Dandasana, "seated staff pose,” is one of the first yoga poses we students learn, and the foundation for most seated forward bends. Simple though its outer form may be, it offers valuable lessons in the firmness, comfort, and stability which define the practice of asana (Yoga Sutra 2:46).
Danda means “staff” in Sanskrit. It also means “punishment”—from the root dand, “to punish.” In modern Hindi, “death sentence” is mrtyu dand, and Yama, the Lord of Death, is usually depicted wielding a staff. Traditionally, wandering yogis carried a danda, or staff, often topped with a crutch. This special danda was designed to fit into the armpit, where it served to direct the breath in pranayama practice (if one nostril is closed, you can open it by applying pressure to the opposite side armpit). A ruler's scepter is raj dand. In Indian cosmology, the legendary Mount Meru is the spine or axis of the world, the place that connects heaven and earth—similar to the way in which the spine connects the head with the body. Ayurveda calls the human spinal column meru danda.
A danda, then, is an ordering principle involving uprightness, firmness, the setting of limits and boundaries, and the upholding of rules or standards. A danda holds some entity—the earth, the kingdom, the law, the body—together, and organizes its constituent parts into a harmoniously functioning whole.
Setting Up Dandasana
Sit on the floor, on a folded blanket or blankets (as much of a lift as you need to keep your spine long). Extend your legs out in front of you and draw them together, feet joined if possible, kneecaps facing the ceiling. If your feet are triangular like mine—toes much wider than the heels—you will not be able to join the inner sides of your feet without turning your knees out. Don’t do that; if feet together is not possible, just sit with your legs as close together as they can comfortably be. Flex your feet. The weight of your feet should rest squarely on the center of your heels. The weight of your torso should be directly over your sit bones.
Hug your thigh muscles onto the bones from all sides. Keep your heels on the floor.
You may discover that tight hamstrings drag your sit bones toward your knees, making it difficult to sit upright. Try this: Keeping your feet flexed and your legs active, use your hands to roll your inner thighs down toward the floor and your outer thighs up toward the ceiling. Then, rolling to one side, reach underneath and move your buttock flesh back on the side that's lifted (not out to the side like you just did with your thighs, but back toward the wall behind you). As you sit back down, notice the difference in your two sides. Now do the same thing on the other side. Moving the flesh back can help you balance your weight more evenly between both sit bones, and it shifts you more forward onto your sit bones, which may help prevent rounding in the lower back. It can also help to set the thighbones deeper into your hip sockets, making you feel very stable and grounded. Those with injured or hyperflexible hamstrings should proceed with caution. If this action creates pain, it is not for you right now.
Place your hands on the floor, next to your hips, palms facing down, fingers pointing forward. Press down through your hands to help lift your rib cage up, keeping the front ribs and back ribs parallel. Are your arms exactly long enough to reach the floor with straight elbows? People with long arms may need to bend their elbows slightly, keeping the elbows close to the ribs. People with shorter arms may need to either support their hands with blocks or by coming up onto their fingertips.
Refinements of Dandasana
Keeping your feet active, lengthen your inner ankles away from your face and move the little-toe sides of your feet back, toward your face.
Use the muscles of your back thighs to draw your thighbones even more deeply toward the floor (without lifting your heels). Are your thighs still parallel? Check your feet—has one foot rolled toward the outer edge?
Find the position in which your spine is vertical (perpendicular to the floor), like a royal staff, and maintain that position. If your lower back tends to round, this may mean moving your sit bones even further back as you stretch your heels away from your face, increasing the distance between sit bones and heels. (Notice that your pelvis may tilt slightly more forward as you do this!) If you tend to overarch your low back, it may mean drawing your front ribs back so that they're parallel to the back ribs as you lift up through your side waists.
Broaden your collarbones and widen the inner edges of your shoulder blades away from your spine. You can also experiment with your hand position. Move your hands back until your fingertips are next to the back rim of your buttocks; now move them forward slowly, until the hands are next to your hips, right under your shoulders. What effect do these movements have on your ribs, chest, and shoulder blades? Find the position that feels optimally stable and comfortable, and maintain it.
Engage your lower belly and continue to lift your ribs. Relax your face, throat, and eyes. Lift the crown of your head toward the ceiling, lift the base of your skull, and lower your chin just a hair's breadth. Widen the corners of your eyes away from your nose and gaze at the horizon. Breathe calmly and regally. Stay here for one full minute.
With your spine being the axis of your body, dandasana is the foundation for all seated poses. In this strong, dynamic, but unmoving pose, you have a wonderful opportunity to observe your body's habits and asymmetries. Once you see how the two sides of your body differ, you can consciously enlist the “good” (strong, flexible, stable) side as a model for its counterpart.
With your spine being the axis of your body, dandasana is the foundation for all seated poses.
Does one leg want to turn out more than the other? When you lift the ribs, do your back muscles behave differently on the right and the left? Considering your spine to be the midline of your body, take inventory of the two sides. Notice your right shoulder and left shoulder; right collarbone and left collarbone; right ribs and left ribs; right hip and left hip; right sit bone and left sit bone, all in relation to the midline spine. If you like, you can continue your observation into the skull: Does one side tilt differently from the other? Does one side of your jaw jut forward, and does one side of the neck droop? What have you learned about the way the more stable and comfortable side functions? Now apply that to the other side, and use that awareness to bring them into balance.
Although the spine is clearly the central danda in this pose, the arms and legs share the qualities of firmness, groundedness, and straightness. If any of the limbs loses their focus or steadiness, notice how the spine feels the effect.
This pose teaches us to use the danda of the spine to awaken the body's intelligence and bring all its parts into healthy alignment. Similarly, in the traditional Vedic-based concept of rulership, a king's function is to bring all the parts of the realm into a balanced relationship. As the first citizen of his country, the king must protect all his subjects and assure that they, and the land with all its resources, exist in harmony with one another.
As the ruler of your body, consider: Is your right shoulder trying to do all the work of supporting the head? Restrain that shoulder, or support it so it doesn’t have to work so hard, and notice the effect of these actions on the head and on the rest of the body. Figure out what you need to change in order to give the left side a chance to do its fair share. Are both sit bones carrying the body's weight equally? Are both lungs receiving as much air as they need? How might you reallocate your body's resources—its strength, flexibility, and sense of equilibrium—to make all its parts happy and healthy in this moment?
In some ways, a yogi's life seems the opposite of a king's. Where the king is concerned with the welfare of his entire realm in all its specifics, the yogi turns his attention away from such details to focus on the inner world. Where the king must balance and restrain relations among others, the yogi controls his own senses, using the media of the body and mind; Patanjali calls this practice pratyahara (Yoga Sutra 2.54-2.55). The yogi's danda serves as a tool for restraining the breath and the mind, and for supporting the body in meditation. Patanjali defines the state of yoga as “Chitta vritti nirodhah” (YS 1.1), or the state in which the mind’s fluctuations (vrittis) are restrained (nirodhah); and the key to restraining or directing the mind’s activity is the control, direction, or restraint of the breath.
The yogi's danda serves as a tool for restraining the breath and the mind, and for supporting the body in meditation.
The yogi’s danda not only helps to support his body in seated meditation, it can act as a tool to change the breath’s placement in pranayama practice.
Has your teacher ever showed you how to put pressure on one armpit in order to open the opposite nostril? The yogi used his danda in the same way. Today, the tool of choice is usually a tennis ball—so much more comfortable than a crutch!—but in ancient times, a renunciate had to work with what was available.
As for the “death” and “punishment” aspects of danda: Restraint involves cultivating one thing while diminishing or even destroying another, and our ego-minds don't enjoy this side of renunciation. Your love for caffeine may have to die in the service of better sleep, improved energy, and overall health. You may need to work hard to develop the muscles on one side of your back, and train the muscles on the other side to work less in order to reduce your scoliosis pain. Changing a cherished, long-established habit, even for the best reasons, often feels like punishment. Recall a time when you made a significant lifestyle change. What served you then as a danda? Even a yoga prop could be considered a danda if it helps to refine your awareness of how your body works.
How do you feel about using props? Do you appreciate their help or secretly feel that you should be able to do "this" (whatever it is) unassisted? Take a moment to remember that even Shiva, the lord of yogis, uses a danda in his seated meditation, and dedicate your next practice to him. You may be surprised at the results!