luck is also helpful. Some would even say that a touch of fate is also necessary.
So, a good start is to be as clear as possible about whether it is Yoga that you want to practice. Perhaps it is something else. Then get as informed as possible using all the available sources about Yoga in general and the local teachers around you. You also have to rely on your intuition, not only on the information you gather and sift. If you cannot find a good teacher in your immediate surroundings, search farther away until you find one. A good teacher likes you and does not impose any ideas on you. He or she actually practices Yoga and lives what he or she is teaching. And remember, mere curiosity is not the right reason to approach a teacher although most teachers today will teach if students are merely curious about Yoga. Perhaps the interest will deepen or it will fade away, depending on many factors, mostly on the quality of relationship established between teacher and student. If the relationship is that of mutual respect and trust, devoid of all exploitation, and is equal and friendly, then the studying can really start.
The first step is always helping the student develop his or her personal practice. Unfortunately, that rarely happens because most of modern Yoga is just passing on patterns and earning a living, not transmitting empowerment and showing real care for the well-being of the student. The student should always start from where he or she really is and so ascertaining realistically the starting point is the teacher’s first responsibility. Then an adequate personal practice is carefully designed for that particular student, and it is almost always something simple, pleasant and easily manageable for the student, not something hard to do or difficult to grasp. The responsibility of the student is then to practice with confidence what has been received from the teacher.
A serious problem in developing a personal practice is the modern mass teaching in a group setting at Yoga studios and similar places (including online of recently) where people practice together, mostly led by their instructors of Yoga who mostly mechanically reproduce arbitrary sets of physical exercises looking like Yoga and/or teach various methods of meditation presented as Yoga meditation. In this way, most people don’t practice at home or don’t know how to do it by themselves even if they feel the need to have an adequate regular home practice. A possible solution for that is enabling the modern instructors to teach individually, meaning that they should re-educate themselves and actually develop a personal practice, and then start teaching from personal experience instead of imitating other people’s “styles of yoga”. We still have a long way to go before the low quality of teaching reaches the high quantity of teaching, and so be very cautious when looking for a teacher.
Making your personal practice of Yoga your priority
First and foremost, Yoga is a spiritual discipline. It is spiritual because it is not merely physical in the sense of dealing only with the body at the superficial level of movement and exercise; it deals with all other aspects of our human structure, that is with our life-giving breath, our tricky mind and our heavily conditioned consciousness, our suppressed emotional core and ultimately with our often quite messy relationships. Yoga is also very technical and technologically precise; it is a set of anciently developed and gratefully inherited techniques, but the really important thing is the spirit behind the techniques. That is the reason why Yoga can be understood as the technology of spiritual awakening to the mystery of existence. It is a great opportunity and privilege for us to delve deeply into ourselves, discover something useful about the workings of our body-mind complex and then use it creatively in our everyday life when interacting with our social and natural environment.
And Yoga is a discipline. At first, it may be a crude discipline of doing our practice in spite of the resistance not to do it. However, for most people, if they have a good teacher and the right kind of support, it soon becomes a very subtle discipline of fully enjoying our life in all its aspects. Having a personal and personalized Yoga practice is the basic precondition for that to happen. And, at first, it must be something short, simple, interesting and, above all else, it must be pleasant and well-adapted to the constantly changing individual needs and abilities. Then a regular daily practice can be slowly developed, maintained regardless of what is happening in our lives and deepened with time. And then the daily discipline of doing our Yoga will turn into constant learning about ourselves, the world around us and the whole of life that we are.
To be able to maintain and deepen our practice we should make it a priority in our daily life. If we truly understand the importance of having a regular Yoga practice and if we have felt at least some of its numerous benefits, it should not be too difficult to make it a priority in our daily schedule, no matter how busy it may be. We no longer forget to do it, skip it or neglect it. We just do it because it feels good and because it is good for us, just like any other daily activity we do for the same reason. And we no longer debate with ourselves whether we should do it or not. Our Yoga practice has become one of our priorities and we know how important it is to keep it a constant priority. Of course, priorities also constantly change and we must often revise our priorities as we change and as our life changes, but we choose to keep our personal Yoga practice a constant priority over and over again, and we stick with that decision no matter what. In this way Yoga becomes an integral part of our life sooner or later and remains a solid foundation of our well-being, our human dignity, our sense of freedom and our ability to understand, appreciate and love life.
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.