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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Asana Practice - Part One




Most of the yoga classes that we see nowadays are solely about asana practice. When people ask, "What type of yoga do you practice or teach?", but what they actually want to know is, "What style of yoga asana class that you practice or teach?" There are four main paths in yoga, like Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga, but all serves the purpose of purifying and silencing the mind, to allow the mind to perceive the truth of names and forms as it is. Yoga Asana and Pranayama practice is one of the eight limbs in Raja Yoga. Though yoga asana practice is not the main practice in Yoga, it plays an important role in the aim of achieving some positive qualities to help us on the path towards self realization.


The eight Limbs of Raja Yoga -

1) Yama - Observance of right conducts
2) Niyama - Restraint of immoral conducts
3) Asana - Postures
4) Pranayama - Breath control
5) Pratyahara - Withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects
6) Dharana - Concentration
7) Dhyana - Meditation
8) Samadhi - Subjugation of the mind
    
If we practice yoga asana combining with all the other practices regularly with right effort and right attitude, we are preparing a strong and flexible body, and a calm and steady mind for us to be able to sit for meditation steadily. The highest meditation is formless meditation in every moment in life while standing, walking, sitting, lying, eating, talking and etc, but sitting meditation is the most important meditation posture that leads the mind into stillness, the state of Samadhi
or the state of desireless, birthless and deathless – complete silence state beyond the function of the body and mind, ceased from all forms of physical and mental activities. Through regular asana practice the body and mind will also have higher endurance or energy level to perform selfless service and other tasks in daily life. The overall quality of life will be improved. Asana practice also helps to develop stronger will-power and detachment to go beyond the impermanent function and existence of the body and mind, that allows the mind to overcome any negative and impure thoughts that arise in the mind, and have stronger self-control over our speech and actions, so that our actions and speech are not influenced by any impurities that will cause harmful consequences to ourselves and others.

Asana practice can help us to develop patience, courage, positive thinking, cheerfulness, openness, confidence, perseverance, determination, tolerance, forbearance, awareness, detachment, equanimity, willpower, self-control, self-discipline, calmness, concentration, acceptance, adjustment, adaptation, accommodation, correct understanding, right discrimination,
self-introspection, observation and being in the present moment. All these qualities help us to overcome all the impurities like anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, dissatisfaction, disappointment, feelings of hurt, guilt, pride, arrogance, agitation, depression, desires, craving and aversion, and all other forms of impurities that contribute to the restlessness and suffering in us. When the mind is no longer being influenced by any impurities, it will allow the mind to be pure and calm to see the truth of things as it is, and realize selflessness and compassion and be in peace, being free from ignorance and restlessness.
 

It is not the people or the happenings out there which we think and believe as bad and wrong that cause us unhappiness and suffering. It is the ignorance in us that make us think that it is the surrounding objects of names and forms that are disturbing us, but actually it is our egoism, anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, depression, arrogance and etc that is causing all the disturbs and restlessness in our mind.

If we have correct understanding and wisdom we will not have unhappiness. It is only when we don’t have correct understanding and wisdom that we will have unhappiness, frustration, disappointment and depression.

If we need something to make us happy or feel good about ourselves, we will be very disappointed and unhappy. We are happy and we don’t need anything to feel good about ourselves it's because we are full and content. We are what we are and we are being true. We are not this, we are not that. We are not this fragile body. We are not these emotional feelings. We are not this discontented mind. We are not this selfish ego. We are not this limited intellect.

If we have correct understanding, we will know that we are the love itself. We don't need to look for love and attention. If we know this, we don't feel any separation from everything. We don't feel loneliness even if we are alone. It's only when we don't know this, we will feel loneliness even if we are being with somebody or surrounded by many friends and people.

By training the physical body, we are training the mind as well. If we learn to withstand discomfort and difficulty in physical training, we can develop stronger mental endurance to withstand discomfort situations and overcome difficult moments in life.
We will become more patience, forgiving, accepting, loving, tolerance and open minded. We learn to respect other people who have different thinking, different cultures, different beliefs and different views from us.

We also learn to stop judging, comparing, competing and criticizing. We learn to let go expectations and rewards - the fruit of action or the benefits from the asana practice. We learn to detach from our body and the mind and not identifying with them. We learn to observe the thoughts and feelings without associating with them. We learn how to thin out our ego and minimize our cravings and aversions.

We learn to become humble but full of confidence. We learn not to be driven by praise and compliment. We also learn not to be disturbed by criticism and censure.

Above all, we learn how to overcome our fears and negativity.

Ultimately we are preparing ourselves to go beyond the mind and the body, and beyond dualities, names and forms.

Yoga practice is about controlling the mind, to have self-control over our thoughts, speech and actions, and to go beyond the body and the mind. Asana practice is just one of the tools to help us to conquer the body and the mind. It helps us to develop many divine qualities and to achieve a calm mind which will lead us to self-healing, purification, concentration and followed by clearer understanding. Eventually our well-trained and well-controlled body and mind will lead us to self-realization.

Yoga asana is like Pranayama – control of the breath, is a purification process for the energy fields in our body. It purifies and energizes the Nadis – energy channels, and it will unlock and release accumulated tensions – physically, mentally and emotionally. It also stimulates the chakras - energy centres in our body. All these energy centres are related to the body systems – the brain and the nervous system, the digestive system, the elimination system, the reproductive system, the glands and hormone system, the circulatory system and also related to the higher consciousness. It generates fresh energy and channels it for highest purpose – eventually it will help us in controlling the sexual energy and turn it into a divine energy. The greatest obstacle for many people in the path towards self-realization is the uncontrolled passionate sexual desire.

Asana practice also helps us to conserve energy in our body instead of exhaust the energy. Although we need to use some energy for us to perform the poses in asana practice but it is only a little amount of energy being consumed when we come to a stage where the poses are being performed almost effortlessly. And by having enough rest in between each asana pose, as well as the long relaxation at the end is actually bringing back lots of fresh energy into the system. All the poses are actually generating energy into the system more than exhausting energy from the system. This doesn’t mean that the energy will become too much and overflows. Our body will know how to balance up the energy and store the excess energy in the “battery” – the solar-plexus for later use, and it will channel the energy for a beneficial purpose for self-evolution.

Many people find that they are always feeling tired and exhausted even though they have enough sleep and rest, enough food intakes, and doing some exercises for health and fitness reason. It’s because all these activities actually exhaust more energy from their system than to generate energy into the system. They don’t have enough Prana through out the system even though they have been eating a lot of food (the system need to use up lots of energy to digest all these food especially if the food is not pure – meat products, processed food, full of preservatives, colourings, and other chemicals. The energy level being low is also because of the energy centres and energy channels in the body do not function properly – they are blocked and inactive.

No doubt that the physical body is a very important instrument for us to walk the path towards self realization, but the strength and flexibility of the physical body is not the essential mean for self realization. Instead the inner strength (courage, confidence, cheerfulness, perseverance and will power) and inner flexibility (acceptance, adjustment, accommodation, tolerance and forgive) are the means for us to attain self realization.

Even a person without the ability to move, to sit up, to speak, or without hands and feet still can achieve self realization without the need of any asana practice. Self realization is not limited by physical limitation – such as difficulty in sight, hearing, speech or mobility. It is all in the mind. Ignorance exists in the mind, and also dissolves in the mind.

Where is the mind? It is everywhere, inside us and outside us. When we are looking at something, the mind is out there on that object and we are not aware of what is happening inside us. When we are hearing some music, the mind is on that music. When we are observing the breath, the mind is within us on the breath. It is always very busy with the functions of the senses and the objects of the senses. Even when we are asleep, the mind is still busy constructing the dreams. Unless we went into deep sleep, then the mind is resting.

But the subconscious mind is always working. It is receiving input all the time even while we are in deep sleep or being unconscious – like being in coma, or when we are not aware of what is happening within our body and in the surrounding. The whole autonomous body system in our body functions even without us being aware of it. They are receiving inputs and sending outputs all the time without us controlling it or realizing it. The energy field in our body is constantly being affected by the energy from the surrounding every moment. All the energies are having some sorts of exchange or resistance against each other all the time without us knowing about it.

By doing proper asana and Pranayama practice will help us to have some control over the energy and redirect these energy into good use.

Merely performing a headstand or balancing on one foot without the correct understanding will not help us to remove ignorance or to attain self realization. It is just an acrobatic movement only. Maybe we can perform some unusual acrobatic movements but we will still have unhappiness, depression, frustration, discontentment, anger, hatred, jealousy and greed if we don’t have correct understanding. And all these impurities are derived from ignorance.

Practicing yoga asana without the correct understanding is nothing wrong or bad. It will still give us some benefits such as giving us a stronger and more flexible body just like doing any other physical training. It also gives us a boost of courage, confidence and some sorts of good feeling. It will also help us to have a stronger immune system and can help to prevent many physical ailments.

But most important is that if we practice yoga asana with correct understanding, it can help us to remove ignorance as well which is the main reason why we want to practice yoga in search for enlightenment in order to attain true and lasting happiness.

Mental tension and physical tension are inter-related. If we can work on releasing physical tensions by doing the stretches in asana poses will help to release mental and emotional tension too. As the same, if we have mental and emotional tension, we will be having physical tension – the body is stiffened and all the systems in our body also get tensed up. We will be having blood pressure problem, digestion problem, breathing difficulty, irregular heartbeat, constipation or diarrhea, genital related problem, skin problem and so on.

That’s why even though some people have good nutrition intakes, enough exercise and enough rest, they still have so many health related problems or feel tired and have low energy all the time, it’s because they are having so much mental and emotional tensions. All these tensions have been accumulated for so long and continue being generated and never been released. Due to these mental and emotional tensions the physical body also tenses up (especially in the joints, shoulders, neck and facial muscles).

Merely by doing some physical stretching without working on the mental and emotional level will not help much in achieving a healthy body and a happy mind. That’s why yoga practice emphasizes on dealing with the mind to help solve all the other problems.

When we practice yoga asana in a relaxed manner, we are actually relaxing the body and the mind while performing some physical movements. After each session of asana practice, it will leave us feeling fresh, calm, relax and full of energy.

Actually the real relaxation and calming effect are not just coming from the last 10 to 20 minutes of final relaxation, but come from the whole complete session of initial relaxation, initial prayers and chanting of Om (purifying the impurities and vibrating the energy centres), breathing exercise or Pranayama before or/and after the asanas, performing a group of asanas with complete balance of warming up exercises, inverted pose, forward bending pose, backward bending pose, twisting, balancing pose, side bending pose and most important having enough rest in between each asana, and a non-rushing final relaxation and a short sitting contemplation at the end with a closing prayer that being chanted with great gratitude and humility. Prayers are to remind us about the divine qualities such as compassion and wisdom, and to pay respect and gratitude to all our teachers who had passed down this beautiful teaching from ancient time.

Everything (easy or difficult for us) that we do from the beginning of the session until the end of the session contribute more or less for the calming and relaxing effect of asana practice. They all are equally important for a complete and well-balanced asana practice session.

Even though sometimes we do not have enough time for a full session of practice and just doing a few poses or even just one pose, but if we do it with the right effort and attitude, we will still get the benefit of being calmed, relaxed, refreshed and re-energized.

It is the concentration of “being at the present moment” which frees us from fears and worries, unlock and release the tensions in our body and in our mind, and let us experience peacefulness and lightness after performing a certain asana, it doesn’t matter if it is forward bending or backward bending pose. No doubt that different body position will have different effect on the body and the mind, such like forward bending is soothing and calming while backward bending is energizing and stimulating, but they both render us a beneficial effect of relaxing and refreshing to the body and the mind. And so we can’t say “do more of this” and “do less of that”. All asanas are beneficial to us in different ways as long as we know how to arrange different types of poses into our regular practice so that we will get a well-balanced asana practice. We want to be calmed, fresh and energetic after asana practice, and not being dulled or being overly agitated or feeling exhausted and tired.

In all the asana poses, there is no differentiation of easy or difficult, or being indicated as beginner or advance level. The poses themselves have no standard of easy or difficult. It is our body capable of doing certain poses and incapable of doing certain poses that make us feel and think that the poses are easy or difficult. Even as a so called “beginner” comes for an asana class, or a so called “long-time practitioner” comes into the same class, they will be doing the same asanas and it depends very much on their individual’s strength, flexibility, stamina and mentality that determine how well can the person do the poses or which pose is easier or more difficult than the others. Some people are very flexible in forward bends but inflexible on backward bends while some others are the other way round (imbalanced flexibility). Some people are not flexible in both forward bends and backward bends but are very good at twisting or side bending.

And thus, we cannot have any judgment and comparison at all with anybody.

The new practitioners and the old practitioners are actually practicing the same poses (all poses should not be labeled as beginner’s poses or advance’s poses). And it is not that the one who had been practicing for a longer time will be the more advanced student and should be learning certain poses being indicated as “advanced poses” while the newly practice student is being labeled as a beginner or less advanced student and should be learning only those so called “beginner’s poses”. It is not that those who can do headstand and other complicated poses are more advanced while those who cannot do headstand and other complicated poses are less advanced. Some people can hold all the poses for a very long time but that doesn’t determine that he or she is an advance practitioner also.

It is not that people have been doing asana for a very long time, or can perform many complicated movements that require super flexibility and strength will be labeled as advance practitioner. It is their level of understanding of the philosophy, detachment and concentration that define them as advance practitioner doesn’t matter if they can or cannot perform any so called highly difficult poses.

It depends a lot on individual level of health, stamina, strength, flexibility, physical limitations, personality, and understanding of the philosophy, level of detachment and concentration for what they are able to do and whether they can do it comfortably or not. And all these are not permanent. They are changing all the time. Sometimes the pose that we used to be able to do it easily might be difficult for us now. Sometimes the pose that was difficult for us might be very easy for us now. And this will change on the next moment.

It is not the poses themselves are being easy or difficult. It is the condition of our mind and the body that is feeling easy or difficult to perform the poses at that present moment.

Like some people who have been practicing asana for a long time but due to their physical health problem they cannot perform inverted poses or find it very uncomfortable in certain poses. But this doesn’t mean that those poses are difficult, dangerous and not good.

It is the same that the difficulty level has got nothing to do with our age, our past experiences or our fears. Some older people are more flexible and stronger than some younger people. Some people with physical injuries before still can perform some poses that even healthy and fit people can’t do. Some people can’t do or not want to do certain poses due to great fear of falling down or injuring themselves. But in fact those poses are not difficult or dangerous at all.

All the poses need to be practice regularly and in a non competitive way, and then our physical limitations will start to become less restricting because the mind starts to relax due to no more judgment, competition, comparison, criticism and expectation. The body will become more flexible and strong. We will feel easier and more comfortable in each pose. Everything will become easy for us. Our confidence will become stronger and fear has become less. Those seemed like “dangerous” poses are not “dangerous” for us now. In fact they have become something “fun” and “enjoyable” thing to do.

It is okay for the people with large body structure who cannot perform certain poses due to the restriction of the physical body. They can just practice the poses that they can do especially practicing the sun salutation at their own pace will help them to render the body lighter or with the support from the teacher to go into the poses. It is the same for the people who are very inflexible. As they practice more, the body will adapt to the practice. They will gain confidence, strength and flexibility. The most important thing is yoga practice is not about to be able to performing certain poses but to gain self-confidence, self-control, understanding, positive thinking, compassion and wisdom while in the process of learning these asanas.


It doesn’t matter what poses that we do, we are doing it with full awareness and concentration, being at the present moment without judgment, criticism, comparison, competition and expectation. And we accept ourselves as we are at that present moment of what we can do and cannot do, whether we have improved or declined, and whether we feel good or not good, and not categorize the poses as easy or difficult, comfortable or not comfortable, and not generate like and dislike, craving and aversion.

We learn to stay detached from the body and the mind, not identify with them, and observe all the body sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise when we are doing the asana poses without identifying with them, let them come and let them disappear eventually. And we try to stay focus on what we are doing and on the breath as much as possible. Once we aware that the mind has wondered somewhere else on the thoughts, without feeling frustration we bring the mind focus back onto the present moment on the breathing. And keep doing this until it becomes a natural habit which doesn’t require much effort for us to stay focus at the present moment and it won’t irritates us whenever the mind wonders away again and again.

Yoga asana should be done with great humility and gratitude in a non-rushing manner. Usually a traditional complete asana session will last between one and a half hours to two and a half hours even though time or duration is not an important issue here.

It is not about doing as many asanas as possible within a class, or training the body to perform such and such poses to challenge the ability of the body for competition with others, or to show off to our friends that we can do such and such poses, or to perform on stage for some audiences to watch (showing the students how to move into a pose during teaching a class is something completely different from performing some poses on stage for entertaining purposes or to amuse other people).

It is about doing each asanas with self-awareness at the present moment, accepting ourselves as we are at the present moment of what we can do and cannot do, of whether we feel good or not good. The condition of our body and the mind is changing all the time and from moment to moment, we are not the same body and not the same mind. We cannot compare ourselves in the present moment with our past performance and experience, or relate our performance now with our future performance because our body is not in the same condition all the times.

We cannot really pre-judge or having pre-conception about ourselves of what we can do and cannot do from our past experiences or performances, even if we are being limited by some physical injuries but still it doesn’t indicate that forever we can’t do this or do that. Be very open minded and put down all our previous learning, knowledge, experience, familiarization and performance, and letting go of any expectations for the benefits from what we are doing.

The benefits will come even without us thinking about it. Just like when we try to do something, the result will come even without us having any expectations. In fact the bigger the expectation, the bigger the disappointment it will be. Tensions built up due to having great expectation.

We cannot compare ourselves with anybody as well because everyone has different type of physical body, flexibility, strength, stamina, ability, personality and understanding. Since there won’t be any comparison among ourselves and with other people, there won’t be any competition as well.

We also cannot have any judgments towards the object and the subject because of the law of nature – impermanence. Everything change from good to bad, from bad to good, from easy to difficult, from difficult to easy. Since we cannot have any judgment, there can’t be any expectation as well.

Letting go any judgment towards the poses whether they are easy or difficult for us, comfortable or discomfort for us, as well as judgment towards ourselves of whether we are good at doing the pose or not, or if we feel any good or bad feeling while doing the poses. Most of the time, lots of emotional tensions are being released when we do asana practice. We might feel bad, angry, sad and depress due to these emotional tensions come out to the surface. It is good to release these tensions and not to suppress them back into the system. What we can do is, observe these feelings, not to identify or associate with them and not to react. After some times, they will disappear into thin air. It is a good purification process.

We also learn not to be disturbed by the outside environment and the objects of our senses.
– The view of the surrounding – usually we keep the eyes closed during the asana practice. The mind is very curious trying to see what is happening outside;
– The sound of the surrounding – not to be distracted by any sound whether it is something nice or very irritating;
– The smell of the surrounding – not to be irritated by some body odour of other people or fragrances that people use, or nice smell or bad smell in the air;
– The taste – the sweat that might come into our mouth or the saliva changes due to the practice. We might feel dryness or wetness in the mouth and throat area;
– The touch – the skin in contact with the floor or our hands or feet touch some other people next to us. As well as the temperature of the surrounding – whether it is too hot or too cold;
– The thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind from time to time which is a normal character of the mind – it doesn’t like to stay focus at one object for a long time. The mind doesn’t like repetition of the same thing. It always wants something new and stimulating.

We learn to stay focus at the present moment on what we are doing and on the breathing while doing the asana practice which will make it into a habit for us to be able to stay focus on what we are doing in life. As we always said, yoga practice is not just within an asana class but it is in our life every moment in our heart.

A good asana practice will balance our energy field; generate more energy; channel the energy for a better quality of life; purify the energy; conserve the energy; strengthen our body and the immune system; increase the suppleness of the body; calming the mind; slower breathing rate and heart rate – the heart and lungs don’t need to work so hard as before. The mind is becoming clearer and sharper. Our self control over the thoughts, speech and actions is becoming stronger. The more we go deeper into the practice and manage to perform complicated asana poses, the more humble we are becoming and not being proud and arrogant of what we are capable of doing. And this will thin out the ego.

In a group class with people in different levels, is a very good place for everyone to learn to share, to be patient, to be open minded, to respect others, to adjust, to accommodate, and to tolerate and becoming selfless, compassionate and wise.

As yoga teachers, we need to have regular practice ourselves beside teaching classes. We should teach what we practice regularly and share our direct experience with the students. This is the lineage of yoga practice.

There is no meaning in teaching the students of what we read and saw from books and videos, or what we learnt from our teachers about this pose and that pose, or it is in the trend on the market now that everybody is doing such pose and such “style” of yoga but we didn’t practice them at all and have no direct experience about it.

It is like we can’t be teaching the student how to do headstand if we didn’t practice headstand at all or don’t know how to do headstand or have no confidence in headstand. If the teacher is afraid to do headstand, thinking that it is a dangerous pose and he or she might get broken neck or blood vessels might explode under great pressure or the eyes might become blind from doing headstand, then how can he or she teach headstand to the students? Certainly there are people with certain circumstances are not suitable to practice headstand, but that doesn’t determine that headstand is dangerous. What a huge ignorance.

It is like some people are allergic to fruit and vegetables and get sick after eating them, but that doesn’t determine that fruit and vegetables are bad and poisonous.

Imagine that there are some yoga teachers telling the students that they shouldn’t practice headstand because they might get broken neck; blood vessels will explode and become blind if they do headstand. What a confused “yoga industry” in the world nowadays.

If we don’t know how to do headstand and cannot teach or don’t want to teach headstand, it is absolutely nothing wrong but we shouldn’t condemn headstand is a dangerous pose or plant negativity and fear into the students’ mind about headstand is not a good idea because we are embarrassed that we ourselves don’t know how to do it or how to teach it, or fear that the students might get injury in our class and ruin our reputation.

We also should not have the idea that as a teacher we should be better than the students, or we should know all the poses, or the students should be like us or perform all the poses perfectly. There is no specific form and shape that can determine "this is a perfect pose". As long as we are doing it with correct understanding and in a non competitive way, and holding the position according to our own ability, it doesn't matter if our body is very stiff that we couldn't touch our toes or the feet couldn't touch our head from behind, it is perfectly fine.

Yoga should start with our own self, and then we can share with others.

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Know thyself. There is no existence of 'I'. Everything is impermanent. Be free, be peaceful, be happy.

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Pantai Cenang, Langkawi, Kedah, Malaysia
My husband and I run ongoing yoga retreats in Langkawi Malaysia. We teach traditional Hatha Yoga - a combination of Asanas (postures) and Pranayama (breathing techniques) and relaxation, that has given benefit to millions of practitioners over thousands of years. Our yoga studio is situated in Langkawi. We also run yoga retreats in Europe and India.

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