Charging Yourself in Savasana
Never give up Savasana! Even if you are in a great hurry to run to your daily business, spare at least five minutes for this important pose! These minutes are very precious, you are totally detached from your daily activities, worries and obligations; your mental modality changes and you sort of float in a different realm, embraced by Mother Earth and Nature, enjoying the grace of tranquility. This is where you reap the seeds you sow in your practice – take time to savor them! It is important to recognize and nurture these states of tranquility, sublimity, mental stability and clarity.
In Light on Pranayama B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “Sava in Sanskrit means a corpse and asana a posture. Thus Savasana is a posture that simulates a dead body, and evokes the experience of remaining in a state as in death and of ending the heart-aches and the shocks that the flesh is heir to. It means relaxation, and therefore recuperation. It is not simply lying on one’s back with a vacant mind and gazing, not does it end in snoring. It is the most difficult of yogic asanas to perfect, but it is also the most refreshing and rewarding.” (Chapter 30, Para. 1. The emphasis on the last sentence is mine). I strongly recommend you to read thoroughly the detailed instruction for Savasana Iyengar gives in this chapter – what a penetration and insight!
Savasana is the gate for the more internal limbs of Yoga: Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation). Only when your Savasana practice is sound and regular can you go deep into Pranayama; otherwise it will be just breathing exercises. Savasana teaches you how to draw your senses inward and concentrate – this is the basis for Pratyahara and Dharana. When these are established, Dhyana follows naturally.
Savasana is the art of not-doing, not-acting – just being in the present moment. In our hectic way of life it is so important to learn to pause and relax. Deep relaxation is probably the healthiest thing and the best service you can provide for yourself. Our body is a wondrous machine – the internal organs that are responsible for our health do their job orderly without our conscious intervention, yet, stress is harmful for their proper functioning. Stress disturbs digestion, limits circulation, raises blood pressure and disturbs the proper functioning of all the body’s systems in so many other ways. Relaxation is the key to healthy functioning of the body and mind. In Yoga – the Path to Holistic Health, B.K.S. Iyengar writes: “If you suffer from stress, you may experience indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, migraine, a feeling of constriction in the diaphragm, breathlessness, or insomnia… Yogic methods of deep relaxation have a profound effect on all the body systems. When a part of the body is tense, blood flow to that area decreases, reducing immunity. Yoga works on that area to relieve tension and improve blood flow to the entire body, stabilizing the heart rate and blood pressure. Rapid, shallow breathing becomes deep and slow, allowing a higher intake of oxygen, and removing stress from the body and the mind.” (Page 179)
In the first phase of Savasana use your breath; connect to the rhythm of your breath. Inhalation is the realization of the ‘I AM’, when exhaling dissolve that I AM to Mother Earth. Inhale – let be; Exhale – let go. Inhale – let be; Exhale – let go. Follow that rhythm while giving more emphasis to the letting go of the exhalation.
Then, at some moment stop all conditioning. Do not condition your breath any more. Do not condition your mind anymore – just let go. Stay there, floating, very light and very heavy at the same time. Let the river carry you – do not resist or try to control. When your Savasana becomes deep, you may feel a natural, spontaneous suspension of the breath at the end of exhalation; this suspension brings about a total surrender.
When we connect our smart-phone to a source of electricity, it shows us the energy level of the battery. In the same way, when you lie down in Savasana measure your level of energy. How much is it? 60%? 75%?
Stay in Savasana until you are fully charged – up to 100%.
Today scientists are developing sophisticated chargers that can charge a battery in a few minutes. Can you be totally still and quiet in Savasana to charge and refresh yourself in a few minutes?
The energy source in Savasana is Mother Earth – it is a vast source of energy, of Prana; but we need to connect to it. The charger is powerful, but the connection is not always that great. What disrupts this connection is tension. Only by total surrender, a complete letting go, can we connect to that energy and charge ourselves. Let go of everything: muscular tension, holding, contraction, thoughts, emotions – everything! Just surrender and come close as possible to Mother Earth. Imagine the big Earth under you pulling and hugging your small body and surrender to that pull of gravity.
In Savasana we let go of everything – it is a total renunciation. We surrender our roles, our sense of importance, our sense of self, our ego, our entire personality. We reach our ‘ground zero’. Physiologically, our internal activities – the breathing, heartbeat and metabolism, all become infinitesimal; our mental activity slows down, the conciseness becomes void. So in a sense, we experience ‘a little death’, which is not a bad thing, since once we completely surrender ourselves, we allow something new to be created inside us. When we are in a state of complete surrender, the boundaries between ourselves and the environment surrounding us become blur, there is a sense of merging and dissolving into space. In that moment, our individual characteristics weaken and become insignificant and we feel like everyone else, or like no-one in particular. This feeling of merging into Being is an experience of Kaivalya (full emancipation). Kaivalya means “aloneness”, “solitude”, “detachment” or “isolation”. When we feel like everyone else there is no “other” as such, and hence there is this sense of aloneness.
“.. When fluctuations take place internally or externally, mental and intellectual energies are wasted. In Savasana the internal or emotional upheavals in the mind are stilled…” (Light on Pranayama, Ch. 30 Para. 27)
“Practice Savasana for some ten to fifteen minutes to experience a sense of timelessness. The slightest thought or movement will break the spell and you are once more in the world of time, with a beginning and an end.” (Light on Pranayama, Ch. 30 Para. 30)
Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying
Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void
It is shining, it is shining
Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being
Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing
Tomorrow Never Knows, John Lennon
“Fixed in yoga do thy work, O Arjuna, abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga.”
These are the words of the Teacher of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna, to his pupil, the warrior, Arjuna, (2.48, English version: Radhakrishnan).
B.K.S. Iyengar wrote in Light on Life: “The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.” He distinguishes between action and movement as follows: “Action is movement with intelligence.” (page 28).
Why is there so much movement in the world? Because of restlessness. Because of the illusion that if we move things will improve and difficulties we experience will vanish. When we feel uncomfortable or irritable we tend to move. It could be a physical or mental movement: wanting that something else will happen, a refusal to accept reality just as it is. It happens in life and also in our practice. In postures which require long stays, like inversions, forward extensions and Shavasana, we sometimes experience discomfort or restlessness and feel an urge to move.
(It’s not that movement is not needed at all, often we need to move in order to make necessary adjustments or corrections. But, often the cause of the movement is restlessness and inability to stay stably in one pose.) In everyday life there is perpetual movement, but there are occasions in which the ability to move is denied, and then we have no choice but to be with ourselves and with our feelings.
Such an extreme experience I had earlier this month when I arrived in the United States in order to teach yoga workshops. Upon arriving in the airport, I learned my visa was not the correct one, and shortly after I was forced into detention for 15 long hours, until the next flight home (to Israel). Needless to say, I was in a bad mental state, which was characterized by feelings of terrible frustration, extreme disappointment, self-judgment, self-reproach, worry for my wife who was separated from me, rage, bitterness, and anxiety about what will happen next. My cellphone was confiscated from me, and my freedom to move was absolutely denied. Once I got into the detention room, I took out a yoga mat which is always in my suitcase, and started to practice. I did mostly forward bends to help me calm down and slow down my heart rate and breath. But after I attempted Sirsasana, one of the airport’s policemen decided it was too much and forbade me from continuing to practice, or from speaking with those who shared the same bench (and fate) with me. He didn’t even allow me to read a book. I was left to myself with all these difficult emotions for many long hours. What a startling experience…the speed in which you turn from a respected guest, a yoga teacher who was invited to teach workshops, into a detained offender is mind boggling and you feel a complete sense of helplessness and lack of control. What an incredible Yoga lesson!
In life there are pleasant times, periods of success, joy and satisfaction; but life also summons other kinds of situations for us, difficult ones, which we do not choose and we don’t even agree to be in. The thing is…no one really asks us…we are conditioned to want the pleasant, the joyful and the delightful, but reality is not like that. It summons us with more or less equal amounts of pleasure and pain, success and failure, profit and loss, praise and infamy. Every human being experiences these upheavals. These changes are inevitable; they are a part of the experience of being alive.
The Bhagavad Gita defines Yoga as equanimity and notes that the Yogi should receive all experiences with the same level of acceptance, and remain unaffected by these dualities.
The Buddha said that these opposing pairs (pleasure / pain, joy / sorrow, etc.’) are like the winds that come and go and the yogi is like a sturdy tree that stands calmly in all upheavals. “You must accept and inspect pleasant as well as unpleasant situations. You want only pleasant experiences and do not want to experience even a small dose of unpleasant ones. Is that fair? Is that the way of the Buddha?” Is it indeed?
As I was sitting there in the detention, I remembered all these inspiring words of Krishna and the Buddha and tried to calm down, counting my breaths, observing my emotional turmoil, wondering about the deep meaning of equanimity and suffering. Why do I suffer? What went wrong? I couldn’t really calm down but I kept observing and inspecting myself. What is the source of my suffering? A teacher once told me that if you suffer there must be some clinging and attachment. Let go of the clinging, and the suffering will be gone. What am I clinging to? Why can’t I be poise and tranquil?
And then for some moments of grace I can look upon the whole situation from a bit of a distance. I realize that this has just happened. It happened not because of something wrong that I did, but because this is just the nature of reality, it tends to surprise us. Unexpected things can happen all the time. There is no point fighting it or blaming myself. It is what it is and that’s it. Life is very fragile and nothing lasts forever.
And indeed, we cannot change reality, we cannot change the constant flux of changes, but we can change the way we react to change.
We cannot declare that we are in a state of equanimity and pretend we are indifferent. This is not real equanimity. If we are upset, no show we put on will suffice. Real equanimity is a state of emotional balance, what Yoga refers to as Neutrality. To be in the midst of all things and keep a peaceful, balanced mind.
“For evenness of mind is called yoga” … in order to get there we need to create the inner space, the ability to contain, and this can be done only via practice with observation.
Yoga practice includes little movement and a great deal of intelligent action, conscious action. We stay in a posture and while we stay we have the opportunity to observe. When we observe ourselves and are mindful to our reactions, emotions and thoughts that arise, things become clearer. Movement does not allow for deep observation, as it creates a veil of distraction. But in staying, we learn to keep the grip necessary to maintain the pose and to confront discomfort. Such a practice expands our container, creates wider space inside. We can better understand our tendency to cling to pleasure and avoid pain. We can get some insight into the nature of impermanence.
When you pour a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water, the water in the glass turns salty, but if you pour a teaspoon of salt into a large lake, the saltiness of the lake will remain unaffected. We should be like a lake. Our practice should allow us to face extreme situations without getting totally out of balance. It’s not that we don’t care – we can’t be indifferent – but how much we care? Do we lose our balance in every passing wind? Can we remember that everything, even the hard moments are bound to change? Can we see that out of the frustration and the loss, some good things may sprout? Can we face situations that we did not choose or want, and know that we can endure and can still behave wisely and skillfully (“yoga is skill in action”, Bhagavad Gita, 2.50).
So instead of conducting workshops in the States, I got another deep lesson in yoga…
I didn’t succeed to remain calm, but… success and failure are just like winds that come and go… and the yogi stays calm in the midst of all that…
“I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all”
Joni Mitchel, Both sides now
- Tapas: austerity and associated observances for body discipline and thereby mental control.
- Svādhyāya: study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul, which leads to introspection on a greater awakening to the soul and God within, which literally means “one’s own reading” and “self-study”
- Ishvarapranidhana: dedicating all of one’s efforts to God or surrender to God.
- Praṇidhāna is used to mean a range of senses including, “laying on, fixing, applying, attention (paid to), meditation, desire, prayer.” In context of Patanjali’s Eight-Limbed Yoga, the word Īśvarapraṇidhāna means committing what one does to a Lord
Patanjali writes in the beginning of chapter 2, the chapter on practice (sadhana pada):
“Tapah (tapas) svadhyaya Isvarapranidhanani (are) kriyayogah”.
Tapas is commonly translated as asceticism and a discipline of mental and physical practice.
Svadhyaya is the study of sacred scriptures in order to know about the essence of the Self. Literally the meaning of the word is the study of the Self.
Isvarapranidhanana means devoting the entirety of our efforts and actions to God,
Dedicating ourselves to him completely.
When translating more freely we can refer to these three layers as: effort, inquiry and devotion. These are the foundational constituents of the yogic path (and indeed of any spiritual path).
In order for us to advance we need to invest energy, effort needs to be exerted. In the yogic path we are walking very much against the flow, against the tendency to follow our senses, in pursuit of pleasures of transient life, against the tendency to indulge in consumerism and desires. All this requires discipline and effort – these are the component of Tapas – the insistence to persevere in the practice and the path.
However, the effort needs to be applied in the right direction and in the right amount and for that there is need for inquiry, research and study – the study of our own nature, of the The places we act from, of the things we cling to, the crossroads in which we get stuck – all these require observation and inquiry and that comprises Svadhyaya. The study of the Self and the study of the yogic scriptures in order to reflect upon the nature of things and the nature of man as described by the philosophy of yoga.
Beyond that, there is need for trust and devotion. What is devotion? Devotion is an action devoid of calculation, an action that isn’t done out of thought on loss or gain. It is an action done wholeheartedly, an action performed out of love and not in order to glorify our ego. When we devote ourselves to the path we are willing to walk it for the very act of walking and not for tangible material fruits. That is the component of Isvarapranidhanani.
The lives of human being are made up of work, study and love – the three elements will turn into yoga, into kriya yoga once the work is performed as a service or offering; the study is done for the sake of internal inquiry and the love is to open up our hearts to all living beings without calculating gain and loss.
Once the work turns into selfless service, the study is done for the purpose of liberation and the love is unconditional, then we become Yogis!
There is a saying: “Yoga helps cure what can be cured, bear what can’t be cured and distinguish between the two”.
Curing what is incurable through Tapas, bearing what is incurable – that is Isvarapranidhanani, and the wisdom to distinguish between the two is acquired through Svadhyaya.
In a monastery, two monks argued about a point regarding their master’s teaching. One said yes and the other said no. Finally, they came to their master to explain their understanding of the teaching.
After the first monk explained why he said yes, the master nodded his head and said that he was correct. The first monk was then very happy and left. The other monk, of course, was not happy. He also explained to the master why he said no. Thinking for a while, the master also nodded his head and said that he was also correct. The monk was then satisfied and left.
A little monk who was sitting beside the master was very puzzled. He said to his master, “Master, I do not understand. It is obvious that only one of them is correct. They cannot be both right. Why did you say that they are both correct?”
The master replied calmly, “Hm, you are correct too!”
This article is intended for teachers of the Iyengar method and deals with the practice of advanced students. I would like to emphasize that while teaching beginners you must present them with clear and non-contradictory instructions. For a beginner there should be only one correct option, and any confusion must be avoided.
We, westerners consider ourselves to be very rational, efficient and logical. It is hard for us to accept that an instruction can be correct when its opposite is also correct. We find such seemingly contradictory instructions very confusing; they disturb our sense of order and logic: how can something be right, when its opposite is also right?
In the Iyengar yoga world we are eager to learn new instructions and ‘points’ about the asanas. When we attend a workshop conducted by a knowledgeable, senior teacher, we sincerely study the new points and adjustments. Often these new instructions are fine and precise, and they create something new in our experience of the poses. This teacher will typically not claim for originality but rather quote Guruji (B.K.S. Iyengar). He would present himself as a conveyer of the instructions learnt in RIMYI from Guruji himself or from his son (Prashant) or daughter (Geeta).
As teachers, we adopt these instructions enthusiastically; we feel that we have learnt something new and deep about the asanas. So we write the new instructions in our notebooks and teach them to our students as if they were written ‘in stone’.
When, a few months later, another knowledgeable, senior teacher comes to conduct another workshop – we register, in hopes of enforcing the knowledge we already have. However, often, the new teacher gives just the opposite instructions. Surprisingly, lo and behold, again, we feel that these new instructions are very deep and correct, and they also give us a new experience of the same known poses.
I am sure that these teachers are all sincere and truthful and that they really learnt their teachings from Guruji. But we are left with the problems: which teacher is right? And more importantly: What should I write in my notebook???
It may be good advice not to write anything in the notebook at this stage, and instead practice and test these new instructions several times to see how they can fit in our own personal practice. Once these new instructions are absorbed and assimilated into the framework of our cellular, embodied knowledge, they will probably not seem so contradictory to what we already know.
You must also remember that in an asana there are actions and counter-actions that work in different directions. Often, in order to create stability and balance you have to perform a set of actions that complement each other. So it could be that, for clarity’s sake, each teacher emphasizes just one action, and neglects the corresponding counter-action.
However, I think that the source of the confusion is much deeper than that, and it has to do with our relying on concepts and conceptual thinking. Now, concepts are very useful as thinking tools and as means of communication. Concepts create order in the chaos of the phenomenal reality; they are useful tools that help us to organize the infinite number of stimulus we receive from our environment and to build a coherent world view that enables us to function. But once a concept created, it has its own magical power; concepts tend to hide the flowing, ever-changing nature of reality; they give us the illusion of permanency. Concepts tend to be fixed and to exist independent of other phenomena. It is convenient to stick to a mental concept, and to believe that it reflects the actual reality. But in truth, a concept can never be the reality itself – but at most – a representation which is an approximation that reflects some aspects of reality. This is useful because reality itself is too complex and cannot be contained in our mental containers, let alone, formulated in our notebooks.
Anyone who had the privilege of studying at RIMYI repeatedly for several years could see that the teaching there is like a river – and that river constantly flows and changes: “You can never enter the same river twice”. It seemed that for Guruji consistency was not so important; in his teaching he related to the current situation of the person in front of him and gave the instructions that could help that person in the best way. And if these instructions seemed opposite to some instructions he gave some other time – well, that is not much of a concern. As Prashantji often reminds us, there cannot be a standard, fixed set of instructions that will fit everybody at all times. Our practice and teaching should be adapted to the circumstances. It is impossible to enforce just one mode of teaching on all types of students and on all circumstances and situations.
Moreover, asanas are not movements but actions. When we stay in an asana we can create different internal actions in order to get different results. Some of these actions may seem to contradict other actions, but at certain times and for a certain purpose they may be just adequate. So you have to perform the actions according to the purpose of doing the asana. Sometimes, you may practice to get stability; at other times to get lightness and agility. Sometimes you may wish to relax and restore yourself, while other times you perform the asana to increase your vigor and potential.
Let’s make a simple experiment; stand in Tadasana, join your legs and move the inner legs down to the inner feet and press on the inner heels and the big toe mounds. Lift your arms to Urdhva Hastasana and sense the stability you have and the extension you can create in the sides of the body. Now release the pose and after a few seconds do it again, this time lift the inner arches of the feet and from there lift the inner legs toward the inner groins. Lift your arms to Urdhva Hastasana and see how the lower abdomen is easily lifted. Do you feel a sense of lightness in the pose?
So, should we lift the inner legs or move them down? What shell I put in my notebook?
Why should we have one answer? Why can’t we accept the reality that different actions that seem opposite when articulated verbally can co-exist very well in the actual experience of the asana and give different internal effects?
I think these are the most important questions we should ask ourselves. If we want to observe reality as it is, we must detach from any fixed set of concepts. Attachment to preconceived concepts leads to dogmatism, which is a big obstacle in our spiritual progress.
The fine, detailed instructions in the Iyengar method are just tools, gates to help us get inside and connect to ourselves. They are not meant to block our sensitivity and our ability to perceive the asana as it is, from moment to moment. They should not be treated so seriously. So often it is better to discard our notebooks, or at least to forget everything that is written there, and to set our minds free from any preconceived ideas or known instructions. That instruction may have worked well in the past, but is not necessarily appropriate for our current situation, or for the students we are facing right now.
If the confusion created in our minds by contradictory instructions will lead us to a realization that no instruction, or for that matter, no permanent concept, can adequately serve us in all situations and that we should keep our minds free and open, then that confusion is worthwhile. I even suspect that Guruji had intentionally planted some contradictions in his teaching in order to confuse us, to shake our habits and our very ‘logical’ mental settings. To shake our conceptual mode of thinking and to open our minds to the Reality itself! This is a well-known strategy in Zen, in which monks are faced with some paradox (a Koan) like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” This serves to shake the intellectual conception in order to take the leap required for the direct perception of Reality.
 Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute – the home and center of the Iyengars in Pune
Noelle Perez-Christiaens was one of the first westerners students of Guruji. She travelled to Pune as early as 1959 to study with him and spent a few years there. The foreword of the book asks: “Who was this brave young woman who traveled alone to India in 1959?”
Guruji was directing her on a one-to-one basis. She was amazed by his “precise and refined technique” and by his sayings. She wrote down in her notebook “the master’s remarks about how to see the world, the philosophy of yoga, his devotion to the Divine, and his love of human beings.”
Noelle was charmed by Guruji’s kind personality and by his wisdom, she writes in her diary: “I would like to stay a long time, to pump all this wisdom that is so simple, so human and so divine at the same time”… “Here I am around a sage who does not know that he is a sage, who has a wife he loves as much as a Hindu can love, meaning ten times more than us…”
The book includes Noelle’s diary from these years; quotations of Guruji from 1959 to 1975 ordered by years and a section about his early life.
Here are some quotations:
“When we are aware of the fact that without breathing there is no life, we feel grateful to God, who gives life through breathing. We surrender out life to God during exhalation, and we receive our life from God during inhalation. As long as we do pranayama, we surrender ourselves to this meditation.” (from 1959, p. 37)
“The yogic pranayama, or breathing techniques, are meditative in their origin and in their effect. Consisting basically of breath inhalation, breath retention, and breath exhalation, their rhythmic movement stills the mind by withdrawing the senses and helps one uncover the depths of the Self.” (from 1968, p. 84)
The brain must be flexible; the body must be rigid as stone. When the brain is perfectly calm, then meditation begins. (from 1972, p. 119)
When in meditation, look with your ears, not with the eyes… Ears bring the art of silence. Eyes bring the art of action. (p. 119)
Meditation is a fine supreme consciousness in which there is no duality. (p. 88)
The energy of the brain descending to the seat of the mind, the energy of the mind ascending towards the brain, where they both meet, is the seat of the soul. And there you must live, and that is meditation. (p. 154)
It is astonishing for me that as early as 1959, when Guruji was only 41 years old, he already had such a refine wisdom, and his concise sayings are so beautiful and inspiring me.
I strongly recommend Noelle’s book!
Inversions, in which the body is upside down defying gravity, are undoubtedly a unique characteristic of yoga. The two significant inversions are headstand or Shirshasana (pictured) and Shoulder stand or Sarvangasana, these are considered the king and queen of all asanas.
At one point in my life, I practiced Tai Chi in addition to yoga and I truly enjoyed it. There were even rare moments I contemplated devoting myself to Tai Chi at the expense of yoga, but each time this thought arose, I just could not bear the thought of giving up inversions. Indeed, there is no substitute to inversions; inversions are a component central and essential to yoga and are truly one of the gifts that yoga brings to society, humanity and us individuals.
Many years ago, when I installed the first rope in my home in order to do a hanging headstand, my eldest daughter, who was a small child then, hung upside down on the rope and said, “wow dad, how fun! It just makes life more fun!” Since then, I cannot find a more accurate expression of the feeling you get when you perform inversions: It really does make life more fun!
“Whatever nectar flows from the moon which is divine form, it is all swallowed up by the sun. Hence the body decays.”
“There exists a divine process by which the sun is duped…”
“If one’s navel is high and palate is low, then the sun in above and the moon below. This position, the inverted pose (Viparita Karani), is to be learned through the instructions of a Guru.”Hata Yoga Pradipika III, 77-79
The above quote from the Hata Yoga Pradipika describes symbolically the extraordinary benefits of inverted poses, the downward flow of the nectar which is swallowed up, causes the body to decay. Inverted poses reverse, or at least slow this process. Indeed, inverted positions – a unique gift of Yoga – are a great benefit. These poses take us to an inner journey into the core of our being. They touch and heal us on a deep level; they penetrate deep within, where our fears are hidden yet where our powers and joy can be found.
Geeta Iyengar and Lois Steinberg describe the benefits of inversions in the following words:
“… In addition to the reproductive effects, inversions also benefit the endocrine, lymphatic, circulatory, digestive, respiratory, urinary, excretory and central nervous systems. The pituitary, pineal, thyroid and adrenal glands receive a proper blood supply. Inversions are the greatest posesfor balancing hormones, which are also connected to maintaining bone density. Constipation, flatulence and hemorrhoids are alleviated. The urinary tract, urethra, kidneys and bladder benefit from the relief given by the anti-gravitational force. Again, mineral loss from the bones is checked when the muscles and bones are going against gravity. The resilience of the lungs is improved, and the body is kept warm. Retention of fluid, edema of the lower legs is reduced. The brain receives a healthy current of blood, is rejuvenated, and clarity of thoughts predominates. Sleep problems may improve. A state of equilibrium, balance, and health is established with regular practice of inversion.”Woman’s Yoga Practice by Geeta Iyengar and Lois Steinberg, p. 120
Geeta Iyengar writes that “one should not perform inversions during menstruation. Inversions performed during menstruation arrest the menstrual flow. They dry up the uterus and can lead towards complications like cysts and fibroids if practiced during menstruation. On the other hand, inversions can control menstrual bleeding when it exceeds the normal duration or if it occurs in-between. They check the flow and strengthen the uterine system. They dry up the area faster than any other asana. One should immediately commence the practice of inversions after completion of menstruation since it is the time for re-establishment of hormonal balance. Such a practice will prevent diseases like endometriosis, leucorrhea and also miscarriages. They help in maintaining the health of the reproductive system” (Yoga Rahasya volume B, p.29).
Concerning inversions during pregnancy she writes that “pregnancy is the opposite state of menstruation as the fetus has to be retained. Inverted postures should be performed in the first three months when there is a chance of miscarriage, especially for those who are prone to miscarriages and abortions. One can continue to practicing them up to the end of the pregnancy. Their regular practice strengthens the spine, improves blood circulation, checks water retention, prevents infections, maintains hormonal balance, lubricates the reproductive passage, checks blood pressure, maintains emotional and mental balance. Inversions are harmful during menstruation and helpful during pregnancy. Avoid inversions during menstruation but practice them religiously during pregnancy. Once should continue with the practice of inversions even after menopause in order to keep a check on blood pressure, heart problems, circulatory defects and aging. We have to learn to be in an inverted position as long as we are in an upright position!” (p.29)[Ibid].
Inversions are also the gateways to Pranayama practice:
“Sirsasana unfolds two diaphragms or hearts. It is a very important asana for understanding the suction and spreading of the pelvic floor, which is the heart of Mulabandha, and the suction and spreading of the abdomen for Uddiyanabandha. The variations in Sirsasana intensify this action. Sarvangasana and Halasana pacify the vocal diaphragm and allow it to spread, whilst unblocking the neck and thus allowing Jalandharabandha to be unfolded. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana awakens all three bandhas.” (The Hero’s contemplation, by C. Pisano, p. 124).
Inverted poses teaches us what is a Yogic mind – an alert, neutral, innocent, non-reactive and passive mind. Inversions are central in the Iyengar method and long stays in Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are an integral part of the daily routine of every serious practitioner. Iyengar summarized his description of the effects of Sirsasana in Light on Yoga, in these inspirational words:
“Regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self-reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.”
I strongly identify with the following words of Geeta and Lois:
“The benefits of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana cannot be over emphasized. Practitioners of inverted postures experience the effects daily. If circumstances truncate the time for practice, they know to do Sirsasana and Sarvangasana as their benefits would be missed” (Woman’s Yoga Practice).
These two key inversions complement each other; Sirsasana represent the dynamic, active (Suria or sun) element, whereas Sarvangasana the passive, contemplative (Chandra or moon) element. Hence, in the practice sequence Sarvangasana and its variations will appear after Sirsasana and toward the end of the session. It is recommended to stay in Sarvangasana and its variations, one and a half times longer than the duration of Sirsasana and its variations.
Duration is a very important factor. To get the full anatomical, physiological, mental and psychological benefits of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana one needs to stay in them for more than just a few minutes. The internal processes that take place need time to yield effects. As Prashant Iyengar terms it: “you can’t put rice in boiling water and expect it to be ready after just one minute.” Every now and then, I dedicate most of my daily practice to inversions and stay 30 minutes in Sirsasana and 45 minutes in Sarvangasana & Halasana – this is a very deep practice and it changes completely the state of the mind!
Staying for 10 minutes or more in Sirsasana or Sarvangasana is challenging both physically and mentally. Develop your practice gradually and consistently and build up your mental and physical capabilities so you can stay for long durations. Until then you can complement the independent practice of these poses with intervals of practice with props. Iyengar has developed props that allow almost everyone to savor the flavor of long stays in inversions; Rope Sirsasana and Chair Sarvangasana are the most useful and beneficial; but many other props and arrangements of blankets, bolsters and blocks, help to extend the duration of the pose without excessive effort. Some of these will be documented in the following volumes of my book Props for Yoga.
Avoid practicing inversions if you suffer from:
- High blood pressure
- Eyes or ears problem
- Heart disease
- Dizziness or nausea
- Women shouldn’t do inversions during the menstruation days
If you have neck problems, you can still practice inversions using props (consult your teacher on the appropriate method)
Sutras I.2 to I.4 of Patanjali describe the essence of yoga philosophy and the source of troubles affecting human existence. Below are these sutras (originally written in Sanskrit, translated into English):
- Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
Complete mastery over the fluctuations of the mind is called yoga.
- Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam.
Then the Seer becomes established in its true nature.
- Vritti sarupyam itaratra
Elsewhere [the Seer] conforms to the fluctuations of the mind.
The definition of yoga is given in sutra I.2: yoga is the quieting, restraining or complete cessation (translating the word nirodhah) of mental activities. But why should we stop mental activity?
The answer is given in sutra I.3 – because the Seer (drastr) is placed in its “natural state” (svarupe). The Seer is essentially the soul, or Atman, the eternal essence, the unchanging core of our being that according to yoga is located at the core of our being and is an uninvolved witness, observing everything but nor affecting neither affected by anything.
But what happens to this Seer when mental activity takes place? Sutra I.4 notes that in such cases, the Seer identifies with that activity or mental fluctuation (vritti).
In the nonstop chase that is our everyday life, and in our immersion in impressions and shapes, we forget to see the source; we identify with a variety of phenomena and forget the Self. We forget that we are the ocean and identify with one little wave that forms from the ocean for a while just to return back to it.
The epitome of our body, the structure of body-mind-ego generates energy, just like a wave that spreads in space. The problem starts when we identify with this wave, with its ups and downs, with its hardships and joys, which change quickly, and are not aware that all this is only a temporal manifestation. This is illusory not in the sense that it does not exist, the world exists and is real. What this illusory is the significance and weight we place on these transient phenomena and feelings. It is only when we perceive that we are the ocean, suddenly things fall back into perspective.
We can compare it to a child playing with a toy: sometimes the game is enjoyable and the child is happy, a moment later something goes wrong and the child gets upset and angry. The game is real – the toy exists. However, when we observe the child’s point of view, what we perceive as skewed is the significance the child attaches to it all: we know that it is just a game, but the child identifies with his game and think this is the Ultimate Reality. He is not aware that this is just a game – sometimes pleasurable sometimes not. The Ultimate Reality does not change. The issue is the identification, or rather, the fact that we are not aware of this identification.
Life goes on, and we play different roles we have an age, a gender, a socio-economic class, a status…we can be a husband, a manager, an employee, and so on… In order to function in life we have to identify with our roles. But if you forget that this is not the essence and think this identification is everything, the ups and downs become frightening. The realm of phenomena seems real and threatening and we forget that the one who sees is the eternal true Self or Seer.
The wave is afraid of its looming end, because it believes that when it will crash against the shore it will cease to exist; The wave is not aware of the fact that once it crashes onto the shore, it will be united back with the ocean, and the ocean is eternal and infinite, it has no boundaries and has no features, so there is no way to describe it in words. One can only try to silence all the words and vibrations and immerse in the endless waters of universal consciousness.
This, I think, is the meaning of these three sutras.
How to Start your Self-Practice at Home
The article was published in IYUK magazine on spring of 2015. What appears here is part I of the original article Written by Eyal.
To view the PDF version as it was published in IYUK magazine, click here.
Self-practice is an indispensable component of our Sadhana. Receiving instructions from teachers and attending classes regularly builds the foundation, but self-practice is where one can truly develop and incorporate yoga into one’s life. As a teacher, I often notice how the progress of students is accelerated when they begin to practice on their own. However, for most students starting self-practice presents a major difficulty: even though they recognize the importance of self-practice, and attend classes regularly, only a minority succeeds in making it part of their daily routine. Some of the obstacles on the road to self-practice were noted thousands of years ago by Patanjali in one of his famous yoga sutras (I.30), while other obstacles are more pertinent to our modern era.
Over the years I was asked by many students for advice on how to cross the barrier to self-practice. This article collects the ideas which have been the most helpful for them. It is arranged in two parts:
– Part 1 is catered to students who wish to start practicing at home
– Part 2 provides advice for students who already practice at home and wish to expand and deepen their practice
Not all of the ideas presented in this guide may be relevant to all students. Please choose those that are relevant and beneficial for your capabilities, experience and limitations. If in doubt, consult your teacher or write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
May these ideas and tips encourage you to create and enrich your self-practice!
Starting Self-Practice at Home
Some of us (…typically at the beginning of a new year) tend to make dramatic resolutions about improving our lives. Oftentimes, newcomers to yoga are eager to practice and decide they will devote an hour a day or even more for practice. The problem with these decisions, however, is that they are often not feasible in the context of their current lifestyle and obligations. The pressures of life make persistence in practice difficult to maintain. In such circumstances, people find it impossible to live up to their resolution, which – in turn – leads to frustration and eventually may lead to dropping yoga from their life altogether. This is probably what Patanjali refers to as Anavasthitatva, the inability to persist in gradual progress.
So, my first piece of advice is:
1. Set Realistic Goals and Build Your Practice Gradually
Progress in yoga is not created by revolutions, but rather by a slow and gradual evolution. I always tell my students: ‘practice even 15 minutes a day, the duration is not important, but the regularity!’. Set a time-frame that you can repeat daily, without making dramatic changes in your life, and stick to it. If you missed the practice slot planned for the morning, make sure you make up for it in the evening.
If you are not used to self-practice, scheduling a full hour of it each day may be just too demanding for you. A shorter interval is much easier to allocate by simply reducing the time of watching TV, surfing the Internet and/or chatting on the phone.
2. Fix a Place in Your Home for Yoga Practice
Find a suitable place in your home for practice and keep your mat always open on the floor in that place, ready for practice. This will lower the barrier to starting your practice and will remind you to do it in case you fail to remember.
Ideally, the place should have a window for natural light and air. It’s nice to have some area of exposed wall and sufficient room for storing your props, such as blankets, blocks, bolster, etc.
3. Hang a Practice Sequence on the Wall
A common request I get from my students goes like this: “I want to practice at home but I don’t know what asanas to do. Can you give me a good sequence for self-practice?”
My best advice: Get a recommended list of asanas from your teacher and stick it on the wall in front of your mat!
Based on my experience, the following generic sequence will work for most students. However, if you have a special limitation, do ask your teacher to review and approve it. This sequence requires 15-20 minutes comprised of approximately 10 minutes of active poses and 6-10 minutes of more relaxed poses.
4. Overcome Laziness
The hardest part is to begin practicing. Iyengar is known to say that the most difficult asana is unfolding the mat, and it’s true! Once you start though, practice usually flows smoothly and it is often difficult to stop that flow.
Patanjali mentions two related obstacles: Styana, which Iyengar translates as lack of perseverance, lack of interest, sluggishness, mental laziness; and Alasya – idleness, physical laziness. Laziness is not a very strong hindrance in my own case, but I still face it every now and then. I have developed two strategies to tackle it:
One is to imagine the joy at the end of the practice. Good yoga practice will always make you feel fresh, relaxed and content. Simply imagining the peaceful state of mind to be experienced in one hour is an excellent motivation to start it!
The other method, which I often offer as advice to my beginning students, is to say: “Okay, let’s give it 10 minutes and see how I feel!” Regardless of the mood in which you start the practice – you will often find yourself practicing well past those initial 10 minutes, or at least wishing to have planned more time for it.
5. Prioritize Yoga According to its True Value for Your Life
You may have many tasks or projects to complete today, but the time you invest in your practice has the potential of improving the quality of your entire day. After the practice your mind will be clearer, your intelligence sharper and your emotions more balanced. So the time you invest in the practice will more than pay off as you’ll be more effective in performing your tasks. You will become more relaxed and quiet and will waste less time and energy. You’ll make better decisions and prioritize your tasks better. In addition, the joy, peace and harmony that you’ll experience will shine outwards; you’ll be happier and this will improve your interactions with people and possibly transmit some of your joy and serenity on to them as well.
During my own practice, I often realize that some of the things that I considered to be so important and urgent are actually not that important, and I can drop them or postpone them for some other time.
One of my students used to say that yoga is the best investment one can make because it saves on bills for the doctor, the psychiatrist and other kinds of therapists. Investing a little bit in yoga is still much cheaper than having to pay for therapy. I tend to agree with this student.
There is a well know Zen saying: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour…” And indeed, if you are so busy that you can’t devote 20 minutes a day for practice, maybe you should rethink the way you manage your life. Why are you so busy? Do you spare some time for yourself or devote all your time and energy to other people and projects? Maybe an hour of practice will give you more time to contemplate on these questions and to change your priorities.
Often, even before getting out of bed in the morning, my mind is already busy making the daily ‘to-do’ list. In very busy times I may hear an inner voice saying: “hey, maybe you should just skip practice for the day?!”
I learned to recognize this voice and label it – “Oh, this is my ‘do-disease’ speaking”. I hear the voice but answer: “My dear ‘do-disease’, although you are speaking to me, I can’t listen to you right now because I need to practice yoga – I’ll attend to all the tasks you mention when I finish; now I am busy doing something more important, please excuse yourself from my brain”.
When I find myself too busy, I read the inspirational words of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Tich Nhat Hanh: “Why do I have to run? I am at peace with myself. I am at peace with everything else. I experience the joy of aimlessness. I don’t have any aim. I don’t run after anything. I practice stopping. And when you have stopped, you will have insight and the insight will liberate you.” (Under the Banyan Tree, p. 113)
6. Make Yoga a Habit and Practice it with Religious Discipline
In the Jewish tradition, one is committed to perform daily Mitzvas (religious ceremonies). Similar obligations exist in every religion. A religious person would never ask: “Should I pray now? Maybe I should give up this or that service?” He just does it. Yogic discipline should be similar. Stick to your Yogic Sadhana as if it were a religion. As long as you are committed to this path, be determined enough to stick with it. Don’t let daily impulses throw you out of balance.
Allocating a fixed time and place for the practice is the first step towards making it a habit. However, a true discipline must be routed in consciousness.
Here is what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about habit and destiny:
“Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”
Our thoughts, when controlled, can be very powerful. Here is what Swami Sivananda had to say on this subject:
“One can change his habits, thoughts and character by developing good habits and thoughts. It is the thought that moves the body to act. There is thought behind every action. There is desire behind thought. Do not allow the desires to control your thoughts. Do not be carried away easily by all sorts of desires through emotion. When a desire manifests, cogitate, think well. Reason out whether this particular desire towards the particular object will bring maximum happiness and minimum pain. If it is otherwise, reject it ruthlessly. Do not try to fulfill it. You must control desire through thoughts.”
7. Practice According to Proven Sequences
The task of remembering the asanas and deciding in which order to practice them is difficult for beginners. Pre-defined sequences, arranged by qualified teachers, structure the practice and guide us into gradual and safe progress.
Based on the example of Faeq Biria, one of my best teachers, the first year of my teachers training courses is devoted to establishing self-practice. I give the students a set of five sequences – one for each day of the week (they also have to go to a formal class or two during the week). When they start to follow these sequences, I often see a dramatic progress in their practice. The students report that the sequences are essential for building up their discipline and consistency.
When I started my own yogic journey in 1978, there was much less information available about yoga than we have today, and not many ready-made sequences. Sometimes I followed the sequences given in Light on Yoga. These sequences are inspiring– but they may be too challenging for the average practitioner.
Luckily, today we have excellent sequences that can be used by beginners, leading them gradually to more advanced asanas. For example:
– Start by following the 28 week course given by Geeta Iyengar in Chapter Xof Yoga in Action – Preliminary Course
– Follow the 10 sequences given in chapter V of Basic Guidelines for Teachers of Yoga by BKS & Geeta Iyengar.
The cited sequences were carefully designed for us by our Gurus, the Iyengars, and we must follow them until we get mature enough to tailor our own sequences. They consist of asanas from all the basic groups, including standing, sitting, forward and backward extensions, inversions and lateral twists.
One characteristic of these sequences is that all of them contain standing asanas and inverted asanas. In Yoga in Action Intermediate Course-I, Geeta says:
“The standing asanas are the base or foundation; therefore one has to start there, in order to strengthen the spine.”
In Woman’s Yoga Practice, Geeta Iyengar and Lois Steinberg write:
“The benefits of Sirsasana and Sarvangasana cannot be over- emphasized. Practitioners of inverted postures experience the effects daily. If circumstances shorten practice time, they know to do Sirsasana and Sarvangasana as their benefits would be missed.”
Standing poses and inversions are so very important that they should be a part of your daily routine (except of course, when otherwise indicated, like during menstruation). In building your practice sequence, follow the guidance given by Geeta in the Yoga in Action booklets, especially read the Introduction, page 80 and pages 119-121 of the Preliminary Course and the section “Method of Practice” on pages 111-113 of the Intermediate Course-I.
Advanced practitioners who have gained practice maturity don’t need external sequences. I don’t use any fixed sequences in my practice any more, instead I listen to what my body tells me. I usually have some idea of what is going to be the focus of the session, but this may change in the course of the practice. Indeed, each pose leads naturally to the following one, and the practice flows without any fixed plan. (But I do practice asanas from all the major groups over the course of the week).
This requires intimate knowledge of the asanas and their effects, so in the beginning (and this can last several years) it’s best to follow sequences given by teachers with great knowledge and experience.
8. Make Sure Your Practice is Interesting and Enjoyable
In Yoga in Action – Preliminary Course, Geeta Iyengar gives the following advice:
“Do not burden your mind with the idea of doing too many asanas. Do not feel the pressure on the mind that it is a time consuming practice. Start the practice with the freedom of the mind.” (Chapter X)
Your practice should be interesting and enjoyable. Yes, in order to make progress you need to be focused and determined. But if you feel that your practice is a burden, stop and ask yourself honestly what the cause of that feeling may be.
In The Tree of Yoga B.K.S. Iyengar writes:
“You are a beginner in yoga. I too am a beginner from where I left my practice yesterday. I don’t bring yesterday’s poses to today’s practice. I know yesterday’s poses, but when I practice today I become a beginner. I don’t want yesterday’s experience. I want to see what new understanding may come in addition to what I had felt up to now” (see The Fruit chapter).
If your practice is shallow and mechanical it will become boring; you will not feel engaged with it. Each session should bring with it a fresh sensation; some new learning; access to a new internal territory in which you have never visited. This way, the practice will never be boring and you won’t ever consider it a burden.
A good teacher encourages us to explore deeper layers in ourselves through careful instruction and insightful questioning; but how can we do it when we practice on our own at home?
The key is to adopt an inquisitive, curious mind. For example: look for actions that repeat themselves in different poses; or explore how different poses affect your breathing; or try performing the same pose with different props.
Props are a unique aspect of the Iyengar Method. Regardless of your physical limitations, props can be used to investigate and deepen your experience of the asanas. They enable you to explore the effect of the asanas, to spread your awareness to unexplored bodily regions. In 70 Glorious years of Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar says:
“The student understands and learns asana faster on props as the brain remains passive. Through passive brain one learns to be alert in body and mind. Props are guides to self-learning. They help accurately without mistakes” (Page 391)
In a new guide Props for Yoga, which I currently write (coming soon), I present many methods of using props that I have learnt over the years from the Iyengars in Pune, and from other teachers. I explain usages of simple, standard props like blocks, belts, blankets and walls, and explain the effects of each such usage. As an example, here are some variations in which props are used to direct awareness to a bodily region (1), to help moving tight muscles (2), to check the alignment of the body (3, 4), to activate the legs (5) and to allow for a restful stay in a challenging asana (6).
9. Use a Timer to Develop Your Endurance
Asanas are psycho-physical states that have to be maintained for a certain length of time. Staying in the pose is at the heart of the practice. I remember that in the early days while doing headstand, I found myself coming out of the pose unintentionally, in a lapse of concentration. This prompted me to start using a timer; when working on prolonging my stay, I used to set the timer to 10 minutes and was determined to stay until the beep. This helped me to build stamina and determination.
Today it’s easy to install sophisticated timers, adapted to yoga practice, on any computer or cellphone. Staying for one minute in a balancing pose (like Virabhadra III), or 10 minutes in a forward extension (like Paschimottanasana) or 15 minutes in an inverted pose (like Sirsasana) requires will-power and determination. Using a timer frees your mind to concentrate on precision and reducing the effort in the pose rather than on worrying about the time. In addition, when you perform a cycle of asanas, you can add intermediate beeps to signal you to move to the next variation in the cycle.
Be careful however not to develop dependency on external gadgets. Ultimately you should develop an internal ‘feel’ for how long it is beneficial for you to stay in a given asana on a particular day. Your own internal timer should have physiological and psychological dimensions, not merely chronological.
10. Be Prudent: Make Slow and Steady Progress
Highly motivated students sometimes start to practice at home, and after a few weeks complain about pains, blaming the intense practice for their injuries. In the transition from a weekly class to a daily practice, hidden problems and imbalances are triggered and may manifest through new sensations and pain.
When starting a self-practice, it’s very important to be prudent and progress gradually. I always tell my students that there is no ‘instant yoga’ – yoga is a life-time project (possibly several life-times project). There is really no point in attempting to move faster than your natural ability. Be honest and accept your limitation. Develop patience and be satisfied with slow but steady progress. Prepare the body well with the basic poses (mainly standing poses) before attempting more advanced poses. Listen to your body and remember these concluding words of Geeta Iyengar in Yoga in Action – Preliminary Course:
“An auspicious and good beginning leads one towards the Ultimate end. Slow and steady wins the race. Our duty as a beginner is to keep on practicing with a steady and firm mind.”
11. Listen to Your Pain
If you have a persistent pain you must investigate and find its cause. Iyengar says: “Pain comes to guide you; pain is your Guru”. Learn to discriminate between a “good pain”, which indicates healthy progress within the potential of your muscles and joints, and “bad pain”, which indicate that you have violated those limits. Never ignore a pain, but also do not panic. Listen carefully to what this Guru (the pain) tells you; consult your teacher for assistance; and if needed, change your practice to avoid unhealthy pains. If the same pain persists without explanation, consult your medical doctor.
12. Do Not Discriminate Between Types of Asana
You have to practice all the asanas that are suitable to your level. It is natural to have our likes and dislikes among the asanas. However there is significant learning value in doing the asanas which are more difficult for you.
The Bhagavad Gita (II.48) says that yoga is Samatvam (equal minded, equanimity) meaning that a yogi treats everything and everyone with the same dignity and respect. So our practice should lead us toward this ideal. Each asana has its own unique benefit. Remember that the ultimate goal of asana practice is mental; watch your consciousness while performing your less-liked asanas; learn from it as you develop endurance and equanimity.
13. Adapt the Practice to Your Current Condition
Our practice should never become a blind routine. We need to develop sensitivity and awareness to our physical, physiological and mental condition. The practice should change from day to day according to factors like our current health condition and level of energy and be adapted according to factors like our age, the weather, the time of day and many other factors.
When you begin your practice, assess your condition and select the kind of practice that is most suitable for the day. For example, if you are feeling low on a particular day, it’s better to select energetic asanas in order to stimulate the breath and the circulation and to open the chest (back bends are ideal for that); on the other hand if you suffer from headache, agitation or high blood pressure, choose a relaxed sequence with long stays in supported forward bends. When you are exhausted after a long working day, do a restorative practice. Women must also take into account the changes that occur during the menstrual cycle.
14. Take Support from Family and Friends When Needed
Supportive family members or friends can help you persist in your self-practice. Once you have decided to practice on a daily basis, make this decision known to your family members and friends, and ask them to support you. For example, your partner can encourage you to practice on a day in which you are not feeling up to practice, and remind you of your decision (of course they must do it thoughtfully and be sensitive enough to the circumstances).
If you have a friend or a colleague that you can practice with – it may help you to commit to the practice. Some people find it much easier to practice with a friend or in a small group. But see that the practice doesn’t turn into a social event with too much chit-chatting…
Personally, I prefer to practice in solitude, but there were times when practice with colleagues did help me significantly.
15. Consider Using Recorded Guidance
There are plenty of recorded audio and video classes on the Internet as well as in CD format. These can help you to establish your own practice, but keep the following in mind:
– First, recorded lessons cannot substitute for a teacher. The role of the teacher is to observe the students and correct their mistakes. This cannot be done in remote control. Beyond the technical aspect, a teacher is also a role model and a source of inspiration. The relationship between the teacher and the student is very significant while progressing on the path of yoga.
– Secondly, recorded lessons repeat themselves (naturally) and lack the element of observation and internal investigation. Practice is our opportunity to be with ourselves and observe our mind and its fluctuations in order to learn how to restrain it. That is the greatest gift of yoga and it may escape you when you use recorded lessons regularly.
So if you decide to use recorded lessons, balance it with an unguided self-practice so as to not develop dependency on external guidance.
As a seasoned teacher I come across some of the same questions time and again. Below are some of those questions followed by my answers and suggestions.
- Do I have to be flexible to practice yoga?
- Does yoga improve cardio-pulmonary capabilities, or does this require a more strenuous exercise?
- Can anyone practice yoga?
- Is it possible to start practicing yoga at any age?
- How long should my daily practice last?
- Does yoga contradict other exercise methods?
- What time of day should I practice?
- How long should I wait to practice after a meal?
- Is yoga practice addictive?
- What equipment do I need to practice Iyengar yoga?
- Is yoga a form of exercise?
- Are breathing techniques taught in yoga classes?
- Are meditation techniques taught at Iyengar classes?
- How do I deal with pain while in posture?
- Why is it important to know the names of the poses in Sanskrit?
- What is the importance of practicing advanced poses?
Because yoga is neither a body culture and nor a competitive sport, there is no need for any special physical traits to practice yoga. All it takes is desire, patience and perseverance. It does not matter if you can reach your toes in a forward bend position, or whether you can fold your legs into a lotus position. The effects of yoga are not necessarily proportional to how the pose appears externally. It is quite possible that an inflexible person will gain greater benefits from yoga than a very flexible person. Everyone should reach the level of extension appropriate for them and settle there. That place is where things happen, where learning to let go and be with the sensations of the body and the breath occurs.
Yoga is not about flexibility; it is the practice of concentration, listening, attention and awareness. Flexibility, when comes, is only a by-product.
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2. Does yoga improve cardio-pulmonary capabilities, or does this require a more strenuous exercise?
This is one of the main misunderstandings that I come across often. Our culture is fixated on the concept of ‘cardio-respiratory workouts’ and worships strenuous physical activity. True, exercise is a beneficial thing, but aren’t we going overboard?
The first question we need to ask ourselves is – what is the purpose of exercising?
If the purpose of the exercising is to make it through 100 meters as fast as possible, or to succeed in running a Marathon, then no doubt, we have to endure high cardio-respiratory rates and therefore train for this specific purpose. But does this necessarily lead to health and long-term balance?
Yoga seeks harmonious balance and health of both the body and mind.
B.K.S. Iyengar refers to this issue in his book, The Tree of Yoga:
“It is very difficult for me to explain to Westerners the difference between simulative exercise and irritative exercise. Take jogging for example. Medical science says it stimulates the heart. But the difference should be made between irritation and stimulation. The heartbeat increases, but that does not mean that the heart is stimulated. Stimulating means energizing or invigorating, but exercise can also be irritative or exhausting. In jogging, making the heart beat very fast is irritating the heart.
In yoga we do back-bends, which are harder than jogging, but that does not irritate the heart, because we don’t get out of breath and our heartbeat is maintained in a rhythmic pattern throughout. So when we teach asanas, we have to find what is actually invigorating and what is not invigorating. After invigorating exercise there is absolutely no fatigue. Feeling nice after hard work means that the work was invigorating, but feeling exhaustion after ten or fifteen minutes is a sure sign that you are doing irritative exercise.” (From The art of prudence)
Effort in yoga is practiced in a controlled manner so as not to over-stimulate the body. Even in the most complex yoga poses, breathing continues to flow softly through the nostrils without any excessive panting or rising of the heartbeat. Essential organ systems are energized and kept healthy, without any excessive activation. It is known that athletes who develop very large heart muscles have various heart problems upon retirement from sports. This cannot happen with yoga. Yoga is a balanced, moderate activity (there is also no such thing as retiring from Yoga – Iyengar used to practice until he was almost 96).
Naturally, in order to develop the heart and lungs we need to perform advanced standing poses and backbends, but anyone who perseveres and practices for several years will be able to perform these poses and knows from experience what it really means to raise your heart rate in a moderate controlled manner. When doing backbends the heartbeat goes up, but doesn’t get too high and superficial, it remains deep and the breath penetrates the body and does not become flat and shallow.
From personal experience, I can testify that in the past I used to do athletic activities such as swimming and running long distances. However, today I do not feel the need to do this more; Yoga is certainly enough to keep my body in good shape and health and provide me with lightness. Even at my age (post 60 …) I do not feel a significant decrease in my physical fitness.
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3. Can anyone practice yoga?
Yoga is a spiritual path; it is a quest for discovering the true essence of our life upon this earth. That is something we all need, and so yoga is open for everyone!
Yoga holds that despite the differences in cultures and mentality among people, basically, we are all alike. We all have a heart, a pair of lungs, a liver and a brain. We all have an awareness that fluctuates and can be distracted; we all have stipulations, limiting habits, prejudices and a distorted vision of reality.
Essentially, one thing unites us all – and that is human suffering; we were all born without being asked to, we grow up, will grow old and eventually die; we all cling to life with all our might, but know that life is very frail; we accumulate property and hang on to material things, but know that one day we will have to leave them all behind; we all live, but life and death remain a mystery to us. These concepts have nothing to do with race, religion, class, caste, nation or gender – we are all subject to the same laws, rich and poor, black and white, women and men. We are all sons and daughters of nature and relative to nature we are all infants who share the same needs: we all want to avoid suffering, to feel confident, receive attention, love and be loved. We are all suffering, but looking for happiness!
Since we all share the same human core, we can all utilize a practice that will help us overcome difficulties and alleviate our sufferings. Therefore, yoga can benefit everyone, regardless of traits, age or inclination. All it takes is just the will to persevere and continue to practice as well as to work diligently!
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4. Is it possible to start practicing yoga at any age?
Yes! Iyengar taught the queen of Belgium to stand on her head when she was 80 years old! Yoga can be practiced at all ages.
Of course, posture practicing should vary with age. Young people need to practice energetically and dynamically, while older people should practice moderately and use props for support. One of Iyengar’s genius inventions is the use of various training aids (props), such as chairs, bolsters, belts, accessories and specialty wooden props. Using props allows one to practice difficult postures effortlessly and stay in the posture safely and correctly. Older people who have never practiced yoga can practice some of the postures using props and they can greatly benefit from yoga and stay healthy well into old age.
Iyengar’s practice changed considerably over the years; in his older age he used to stay in postures for a long time (about 20-40 minutes in a posture) and used a great deal of props. In his book The Tree of Yoga, he writes that:
“See that in your daily practice there is a progression and a transformation. If I were to do yoga today just as I did it when I began in 1934, then my practice would be like a healthy tree which does not give any fruit, or a healthy woman which cannot bear children. I am not doing that type of yoga. I want my action to bear fruit. The true fruit of yoga is not a material achievement or performance.” (From The leaves)
“You may be fifty, or sixty years old, and ask yourself whether it is too late in life to take up yoga practice. One part of the mind says, ‘I want to go ahead’, and another part of the mind is hesitating. What is that part of the mind which is hesitating? Perhaps it is fear. But what produces that fear?”
Why is an old man fond of sex? Why does his age not come to his mind at all? If he sees a young girl, his mind will be wandering, even though he may have no physical capacity. What is the state of his mind? He would like to possess her; would he not? But ask him to do a little yoga or something to maintain his health: ‘ Oh, I am very old’ he says! So the mind is the maker and the mind is the destroyer. On one side the mind is making you and on another side it is destroying you. You must tell the destructive side of the mind to keep quiet – then you will learn.” (From Old age)
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6. Does yoga contradict other exercise methods?
No. Yoga does not contradict any other exercise methods. You can combine yoga with more intensive athletic or gym exercises, or in parallel with other methods that focus on developing attention and awareness, such as the Feldenkrais Method, Pilates and martial arts. In fact, many professional dancers and actors practice yoga.
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7. What time of day should I practice?
Traditionally, it is ideal to practice at sunrise or sunset. Most people find the early morning hours good for practice. It is a time when the body and mind are still fresh and quiet. Many external disturbances do not exist during the early morning – the air is clean and the environment quiet.
I think each one has to find a time that is convenient for him or her. Personally I am a “morning bird” so I like to practice early in the morning, but there are people who are not “morning people” and tend to be more awake and alert in the evening. It’s important is to find a fixed time slot for practice and strive to maintain it. Of course, don’t practice after meals, so the ideal time would be before breakfast or before dinner.
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8. How long should I wait to practice after a meal?
After a full meal you should wait at least four hours before practicing. You can drink a warm drink half an hour before practice. There are two main reasons why you shouldn’t practice in close proximity to a meal. First, after a meal the stomach and intestines are full and heavy and movement is restricted. Practicing on a full stomach may cause uncomfortable feelings such as choking or heartburn. Just as importantly, practicing after a meal robs the body of the necessary energy needed for the digestive process. Not all of us are aware of the fact that digestion is a process that requires a great deal of energy. If we do exercise during digestion, the body draws energy resources to the physical activity at the expense of digestion and this impairs the quality of food digestion and absorption.
However, there are some restorative Iyengar poses that can be done immediately after eating, and are even beneficial for digestion after a heavy meal. Poses like Supta Baddha Konasana or Supta Virasana with bolster support, are poses that do not disturb digestion and, as a matter of fact, create space in the abdomen, thus facilitating the digestive process.
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9. Is yoga practice addictive?
Yoga is not an addiction. An addiction is a weakness; it is something forced on us by an intense emotional need. It is holding onto something that creates a mental dependency. Addiction is a sort of a chain:
‘I want something … I must have it … I need to have it right now … If I don’t get it soon I don’t know what I’ll do… ”
These characteristics do not exist in yoga. On the contrary, yoga is a practice that requires effort and self-discipline. It is not easy to practice yoga; the practice has no thrills and attractions and requires a lot of work, patience and concentration. Weak people, who tend to indulge, might be unable to maintain the practice of yoga (though yoga can be used as an empowering instrument and serve as a way to help people quit addictions).
Yoga practice is designed to increase attention and awareness; Yoga is process of self-study; when we look deep within ourselves we will be able to uncover the reasons for our habits and addictions; We will be able to develop an awareness regarding our difficulties, tendencies, needs and deficiencies and deal with them consciously.
Addiction stems from a desire to fill the emptiness or a significant deprivation. Yoga creates a feeling of abundance and balance so it works against the need to indulge.
Yoga identifies the sources of our suffering, two of which are: attachments and aversions. Addiction is nothing but an extreme form of attachment. Yoga gives us a deep inner satisfaction and therefore frees us from the need to hold on to external things as well as our dependency on them.
Sure, you can get addicted to exercise, but yoga is not just a form of exercise, yoga works on the mind through the body; it is a journey for discovering our true Self. Yoga releases from mind-conditioning and bad habits, so real yoga is the opposite of addiction.
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10. What equipment do I need to practice Iyengar yoga?
Iyengar yoga studios are usually equipped with at least the basic equipment: mattresses, blankets, blocks, belts, chairs and bolsters. In addition most studios have ropes anchored to the ceiling and / or wall and specialty equipment such as arches, benches at different heights, and so on. However, to begin practicing, you do not need more than a mattress and possibly a belt or two.
If you want to learn Sarvangasana you must have the ability to create an elevated surface of about 5 centimeters. It is usually done by stacking 5-6 folded blankets but can also be done with the four foam blocks and two blankets, or with an appropriate sized flat (but not soft)pillow.
The basic equipment required for more advanced practitioners is: a mattress, two belts, 5-6 blankets, two blocks and a bolster. This equipment is much less expensive than the gear necessary for sports such as cycling or the gym and its value is priceless. Later on it is recommended to obtain a yoga chair – any additional props you can obtain will surely enhance your practice.
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11. Is yoga a form of exercise?
Prashant Iyengar commented on this issue while addressing the question of ‘What is the difference between physical activity and mental activity?’ This is not a simple question: any activity we engage in involves activation of the body and the mind together. Even when we listen to a lecture or work on the computer we use the body as we are seated in some position; on the other hand, when we exercise we use mental abilities. So what is the difference?
Prashant’s answer is: “Anything done for the body is physical and whatever is done for the mind is mental.” In other words, the intention and the involvement are important – they determine the purpose of the activity.
When people exercise or play sports, their goal is to improve their fitness, strengthen the body, increase flexibility, and improve endurance, heart-lung capability, and so on. These are all physical objectives, so the activity is physical. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is the purpose of the activity.
However, yoga uses the body as a tool to work on the mind. Yoga is the practice of concentration and awareness aimed at obtaining joy and mental peace and balance.
Yoga is a path of transformation, it changes our character and personality; its ultimate goal is liberation from the suffering human existence is saturated in. Yoga is a vision that unites us all: the inner soul within us. This vision leads us towards traits such as balance, tolerance, patience, consideration, sensitivity, and clarity of vision, joy, generosity, love and compassion.
These are lofty spiritual goals and they are the real goals of yoga. Health and the physical benefits we gain from practice are, as Iyengar writes in The Tree of Yoga, are only byproducts.
In my opinion yoga is the ideal form of exercise because it activates the body optimally. In addition to the skeletal and muscular activation that creates strength and flexibility, yoga also activates the internal organs and systems. The circulation, digestion, respiration, and secretion of hormones system are energized and stimulated and their health is maintained. Yoga is a balanced method that can be practiced throughout the year and at any age, to keep the body healthy and vital and to slow down the aging process.
So yoga should not be seen as a form of exercise, it is much more than that!
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12. Are breathing techniques taught in yoga classes?
Yes, the fourth limb of yoga, Pranayama, is, along with asana, a major component of the Iyengar method. However, beginner classes do not put much emphasis on pranayama. Guidelines provided by Geeta Iyengar in: Yoga In Action – a Preliminary Course, are: “Do not hold the breath while doing any of the asanas. Breathe normally. Always inhale or exhale through the nose… Concentrate more on the performance of the correct posture rather than the breath. The particulars of breathing become known only when one is properly established in the asanas. If the asana is correct, the breath moves properly”.
These guidelines represent Iyengar’s approach to the issue: pranayama practice is advanced and teaching pranayama to beginners will not yield good results. Beginners should not hold their breath, but rather continue breathing through the nostrils (even in the face of pressure or strain in the pose).
This approach to pranayama is based on Patanjali’s writings. In his Yoga sutras, Patanjali describes Ashtanga’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. He does not explicitly specify the order in which one progresses in practice, with the exception of the fourth limb – pranayama, for which he says one can arrive at only after they are strongly rooted in their asana practice. This principle is easy to understand, because the asanas prepare both the body and the mind for pranayama. Pranayama requires the ability to sit upright with broad open chest overtime, without creating excessive tension. It also requires the ability to closely monitor the movement of the breath, which is a much more subtle than the movements done in asana practice. Therefore it requires a higher level of concentration. Moreover, effective pranayama practice requires free movement in the chest. The asanas create space in the chest and releases tension, allowing the ribs to move freely and smoothly – without this there is not much point in trying to practice pranayama.
For this reason, one must be patient and work on asanas first. However, Iyengar did develop several types of pranayama exercise that can be performed lying down with the back supported by blankets or a bolster. This kind of practice can be introduced to beginner students, provided that they have already developed a minimal degree of concentration and patience and can recline relaxed and follow their breath.
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13. Are meditation techniques taught at Iyengar classes?
No. Iyengar’s approach is that “The mastery of asanas and pranayama helps the practitioner to detach the mind from the control of the body, and this leads automatically toward concentration and meditation.” (From The Tree of Yoga)
In other words, he believed that meditation is not a technique that can be taught, but rather it should follow naturally from the practice of asana and pranayama. In The Tree of Yoga he writes: “Meditation is not something that can be expressed in words. It must be directly experienced in one’s life. Nor can meditation be taught. If someone says he is teaching meditation, you can immediately know that he is not a yogi at all.” (From Meditation and yoga)
He further explains that: “You may practice meditation and develop awareness when you are sitting quietly in a park, and it comes quite easily. But when you are busy working, your life gets dominated by thought and it is hard to have total awareness. When you practice asana, pranayama and pratyahara, you learn to be totally aware – you develop awareness in your whole body while you are engaged in action. Then you can become totally aware in all the circumstances.” (From The nature of meditation)
But we mustn’t get confused – meditation is an important and central yoga limb. While Iyengar was indeed not in favor of formally teaching meditation, many of his writings discusses meditation; for him settling into an asana was a deep meditation. All those who were fortunate to visit his center (RIMYI) in Pune (India) and see Iyengar’s practice, know the guy used to enter into a posture and stay in it for a very long time, in what appears to be a deep meditation. For example, he used to practice Sirsasana (headstand) for more than half an hour (at the age of 90+!), or advanced back-bends that you and I have a hard time holding for even a minute– in which he stayed effortlessly for 30 minutes or more!
In The Tree of Yoga he wrote about meditation:
“When oil is poured from one vessel into another, it maintains a constant, steady and even flow. Likewise, the flow of attention and awareness remains stable and constant. This steady awareness is dhyana (meditation). Dhyana is the way of discovering the greater self. It is the art of self-study, observation, reflection and sight of the infinite hidden within. It begins with the observation of physical process, then involves watchfulness of the mental state, then blends the intelligence of the head with that of the heart to delve deep in profound contemplation. By this profound contemplation, the consciousness merges with the object of meditation. This conjunction of subject and object makes the complex consciousness simple and spiritually illuminated.” (From Meditation and yoga)
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14. How do I deal with pain while in posture?
This question is an interesting one because yoga postures introduce us to discomfort and pain and we need to know how to deal with those sensations.
Pain is a general, overarching term, and like many other terms it covers a major spectrum of unpleasant sensations in different shades and intensities. Pain invites us to do some introspection. Iyengar has two sayings related to pain:
- “The philosophy of pain is to conquer it”
- “Pain comes to guide you. Pain is your Guru!”
Behind these sayings unfolds a vast philosophy. They suggest that pain is a part of yoga and that yoga is not concerned with only avoiding pain, although yoga is about non-violence (Ahimsa – it is one of the most important principles of yoga). Therefore, pain itself is not necessarily negative, but pain that causes injury is negative. So the following statement can be added:
- “Yoga is not about avoiding pain, but about preventing injury”
This, of course, raises the question: how can we discern between the kind of pain that hurts and the kind of pain that doesn’t?
When pain appears in a pose we tend to panic and want to get out of the pose. Instead, yoga invites us to stay and observe further into what we sense. There are many kinds of feelings and sensations that are defined as pain: there is the ‘good pain’ that emerges from a healthy stretch of the muscles, there is pressure related discomfort stemming from a stay in an unfamiliar pose, there is a “stabbing” sensation, a sharp pain and a dull pain; There is a kind of pain that disappears as soon as you come out of the pose and a pain that stays for days after practice. There is also the kind of pain that you don’t feel while in the pose, but arrives once you emerge out of the pose.
Instead of running away from the pain, we have the opportunity to look into its essence and discern exactly what is it that we feel.
Yoga is a practice intended to develop equanimity, that is, the ability to maintain internal mental homeostasis in the face of external turmoil. Therefore, staying with the discomfort is an important practice of yoga: what happens to us when we feel discomfort in a pose? What is our reaction? What if, contrary to our inclination, we could remain with the inconvenience and observed it?
These are important questions because in life we often encounter discomfort, difficulty, and pain, and these are not always removable. The question is, can we maintain our inner peace and stability and act correctly and wisely in such situations? This is the practice of developing tolerance and resilience.
However, of course, we do not want to injure ourselves (and the practice of yoga postures has plenty of opportunities to do that). Practice related injuries could result from two reasons: lack of sensitivity and ambition.
Perhaps we want to practice a certain pose, but our desire to be in the pose is in our head while our body is not yet ready, in which case we must show care and consideration for our body, listen to its real ability and not force it to do what the mind whims. This is the practice of ahimsa (non-violence), which is one of the central principles of yoga.
As a result, it is very important to diagnose the type of pain. One of the important criteria is whether the pain persists when coming out of the pose. Such a pain is usually not a good pain, i.e. – a pain that may cause harm. However, if the pain disappears immediately after emerging out of the pose, it is usually harmless. When the pain is not of the ‘good’ kind, it might be indicative of an unbalanced or wrong pose. There is also a pain which appears only after practice, sometimes not until the next day, or several days later. During the practice we did not feel any problem, but still, we hurt something. Such a pain is indicative of a lack of sensitivity.
Pain can be our spiritual teacher which inspires us to learn. The conquest of pain, therefore, requires patience, accurate observation, tolerance and discretion. All these qualities are very important. A true practice of yoga is one in which we do not injure ourselves, and yet, do not run away from pain.
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15. What is the importance of practicing advanced poses?
There are several yoga methods (such as the Shivananda method, for example) that do not emphasize asana progression and are satisfied with a small number of selected asanas. Many of us probably think that we can settle on 50 to 80 key asanas, because there is always enough work with basic postures. But Iyengar’s practice includes advanced poses (though it is aimed only for practitioners who master the basic postures, their accuracy and alignment). Why is it so important to practice advanced poses?
Iyengar refers to this issue in his book Light on Yoga while describing the effects of the pose Urdhva Kukkutasana:
“The spine is stretched fully and the effect of Paschimottanasana is gained in a very short time. The arms and the abdominal organs will grow strong.
All these intricate and difficult positions bring results quicker than the simple ones. When the body becomes more pliable, the simple poses will have little or no effect. The wise therefore discard them and practice the intricate poses, just as a scholar will not repeat the alphabet daily. But, just as dancers daily practice some basic steps and do not discard them, so also pupils of yoga should continue daily to perform Sirsasana and Sarvangasana with their cycles. “
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16. Why is it important to know the names of the poses in Sanskrit?
Geeta Iyengar writes the following in her booklet Yoga in Action – A Preliminary course:
“Often pupils do not remember the asanas or their names. While learning the asanas, apart from putting the body into the correct position, one needs to know the name and form of the asana to be in order to be in the correct posture. This aids one in the linking of the movement, action and inner adjustments, not only in that particular asana, but also with the next asana. Knowing the name and form of the asana before entering into the asana yields a preparation not only at the physical level but also at the mental level.”
When you learn a new language, it is necessary to learn terms used in the language, as they allow for better communications. It is impossible to translate all these terms, because the translation is often awkward; it also won’t serve us well when we go abroad to study yoga.
In addition, the Sanskrit names of poses have great symbolic significances. The names relate to animals, birds, reptiles, heroes and saints of the Indian mythology and much more. They describe the energy and feel of the pose. The yogi can experience what it is like to be a frog, an eagle, a dog, a snake, etc., all in one lifetime! He does not need to wait to transform into all these forms, because he can experience the energy of the sacred animal or saint through the asana practice.
Therefore, even if the names of the poses seem at first quite strange and alien, you should make an effort to learn them.
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