Asana, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

Poop, Pray, Move [Part 3] – with apologies to Elizabeth Gilbert


Easing into Revolved Triangle Pose (Parivrtta Trikonasana) at Kailash Tribal School of Yoga

I’ve been condensing two months of extensive yoga studies in India into 5 key areas, to simplify maintaining this healthy lifestyle, back home. Part 1 and Part 2 covered the Poop and Pray part, and now we add Move.

Surprise, surprise … in India, yoga is not typically an exercise you come to perform on your mat three times a week – it’s a way of life; more than just a workout.

Asanas (the physical yoga postures) are not yoga. They are a part of yoga. Here’s a perfect analogy, from our teacher, Yogi Sivadas: “It’s like touching a thorn on a rosebud and thinking that is all that a rose is – you’ll say ‘rose is prickly’ and you’ll miss out on smelling the perfume, because the flower hasn’t blossomed yet. If you only do asana, you won’t find the hidden beauty of yoga, which is inner peace.”  The true beauty of  yoga is hidden beyond the asanas.  The asanas are a way of purifying the body and when the flower unfolds, we experience the hidden beauty within. A sort of yoga perspective on “Stop and smell the roses”.

Rose-beauty-yogaOf course, we were on a yoga teacher training program, so we were smelling the roses AND we were touching the thorns; we were doing asanas.

Every day.

Twice a day.

Four hours a day.

Here’s the difference. We didn’t approach our asanas with the kind of fervid and fanatical drive that we so often see in yoga. Yogi Sivadas’ constant message was, “slow down, take your time, feel your breath, always be mindful about what your body needs, rest when you need to”. We listened, and ironically, our bodies became stronger and more flexible through a path of ease and mindfulness, as opposed to a grim determination to muscle our way through countless vinyasas and pretzel poses.

“Yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position. Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life.” – The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali

Patanjali reminds us that calm and measured breathing is a critical part of healthy yoga movement, even when we are doing challenging poses. In fact, especially when we are doing challenging poses. That’s the barometer for whether we are overdoing it. Throughout our yoga asanas, we keep connecting again and again to the breath; breathing fully and allowing a smooth and even breath to feed the body and calm the mind.

We also learnt it’s not necessary to hold a pose at its maximum, for as long as possible. I’m not a physiotherapist nor a physiology nerd, but if the muscles fatigue to the point where they’re no longer doing a good job of holding the pose, we can end up stressing the joints (NOT good!) And if we then lock the joints to maintain a pose on behalf of fatigued muscles, we’re not engaging and strengthening the muscles – instead we can end up compressing the joints (NOT good!) Finally, when we’re straining and forcing the pose, the muscles become tighter, instead of stretched. The tighter they become, and the more we push into the stretch? Perfect combination for injuries to happen (yes, here it comes again … NOT good!)

Yogafunnies-flexibilityI’ve been practicing a less zealous form of yoga for years (often being encouraged to do more, hold it longer, “work to your edge”) and yet I’ve still suffered injury in the hamstring attachments and I’ve overstretched ligaments at the back of my knees. Even when I felt I wasn’t overdoing it. Are you a knee hyperextender? Don’t know? See this excellent article from Julie Gudmestad and find out.

I love my asana practice. It makes me feel alive, it calms my mind, it connects me to my breath. After my  time in India, my asana practice is both strong AND therapeutic, a place of even more ease. I’m being kinder to my joints, I’m aware of my heartbeat and breathing, and any time I feel the need to do MORE, I pause and ask myself if what I am already doing is enough, and can I still feel the relaxation in the effort?

And when the answer is yes, I know am in that perfect place to experience the unfolding of the rose flower and inhale the heady scent of yoga.

Next up: Part 4 of Poop, Pray, Move … what else do you think is fundamental to a healthy yoga lifestyle?

Travel, Yoga in India, YTT Yoga Teacher Training

How Important is Yoga Asana in India?

Another glorious sunrise over McLeod Ganj; eagles soaring in wide circles and birds singing happily, and as I sit on the balcony, I think about the class I taught last night as part of our teacher training. I smile and remember how at one moment during the class, I looked out over the valley and thought, “Holy crap! I’m standing at the foothills of the Himalayas and actually teaching a YOGA class, in INDIA!” And how much delight that brought me. The hundreds of times I’ve instructed my way through Adho Mukha Svanasanas and Utthita Trikonasanas, were all stepping stones to bring me to this point of my yoga studies.

Part of why I’ve come to India to complete my 500 hours of yoga teacher training is because I want to know more than how you place your feet in Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), or how to wrap your shoulders in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). I want to learn more about the history, psychology and philosophy of yoga.

So, it’s interesting to hear Yogi Sivadas‘ perspective on the yoga Asanas (physical poses) and how they really are just a tiny part of what Yoga encompasses. Our obsession with yoga in the West as a fitness regime, a way to get a beautiful body, or rock a spectacular arm balance pose, seems superficial when he points out that there are 196 lines in the yoga Sutras (the 2,200+ year old summary of Yoga), and only 3 of those lines are about asana! And in the West, we often ignore the important message in those 3 lines, of coming into/being in a pose “with ease and steadiness”.

There's more to Yoga than Asana
There’s more to Yoga than Asana

According to Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, “Yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position. Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life.”

Wow! That sounds good! Is that what your yoga practice is like? Or do you push yourself too hard in yoga? We don’t need to overextend ourselves; we don’t even need to hold the poses to our maximum effort, because when the muscles fatigue, they don’t work efficiently anymore anyway, and the joints over stretch. And that’s when injuries happen.

“Asana is the coconut shell of Yoga,” says Yogi Sivadas. “It’s necessary; we need it, but we have to break through the shell to get to the sweetness of Yoga, inside” – to get to the parts of Yoga that extend beyond the physical poses, exploring healthy philosophies and ethics and calming the mind.

Some other interesting viewpoints, which make sense to me:

  • Yoga doesn’t begin on the yoga mat, through Asana – Yoga begins when your lifestyle and diet are regulated and healthy
  • Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort
  • Hatha Yoga (physical yoga) is a preparation for a higher practice,” i.e. Pranayama, meditation and an awakening

“Rest as much as you need. Always be mindful of what your body needs,” is the constant reminder from Yogi Sivadas during our asana practice. He’s not into kick-ass, Facebook-showoff yoga poses, even though he can easily flip into full Salabhasana pose, with his chin on the earth and his feet and legs way up above his head, stretching to the sky. Or jump into a crazy arm balance pose, with his legs in Padmasana (Lotus Pose).

The point is, he doesn’t need to nail these poses in order to be “good at yoga”. He’ll do them for us if we want to see how to come into the pose, but his continuous message is to stretch, breathe, feel the poses in the body, and only do what the body needs, without over exertion. And for the super-bendies who can pretzel their way through multiple poses, it’s mostly genetic, and sure, it looks pretty, but they have different work to do; they need to do less stretching and will benefit more from strengthening their muscles and protecting their joints.

Perhaps if we practice yoga with this type of awareness, we can explore the value of the other 193 lines in the Yoga Sutras!