It’s Monday morning and you’re ready to begin your asana practice. Unrolling your mat, you listen for the inner voice that guides your movements. Today, however, that voice is wavering: “Warm-ups? I’m tired of the old routine. Should I start on all fours or lie down? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll just run through some sun salutations and see what happens.”
Your mental dialogue reflects a malaise that has been creeping into your practice for a while now. It would be nice to start on a more positive note, but this morning’s energy is uninspired at best. How can you breathe new life into your routine?
What makes any session different from others is the awareness we bring to it. When a practice sequence wears thin, it needs a fresh perspective. Without it, yoga students, like runners on treadmills, would soon be reading books or watching soaps while moving mechanically through their routine. But a single new idea is enough to fill an entire yoga session with energy.
To find that idea we need to examine our practice more carefully. It sometimes seems that we are doing postures in order to imitate pictures found in our favorite yoga manual. Inevitably, perfection seems far away and interest is hard to sustain. But when we begin to practice with a more personal focus, the rigidity of our approach softens and a much more engaging style emerges.
Every posture and posture sequence is composed of many lines of work. Among these are such important physical themes as stretching the hamstrings and adductor muscles, stabilizing the pelvis, restoring postural balance, and opening the upper chest. When these lines of work become part of our personal body language, the practice of yoga postures is transformed.
To illustrate, try a simple reclining twist with the feet on the floor, hip-width apart. Instead of focusing on the twist in the pelvis and lower back, however, bring your attention to the adductor muscles, the muscles on the inside of the thigh. As the legs twist to one side, the adductors of the lower leg must relax in order to allow it to release toward the floor. At the same time, the adductors of the upper leg must be increasingly engaged in order to maintain an approximate symmetry between the two legs. Feeling the contrasting roles played by the two sets of adductors—and consciously reinforcing each of them as you move from side to side—brings new energy to this simple pose.
Some lines of work have a broad scope. Nonharming, for example, is a global theme. It protects us by bringing even mildly painful sensations to our attention, so that we might assess whether they foreshadow greater problems. But as we pursue our practice, we can transform nonharming into a line of work that promotes healing rather than simply backing away from pain.
Lines of work surface when we choose to give them importance and then recede from view during periods of inattention. Some are ingrained in us from the first lessons we take; we discover others only after long periods of working with the body and mind.
The various lines of work in yoga highlight essentials of asana practice that every practitioner is likely to address at some point or another. What follows is a collection of some of these essentials—ideas that may restore the spark to your practice if it has lately gone missing, or simply make your practice more engaging than ever. And if these ideas work, then it’s likely as time passes that you’ll add to them, using your own practice and the challenges of your body as a guide. Here are some ways to get started:
1. Internalize your practice by closing your eyes or softening your gaze as you work.
No practice thrives for long without turning inward. Closing the eyes brings a more intensely internal experience to what we do. Sensations that might have been missed are brought to awareness, and those that are normally encountered come to our attention more quickly. Start your practice with a period of breath awareness to relax and anchor this internal focus.
It’s true that some poses (and some styles of practice) need a soft, eyes-open gaze rather than eyes-closed. You can decide for yourself which style suits the practice you are doing. But it’s worth noting that in addition to the sensitivity you gain from closing your eyes, working with the eyes closed can add a surprising challenge to a posture. For example, stretch your assumption about the importance of keeping a fixed gaze in balance poses by closing your eyes the next time you try the tree pose.
2. Extend your concept of nonharming—work as if you are healing.
Each of us has had an injury that resulted in restricted movement. But as time passed, one day we felt that magic sensation of healing, the feeling that we were becoming well again—not completely back to normal, but that muscles were nonetheless beginning to relax and it felt good to stretch them and explore movements we had not felt in many days or weeks.
Every yoga posture can be performed with this attitude. Stretch, strengthen, and move with the sense that your body is healing from old and forgotten injuries. Monitor the pace of your work so that you do not work faster than the healing process really allows. Don’t be swayed into thinking that some other approach will work better. Only healing and increasing vitality merit your energy and enthusiasm.
3. Let poses come to you through longer holding times.
If you have become used to moving into and out of poses quickly, you may be surprised to discover that your habit is not serving you well. It allows you to avoid feeling the pose. Longer holding times will transform this. But don’t dive deeply into a pose and hold it with desperate resolve. Instead, use preparatory movements as a way to explore it, and then hold a version that is safe and pleasantly challenging. Come back to some postures later in your routine in order to move more deeply into them. This will give gravity, your breath, and your inner sensitivity time to let each posture come to you.
A good illustration of this is a simple squatting posture—feet hip-width apart, body weight resting on the balls and toes of the feet. Spread your knees and fold your trunk, neck, and head forward between the thighs. Then close your eyes. Stay in the pose long enough (one to two minutes) to allow your breath to deepen and the upper body to soften toward the floor. Then focus on the muscle tone in the calves and heels, allowing the heels to release as well. Lengthen your arms in front of you, feeling the back muscles stretch all the way down into the back of the pelvis. The heels may settle onto the floor, but restrain yourself from trying to press them down. As time passes, let the pose come to you.
4. Deepen your awareness of muscle tension and resistance.
Despite our intention to relax, all of us paradoxically tighten muscles and resist relaxing at subtle levels. Longer holding times will help us discover these more subtle tensions, but recognizing them also requires increased sensitivity.
Lie on your back with your legs hip-width apart and your arms stretched straight out from the shoulders. Gently draw the shoulder blades under and then down and away from the ears. Turn the palms up, rotating the forearms open. Now close your eyes and rest, allowing the sensations in the upper chest, shoulder joint, and upper arm to come into awareness. You may have a sense of mild “holding” in the chest wall—a feeling that you have not quite released there. Relax in the pose and let the two sides of the upper chest soften as you lengthen across the shoulders and into the arms. Rest comfortably in the pose with eyes closed—the abdomen rising and falling with each breath.
Next, bend your knees and raise the thighs toward the abdomen. Keeping the legs together, twist them to one side. Notice the effect of the twist on the chest wall, shoulder, and arm on the opposite side from the twist. With your eyes closed, deepen your awareness of the space that reaches from the sternum all the way to the fingers of each hand. Gradually relax resistance and allow the arms to lengthen and soften. Make small adjustments in the shoulders and arms to increase your awareness of the stretch. Then, once more, relax the chest wall and breathe deeply and smoothly. You will find subtle resistance gradually giving way to relaxation.
5. Gain a working knowledge of muscles and joints.
Without a basic working knowledge of muscles and joints it is difficult to analyze the forces at work in any particular posture. If your skeleton had no joints, then you would be immobile—frozen in space. Movement takes place when a muscle (or gravity) acts on a joint. We are all familiar, for example, with the experience of hamstring muscles stretched to their limit by a forward bend. But just why does forward bending have this inevitable effect? The answer lies in the location of the attachments of the hamstrings, the action of forward bending on those attachments, the relationship of hamstrings to knee and hip joints, and the nature of forward bending in respect to pelvic and lower back stability. Hit the books if you are uncertain about the anatomical details—it will give you confidence in your understanding of each pose.
6. Use simple poses to analyze and address various movement problems.
It is always easier to address lines of work in basic stretches and postures than to work on them in more challenging asanas. For example, while tightness in the adductor muscles can be approached through trikonasana (the triangle pose), the hip rotation, lateral torso bend, neck rotation, and arm extensions found in this asana add a great many complications to the work.
To make progress with the thighs, why not start simply? Stand with your feet two to three feet apart and parallel, hands at the hips. Slowly tip the pelvis from side to side, exploring the stretch in the thighs at various levels from the groin, through the mid-thigh, to the inner side of the knee. Compare the two sides, gradually deepening the stretch while remembering that you are performing a work of healing. Don’t allow the torso to become involved in the movement at first. Keep it erect. Later you can easily transform the tipping movement of the pelvis into a lateral stretch by bending the trunk and bringing your arm overhead to add weight to the movement.
Simple movements like this reveal the essentials of asana work. The information they provide explains why we feel blocked in some postures and like a superstar in others. There are many simple stretches to choose from and they often complement one another, making it an intuitive process to build sequences. Classical asana work can easily come later, when the body is prepared.
7. Make a list of the poses that need daily attention.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses. We tend to do poses we perform well and not ones that expose our limitations. But in daily practice we have the chance to address weaknesses, with the understanding that patient attention offers its own rewards. We simply need to identify problem areas clearly.
Lower back weakness? Lack of mobility in the hips? Hamstring tightness? Abdominal weakness? Tense inner thighs? Frozen pectoral muscles? More than one of the above? No matter. Your approach is to apply a new, inwardly sensitive, noninjuring, health-promoting strategy to feel better in your body. Working with the “problem” may turn out to be the most fun you’ve had in a long time—an opportunity to transform the way you think and feel about yourself. Daily practice is the key.
Onto the Mat
It often helps to have worked out a few beginning sequences so that the first movements of the morning don’t require much weighty contemplation. But when asana malaise strikes, and you need a new strategy for getting started, try lying down with your eyes closed. Rest on your back with your arms spread out from the shoulders and the palms turned up. Relax your breath and tune in to your body and mind.
Ask, “What comes next?” Give the answer time to emerge, rather than seizing on hypothetical solutions. You may want to consider lines of work that have been profitable for you in past sessions—or ones that you have been avoiding lately. You may gravitate toward a balanced selection of asanas, or decide to limit yourself to fewer than a dozen—with lots of stretching. You may even find happiness in maintaining the discipline of your regular practice. As you begin to move, examine how your body responds. You’re on your way now. This is going to be a very good day on the mat.