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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Asana Practice - Part Two

Traditionally, except for the surya namaskar, all asana poses are being held over a period of time with deep focusing inwardly in a relaxed manner without challenging the highest ability or beyond the limitation of our physical body. And if we continue to practice for some time, the overall level of skill, stamina, strength and flexibility of the physical body is improving from moment to moment as we keep training the body regularly. This will allow us to be able to perform some asanas that we couldn’t do or feel comfortable at the beginning. And we will feel easier and more comfortable in each asana and can hold the asanas longer than before. The physical limitations also become less.

We will also be able to perform some other more complicated asanas without the notion of being in competition with somebody, or challenging our physical ability, or to show off – “look, this is what I can do”. And there is no frustration or disappointment about what we cannot do yet. There is no “failure” in yoga practice. It is just that we cannot do at the present moment, or the body and mind is not prepared enough to do certain poses. We should keep trying and keep practicing until we master the technique and develop the required stamina, strength and flexibility for performing the asanas.

The sequence of the Surya Namaskar (the sun salutation) are a continuous flow of 12 movements for the purpose of warming up the body to perform asanas after that; to improve blood circulation; to improve the cardiovascular system (stamina); to improve the suppleness of the muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments (flexibility); to maintain and improve muscles tone (strength); for detoxification; to improve concentration and to have a healthy body and mind (less unnecessary physical suffering, and less mental/emotional suffering if being practiced under right effort and attaining correct understanding deriving from implementing the practice of eradicating ignorance, egoism, impurities and restlessness in the physical yoga practice and in daily life).

That’s why sun salutation is a very good foundation practice for any new or old practitioner who wants to improve the overall fitness, and it allows us to be able to do all the other asana poses easily and effortlessly, which is the main goal in our asana practice – to be able to hold any asana for a long period of time comfortably and effortlessly, in a relaxed manner. This will help the mind to be in the present moment and develop deep concentration to prepare the mind for self-inquiry and meditation.

In hot and humid weather, we will be sweating a little or a lot depending on individual’s bodily system when we practice asana especially doing the sequence of sun salutation. But whether we will be sweating or not sweating is not an issue at all in the asana practice. Sweat is just a by product during the activity of the physical body or the mind – sometimes we will be sweating even when we are in stillness but the mind is very busy with fears and anxieties. Sweat glands are being stimulated when we are in fear or nervousness and there is chemical exchange in the body system, and thus sweat is produce as a waste product to bring out the toxin. Toxins in the body need to be flushed out from the body through the kidneys in the pee, through the liver in the shit, and through the skin in the sweat.

Even when we don’t feel or see the sweat on our skin in a dryer climate, sweat is still being produced during physical activities but it evaporated very fast into the air that we didn’t notice it. Anyway even if we don’t sweat much, toxins will still be flushed out from pee and shit.

That’s why it is advisable to drink plenty of water after the asana practice to replenish the dehydration after physical activities and to help flush out the toxins that had been released from the practice.

Since yoga asana practice is a gentle form of activity, and there should be sufficient time for the body to be cooled down and return to a normal state during the final relaxation, and so there is no harm to drink water immediately after the session but not advisable to drink too hot or too cold temperature drinks. This might crash with the body system even when we didn’t do any activities.

Anyhow, it is not advisable to practice asana under hot sun and in a stuffy room or in a room that is too high temperature (such like enclosed room in a hot climate place) or too low temperature (such like air-conditioning enclosed room). The place should be airy and accessible to fresh air but not expose to dust, extreme weather, strong wind and sand storm. All these conditions will be very uncomfortable for our body and our mind. It will be better if the place is secluded from noisy street and human traffic or activities for easier concentration and relaxation. Especially, when people are attending an asana class to be learning how to practice yoga asana, that also includes integrating the important teachings of eradicating egoism into the asana practice, where the students need to be able to hear and see the teacher’s instructions, teachings and explanations clearly.

But at the end, in our own private practice, we are learning not to be disturbed by the surrounding environment of distractions, noises and activities. Of course at the beginning of our practice, we need to find a suitable and comfortable place for us to start our learning and practice. Later on, as we developed certain degrees of non-attachment, non-identification, non-craving, non-aversion, non-judgment and non-expectation, there should be no problem for us to practice yoga anytime and anywhere internally even under a very distracting environment, if we can’t find a suitable distractionless place for certain external physical practice.

Empty stomach will be good for asana practice. Drinking water during the practice is not advisable also because it will be very uncomfortable for the body when we do inverted poses or certain poses that are compressing the stomach or the abdomen.

Wearing lose comfortable natural fibre clothing will be fine. We shouldn’t be looking for any particular design or branded yoga fashion, as long as we can stretch and move our limbs and the body easily.

A piece of cloth or a towel to cushion our body and to keep away from dirt on the floor is good enough for a session of asana practice. A clean and even floor will be good even though it is not a big problem with uneven floor, if there's no suitable space. Like practice on the sandy beach, or on a hill slope, or on a grassy field is still possible, however, there's certain unnecessary risk of injury that one needs to pay attention onto. A floor full of insects crawling all over the place and on our body is not very comfortable too. Or, if there is sand covering all over our face and mouth, and we are breathing in lots of dust is very uncomfortable and unhealthy as well.

Always start with an initial relaxation for the body and the mind. Bring the awareness to the present moment focusing on the breathing. Be aware of the inhalation and the exhalation, and the movement of the abdomen when we breathe in and out. Forget the past and the future. Forget our name, identity, background, status, culture, belief, family ties and relationships, duty and responsibility, and what we like and don’t like. Forget how we felt earlier, what we did, saw, talked and heard earlier. Slowing down the breathing to calm down the body and the mind.

Once we are calm and relax, we can concentrate better, learn better, remember what we have learnt and the body can absorb the benefits of the exercise much better.
Do some gentle warm-up for the whole body. This can help to increase the flexibility and mobility of the muscles and joints and to minimize the risk of injury, and muscles soreness and stiffness after the practice. 6 to 12 rounds of the sequence of sun salutation will be a very good warm-up. Or, if we already know how to do headstand, beside being as the first basic pose, it will be a very efficient warm-up as well if we hold it for a minimum of 5 to 10 minutes. Some simple and gentle neck stretching would be helpful before the headstand.

Gently and slowly move into each pose and hold it for a period of time and as long as possible comfortably according to our own ability, the physical condition or the state of mind in that present moment. Observe the breathing or physical sensations through out the whole session. Let go any attachment, identification, craving, aversion, judgment, comparison, criticism, competition and expectation towards the practice or the effects/benefits of the practice.

Take a rest for at least 30 to 60 seconds in between each pose. Allow the body to restored and restabilized the prana before moving into another pose. Allow the body to adjust to different body positions which affect the blood pressure differently. Especially after the inverted pose, never lift the head up or stand up immediately or suddenly. This might cause dizziness. People who have low blood pressure will easily get dizziness if changing the body position too quickly like stand up suddenly from standing forward bend or holding the standing poses like warrior pose 1 and 2 for too long. They need to move the leg muscles or lying down for helping the blood to flow back to the upper body and the head effectively.

Never rush into poses or try to do as many of poses as possible in a rushing manner or without having enough rest in between each asana.

Remember to breathe evenly through the nose in all the poses. Many people tend to hold their breath (it’s a normal reaction) while in the pose, and this will create discomfort, headache and dizziness. Some people also tend to exhale through the mouth, and this will cause losing lots of Prana from the mouth.

In all the poses, besides focusing on the breath, it is very important to relax all the other muscles except the muscles that are supporting the pose. Especially the facial muscles, the jaw, the teeth are not clench tight together, the mouth, the eyes, the eyebrows, the space in between the eyebrows and the forehead. This will help to relax the mind and make the whole practice so much easier and relaxing.

Observe any sensations that we feel during the practice without identifying with them, let them come and go, change and disappear. We don’t need to give any value to any of these sensations (whether comfortable or uncomfortable sensation), not to label them as good or bad, not to categorize them as comfortable or uncomfortable, not to generate like and dislike, and not to react to these sensations. They are very temporary and don’t last long.

During the practice, especially at the beginning stage, we will feel discomfort here and there through out the body while doing the poses, but after the practice finished, those uncomfortable sensations will be gone. What left is a feeling of lightness in the body and calmness in the mind.

A good asana practice is not about aiming at learning complicated poses challenging the body or to perform the poses for somebody to admire, but mainly to be able to relax into each pose, stay relax while in the pose and come out from the pose relaxingly. It is the state of mind that’s matter most in our asana practice, not the ability of the physical body to perform any poses. It's also not about expecting what type of benefits deriving from the different asana poses. Allowing the fruit of practice to be what it is. And all are impermanent. It's not the goal of the asana practice.

Finish the practice with a long relaxation pose for a minimum of 10 to 20 minutes. It has a special effect of a short but good quality rest just like being in a deep sleep for 20 minutes is better than sleeping for 10 hours but wake up feeling dull and not enough rest.

The final relaxation also acts as an cooling down for the body system which will minimize muscles soreness and stiffness after the practice - anyhow there will be minimum tensions built up if we practice the asanas in a relaxed manner and non-competitive way.

And then sit for a few moments before we get up and go back into our life. Enjoy and appreciate the silence and peacefulness that we attained during the asana practice. Be thankful and grateful that we are being given this body and mind to experience such a wonderful thing. Thank ourselves and our teacher to share this knowledge and practice with all. If there's time and will, sit for a silent meditation session for some time immediately after the asana and/or pranayama practice, again without attachment, craving, aversion or expectation towards the practice and the effects of the practice.

Even though when the practice session had finished, we still can continue that peaceful feeling with us into our life for some time. All the effects/benefits of the physical and mental practice are impermanent and it's not the goal of the yoga practice.

Be patient and forgiving with ourselves and other people. Accept ourselves and other people as we are at this present moment.

Know that yoga asana practice is not just a physical exercise for the body, challenging our strength and flexibility, but what beyond that, is the profound inquiry and direct realization towards the teachings or philosophy of yoga, the ability for us to go beyond the body and the mind, and to develop deep concentration, to be eradicating ignorance, egoism, impurities and restlessness, that leads to correct understanding (wisdom) and unconditional peace.

Many people go for yoga classes to relieve tension from their body and mind. This is absolutely nothing wrong. But we need to understand where did all these tensions come from and we should learn how to stop generating tensions into the body and the mind. And then we don't need to relieve any tensions anymore. This is the meaning of yoga practice.

A good asana practice session is an alternative type of meditation. It is very meditative if it is being practice with full concentration and selflessly, without egoism.

Choose a set of asana poses to be practice regularly. Only by regular practice our strength, flexibility and skill will be improved. And by mastering the basic poses (doesn’t mean that they are easy for everyone – many people find that the basic poses are quite challenging physically and mentally), we will developed the basic stamina, strength and flexibility, and we can perform any other poses easily even we haven’t done it before.

The basic poses consist of -
1) Headstand – Sirshasan
2) ShoulderstandSarvangasan
3) Plough and bridge– Halasan and Setubandhasan
4) Fish – Matsyasan
5) Sitting forward bend – Paschimottanasan
6) Cobra – Bhujangasan
7) locust/grasshopper – Salabhasan
8) Bow – Dhanurasan
9) Half spinal twist – Matsyendrasan
10) Peacock or crow – Mayoorasan or Kakasan
11) Standing forward bend – Padahastasan
12) Triangle – Trikonasan
(There are many variations originate from these basic asanas that can be practice along side with these 12 basic poses)

It doesn't matter if we are new to yoga practice or have been practicing for years, these are still the basic poses that we need to practice regularly. We can master the skill of the practice after we repeatedly practice these basic asanas regularly for years. It means one can perform all these basic positions in a relaxed manner effortlessly. Mental, physical and spiritual benefits will derive tremendously from performing the poses steadily and comfortably without any struggles when we master all these well-balanced basic poses, without egoism of attachment, identification, craving, aversion, comparison, judgment of expectation.

Many people have a misconception about headstand is an advance pose, is difficult, and is dangerous. They think that they need to practice some other poses for a long time then only they can start learning headstand. Or, they need to practice against the wall. In fact, it is not like that at all. Some people can do the headstand against the wall for many years but couldn’t do it on an empty space for once. It’s because they haven’t conquer the fear of falling. And that is not the final goal for us to practice asana. We need to deal with the mind, mental fears and tensions. Except for those people who have osteoporosis or some kind of physical injury or chronic illness, then they should avoid falling down in any cases.

To learn headstand, we should learn how to do tumbling – forward roll beforehand. This will help us to let go the fear of falling backward. Without the fear of falling, we can learn how to fall down in a relaxed manner, without any tension in the neck and back area. Then we will be fine it doesn’t matter how many times we fall down from headstand. Instead the more we fall, the stronger our back will become. Until one day we are so firmed and balanced in the headstand and we won’t fall down anymore because we already knew how to control the muscles that are supporting the headstand. I fell many times in the beginning of learning and trying to perform the headstand.

It doesn’t matter if it will take many months or many years for us to master a pose. Time is not the issue. Being unable to perform many or any poses is not an issue either. But the patience, perseverance, humility, confidence, courage, and will power are the real practice, on top of the practice of non-attachment, non-identification, non-craving, non-aversion, non-comparison, non-judgment and non-expectation. It is because of these positive qualities that allow us to be happy in life, less anger, less frustration and disappointment, that allow the mind to be prepared for self-inquiry and meditation, to know the truth of everything, and be free.

Being a yoga teacher, we need to have wisdom, selfless compassion and patience to help the students to come into any pose. There was a student afraid of falling down due to lower back problem and hip fracture for many years. And I supported her to come up into half headstand for more than 3 months (in an empty space without leaning against a wall) making sure that she didn’t fall back. And slowly she was developing familiarization for being standing on her head and she learnt how to stay balance in the full headstand. Slowly she had developed confidence, and after some times she doesn’t need me anymore. And now she can hold the headstand comfortably without any support or needing a wall. Her lower back problem also got relieved after practicing asana for years now. And there was no injury even when she falls backward occasionally.

That’s the greatness of asana practice. It doesn’t only change our physical body, but also change our state of mind. Our life and perspective changed if we practice yoga asana with correct understanding and right effort.

Anybody from 7 years old onwards without physical ailments like serious abnormal blood pressure problem (extreme low or high blood pressure), heart problem and have had heart surgery before, eye diseases like detached retina, glaucoma and internal eye bleeding, have had very recent eyes surgery, having ears and nose infection, have had recent cervical neck injuries, pregnant women who have never done yoga asana before, the last stage of pregnancy where the baby turns upside down, and being advised by the physician that he or she cannot perform inverted poses due to medical reason or injuries, then there shall be no problem at all for anyone who wish to learn how to perform a headstand. By doing headstand alone can give us many benefits physically, mentally and spiritually.

Practicing headstand, especially the learning process will help us to conquer our fears. When practice for some times and we can hold the pose comfortably for 5 to 15 minutes (young children below 7 years old should not hold headstand for too long due to physical structure and growing period), it can help us to adjust the abnormal spinal alignment. Many back problems are solved. It brings fresh blood and oxygen to the brains and facial area, increases our creativity, alertness, sharpness, calmness and memory. The eyes, ears, nose, tongue and throat area get a revitalizing effect. All the internal organs get a resting moment especially the heart. It reverses the pulling down effect of the gravity and re-energizes all the internal organs and the supportive tissues. It helps a lot in the problem of dropped stomach and dropped womb in women. It is an overhaul effect for the entire body system. It regulates the blood circulation effectively. It helps to relieve blood stagnant in the lower limbs and relieve varicose veins. It helps us to develop many divine qualities like patience, courage, confidence, stability, and clear mind. It stimulates the Sahasrara chakra on top of the head and the Ajna chakra in between the eyebrows which help to connect the thinking faculty with the selfless reflective consciousness and to develop wisdom.

Headstand can be a very effective warming up for the body to do other poses easily if we hold it for minimum 5 to 10 minutes.

If we have been practicing headstand regularly but during the time when we suffer serious discomfort headache, stomachache or nose blocked, are having asthmatic attack or women having very heavy menstrual flow and backache during menstruation, we should skip the practice of headstand on that day. Other than that there shall be no problem at all to practice headstand everyday even for women during pregnancy (if they have been practicing headstand, except during the last semester when the baby position turning head down naturally,) and also during menstruation, if their body condition allows them to perform a headstand without getting any discomfort.

Many of our female students who suffered menstruation problems like menstrual cramps, menstrual irregularity, early or delay menstruation, prolong days of menstruation and excess heavy flow, have found that yoga asana practice have helped them a lot in dealing with this problem. They continue practice asana during menstruation and even performing the inverted poses without getting any discomfort to the body. And after months of practice they feedback to us saying that their problem has been eased and cured. Although there might be certain exceptional cases, where the women are being advised by their doctor that it's not suitable for them to practice headstand during menstruation, or cannot practice headstand at all due to certain physical condition. None should be comparing their physical body condition, ability and limitation with some others.

In my own asana practice, teaching body works for 20 years, training for sports aerobics competition and teaching yoga for the past 5 years, I have been doing jumping, hopping, running, kicking, free fall, tumbling, strength training, stretching, cart wheeling, handstand and headstand almost everyday in my life. Especially during the year when I was training for the world sports aerobics competition, I was teaching 2 to 4 hours of aerobics classes everyday and was training for 3 hours a day for the 2 minutes competition routine with lots of strength and flexibility trainings for 6 days a week. There was no rest day for me even during my menstruation period. I have no problem with menstruation at all. Until today my menstruation is always regular and comes on time. My body maintains the same energy level during menstruation. I never felt that menstruation can stop me from doing anything.

But that doesn’t mean that I am torturing my body. When my body needs to rest, I will take rest. 

When my body needs to work, I will work. It's about knowing and understanding our own body. We just need to know when to rest and when to work. Self discipline and self management are very important qualities for advancing in the yoga practice and self evolution.

And now I have retired from teaching body work 3 years ago, and focusing mainly on the yoga practice and giving yoga classes.

All the female students who learn body work or asana practice with me also had been practicing inverted poses or doing intensive training even during menstruation, and they didn’t encounter any problems. Instead they become stronger and healthier physically, mentally and emotionally. Many of them also had been through pregnancies and gave birth to healthy babies without any complications. Some of the children also came for the yoga classes together with their mother.

That’s why there shouldn’t be any problem for any women to continue practice during menstruation of what they have been practicing. Except for those who have physical ailments or special medical problems, then they need to practice under special guidance and instructions, and they might need to avoid doing certain poses that will contradict with their health problems or physical limitations.

Most important is that we learn how to listen to our body. We are the only person who knows well about our own body. Even doctors can’t feel how we feel. They don’t know where we feel pain unless we tell them where the pain is. We are our own best healer, best teacher and best friend. We learn to make progression slowly and patiently. We learn to know where is our limitation, and when and how can we go beyond that limitation and without injuring our body.

Beside the basic poses should be practiced regularly especially for any new practitioner, there’s many other poses that we can practice too. One of them is the wheel – Chakrasan. This pose really gives us lots of energy and strengthens our arms, shoulders, back, hips muscles and legs. It also increases the flexibility for the whole body effectively. It gives us courage and confidence. It opens up our heart and chest area. This will help us to develop openness, cheerfulness and positive thinking. It is really good for anyone who wishes to overcome low energy level, stiffness, low self-esteem, depression and laziness. It's the same as the sun salutation sequence, it gives us the basic stamina, strength and flexibility to perform all the other asanas easily.

Another recommendation is handstand against the wall. If we really wish to master most of the inverted balancing poses and arm balancing poses, this is a good exercise to start with. It gives us strong upper body strength. For people who have neck injury and cannot perform headstand, handstand is an alternative pose for them to get the similar effects as headstand. But only to hold the handstand comfortably within our limits because it might create pressure in the eyes and the upper body (especially if the head is tilted backwards with the face and the eyes looking downward towards the floor). If we can keep the head hanging down without fear of falling, then there will not be much pressure or discomfort. We can’t really hold handstand for as long as headstand unless we have very strong upper body strength because handstand uses mostly our arms and shoulders on top of the back and core muscles to support and balance the body weight. In headstand, our body weight is supported and balanced by the entire spine and back/core muscles. When we perform the headstand correctly and the whole body stays erect, there is minimum effort for us to hold the pose for as long as we can (one of my students can hold the headstand for 45 minutes). But time is not the issue or the goal. Our goal is not about to achieve how many minutes of holding the headstand. Instead there shouldn't be any goals. It is to hold the headstand comfortably as long as we can in a relaxed manner, in a non-competitive way WITHOUT the idea of "I want to hold the headstand for 10 minutes", and then we will come down from the headstand after 10 minutes. It is the same as performing the other poses. There is no expectation at all and no goals to be achieved. We just do it, and let things come into places naturally.
Anyway we only need to hold the headstand for minimum 5 to 10 minutes to get the benefits from it. And after the first 10 minutes is up to our ability to hold the pose for as long as possible to develop our patience, perseverance and will power.

Also some leg raises exercises (with the body lying supine and prone) are very good for developing core strength for the abdomen and lower back muscles which is the basic strength for us to hold any poses comfortably like headstand, shoulderstand and locust. Some arms and leg balancing poses also require the core strength for us to hold the poses easily and comfortably.

We need some basic strength and flexibility to be able to perform these basic poses. And by practicing these basic poses regularly will help us to develop more strength and flexibility for the whole body to do some other more complicated poses, effortlessly.

In order to perform most of the basic poses, merely have strength or have flexibility is not enough. We need both strength and flexibility. We need stamina to be able to hold the pose for a longer period comfortably (practice Sun Salutations for minimum 12 to 20 rounds everyday can help to develop stamina, strength and flexibility). We need patience to stay in a pose long enough for the pose to release its effect into our body and the mind. We need courage for us to break through our fear of falling, fear of pain and difficulty, fear of getting injuries and fear of unfamiliar situation. We need to know how to let go any attachment, identification, craving, aversion, judgment, comparison, criticism and expectation.

By practicing all these poses regularly will help us to develop all these qualities, and this will help us a lot in facing difficult moments and emotional turbulence or disturbs in daily life.

Like all types of physical training, we need time to make progression and to improve slowly in all asanas practice. It took me 3 years of regular practice for me to be able to perform the full locust pose. And one day, when this physical body starting to loose its stamina, strength and flexibility due to selfless impermanent changes of decaying, this body would not be able to perform many of these asana poses anymore. And it's okay.

We need to be patient and allow the body to take rest in between each practice. Without having any expectation, our body will adapt to the practice and improving in overall fitness. Then the practice will become easy and natural. And then we can move on to another higher level.

For any first timer of learning anything, we will experience intimidation, discomforts and difficulties especially during the beginning stage (usually the body will get some soreness here and there a day after the session for a few days). After going through some painful moments and adaptations, and then we will reach to the comfort zone. And we will not be staying at this comfort zone forever. There are higher levels for us to move on. And we will become stronger than before not just physically but mentally and spiritually as well. Learning is never ending until the moment we attain direct self-realization towards selflessness, or the annihilation of ignorance, egoism, impurities and restlessness.

That’s why new learners should never just try a session, but to give ourselves a few months time to adjust, accommodate and adapt to the physical training. Or else most of us will give up after the first trial session due to intimidation, discomfort and muscles soreness after that. Some people are not use to inverted poses and might feel dizziness during and after the practice, until the body adapts to inverted poses and we don’t get dizziness anymore.

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About Yoga

Know thyself. Everything is impermanent and selfless. There is no 'I'. There is no 'I am selfless'/'I am not selfless'. There is no 'I am hurt'/'I need to be healed from hurt'. Non-blind believing, non-blind following, non-blind practicing and non-blind propagating, but be open-minded to inquire the truth of everything. Be free. Be peaceful. Be happy.

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