For a yogi, the body is his laboratory for perpetual experimentation and experience.B.K.S. Iyengar
The Effects of asana practice
In practicing asanas, we put our body in different and unusual postures, such that are not performed in our daily routine. What is the value of those unconventional yoga postures for our mind-body? Are asanas purely physical postures? Do asanas have a role beyond physical exercise?
Prashant Iyengar noted that for a posture to be an asana, there should be a certain body-set, a certain breath-set, and a certain mindset (See his book: The alpha and the omega of Trikonasana). Placing the body in the posture creates a unique and unusual state of consciousness.
Asana practice is intended primarily to experience these states of consciousness or the mind-body complex and explore, through yoga, the deep connections that exist between body postures, breathing blood and lymph circulation, nervous system, and so on, and the mental state that accompanies them. It is this exploration that makes practicing yoga so fascinating fresh and surprising. If we consider our practice as a mere exercise, (i.e., refer only to the physical aspect), it becomes mechanical, automatic – and therefore might be boring. Although such a practice will have a positive effect on the body, the real purpose of yoga will not be accomplished.
Ultimately, all asanas aim for a similar effect: transcending the fluctuations of consciousness (or in the words of Patanjali: Citta Vritti Nirodha). Our mind is typically preoccupied with plans, thoughts, concerns, judgments, hassles, memories, etc. When all these vrittis are stopped, and the mind becomes serene, a new composure arises, one of clarity and harmony, of balance and joy. This allows for a neutral, clear observation of ourselves and the nature of reality. This is the effect of each and every asana for a mature and skilled practitioner. But for us, who are still on the yogic path, the mental effects of asanas are influenced by several factors:
- The type of asanas that we practice: forward bends, backbends, inversions, standing positions, etc.
- The specific asana we practice: for example, there is a difference between the effects of Virabhadrasana I to those of Prasarita Padottanasana; even though both are standing poses.
- The variations and the way we use props: all asanas have countless variations and can be performed focusing on different actions with props (all these variations have different mental effects the asana brings about).
- The use of breathing: breathing can be used in different ways, we can direct breathing to various areas of the body and this also affects our asana.
The effects of asanas are inner experiences and feelings that may be difficult to articulate. One can only understand these effects in depth through personal practice. It is a journey in which each one is for herself or himself: an in-depth exploration of the breath, body and mind. Despite this difficulty, I will try to shed some light on the subject and give several ideas that might help to reflect and explore during this journey. This overview does not aim to be exhaustive, but merely touch upon several asanas and describe their main effects. The description is based (of course) on my own experiences that are clearly derived from my personality and practice, and is limited by my (poor) capacity to describe what I experience while practicing. So – please regard the following descriptions as suggestions that would encourage you to discover for yourself the effects of the asanas on your mind-body system.
As I mentioned above, each family of yoga postures shares some central mind-body effects. However, there are differences between the postures. To demonstrate this point, we will discuss briefly two postures from each of the three families: standing postures, forward bends, and inversions.
Standing postures form the basis of Iyengar Yoga practice. They develop strength, flexibility, stability, lightness, a sense of direction, and balance. They strengthen the legs; teach us how to be grounded on the feet and to extend the body from the base. They also open two critical areas of the body: the pelvis and the shoulder girdle.
Freedom of movement in the pelvic area results in light movement that prevents strain on the spine and lower back. Freedom of movement in the shoulders expands the ribcage and improves respiratory function. Standing postures form the basis for learning alignment and precision – two fundamental principles of the Iyengar method. All standing poses are challenging but are also rewarding. They develop willpower, mental strength, and endurance. For this reason, our exploration begins with these postures.
Rooting the feet into the floor provides a solid foundation not only physically. When we stand firmly on strong legs, it also strengthens our confidence and our interactions with the world. It is not as easy to shake or toss us. Physical and mental stability develop in tandem. The sense of ease and comfort of movement that develops with practicing postures creates mental lightness that helps us leap over crises and pitfalls that can potentially create heaviness and low spirit. If we are light and flexible, both in body and mind, it may help us bypass and avoid pitfalls that are bound to come our way in life.
These effects derived from all standing postures. However, as noted, there are differences between the effects of various positions in this family, and these differences become more subtle as we become familiar with the different variations and various options for using props.
To illustrate, I will compare two of the hero (or warrior) postures: Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana II.
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Both postures are challenging; both strengthen the legs, create flexibility in the pelvic region, extend the spine from its base (the tailbone) and energize the heart-lung system. It is said Lord Shiva gave these postures for the yogi to overcome fear. The mental quality of the warrior is to view each difficulty not as an obstacle, but rather as a challenge and opportunity to develop and strengthen. This quality is shared by all warrior postures (I, II, and III).
Another quality of a warrior is the ability to maintain a balanced and stable attitude in stressful situations. This quality also develops with the practice of these postures that work on our mind-body. Along with the effort and physical challenge that stimulates breathing and challenges the muscles, the practitioner must keep the breath flowing and her or his face relaxed. The main difference between Virabhadrasana I and Virabhadrasana II is that the latter expands the body laterally, while the first is a posture of vertical extension. In Virabhadrasana II the thigh of the back leg should be pressed back while rolling the hip and knee of the front leg from the inside out.
These actions bring about an opening in the groin and width in the hip. In contrast, in Virabhadrasana I, the pelvis completely turns aside and the body is stretched upward. The line that connects the back leg with the hands extends and concaves.
Iyengar said that elongation creates intellectual sharpness and alertness while expansion develops the emotional aspect and improves the ability to contain emotions. A balanced development strengthens both the intellect and the emotional intelligence. One should develop both the intelligence of the brain (intellect) and the intelligence of the heart (emotion). Virabhadrasana II creates the expansion of the chest and abdominal cavities and hence may develop the emotional aspect associated with them. The main area the pose is working on is the pelvic area. Therefore, this position works on the apāna energy and helps stimulate and invigorate it.
According to yoga, Prāṇa (with capital P) is the cosmic vital energy that permeates all levels of the universe. In humans, bodily functions are performed by five kinds of vital energy (prana-vayus). These are prana (of the thorax), apāna, samāna, udāna, and vyāna. These are the five aspects of the essential cosmic force.
In contrast, Virabhadrasana I works intensely on the spine and ribcage and therefore raises the prana and the udāna. The spine stretches up as the thorax rises and expands. This position develops strength, sharpness, and the confidence of a warrior together with deep devotion that stems from the complete surrender of the front leg, the rolling of the head back turn the face-up while receding the eyes towards the back of the skull. The Yogi surrenders to God in this position, not out of weakness, but from a position of strength and confidence. The power that develops is not used to glorify the ego but is given as an offering to the Lord.
In forward bends, the torso (or trunk) moves forward and rests on the legs (or leg). The head bows down, and our visibility is limited. Therefore our senses turn inward and the front brain (the active brain) is supported by the legs (or by a folded blanket placed on the legs) and relaxes.
This seems to have physiological effects that include a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, calming of the nervous system and the brain, stimulation of the digestive system and the adrenal glands, and increased supply of blood to the pelvis, legs and gonad glands – which improves the functioning of the reproductive organs.
These physiological effects are closely related to, and accompanied by mental effects and together our entire mind-body is nourished by performing these postures. Forward bends bring about an experience of tranquility, relaxation, surrender, devotion, renunciation, humility, and internalization. The breath becomes calm and steady, and our constantly shifting mental chatter slows down. Forward bends, more than any other family of postures, demonstrates BKS Iyengar’s saying: “The aim of yoga is to calm the chaos of conflicting impulses.” These asanas call for prolonged stays that bring about relaxation and tranquility.
Often while practicing forward bends, I stretch to a point where I can stay comfortably and then just linger there without trying to advance beyond that point. This type of stay in the asana brings about a kind of pleasure and sweetness that accompanies the abandonment of motivation to stand out or to impress. Many times, this inner relief is manifested into a real vocal sigh of relief that clears the pressures and worries of the business of life. I can actually feel my brain’s functioning shifts from performing and planning to passively observing.
The above are general comments regarding the entire forward bends family of asanas. However, there are significant differences between the effects of the various asanas in this family. Here I compare Paschimottanasana with Janu Sirsasana.
Paschimottanasana, being a symmetric asana, stretches both legs and both sides of the body evenly. This equal action of both sides of the body creates harmony and alignment. The forward bend action of this asana may be physically more challenging, as we need to overcome the resistance of both legs, but the asana does not create a sense of struggle, because the movement flows in the one direction. The entire torso, from the mid-buttocks to the spine and the head are moving forward. There is no need to reconcile opposing forces; all muscle fibers and awareness are flowing uniformly, like a car driving on a highway.
Janu Sirsasana, however, is a more complex asana. When you perform it with the right leg bent, the right thigh is behind and doesn’t participate in the move forward; On the contrary, it must roll back. It Pulls the right side of the body back and to the right and the challenge is to balance both sides of the torso. The right side tends to arch and curve, moving the stomach to the right. Therefore, in addition to the forward movement, one should move the trunk laterally and twist it from right to left.
We often encounter in life such a challenge of having to reconcile two opposing forces and the practice of Janu Sirsasana allows us to examine the way we deal with these challenges. This is an example of how learning to do a complex pose is meant to have effects that extend beyond the immediate practice. It practically teaches us how to use our own powers and abilities in very subtle and complex ways. It is very easy to let the right knee slip forward, but the requirement of the pose is to maintain an obtuse angle between the thighs. This creates movement in the vital hip joint. If we keep this requirement, the asana poses a real challenge and therefore a fertile ground for practice and exploration.
Inversions are a precious gift given to humanity by yoga! They have profound effects at the anatomical, physiological and mental levels. In fact, in an inverted position, the border between the physiological and the mental becomes blurred. The effect on the control systems of the body: the brain and nervous and the hormonal system, is so deep, that it is difficult to separate the physiological effects from the mental experience of focus, alertness, relaxation and exhilaration.
Staying in an inverted pose alters the flow of the bodily fluids (blood and lymph fluids), since gravity pulls towards the head rather than to the legs. The head organs, especially the brain and the senses, receive an increased supply of arterial blood, which is accompanied by a marked shift in our internal sensation. Our orientation in space is turned around because we see the world from a new and unfamiliar perspective. This effect is particularly noticeable when practicing Sirsasana outdoors.
I often practice on the beach. Seeing the sea, and especially the sunset, while standing in Sirsasana is a unique experience. I highly recommend it to everyone! Changing our viewing angle brings about flexibility of thought and the ability to examine everyday issues and challenges from different perspectives.
At the same time, inversions touch upon deep seated fears and insecurities hidden in the depths of our consciousness. Students often experience psychological barriers in getting into Sirsasana or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand). These psychological hang ups make it difficult for them to get into the asana, and it is only when they succeed to overcome them, that they are able to stay in the asana comfortably, reducing the effort required. Crossing these mental barriers is possible when one overcomes these deep rooted fears and anxieties, which in turn brings about a sense of security, confidence and balance that develops our personality. For being able to deal with such deeply rooted anxieties is of enormous importance. The acquired confidence teaches us to deal with other anxieties which arise in life.
Advanced practitioners stay in inversions a relatively long time (15-30 minutes in each asana). Such a long stay also develops patience, stamina, concentration and focus. We have to learn to maintain the action of the asana without letting our consciousness vibrate. This develops concentration and mental stability. After such a long stay in the asanas both body and mind are refreshed, and often problems, annoyances and other worries we are engaged in in our everyday life seems less serious (at least for a while…).
Even in the rare days where I don’t have ample time to practice, I try not to give up the practice of inversions, because I know a half an hour of inversions is sufficient in order to bring about peace of mind and change the course of my day and the way in which I encounter the challenges the day brings. Sometimes I enjoy staying in inversions so much that it is quite difficult for me to come out of the the pose – more than once I had to end the practice to catch a train, but I preferred to stay in Sirsasana and consequently miss the train…
Two major inversions are Sirsasana and Sarvangasana. These two asanas are contradictory and complementary like Yang and Yin, or in a Yogic terminology: Surya (sun) and Chandra moon. Sirsasana stimulates, awakens and bring you focus, while Sarvangasana quiets and draws you internally (or inwards). In my experience, vision is dominant in Sirsasana, while audition is dominant in Sarvangasana. In Sirsasana, the field of vision is wide and we gaze forward at eye level. This stimulates the eyes and clarifies the vision. However, in Sarvangasana our field of vision is limited, but at the same time the inner ear and auditory canal are opening. This asana increases blood flow to the ears and improves their performance. In Sarvangasana and its variations there is a strong sense of internalization and reflection as well as a tendency to close the eyes. Our sense of sight is our main information source while hearing opens a wide space of less specific stimuli. In Yoga, the space element (ether) is related to sound. Perhaps this effect on our auditory system opens an internal space that creates a soothing and calming effect.
In Sirsasana (when practiced correctly) the head is held vertically and aligned, all parts of the head receive even amounts of blood flow, and hence all the organs of the head are stimulated. In particular when there is balance between the rear and front parts of the brain. Sarvangasana on the contrary, develops the hindbrain.
According to B.K.S. Iyengar, the forebrain is considered the part responsible for logical, analytical, and calculating capacities (vitarka), while the hindbrain is considered the creative and intuitive brain (vichara) (See sutra 1.17 and also Table 5 in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Iyengar). Therefore, the two asanas differ significantly in their psycho-physical effects and yet complement each other.
Sirsasana also differs from Sarvangasana in the breathing patterns and the diaphragms that are activated. In Sirsasana, moving the tailbone in and tightening the buttocks activates the pelvic diaphragm (the pelvic floor muscles). This creates a Mula kriya (suction and elation of the pelvic floor). In addition, when we learn to relax the abdominal area, the abdominal organs are automatically drawn towards the lower back and the respiratory diaphragm (the base of the thorax). This creates Uddiyana kriya (suction of the abdomen and the respiratory diaphragm). In Sarvangasana, when we learn to relax the throat in, the vocal diaphragm is stimulated (at the base of the throat), creating a Jalandhara bandha (the throat lock) – this has the effect of internalization and convergence. In Sirsasana the respiratory diaphragm has a greater freedom of movement and breathing is mainly Samanic, which is, breathing into and through the upper abdomen and lower ribs). In Sarvangasana, however, there is an opening of the upper chest and breathing is Pranic and Udanic, that is, breathing to and through the upper part of the thorax and shoulder girdle.
In her Yoga in Action – Preliminary course (p. 24-5), Geeta Iyengar writes:
“… there are other particular ‘effects’ derived from the asanas practice. These are to be observed in the practice of the asanas. This ‘observation’ needs to be learned and cultivated like any other skill. It does not require any special talent in the execution of the asanas so it is available for all. As correction and precision in the performance develop, the asanas become effective on the body and mind.
The keen perception and observation that comes from this practice brings to the yoga practitioner stability in the body and clarity of awareness that enriches the whole person.“
In the Introduction of Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar writes:
“In the beginning, the effort required to master the asanas. The effort involves hours, days, months, years, and even several lifetimes of work. When effortful effort in an asana becomes an effortless effort, one has mastered that asana. In this way, each asana has to become effortless. While performing the asanas, one has to relax the cells of the brain and activate the cells of vital organs and of the structural and skeletal body. Then intelligence and consciousness may spread to each and every cell.
The conjunction of effort, concentration, and balance in asana forces us to live intensely in the present moment, a rare experience in modern life. This actuality, or being in the present, has both a strengthening and a cleansing effect: physically in the rejection of disease, mentally by ridding our mind of stagnated thoughts or prejudices; and on a very high level where perception and action become one, by teaching us instantaneous correct action: that is to say action which does not produce a reaction. On that level, we may also expunge the residual effects of past actions.“
Remember that the external representation of the asana does not reflect its true essence. When the demonstrator is a master – (like B.K.S. Iyengar, in the photos of Light on Yoga) the demonstration expresses some of the true beauty and energetic-mental qualities of the asana. But even in this case, the external image does not reveal everything that goes on behind the scenes. The actual effects are always internal. The statement that Prashant Iyengar made about this issue comes to mind, as he said that “an asana should never be photographed” because the image always misses the true essence of the asana and does not convey the mental experience which is an essential part of practicing an asana.
Asanas require that we place the mind-body in some challenging postures that may even seem at first, unnatural. They often require the practitioner to deal with difficulties and pressures. The practitioner often experiences strain and stress. This strain causes contraction, tension, locking the jaws or grinding the teeth, and holding the breath. Even skilled practitioners, when first attempting to perform more advanced asanas, experience muscular tension, and strain on the respiratory and nervous systems. The field of asanas is so vast; even a glimpse in photos of Light on Yoga shows us that even after thirty years of practice we can still face new challenges… We are always beginners! But the maturity in our practice is not necessarily expressed in our ability to perform advanced asanas, but rather in our attitude while staying in an asana. When, despite the tension and effort, we learn to maintain a relaxed face, a soft throat, and flowing breath, the experience of the asana changes and internal space is created. The physical strain does not create psychological stress anymore. The ability to direct the breath and relax the sense organs and the brain, allows us to stay in the asana with observation and reflection. We learn not to react to stress by closing and contracting, but rather are able to remain calm, even when faced with a challenging and possibly stressful situation.
In everyday life, we are continuously confronted with tensions, difficulties, and challenges. But if we do not react automatically and are able to maintain our composure, we will be able to figure out what is the appropriate response for each situation. As a result, our actions will have a different quality, one of greater equanimity and balance. Yoga practice helps to free ourselves from automated habits and conditioned behaviors of both mind and body that stem from a lack of awareness, which is usually not beneficial for us and for those around us.
When we learn to maintain inner peace we have the freedom of choice. We stop responding automatically and instinctively; we become capable of exercising more peace, balance, and equanimity in situations that life summons us. When we learn to act in this way, our actions become skillful. Acting in this way can bring about a radical change in the quality of our lives and those around us, and increase the joy and peace we experience in our life!