Yoga Sutra on Asana (Part 2)
Yoga teacher Sandra Anderson explores the second verse about asana in the Yoga Sutra—and offers a practice you can explore, too.
प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम् prayatnaśaithilyānantasamāpattibhyām — Yoga Sutra 2.47 “By relaxing effort and fixing the mind on the infinite [asana is perfected].”
I like this sutra’s idea of relaxing effort. I suspect asana classes have become a refuge for many yoga enthusiasts for this reason—because they give us permission to relax the striving and relentless forward momentum that characterize our busy days. And fixing the mind on the infinite? Perhaps we experience that more often than we realize—those precious moments at the end of class when we sense the pure awareness that grows out of a deep stillness in our body and mind.
But how can we hone our ability to reach this elusive state—a state the Yoga Sutra describes as perfected asana? Let’s first consider how to relax our effort. Think of Tiger Woods’s golf swing or a professional pianist performing a sonata. There is an effortlessness in their technique that lets something else shine through—something that suggests perfect concentration and connection to a greater form. It’s the same for asana. Mastery is making right effort—efficient effort—and letting go of ineffectual and unnecessary exertion.
How can we hone our ability to reach this elusive state--a state the Yoga Sutra describes as perfected asana?
In the beginning we need to focus on technique. (Should my foot be turned out or in? Are my knees locked or too wobbly?) We concentrate on keeping the spine lifted and opening the backs of our stiff legs. We struggle with flexibility and strength. But once there is familiarity and ease, the external aspects of asana practice become effortless, allowing us to be fully present on three levels: physical, energetic, and mental. Then we can yoke our focus to the flow of breath and eventually to a unified deeper presence, uncolored by our usual preoccupations, freed from the limitations of our senses, and resting in the infinite pure awareness of our being.
The following short sequence includes poses to address common tension patterns. It builds the strength and flexibility needed for physical integration, and eventually, effortlessness and inner absorption. Practice, practice, practice. Pay particular attention to the flow of the breath, moving through the poses in coordination with the inhale and exhale. Use this more subtle awareness of the breath to refine your experience. Gently direct your attention inward as a means for letting go of effort and cultivating a sense of inner expansiveness. Eventually, the mind will flow naturally into a state of meditation—the most potent tool of yoga, and the foremost subject of the Yoga Sutra.
Do a few gentle sun salutations and standing poses, or (as pictured above) your favorite overhead stretch, shoulder rolls, and side stretch to stimulate circulation and bring awareness to the body and breath.
2. Agni Sara/Nauli Kriya
Do 10 or more repetitions of agni sara (a breathing practice to activate the deep abdominal muscles, stimulate the digestive system, and tone the nervous system). A beginner version of agni sara is to contract the abdominal wall, drawing the navel to the spine on the exhale, and smoothly relax on the inhale.
More experienced practitioners can continue with the deeper phases of agni sara or move on to nauli kriya, a more advanced exercise similar in effect to agni sara.
Nauli kriya is one of the shat kriyas—the six cleansing actions. The abdominal organs are massaged by the sequential contraction of the abdominal muscles from side to side. First, practice isolating and contracting the rectus abdominal muscles (those two ropey muscles in the midline that give you the “six-pack” look). As in agni sara, lean forward, rest your weight on your thighs, exhale, hold the breath out, press the abdominal wall toward the spine, and draw the diaphragm up under the ribs. Then, holding the breath out, with the belly hollowed out, strongly contract the two long midline muscles of the abdomen. When you are successful at this, these muscles stand out, and the other three layers of muscle in the abdomen sit back into the pelvic cavity. To get the side-to-side rolling effect that characterizes nauli kriya, contract one side and then the other. When you can do this smoothly and quickly, it looks and feels like a rotation from side to side. Be sure to work in both directions.
3. Roll-Down Forward Bend
Stand quietly after nauli kriya or agni sara, and let the breath return to normal. Then, as you exhale, slowly roll down the spine into a standing forward bend. Lead with the head, relax the arms and shoulders, and bend the knees, keeping your weight over the arches of your feet. You may take a couple of breaths to reach the full forward bend from the hip joints. If the hands don’t reach the floor, bend the knees more deeply, or hold the shins or thighs. Relax and focus on the movement of the breath at the solar plexus. Feel the inner expansion of the body with the breath, and the lengthening of the spine and the back of the legs.
4. Modified Ustrasana (Camel Pose)
From here, kneel on the floor. Then draw the fingertips along the floor, behind the feet, as you sit back on the heels, with the tops of the feet flat. Press the hands into the floor behind you, draw the shoulder blades down and together, and lift the thighs and pelvis up off the lower legs. Roll the thigh bones in, and lift the heart and sacrum. Keep the head lifted and look straight ahead. Find comfort in the fullness of the breath. Hold for a couple of breaths, letting the hands, lower legs, and tops of the feet ground you as you press the spine and sacrum forward, deeper into the body.
5. Balasana (Child’s Pose)
With an exhale, sit back on your heels (spread your knees apart if that is more comfortable) and fold forward from the crease in the hips. Bring the forehead onto the floor and the arms alongside the body. Breathe into the lower back and side ribs. Let the back lengthen and relax. Notice the containment in the belly and the ease of the breath in the lower ribs. When you are ready to come out of the pose, slip the pelvis to one side, sit up, and stretch the legs straight out in front.
6. Single Leg Lifts From Forearms
Lean back on your forearms, elbows under the shoulders, keeping the heart lifted and the spine neutral. Don’t round or overarch the lower back, hunch the shoulders, or sink the chest. Start with the legs reaching straight up. Exhale, lower one leg to just off the floor. Hold for one breath. Then inhale and lift the leg back to vertical. Exhale, lower the other leg to just off the floor. Hold for a breath; then inhale and lift the leg back to vertical. Repeat, alternating legs 5 to 10 times, but stop if you can’t maintain proper alignment in the lower back. Rest on your back with the knees bent and feet on the floor. Then roll to one side and come onto your hands and knees.
7. Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose)
Bring the right knee forward to rest the thigh on the floor, with the foot near the left groin, and stretch the left leg straight out behind you. If the pelvis doesn’t rest square on the floor, prop the right side of the pelvis with a bolster or folded blankets. Flatten the top of the foot to the floor and sink the pelvis as you walk the hands back beside the pelvis. Draw the tailbone down to bring the pelvis upright and lift up through the torso, centering the pelvis between the legs and centering the crown of the head over the pelvic floor. Draw the shoulder blades down and broaden the collarbones. Breathe. This may be as far as you go in the pose.
Or, to deepen the backbend, bend the left knee and reach the foot toward the ceiling, keeping the thigh tracking straight back. Grasp the foot with one or both hands and press the foot into the hand(s), resisting as you draw the foot toward the body. Keep the pelvis and shoulders level and facing forward, and the thigh and shin square. Draw the shoulder girdle down, and expand the chest from the inside. The inner expansion moves up and back to draw the crown of the head toward the toes behind the heart. Repeat on the other side, then sit back in child’s pose, or press up to down dog before sitting down for baddha konasana.
8. Baddha Konasana (Bound-Angle Pose)
Sit with the soles of the feet together near the pelvis and press the knees down into the floor. Hold the feet with the hands, and lean forward from the hip joints, drawing the pubic bone back between the thighs as you press the knees down and the sacrum forward. Lengthen the spine and draw the shoulder blades down. Keep the lower belly deeply engaged to draw the pelvis over the feet. The arms may press the legs toward the floor. Hold and breathe deeply, relaxing into the pose. Release on an inhale and come back to center.
9. Ardha Matsyendrasana (Seated Twist)
Slide the right foot to the outside of the left hip so the right knee is pointing straight in front of you, then step the left foot onto the floor near the outer right thigh. Press both sit bones down, inhale, and lift through the top of the head to elongate the spine. Exhale, draw the lower belly in and turn to the left, without losing the vertical alignment of the spine. Use your left hand on the floor behind the pelvis, and the right hand on the knee to guide the upward lift through the torso. Feel the deep abdominal muscles engaging to draw you into the twist, and be careful not to tilt the pelvis or arch the lower back. Draw the shoulder blades down the back, keeping the chin level and the back of the neck long as you turn the head to look over the shoulder. Grow a little taller on each inhale, and twist a little deeper on each exhale. Your mental focus will naturally become anchored in the vertical alignment of the torso, and the breath will be refined and smooth. You may work with a little less twist to emphasize the erect upward-moving energy through the spine, the inward drawing of awareness to the core alignment, and the ease of breath. Release with an exhale, and repeat on the other side.
10. Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose)
Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor hip-width apart and parallel. Press your arms into the floor alongside the body. Push down through the balls of the big toes, roll the inner thighs inward, draw up through the pelvic floor, and lift the pelvis. Inhale and roll up through the spine, lifting the chest by pressing the shoulders and arms down and the shins forward. Press the spine toward the front of the body. Then, to open the shoulders and upper chest, shift slightly to one side, drawing the opposite shoulder blade toward the spine. Repeat to the other side, bringing your weight onto the outer edges of both shoulders. You may clasp the hands together on the floor and press the arms down. Lift the heart, and press the sternum toward the chin.
11. Viparita Karani (Inverted Action Pose)
From bridge pose, come up onto the toes and tuck the hands into the sacrum so the weight of the pelvis settles into your hands. Step one leg and then the other to the sky, keeping the tailbone reaching to the floor and the lower back in neutral alignment. Hold and breathe for 5 to 10 breaths, feeling the release deep in the belly and lower spine. To come out, bend at the hips and knees, round the back, and release the hands to roll down and rest.
12. Reclining Twist
On your back, with the knees bent and feet on the floor, shift the hips to the left, coming slightly onto the outer right hip. Straighten the right leg on the floor, draw the left knee over the abdomen, and roll the knee and pelvis to the right. Press the left shoulder blade and arm into the floor, turning the rib cage to the left as the pelvis turns right. Expand the back waist and lower ribs, relax your effort, and enjoy your breath. Rest for a few minutes, then inhale the knee back to center and repeat these steps on the other side.
13. Shavasana (Corpse Pose)
Finish by observing the body and breath, and doing any final pose you need before lying down in shavasana for a systematic relaxation. This is where you reap the fruits of your practice. Give yourself 12 to 15 minutes to gently move your focus through your body to cultivate the “relaxing of effort” and “fixing of the mind” in Yoga Sutra 2.47.