I often read that advanced yoga practices should not be undertaken until the nervous system has been “strengthened.” What are such advanced yoga practices, and how can I prepare myself for them?
Generally speaking, yoga poses can be divided into three main categories: initial, intermediate, and advanced. The initial stage of yoga practice may consist of basic hatha or advanced yoga poses and simple breathing exercises. The purpose of yoga at this stage is to regain and maintain a normal level of health. In today’s fast-paced, stressful society the majority of humanity seems to be living below a normal standard of health. A stiff body, low energy level, weak organs, and a mind filled with fear, worry, and anxiety are common to most of us. As long as we are struggling with these problems we should undertake only a simple yoga routine, focusing especially on those practices which specifically help us to overcome them. Sleeping and waking up on time; eating the right kind of food in the right proportion; doing gentle exercises such as some stretching, forward and backward bending, and yoga poses to loosen the hips, open the chest, and make the spine strong and flexible, are part of the initial phase of yoga practice.
In addition, we may also employ simple breathing exercises which enable us to regulate the motion of the diaphragm, eliminate chest breathing, remove jerks and noise in the breath, and strengthen those organs that are involved in the process of breathing—abdominal muscles, diaphragm, and lungs.
As you continue to practice you’ll gain more awareness and control of your body and breath. You’ll know you’re ready for the next stage when diaphragmatic breathing, instead of chest breathing, has become your normal habit; when your body has become flexible enough so that you can sit comfortably with your head, neck, and trunk straight; when you’ve increased your stamina to the point that you can walk fast or exercise for an hour without getting tired; when you’ve formed the habit of eating, sleeping, and waking up on time; and when your bowel movement is regular. When you are able to accomplish this, and when it has become a part of your normal routine, you can gradually move to the next level of yoga.
The purpose of the intermediate level is not only to maintain the progress you have already achieved, but also to unfold the human potential which usually remains dormant within us. The intermediate level includes classical yoga exercises, yogic cleansing techniques, and pranayamas—nadi shodhanam, kapalabhati, bhastrika, ujjayi, bhramari, and agni sara. Practicing these yoga poses and breathing techniques regularly will strengthen not only the muscles but also the internal organs. These practices will also enable you to clean your system at a deep level by activating s uch organs and glands as the heart, liver, lungs, pancreas, ovaries, and testes.
The purpose of the intermediate level is not only to maintain the progress you have already achieved, but also to unfold the human potential which usually remains dormant within us.
Advanced yoga poses and pranayama techniques are designed to provide an equal workout to the left and right sides of the body and brain, and because of this, they have an amazing effect on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Both active and passive, solar and lunar, and male and female energies are forced to flow in a balanced manner, cleansing and nourishing the nervous system. This cleansing and nourishing is an important preparation for undertaking the advanced practices of yoga, which unleash the powerful dormant energies of the body and mind. A weak and impure nervous system may be jarred, even shattered, when this dormant force awakens. Therefore I would advise against jumping into advanced yoga disciplines if you are not comfortable and regular with the practices of the intermediate level. You need a solid base from which to jump.
If you are honest with yourself you will automatically know whether or not you are ready for advanced practices. Signs and symptoms of perfection at the intermediate level include having a strong digestive fire, balanced by vata, pitta, and kapha; feeling light and energetic at the physical level; feeling cheerful, inspired, enthusiastic, and motivated at the emotional level; and feeling a strong hunger to gain more knowledge and experience at the intellectual level. When these signs are clearly evident you are ready to move on to the advanced level.
The advanced stage of yoga is custom-designed to fit your individual needs and goals. At this stage you need to have already perfected one sitting posture, and to have formed the habit of always doing pranayama with the bandhas and mudras. Advanced techniques of concentration, visualization, breath retention, and mantra japa can be learned only from a competent teacher. Experienced teachers will never teach advanced techniques of yoga unless the student is fully prepared—physically healthy, emotionally mature, and intellectually sharp. Without these prerequisites, and without proper guidance, a student who attempts to do advanced practices may have a more negative than positive experience, for his or her nervous system is not yet fully prepared. There is no such risk in the initial and intermediate stages. That is why it is important to perfect them slowly and systematically before moving on to advanced practices.
What is the best way to strengthen the nervous system in order to undertake advanced practices of yoga?
It is very simple. Practice one step at a time. Perfect each level before moving on to the next. Laying the groundwork is essential; the rest falls into place naturally. After the basic practices of the initial phase are routine for you, strive to master the practices of the intermediate level. Stay at the intermediate level for a long time. The practices of this level—the classical yoga asanas, pranayama, and the cleansing techniques—are the way to strengthen your nervous system.
You will find that at some point in your practice you feel the need to place more emphasis on pranayama, especially the pranayama techniques that energize your navel center. This is a clear indication that your nervous system is now clean enough; it is ready to absorb and assimilate the additional pranic force that is generated from the navel center. An unhealthy and impure nervous system andnadis—energy channels—become irritated and sluggish when the vital energy tries to travel through them. It is like providing food which is heavy in nutrients to someone whose digestive system is weak.
Asanas such as the complete spinal twist, peacock, and headstand; pranayamas such as bhastrika, kapalabhati, and surya bhedi; and other practices such as mulabandha, uddiyana bandha, trataka, and nauli kriya are some of the techniques at the intermediate level of yoga which strengthen and energize the nervous system. Continue to do these practices regularly and patiently, and in time you will reap the benefits and be able to do advanced practices.
I feel fiery all the time and tend to snap at people a lot. But at the same time I feel tired and sluggish and easily dissolve into tears. What can I do?
If my understanding of your problem is correct, your fire element is low, and that is why you feel tired and sluggish, and why at the same time you can’t stop snapping at people. So do not worry about having a fiery nature. In fact, you do not have a lot of fire; you have very little fire and even that is not under control.
In your case fire in the form of anger is more like a firecracker than a volcanic eruption; you don’t have enough fire in your system to turn into a fiery volcano. Your anger is more like that of a tiny firecracker which briefly explodes and then quickly lapses into a dense darkness of sadness and depression. People who have low fire, or let’s say a weak constitution, usually experience these symptoms.
According to the observations of yogis, such people have weakness in the area of the first three chakras, where the energy is usually low and stagnant. Practices such as ashvini mudra, mulabandha, and the abdominal lift will help you immensely. (If you have had surgery in this area, and if you feel that it is still not completely healed, be careful.)
A variation of agni sara, which involves contracting and lifting the abdominal muscles while exhaling—and relaxing and releasing these same muscles while inhaling—is particularly helpful for this. In this variation of agni sara the energies of the first two lower chakras are activated and forced to flow upward to the navel center.
Tiredness, sloth, inertia, heaviness, dullness, fear, and sadness caused by failure and loss are associated with the first chakra, called muladhara. Practices such as ashvini mudra and mulabandha have a direct effect on this chakra. Like the base of a fire bowl, the muladhara is where the fire of kundalini shakti resides. Anatomically situated at the base of the tailbone, this area is rich in nerve endings. According to yoga, this is the area which governs our most primitive urges—fear and self-preservation. By activating the energy at this center and moving it upward, we transcend our animal tendencies.
Desire, sensuality, frustration, and anger are associated with the second chakra, svadhishthana. This chakra is extremely subtle; physiologically it is hidden deep in the interior of the pelvic region. Gaining access to the second chakra and activating it is extremely difficult. With the help of agni sara, however, we can unblock its energy, and move it up to the navel center, as we did with the energy of the first chakra.
The navel center, the manipura, is the center of the fire element. When the forces of the first and second chakras are offered into the fire of the third chakra, all physical, emotional, and biological energies come under control. It is the fire at the navel center that enables us to attain mastery over ourselves.