How we begin our practice will inevitability effect the ends and the possible benefits. Whichever form of self-healing one chooses, from qi gong, martial arts, yoga, or any other ancient forms of healing, the foundation on which we build our practice will continue to impact the effects of our practice and our potential for growth. Most forms of martial arts, begin from the beginning, spending a substantial amount of time and repetition on the basics. Though these portions of the practice are not the most exciting, and can be at times boring or tedious, the necessary foundation allows the developing student’s ability to execute higher levels of the practice in the future with more efficiency, control, and most importantly understanding.
With regards to asana, (the physical portion of Yoga which usually is taught in isolation from the other pieces of Hatha Yoga in studios), the practitioner attempts to explore the body and its connection to mind, breathe, and our energetic channels. Yoga attempts to reconnect the breath from neurotic short hyperventilation, too long, rhythmic and conscious inhales and exhales, and asana forms a foundation in the rediscovery of the body and its capacity not only in its strength and longevity, but as a vessel and space for the creation of energy and unification with the collective source and supreme consciousness. The practice of asana is an attempt to bring awareness to the dormant portions of our body, through the discipline of daily practice exploring new actions and rotations in postures that initially felt impossible.
This art of self-healing can be quite beneficial when practiced within the frameworks of a strong foundation and understanding of the postures, their priorities, and their purpose. Unfortunately, studio yoga classes, which occupies the most frequently used space for people’s discovery of asana, tend to skip even the idea of a foundation, mostly due to the fact that they themselves lack the understanding of our goals and priorities. Due to what is perceived today as yoga, quite strenuous practices, embedded with inaccessible and advanced asanas are performed with little or no explanation in how to access such asanas which have been given to the beginner. What we must understand, is that most asanas, especially those which work against gravity are advanced techniques which without proper understanding of their function and proper alignment can cause more damage to the body than growth.
It is not simply our goal to achieve flexibility, flexibility and strength are positive symptoms of the practice, but they are not the ends of our struggle. Many ex-dancers and gymnasts practice yoga for 6 months and find themselves in an illusion that they have mastered the art of asana simply because they can perform “advanced” postures. However, one’s injuries usually do not develop in one class, or even in one month, they develop over 2-5 years of undisciplined practice, lacking in awareness and concerned with the misleading goals.
As a beginner, there are two aspects which need first to be addressed and practiced prior to diving into the depths of Surya Namaskar, Ashtanga Vinyasa, or Vinyasa Flow. 1.) The first area of focus that is needed is a physical rehabilitation. Yoga, not but 100 years ago, was studied by an exclusive population, those living a lifestyle quite foreign to our diet, posture, occupation, discipline, and consumer driven cultures. Due to an acquired handicap of poor posture and unregulated breathing which nearly all of us carry in varying degrees, it is most beneficial to our physical development to use low impact postures and stretches to rehabilitate the body, finding space and length while learning to connect these more accessible asanas with the rhythmic ujjayi breath. In my experience, floor based asanas have brought the greatest growth in my practice with regards to not only flexibility, but to breath awareness. This ideology towards Asana doesn’t end with beginners; these asanas can be continued as warm-ups or preparatory asanas for more strenuous postures. For example: Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), stretches the hamstrings on the front leg, however, it is not the priority or focus of the pose. The complexity of this posture with its rotations and grounding are quite inaccessible when the stretch in the front hamstring feels intense due to lack of preparation, not only in this individual practice, but the whole of the student’s practice and current physical state. The immense lack of flexibility deters the practitioner from entering deeper into the posture, along with the capability to intellectually understand its goals.
From my experience, what I would prescribe for the majority of beginners is to spend at least 1 hour per day, isolating all the stiff portions of the body. For standing postures, the most inaccessible pieces of the body tend to be the hips and the hamstrings, which are co-dependent, as the hips are closed they cause shortness on the hamstrings, and tight hamstrings pulling on the hips will cause difficultly in opening them. And so what I have found is a mixture of hip openers and forward bends interchanged through this practice causes both portions of the body to start to open and release. I find that a mixture between normal forward bends and hip openers along with Yin Yoga postures, holding them between 2-4 minutes being the most beneficial. It is almost as if you sit within another body after 30 minutes of lengthening and opening. Other than the hips and hamstrings the chest and shoulders have a tendency to be closed due to poor posture, which can be addressed by several supta (reclined) poses supplemented with props including bolsters and blocks. These postures, although causing discomfort at times, are accessible for most practitioners if done properly and can be held for minutes at a time, naturally and organically opening the chest and heart, and giving space in the shoulders.
Along with these postures using basic yogic warm-ups to isolate the joints including the wrist, ankles, neck, elbows, and wrists along with low impact twists on the floor will create space and the foundation for the future of the student’s practice through this rehabilitation process. This process will develop a daily discipline which properly prepares the body for more strenuous asanas along with creating space in the joints and opening the meridian lines. This process of rehabilitation for beginners does not exclude existing practitioners. Many students physical state limits their capacity for growth and could deepen their practice through this approach. I find that this portion of my practice is still the most important portion of my practice, not only to maintain length and space in the muscles and joints, but to create space in the breath, creating an awareness that can be taken from the low impact portion of the practice to standing postures.
2.)The second path for all practitioners but especially important for those just beginning which cannot be disconnected from the process of rehabilitation is the study and understanding of proper alignment in asanas. Even with regards to low impact postures, if they are practiced incorrectly and without awareness, they can cause more damage to the body than growth. This is why asana requires a knowledgeable teacher or teachers in order direct and adjust students to create space to begin the dialogue of the body which acts as a foreign language to the beginner who through their live style has created a distance in their current physical state and their natural equilibrium.
Most teachers in studios run slow Vinyasa Flow classes or “easy” slow Sun Salutations as beginner classes, however these classes are quite advance and can even be damaging and irresponsible to teach to beginners who are truly in need of explanation, descriptions, and visual examples. The poses must be workshopped to begin the dialogue towards understanding the posture, rather than asking blind sheep to run aimlessly eventually falling off the cliffs of physical injuries years down the road. The physical priorities of the postures must be explained along with the necessary modifications for their physical limitations that they currently face in order to create the proper foundation for growth. An effective method in Iyengar Yoga is to isolate portions of the body to understand the proper actions in this one piece of the asana, and then applying this new understanding to the whole.
Over time, the combination of rehabilitation and understanding of proper alignment will have the greatest effect on creating the necessary foundation to our yoga practice and eventually our self-practice. This article has been focused entirely on the physical aspect as it is geared towards addressing an ideology of yoga for beginners. It has been a growing trend in recent years to diminish the necessity for asana and the physical practice, and that spiritual growth is of higher importance and should consume more attention in our yogic path, but spiritual growth, namely meditation, is an advance portion of yoga which requires a mental and physical discipline which tends to be inaccessible to the beginner in yoga especially in our current epoch. And so asana paired with pranayama functions as our path towards meditation; shavasana being the direct bridge towards seated meditation.
Asana is a gift which when properly received can be a beautiful path for self-healing leading towards the evolution of the body and mind and lead us towards greater paths of liberation. It is difficult for the current yoga teacher in such a competitive and growing market to find the balance between giving students what they want and giving students what they need. But just as Noam Chomsky has spoken of our responsibility as intellectuals, I believe that as experience practitioners in yoga it is our responsibility to be a source of light to our brothers and sisters, even if that requires monetary sacrifice. For whatever we put in, the universe will inevitably give back in return, as our intentions are as important as actions. This is our karma, our burden and blessing as individuals armed with knowledge and experience, to spread these gifts that have been given to us.