Ronnie Ariana pictured above.
Asana Hatha Yoga can ultimately serve as a doorway to grace, a path toward remembering who we are. Although there are many physical and mental benefits to the practice of Hatha Yoga, its primary purpose is to become fully in touch with who and what we are. Not our transient, conditioned characteristics, with which we can only too easily identify but our deeper, unconditioned nature. Hatha Yoga allows us to do this by working from the tangible, familiar arena of the body. The following are some of the essential aspects of asana practice.
The Foundation The foundation is the parts of the body that are in contact with the floor and actively and evenly engaged against the floor. The weight of the body is spread evenly across the surface of the foundation whether we are vertical or horizontal, upright or inverted, sitting or squatting. The foundation (hands, feet, buttocks) is actively engaged into the floor throughout the posture. Rooting downward in a firm, stable and continuous manner makes the foundation alive, sensitive and responsive which will be reflected in the rest of the body. If the base of the pose is distorted it will be reflected in the whole structure, affecting the quality of the yoga posture. We will practice both active and passive way of grounding.
Muscular energy Normally we use our muscles to move through space. In Yoga postures we also use muscle to prevent us from moving through space. We want to wrap the muscles around the bones to support them and make them stable. This doesn't mean simply tightening the muscles. It is a deliberate, gentle, peripheral contraction from the periphery to the core. Rather than pulling the muscles away from the bones and creating a strong contraction in the center of the muscle belly, which destabilizes them (as if in preparation for movement) we want to cradle the bone. Too much muscular effort will create too much central contraction, which can tire the muscle and create instability and fatigue Lengthening the muscle and flattening it to the bone promotes a deep release in the tissues, nerves, capillaries, veins, ducts and channels of the skin and joints.
Alignment One of the purposes of Yoga postures is to bring awareness to the whole body. Paying attention to every part of our body and making sure there are no areas of overload or stress, we begin releasing patterns of postural imbalance. As we release muscular tension in the body we begin to discover its innate harmony. This happens by aligning all of the habitually separated parts through bringing awareness to each part of the body simultaneously. This is then reflected in the mind, as the patterns of hidden tension are released the mind and body begin to harmonize, freeing up previously unavailable energy. The foundation, muscular energy and alignment facilitate stability (sthira). Please refer to the Anusara manual by John Friend for specifics on alignment.
The Core The core is the central axis of your body, running down from the brain through the throat and spinal cord and into the pelvic floor. In effect it encompasses the muscles of the ears, eyes, mouth and face, solar plexus, navel and anus. The core of the posture gives us the possibility of establishing comfort. Key indicators of the quality of the core are the jaw, tongue root, and eyes. These should remain passive, receptive, easy and comfortable. Keep the core as soft and open as possible while in asana. A firm foundation and balanced alignment helps to allow the core to soften.
The Breath The breath connects us to and facilitates the softening of the core. We can use the breath for feedback to notice if there is a grasping or gripping quality to the breath. If so, that will often be reflected in the core. Freedom of the breath is largely dependent on the stability and support of the foundation and alignment of the pose through releasing tension in the limbs and lengthening the spine, and giving stability and support to the movement of the lungs. A continuous returning of our attention to the breath is essential in maintaining a sense of balance in asana. Our breath is intimately connected to our mind: our feelings and our thoughts. The quality of our breathing directly reflects the quality of our mind and vice versa. In asana we use the breath to integrate body and mind. It is important to make any adjustment of the breath in asana with awareness, not forcing or imposing, but keeping our attention on the quality of the breath. The softness of the core and awareness of the breath facilitate comfort and ease.
The Dynamic All of the postures have a dynamic and a static aspect. The way we move into and out of a pose influences the quality and effect of the asana. How long we stay also effects the quality of the pose (see 'the edge'). In the practice of asana there is a balance between action and reflection, between doing and being. There is time spent in poses and time spent moving in between them - a dance of action and stillness. Eventually we find rest within activity; this is the dynamism of rest. In this way we learn the unity underlying these poles.
Organic Energy A key element in the dynamic of asana is organic energy. Organic energy originates in the softness of the core and radiates outward; it unifies the body and our awareness evenly. Another term for organic energy is 'lines of energy'. Refer to the Anusara Manual.
Relaxation Relaxation, which brings freedom from tension, allows us to move toward the deeper benefit of yoga - freedom from the swing of opposites. This process of relaxation cannot be skipped. If we do the postures by imposing them through force and determination without the nurturing, integrative aspect of relaxation the underlying physical resistances and their deeper held emotional patterns cannot release. A good way to observe this is to notice how you are when you step off the mat and out into your daily life. Is your life any more free from conflict? Are you living out a deeper, clearer understanding of your thoughts and feelings, your actions and impact on others? Or are you just getting stronger and more flexible in your physical body?
Vinyasa Vinyasa implies continuity, fluidity, connectivity. The body must adjust its speed of movement to that of the breath. As we move into and out of asana this is essential, it also takes a lot of awareness! The practice of synchronizing our movements is like meditiation in motion. It draws the mind deeper and elicits stillness and quietness. Vinyasa Krama is the technique of progressing step by step from the known to the unknown. This is the process used in constructing a practice sequence, or establishing a posture from clearly defined blocks, or steps. This is a safe and effective way to adapt the postures to the needs of the individual.
The Edge This is the point between too much and not enough. It takes sensitivity and, as always, awareness to learn to respond to the moment and feel when it is time to move out of a pose. Approaching our practice as an exploration will allow us to develop the sensitivity that reveals our edge. We simply go into each pose and see what is there. This includes accepting where we are, our starting point, to find the beauty in what we have, what we are. It also includes being willing to stay long enough to reach the edge and then to become still and receptive, patient. Often, as we do this, our edge will move and our capacity will increase. All this, done without force.
Asana helps us move from gross to subtle, resistance to release. When the surface and the periphery are made stable, the depth and center can release, this way we begin to access the deeper, more subtle aspects of our being.
Most photos on this page: Erin Rose Victoria
Postures & reasons to practice: vriksasana - tree pose / balance - parsvottanasana - pyramid pose / flexibility - Virabhadrasana - warrior pose / strength - pascimottanasana - forward bend / surrender - urdhva danurasana - backbend / openness - matsyendrasana - spinal twist / elasticity - sirsasana - headstand / vitality - sarvangasana - shoulderstand / equanimity - padmasana - lotus pose / stillness -savasana - corpse pose / release.