Asana in today’s nomenclature and today’s popular practice is different from the traditional use of asana in classic yoga. I will be addressing asana from a perspective of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We will not cover the validity or place of the “modern posture practice” that is prevalent for the past several generations of teachers.
Please refer to the second pada (chapter) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (YS 2.46-48). Here asana is defined in the YS 2.46. The next sutra describes how to perfect the asana. The last one here describes the result of accomplishing the asana.
Sthira-sukam ãsanam YS 2.46 (Asana is Steady and Easeful)
Isn’t it interesting that the asana is described and defined in terms of stability and ease. On one level these terms relate to proprioception and kinesthesia. Both of these relate to sensations of the awareness of the effects of position and movement. Note that the Sutra does not describe how to do something. It describes or states the “feeling” sense one is left with or the awareness of the qualities of this asana.
Again to emphasize–it is the sensory part not the doing part that is the definition. Asana is not the bodies position in space or on the floor. Asana here is the mind’s awareness that settles in this body. The body is just this lump of clay. It is only in relationship to the mind and breath that asana exists.
Asana must emphasize and come from this sense of flow of information. This flow is the awareness that pervades both the body, breath and mind. In Traditional Yoga, we speak of these flows as prana. Pranic flows exist throughout the body, breath and mind and even beyond (taking one to atma and beyond). So now let’s look at the basic concepts and principles that will help us come into our asana.
These steps are all preparatory to asana. Many practitioners have been skipping these critical steps. They have mistakenly assumed that the end point was the beginning point of their practice. It never is but is often romantically envisioned by early enthusiasm. Much hard work is needed to prepare us to begin. This discussion is only a part of the preparations that are needed.
We often start with the body (conceptually it is easy to relate to in a simple way). Here we start looking at the anatomy of the body. Again we need to expand our perspective of the anatomy of the body.
The anatomy is a Map of Energy Flows. Here we are referring to Yoga Philosophy that speaks to the gross body as a manifestation of the subtle body and flows. Our embryological development is derived from the coded instructions embedded in our DNA. Yoga just talks of Prana. I will consider them to be similar enough for this presentation. Now back to a bit more familiar territory.
There are three areas of the anatomy that we can look at in organizing our movements to arrive at a stable asana.
We will look at these three areas to develop some of our principles of movement.
In arranging an asana/posture we are talking about moving. Posturing is all about movement and it’s organization. Asana/Posture is not static in this sense. It is a dynamic relationship to sensing and doing.
In a modified standing Tadasana/Mountain Pose, let’s say we reach our hands over our head towards the ceiling. Now we need to ask two questions:
As we sense/observe this reaching in students, we can see that what is moving in general might be the same for many. It is instructive then to notice that WHERE they are moving from is often different and done at different timings.
In this example of reaching, some people will have more mobility of their shoulders. Others with stiffer shoulders will begin to use their back/spines to complete the task of reaching overhead. Using the back (to early and too much) to move the arms overhead changes the patterns of activation and stability. Often when we think (not feel) that we are stretching our shoulders we are really over using our backs.
What we feel is what we feel. Our feelings are not wrong. They are just misinterpreted in this case. For those with tight shoulders we often do not notice that we are using our back and not emphasizing mainly our shoulders and chest, etc.
We use this same lack of awareness or misplaced awareness in sitting for meditation. Often people are just doing a movement of straightening the spine to sit from their favorite place in their back. This lack of sensory training cannot be learned from reading and thinking about this material. This type of sensorial based learning takes a lot of practice on developing the sensory cues and questions to lay down the new information (pranic) pathways that have been atrophied over many years of poor movement patterns.
Again just learning to do the posture is no where close to coming into an asana. Just doing something and not really experiencing the sensations that we cannot currently feel is inadequate. We may “think” we look “right”. Only thinking and visualizing is limiting ones perception and knowing. The asana is not the mental-visual picture of the bodies organization.
Most reading this statement above will understand it conceptually in the familiar thinking aspect of the mind. Many of us will miss that it is not a mental appreciation of knowing. It is a sensorial based, atrophied awareness that takes much training and practice to re-discover. The lack of feeling cannot be accomplished by just thinking and understanding.
This mental appreciation of thinking is over-rated in asanas. Then once people understand this concept of needing to feel–they then set too high of a task by repeatedly asking themselves to feel, feel, etc. That is the same thing as trying to do what you cannot do. Just asking yourself to do it repeatedly will not allow you accomplish this task.
Our feeling/sensory pathways have atrophied just like a skeletal muscle has atrophied. One is not going to be able to feel it anymore than one could lift 200 pounds off the floor at the beginning.
Say you where an average Hatha practitioner. Never lifting heavy weights. You now wanted to be able to lift that 200 pounds off the floor. So everyday you practice to grab it and try lifting it. Well nothing happens the first day or first week, right. Well you just keep trying and someday in the future you can lift it, right?
Wrong! Trying to do something without the proper preparation and training is a good set up for failure. The nervous system and neuromuscular system, etc needs a proper slow progression to establish pathways that can gradually help you attain your goal. This means training at lifting with say 15 pounds and slowly and incrementally increasing every third or fourth session or whatever increment is needed. So that in months and years you will be able to pick up 200 pounds because you have not started with the end task but have built a program that leads you to the end task.
The sensory system is no different. In training to feel what we don’t feel, we often ask it to do an end task. This end task represents the 200 pound lift in the previous example. One has to develop a progressive program that goes step by step to slowly build up ones ability to feel. We are not understanding this idea. We mentally understand it but not in our own sensory experience. We constantly cognitively confuse the two.
You cannot easily feel what you cannot feel. We think we can. That is the point. You cannot necessarily think yourself into feeling something. Although it sometimes does work that way. It is still a poor design for ones training program. As this cognitive/thinking style of feeling really misses the pathways of sensorially appreciating the stimuli/information.
In a workshop, these principles are easier to see. Again it takes more work in unfamiliar areas than most people realize. Training to place the mind to feel by merely moving the minds attention in some generalized pattern will never train this capacity. The mistake I often see is that people then say feel everything and note all the places that you are moving at. Again you can only note and be aware of what you feel. Remember the problem is “atrophy” of our feeling senses. Just like atrophy of our lifting muscles. It is not there!! So you cannot ask “it” to help out here. It has to be acquired over skillful training time.
The particular of sensory based learning will not be covered in detail here. We use a lot of contrasting of movement directions. We use a lot of exaggeration of movements in order to feel things that normally are not that available. We us lots of time for exploration of similar and different directions, etc to help sensitize our feeling system.
After hearing this discussion many of you may still feel you understand and can do this feeling/sensory training. I would caution you that ideally you would take workshops that would explore this sensory based training. One system that handles this type of learning well is the Awareness Through Movement lessons that the Feldenkrais practitioners teach.
Asana represents (in part) the organization of the body/breath and mind. Remember though that it comes from the organization of the subtler flows. Here the flow of information is called prana.
The asana is often shown as an end position. We then have a visual image and memory that represents to us what it is. This image is very incomplete and inadequate.
Most people are teaching asana from this “picture” that represents the asana. It seems like a static pose. This asana is a dynamic representation of all the flows of energy in a particular direction with ones very specific intention and attention.
Let’s look at direction first. If we are doing a side bending asana like a simple konasana, the direction is let’s say to the left. We are side bending left. Sometimes we inadvertently add other directions like turning or rotation. In a simple side bending there should be no overt rotation of the trunk, shoulder or pelvic girdles. The energy is mainly in side bending to the left. The rotation bleeds or leaks the energy in this other plane of movement.
Also commonly seen in konasana is too much extension of the trunk. Often this hyperextension is in the lower rib spine or thoracolumbar area. Again we are using another plane of movement (extension here) to substitute for a lack of side bending to the left.
Also we can see flexion in a konasana when a student “tries” to DO the asana. They are not so flexible in side bending and then try to get as low as they see the picture of the asana as demonstrated. The mistake again is in focusing on doing vs feeling the flows of the side bending energies or forces. This will be addressed again later.
This over extension (as well as the other planes) of the trunk distorts the pranic flow from being fairly “sattvic” that blends/integrates the right and left side bending energies–into being fairly “rajasic”.
Of course ones intent and application can change any of the above planes of movements and their proposed correlatives. For example some rotations can be very enlivening and activating or rajasic as well as the opposite.
Let’s stay with a konasana. If our intention is to bend and reach our hand down our leg as far as the instructor/picture, we will compensate in our areas of immobility and instability as previously described.
We need to focus on developing the proper flows of prana and information. Again it is not how far one can reach in side bending. It is about activating the system of information/prana along the designated pathways. We are activating the side bending movement and all the other areas that need to stabilize. (We will return to these concepts of mobility and stability later).
Our intention is in a particular direction. That direction is the initial design. If we move in other directions we have changed our intention (maybe we don’t even have one) and also changed our attention.
There is a complexity and sophistication to the design of the asana that many are missing. We have gotten lost in the achievement of some hyper flexible design of this mental picture. That is not asana. Asana is not a look it is a feeling. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali constantly only refer to this feeling of stability and ease. It never talks about the particulars of placing this part to that part. It never describes a visual image.
We are still mistakenly doing asana vs revealing these deeper pranic flows of information that we have blocked from our awareness by our mis-representation of a visually oriented practice.
Therefore it is not the depth that one stretches to or not. It is all about the proper activation of the nadis or currents of flows of information. Stop this stretching and exercising business.
Now let us redirect our attention along particular lines or channels of intention that follows the proper directions.
Once one comes into this feeling along these lines of proper activation, then slowly we become stable. It doesn’t happen overnight. Many more considerations need to be included.
When you think of someone doing asana do you think of someone who is stiff or flexible. Flexibility is only a part of coming into an asana. Most people today who are doing and enjoying asana are fairly flexible in their bodies. So we easily start to emphasize this mobility aspect.
Proper movement includes both what is moving and what needs to provide stability for that movement to properly occur. This movement does exist not only for the body but includes the flow of the breath and the focus of the mind. At this time we will continue to highlight the role of the body.
If asana is not about the depth of ones pose, then flexibility is no longer a prerequisite for doing and enjoying asana!! Here we must emphasize stability. It is the stable areas of our system that allows for the proper flows. If we are not stable at the pelvis and trunk in simple side bending asana, we begin to include other planes of movement often in flexion and extension. We can easily go too far at our knees and hips because we again are stretching.
Our stable pelvis and trunk in this example allows for the proper flow of forces/prana in the orchestration of this side bending direction. It is the flow of prana that develops our stability and ease. It is not the acrobatics of the posture.
It is the depth of our flowing breath that is a result of this proper combination of stability and movement. Then as our body settles and becomes stable, the breath deepens and the mind also settles into a depth of paying attention from the inside. The depth of the mind is past the normal analysis of the proper preparation. It takes time to allow the depth of the mind to reveal itself.
Then (after years of skillful practice) we come into relaxing our effort. This type of relaxation takes much practice. It does not occur from simply commanding oneself to relax.
Activation and relaxation relate to a dynamic process of the neuromuscular and pranic system (very similar–like brother and sister). In the movement system, there is this interplay of facilitation and inhibition. Always there is some areas of the neuromuscular system that are ramping up or turning up (activating) their activity while other areas are turning down their activity (relaxing).
In order to perfect an asana, Patanjali states that one should loosen the effort as the first step. Often relaxation in asana is heavily emphasized. There are good reasons for this emphasis. We cannot move mindfully with great tension. Also we cannot move when we are collapsing and unstable.
If you observe an accomplished dancer, you will notice and ease and relaxation in their movements and postures. This type of relaxation and ease is not primarily practiced at the beginning (except mistakenly by beginners in asana). It takes year of long, hard, diligent, skillful practice to then arrive at this type of relaxation. Some people who start out practicing try to put the proverbial “cart before the horse”. Effort in practice comes before ease of practice. Practically even this idea is not always correct. Training is never linear in it’s expression of these concepts.
There is always a balance between what, where, when and how much we should participate in these simultaneous and integrated activities of activation and relaxation. Just remember the doing part is driven by the sensing/feeling part. (Feeling here is more the proprioceptive vs emotional context).
We don’t move in isolation. You can easily experience these patterns vs isolated movement by looking at any of the cultural asanas. Here as in the centering asanas many nadis and areas are involved. We move and posture (remember posture is very dynamic, not static) often in our habitual patterns. We don’t really think about it. This habit is where our sensory apparatus has gone to sleep. It seems like we move and don’t even know it. Think about getting in your car, turning on the radio and the next thing you know you are at work, hmmmm.
Habits are not bad. Thank god we don’t have to pay attention to everything. It would cause total arrest of our sensory and motor system. Remember balance is both turning on/up of some things and turning off/down of others.
During asanas though we want to heighten our awareness to discover our deeper layers. We want to properly prepare this container of the body, breath and mind so that we can access or have revealed that which is not this material substance (as per the Samkhya Philosophy).
We can start with examining our habitual patterns. We can look/feel only what we are use to looking and feeling. So we want to structure our sensory experience. Doing something perfectly is not helping us become aware.
One of the principles here in movement is to exaggerate what you are doing so you can more easily feel the information. This exaggeration should be in both directions. Let’s look at an example.
In standing, raise your arms overhead. Note what you feel moving and where is the movement you feel taking place. One may readily say they feel the arm at the shoulder doing the movement. Well the trunk is also involved to some extent because we move in an integrated set of patterns that are not contained only at one joint or place.
When lifting your arms/hands up the chest and spine will extend. Some times you will bend excessively backwards to raise the arms overhead. Now it is not about should you do this or that. It is about training the sensory/feeling system to awaken and become more sensitized to what you are feeling and doing.
So in this case you want to move several times in your exaggerated pattern. Use the trunk in a large enough fashion so that you can appreciate this relationship, ie feel it more easily. Then move your arms overhead again for another set of repetitions where you keep your trunk slightly flexed and very braced. This latter style prevents that movement. Your focus is on feeling the differences. Keep practicing until you can lessen the efforts in both directions until you can feel the slightest accompanying pattern of trunk extension or flexion or neutral (no trunk movement). Now you have trained your awareness vs perfected a false imitation of a posture.
There are many other ways of training the sensory system. The sequence in which you initiate, move through and then end the movement can be varied to again create more sensitivity. We will just mention one other very important one next.
All of this sensory training is coming from the overuse of the model of just doing something and thinking that it “looks” right. Awareness/sensory based training being discussed here is an adjunct and supportive method to create more balance and deeper levels of awareness than in the previous models of see and do.
It is this type of awareness training that is not emphasized enough in our practice of asana.
Let’s look at a sitting asana for meditation. Pick your favorite from Sukhasana/Maitriasana to Siddhasana/Padmasana. (We usually don’t teach Padmansan for meditation but is used for many advanced Pranayamas). Cat and cow asana preparation is often used to prepare the spine and trunk for subsequent asanas.
Notice that the movement of the spine (that normally in neutral has three curves), is moved in an undifferentiated pattern. The whole spine is flexing or forward bending in cat pose. The whole spine is extending or backward bending in cow pose.
Now when we sit for pranayama or meditation we are actually asking our head, neck and trunk to act in a differentiated way. In sitting straight in a neutral spine (maintaining the normal curves of the neck, chest spine and lower back spine), we are often asking the chest spine to straighten without over extending the neck or lower back spine.
Now notice how we have practiced the cat/cow maneuver. Our practice has led us to a feeling of when we extend any part of the spine, every part of the spine is extending. That is not a bad thing by itself. It just becomes a popular pattern of spinal movements that feel normal. What ever you practice regularly becomes your default from which you move and posture.
You will see in many standing poses as one straightens their spine, many will over extend generally throughout the spine. Often we only need to move in one area. There are way too many people standing with an exaggerated lower back to lower thoracic spine. You can see their upper chest is often behind their pelvis. Another compensation here is the forward head.
This mal-configuration starts to feel normal and “neutral”. When do we practice separating out these directions of these movements of the spine. We really don’t practice much to differentiate or separately move one curve in the opposite direction of the other (in the Sagittal Plane).
Differentiation of the spine in the cat/cow would mean that as you extend the neck and chest spine you would also flex (forward bend) the lower back spine (and vice a versa). It is not easy to do initially because we cannot feel and control opposite movements in this sagittal plane.
This differentiation in the feeling and proper execution of this movement is needed to sit with a balance and straight spine.
There are many examples that we could explore here to expand and practice these movement principles. For now we have covered some of the basic movement principles for an introduction of some of the key concepts. Let this be a start to refining your exploration of asana in your practice.
A hands-on workshop is highly recommended. Being involved in a training practice that emphasizes the sensory exploration needed for movement and postural feedback is needed.
Then asana becomes a state and condition from the mind to the body. It is in that state of the mind that
From this condition stability and ease simply appear. They are revealed through a rigorous practice of which the fruits are stated in the Yoga Sutras (YS 2.48).
Tato dvandvãnabhi-ghãtah YS 2.48 (Then one is no longer affected by the pairs of opposites)
From this asana ones sushumna is open/the mind is singularly focused and meditation begins.
Do we get the best results from our exercise selections? How do we select which exercise to perform? Besides matching the proper exercise for the problem we have, what else is important?
Is being effective due to:
First we must congratulate ourselves because we are doing exercises. Next we have usually identified some reason for putting down the remote and/or getting out of bed. Now let’s move quickly on to someone who wants to perform their particular task or skilled movement better. It could be that they want to jump higher, cut quicker on the field, get into better shape/condition or simple perform a yoga posture that is particularly challenging. Let’s take the latter case to illustrate several of these points on how to effectively exercise. (We are expanding the definition of exercise and bending the definition of yoga asana here to make some points, knowing that the purists may start off disagreeing too early here)
This is not a complete description of how to do Chakrasana. We are using this posture/asana as an example of some one who wishes to do an exercise or asana effectively. (This example could be extrapolated into many of the “corrective exercises” being given and performed today.
Let’s start with looking at a typical example of someone wanting to be more flexible. They have taken up Yoga asanas in a class. At some point the teacher has progressed to this pose called Chakrasana or wheel. It is fairly vigorous for many, as can be seen by the picture above. Again this could be an example of someone wanting to jump higher and get stronger in their legs who at some point starts doing one leg squats. It really doesn’t matter the movement activity by itself. It is again looking at how to exercise effectively.
Truly in exercise/movements it would be best if we knew ourselves well. (Know thyself–OK, end of philosophy).
These are just some of the aspects or questions to ask in order to get to know HOW we move and therefore better know ourselves. Knowing ourselves better will allow us to move better. We can take full advantage then of the exercises or movements being selected.
Maybe Chakrasana (or single leg squats) are not the best exercise at the moment. Maybe the way in which we do them is not allowing the benefits of those movements to create the tremendous results that await us.
We need to look at large patterns of movement. We want to see and feel how the body moves in all directions from the major areas of the body while performing a variety of movement patterns/tasks/skills.
Where in the body do we move a lot and where are we stiffer. Often this inquiry stops here. It is insufficient. The shoulders may be tight in lifting them above our head but have a lot of movement in the opposite direction. Especially important is to notice difference from side to side and up to down. Maybe our hips are able to extend (backward bend) well but our shoulders cannot open in that same direction. Maybe one shoulder does more opening that the other–do you see that in Chakrasana then you would create a rotation of the trunk.
Look at the picture again and you see that the hips are opening well in backward bending. The lower back spine is bending a lot. The rib spine or thoracic spine is not backward bending at all in the mid to upper back. The shoulders are also tight in this same direction.
Isn’t it interesting to note that this person is doing the general direction of this Wheel pose. It is just HOW they are doing it that is of note here. Therefore they will be over using hips and low back (and neck) and under using shoulders and mid-upper back (and wrists).
What if we knew where we moved and didn’t. This might totally change what we do and how we do it. Of course the results would be vastly different. Our learning then and what we pay attention to would be expanded. The changes across many different systems could be facilitated (musculoskeletal, fascial, nervous system, respiratory, immune, etc)
Again looking at this picture, we can ask several questions. I know it would be better if we actually had a video. Then truly we could appreciate the movement qualities better. This picture and discussion will at least highlight the points of this article.
Looking at the two ends of this Wheel pose–which end, the leg or arm end, looks most stable? You can see how the weight of the body is carried behind the arms. Are the shoulders weak or only stiff? or both? Address whatever is involved with a more appropriate regression of this pose first. Identify weakness and lack of stability of the shoulder complex with the arm above the shoulder level. There are many ways of doing these tests/movement regressions. We will not go into that detail here.
Looking at the middle of the body and seeing how the front of the lower back (the belly) over lengthens. The lower back over shortens. How much of this over extension of the low back is a mobility problem of the thoracic spine in extension? (or/and does it involve lack of stabilization of the anterior belly region.)
First you would have to decrease the challenge of this activity. Take them out of trying to do this asana. Place them on the floor and have them roll from belly to back with only the arms and head. Do they activate their belly enough to transmit the rolling through the trunk from the arms. Could their shoulders and thoracic spine be so stiff as to even impede this movement. Further investigation would be warranted. This again is just to highlight a perspective of looking and asking questions.
By looking at more of these larger movement patterns, it will become clearer.
I wonder if this person loves to do backward bending movements where the shoulders are not flexed near their end ranges (that is over head position, above shoulder level). So let’s make up a scenario that I see frequently in the clinic. They would do easily cobra or lying on their stomachs with arms by their sides. Even Camel pose (tall kneeling and bending backwards to place hands on heels) would be available. Any superman type position or boat pose would be done with substitution and difficulty. They would never practice hand stand as it is too tiring.
If this lack of using the extremities over the head (in Chakrasana) causes such stress, then it may need to be regressed or made easier.
This easier movement may allow the proper awareness and adjustments to overusing and underusing that is being outlined here.
This examination of coordination and agility reinforces many of the above observations. Again whatever we move well and strongly, those are things we do. We always use what we have even when trying to do something else.
Let me digress from this example to talk more of our preferences and avoidance’s in general movement. We use the same patterns of movements and habits even in opposite directions. It is not unusual to see someone who is trying to sit on the floor and has a lot of left knee pain (for example–in a cross leg, sukhasana pose). Sometimes in looking at them you see their weight shifted to their left hip, although they are leaning a bit to their right. You find they are in right sidebending of their trunk. When you ask them to sit on a chair and turn right and left they still have most of their weight on their left sit bone. In other words they do their movements of rotation and still maintain their right side bending of their trunk. Their coordination remains dysfunctional even though you would give them a movement to change it.
This latter dysfunction a very important point to discover. Our movement habits often remain and don’t change just because we are doing some corrective asana or exercise. The WAY we move becomes also very important.
OK, breathing is so important. It is a barometer of our mind and nervous system. Sure at the beginning one may fine this breath rhythm disturbed. The habitual and repetitive nature of an interrupted breath is very detrimental to our learning and proper response to the exercise. A jerky breath relates to a jerky focus of the mind and all the other negative effects in all systems.
Try moving only so far as the breath can flow well. This does not mean that you can’t cause strain. That is ridiculous. As one continues to do repetitions or hold the pose, the breath should be noted to start to flow well. Otherwise there is not practice. One is just violently stimulating the system. Of course you have some changes even with the breath always being strained. This abnormal breath rhythm though is very limiting and over the long term is detrimental to health and well being.
Alright, take off the music headphones. Pay attention to what you are doing and what you are feeling. A good barometer like the breath is to ask whether you are pleasant in your mind. GEEZ, you mean we have to be smiling all the time. OK, less drama here. Just note what happens to your overall sense of tensing and effort when you notice that your mind is not pleasant. Whenever I ask this question in class or to individuals, I never fail to see an easing of tension, even a : o )
Also when the mind is more pleasant–often you will notice an ease in the movements. Try it just like you would try breathing with more awareness and ease.
So now when you exercise, you can ask more questions. Effective exercise is creating the proper effect you want and/or that is available in the stimulation of the movement done well. Effective exercise involves BOTH the selection of the right exercise the proper way of moving–
So before and during your next exercise session, take time to pay attention. Use the movements to create opportunities to sense and breath. Train hard up to your capacities. To know your capacities, you must practice a lot. You would benefit by coaching or skilled guidance. Try using these principles–pick one, like having a pleasant mind. Then go find a skilled coach/teacher and get some quality feedback.
Best of luck in your effective exercise.
Feel free to comment or contact me directly for a consultation.
In posture and activity, stabilizing and or moving from and into a center point can be great feedback. You start noticing what is your attitude of your body, breath/prana, and your mind. Where do you stand or sit from? Where do you move from and into in your life? What are the effects of the postures we take–both physically and mentally? How could we organize our postures of our body, breath/energy and our mind?
It is this latter question we wish to speak of at this time. The other ones are of great interest also and we will allude to them as well.
Coming to this center means finding a balance point within these three systems of the:
Let’s look at posture. Sitting posture is one place to start. Sitting for meditation is a great place to start. To sit well can be a lifetime endeavor. As you will see or know, all these systems (body, breath and mind) relate closely to each other. So only for convenience are we separating them out here.
Sit with the head neck and trunk straight. This is a popular guideline in meditation. On this site there is an outline (here) for how to arrange the body to sit. We will not go through that detail but add some other points and emphasize some previous points.
Let’s pick one of the above areas to talk about a bit more. The thoraco-lumbar joint on many people who try to sit erect or even stand erect is often not placed in the center of its excursion/range. or of it’s tone. Often I see many people place this area in to much extension. That means we are leaning backwards too much from this area. Leaning backwards is part of not leaning forwards. It is just that this T/L junction placed into too much backward or extension movement.
To understand or appreciate this over extension of the T/L junction we need to see this over effort as a compensation. It is usually in part taking place in the adjacent areas above and or below. That means the rib spine or Thoracic spine is too forward or flexed. The same can be true of the waist spine or lumbar spine (it can be too forward or flexed).
The effort at straightening up in sitting in this example is just taking some common postural dysfunctions in order to elucidate the issue of centrating the junctional areas of the spine.
This over extended T/L junction causes tension and impedes normal tonic flow of information both grossly and subtly. This means it is crimping this area like you would crimp a garden hose–it interrupts the flow along the spine. (whether we talk about a facilitated/inhibited vertebral segment or talk about impeding pranic flow–in principal they are coming from the same problem–postural imbalance of not centering properly)
Easiest way to come to center is to first explore the two ends. So sitting like the above is moving the T/L too far forward–flexing too much and relaxing or over stretching the posterior elements, tsk, tsk. You are trying to arrive at something in between after you literally flex and extend this area. You can see that extending at the T/L junction allows one to nicely lift the chest. If the thoracic spine is stiff and bent a bit forward in flexion, then lifting the chest at this area is a compensation for a problem above. (a dysfunctional compensation for many)
So as you explore moving in flexion and extension at the T/L, make the movement excursion smaller and smaller. Find this in-between place. Check the lower ribs that meet the belly to see that they are not lifting nor depressing. The erecting of the trunk comes from the anterior rotation of the pelvis and less activity of the lumbar lordosis than many perform. The centering of the T/L junction is supported by activation of the belly. The front lower ribs and the front of the pelvis maintain the upper trunk from leaning backward at this junction.
The belly is not rock hard. Proper diaphragmatic breathing continues and is a check that the belly tone is just right. If you are breathing only in the belly like an infant, then you are not breathing efficiently. (Belly breathing is a good first start vs chest breathing. It is only a starting point, not an end point. Get instruction if needed.) Breathing now should be felt more three dimensional. The belly in proper tone that helps centrate the T/L junction, allows the breath on inhalation to expand laterally and slightly posteriorly.
This centrating or centering the T/L junction often places people with a forward head posture in an exaggeration of their postural dysfunction/problem. Also many people with a forward head over extend the T/L junction as their compensation. Then when they try to correct the forward head they over lengthen their O-A junction, by incorrectly doing the turtle movement or head retraction to stand tall. (isolated cueing without respecting the pattern of compensations is a recipe for failure and adding tensions in order to be correct, which in this case is incorrect.)
Most people sit straight with the too much activity of their muscles along the spine, the paraspinals. First let the weight go through the pelvis with a properly rotated pelvis (slightly forward) and ones normal lumbar lordosis (similar to in standing). Allow the hip joint to be flexed while the lumbars are in their normal lordosis. The sacrum is also anteriorly nutated. (meaning that the lower lumbar spinal segments are supported in extension because the base of the sacrum, the top, is slightly forward.) This hip position will automatically activate the hip extensors, slightly. Also the hip flexors are involved in stabilizing the spine. There is a symphony of balancing activities going on here. Some of which we have a better idea than of others. (probably there is more to say and these things said will be revised over time.) Here the hip extensors are acting eccentrically in a tonic fashion. (meaning that you are not extending the hip per se but you are using these muscles to control flexion–eccentrics are lengthening contractions, like when you do a push up and lower your body your elbow extensors are controlling the elbow flexion activity vs extending the elbow at that time.)
In Yoga the Pranic System is more familiar. It is often misunderstood. The breath is on a continuum. There is gross breath that everyone knows. Then there is subtle breath. We now get into “weird” territory for many. One thing to think about is if you have a dead body and try to just push air into it there is no effect for life. It does move the chest up and down, but that seems to be it. There is a life that is carried by the breath, that yoga speaks to as the prana. Other systems talk about the chi. What ever you call it the Yogis have spent a long time (thousands of years) in refining and teaching it.
One starts with the breath and establishing diaphragmatic breathing. There will be a separate post on this later.
There are junctions in the pranic system, just like there are junctions in the physical system. (imagine that) These junctions are described with the terms of chakras and marma points. (as well as other designations) Just think of them as meeting places of energies of a more subtle nature. (meaning of subtle here is just a descriptor of less easily noticed, that’s all)
In yoga, one way we learn more about the pranic system is through practices of the Bandhas and Mudras. They are simply a way of channeling these energies. They have strong effects on the neurological system. A common Bandha is Moola Bandha. At the gross level it is tensing of the anal and pelvic sphincters. It is interesting to note that more and more people are utilizing the pelvic floor activity in functional movement training and diagnostics. It is a area that is included in describing musculoskeletal coordination in ontogenesis of children or child development.
This means that proper stabilization of various movement patterns have this activity of the pelvic floor being recognized now in mainstream function. Well the yogis have refined it to a great detail. I don’t say I understand it completely in that way. It is just an experience which I wish to share.
When sitting for meditation we will activate this Moola Bandha. Also the Khechari Mudra (tongue lock) is utilized. Another Bandha that is helpful is activation of Uddiyana Bandha (stomach lock). These bindings/redirecting of energies will not be technically taught here. There are some erroneous claims and methods of applying them. I only wish to mention another way of working with them once you have some basic experience with them.
In order to make ones posture steady and stable–and absolutely still these methods will compliment your postural work of coming to center more deeply. You will be using these Mudras and Bandhas to align your centers and use these energy centers to align and centralize yourself.
Bring the mind to it’s center. Easier said than done. To stabilize the mind and bring it towards it’s center we withdraw it from the outside and bring it inside.
I have an inkling that there are connections between many of these levels. These connections are not linear or incrementally progressive. You can fall in and out of them in both directions. That is why slowly training the mind in an incremental way is so important. Otherwise it’s like a chutes and ladder game then–it’s good sometimes and then no good other times. This change is a part of the journey. Is it always?
As they say come to that center and find out. Also enjoy the comings and goings. Life certainly can be such a drama. We can over do it and under do it. This center can create stability and life which is lived as we are. Lived both from the inside and outside. Such fun stuff this life stuff.
OK, now let’s go practice.
In yoga class and in physical training, we often advise paying attention, doing it “right”, and make sure you are breathing–“Don’t hold your breath!” Remember.
We can look at this advise/coaching/key points as 3 essential observations
There are many ways to organize the observation of the body. We could look at it from what is moving or the qualities of the movement, or both. (There are even more ways of course we will just limit it now)
Try observing the movement of the body from three key areas
These areas will help guide your attention and organize your discoveries. These three places represent keys and key links or relationships.
Breathing is a key in all activities. It can be approached from the gross to fairly subtle aspects. One of the great gifts of yoga is this emphasis on the breath. Their approach starts at the subtle breath which then organizes the gross breath. We can more easily start at the gross breath and it’s characteristics first. The breath is the link between the body and mind. This is a main point so well described by one of the great Saints of India, Swami Rama of the Himalayas
6 Main Qualities of the breath
So much can be written and has been written on this mind. Do we mind? That is the real question–what are we minding. Observations of the gross mind can be divided into:
This last observation of the pleasant mind is a question I find missing. Well not the question as much as the pleasant mindedness. Whenever I think of this observation, an image of my teacher, Swami Veda comes to mind. He has spoken so eloquently of this aspect of the mind. Also he is able to demonstrate it under conditions most of us would never entertain such a pleasant state.
Well–paying attention and what and how we pay attention is key. Otherwise we will have to pay for not.