Asana – The Physical Postures of Yoga
When you think of yoga, you automatically have the picture of someone doing a posture, people don’t necessarily always think of the meditation or breathing. I absolutely love those other aspects of yoga, but asana is what originally attracted me to the practice, and I will always love it. I started yoga for the exercise that these postures offered (particularly in a hot room), I found many benefits, I lost weight, I gained even more flexibility, I began to get stronger, and most importantly for me, I learned so much about my body. I was a chronic hyper extender in all of my joints and had no idea, I certainly had no idea that hyper extension causes damage to the joints. I was also (and still struggle with) being a chronic back bender. In any position you can imagine I was back bending and not even knowing it, whether it was standing to do the dishes, going for a walk, sitting at a desk, etc. etc. etc. Embarassingly enough, I always was a little nervous of going downstairs with high heels on (which I wore everyday for work at the office and before that I wore everyday to university and highschool). I came to realize that I felt unstable because I had very weak muscles everywhere in my body. Yoga asana brought me to this realization everyday when I would practice and feel like I would die in a simple lunge. Doing any strengthening postures would really bring me to the edge of my limits, I wouldn’t be breathing, I would be turning red from over exertion. It was my goal to do yoga everyday and I had no expiration day on that goal, almost five years later and I’m still practicing everyday. Sometimes when I feel like I have plateau’d in my practice, I look back on just how far I have come in five years. I don’t know the exact percentage to which I have increased my strength, but I know it is well over 200%. To me that seems amazing, in five years I have come so much further than I could have ever imagined and this is mostly due to my asana practice. As my practice has advanced, I have come to realize that the asanas offer so much more than just exercise. These postures actually aid so much in your meditation and pranayama practice. Asana eventually helps to calm your mind (and if you’re anything like I was, you’re thinking of a million things at once) and open your body to allow you to sit (or lie) in one position for awhile and first of all, stay comfortable, and secondly, not have your mind wander. This really improves your way of life overall, even if you haven’t cultivated a meditation or pranayama practice, a dedicated asana practice still offers you the calmness and openness you need to improve your way of life. Getting all these benefits from originally just trying to get in shape is one of the MANY reasons that I LOVE yoga!
All The Interconnecting Branches
It’s funny to think now, but when I took my first yoga class, I thought it was just a low-impact exercise for flexible people. I soon found out that meditation and pranayama were big parts of yoga as well, but what I didn’t realize was that there are SO many interconnecting branches of practices that weave together and compliment yoga in so many ways. When I took my 200 hour teacher training, I was introduced to kirtan, which is a traditional performance with singing, chanting, and instruments. To me it was like a really relaxing and calming concert where the songs were mostly in sanskrit. When I took my 300 hour yoga teacher training, I was introduced to Ayurveda and fell in love with its principles. Since that part of my training, I have been starting my day by oil pulling, then having a drink of warm lemon water to kickstart my digestive system, having oatmeal everyday for breakfast, etc. Ayurveda tells us that having a properly functioning digestive system is the key to health, so it’s really mindful of what we put in our bodies, but I also find it to be non-judgemental, it doesn’t tell us to be vegan or gluten free or paleo, it just suggests what is most calming and healing on your digestive tract. I also learned about crystals and how healing they can be. I learned about being mindful of the moon cycles and understanding how the moon and its cycles affect our bodies.I learned about grounding myself and energies and vibrations of people and spaces and how to work with these. And moreover, I learned about how just showing gratitude for everything we’re grateful for changes our vibrations and the vibrations of the things we’re grateful for. The point is, from a little seed of just wanting exercise came all this knowledge and wisdom about being mindful and kind. I can’t believe how yoga has opened my eyes and my mind and that’s one of the many reasons that I LOVE yoga!
When I was in university, I got my degree in Commerce, but I minored in Religious studies. I find learning about different religions to be so fascinating! I went to Catholic school for elementary and secondary, so I learned a whole lot about Catholicism, but when I was introduced to different religions of the world, I was so interested in all the different perspectives and how many similarities there were throughout all religions. So when I took my first teacher training and a major part of it was the philosophy of yoga, I was so excited. I had learned about Hinduism before, but only very generally, I never knew that this religion tied into the philosophy of yoga (and Buddhism too, but we focused more on Hinduism). We had the privilege of learning from two top scholars in the field, Dr. Douglas Brooks and Hareesh Wallis. These guys had such a breadth of knowledge in their field and it was a joy to learn from them. They were both also experts in the Sanskrit language and so we were able to learn a lot about the Sanskrit names of the poses. Learning about the philosophy of yoga gave me a bigger picture of yoga and how it’s not all about doing crazy poses, how there are eight limbs of yoga and asana is just one of them. It’s so interesting to me that yoga asana only became a thing way back in the day to open the body to be able to sit and meditate for very long periods of time, and look at what it’s evolved into today! I also love how some asanas have stories that go along with them. For example, hanumanasana (July’s pose of the month!) was a pose dedicated to the Hindu god, Hanuman. The (really simplified) story of Hanuman was that his friend, Ram’s, girlfriend, Sita, was kidnapped and taken so far away that there was no way Ram would be able to rescue her. So Hanuman (the monkey god) took a giant leap practically across the world, and since he leapt with one foot forward, the other foot was behind (like splits pose) and that’s how the pose came to be in yoga. (He did end up saving Sita and she was reunited with Ram, in case you were wondering). Anyways, I just find it all very fascinating and it shows to me that there is so much more than exercising and stretching to yoga. I absolutely love the history and philosophy of yoga and it is just one of the many reasons that I LOVE yoga!
It’s Healing Affects
When I first embarked on my yoga journey, I did it fr weight loss and exercise. I didn’t believe in the hippie mumbo jumbo that some people say yoga can do, all I wanted to do was get really sweaty and while I did do that, I also began to experience the hippie mumbo jumbo stuff. When I started yoga, it was during a transitional point in my life, I was transitioning from university life to post university life. The transition was a little tough for me, my lifestyle had to change completely, everything from my diet to my living arrangements, to my friends and career. Yoga made that transition much easier for me because it gave me something to focus on, but I also really started to learn a lot about myself. I learned that I have hyper mobility in my body and I could really damage my joints if I didn’t get some more strength. I learned how to deal with my feelings in a better, more efficient way and to be more compassionate to others. I didn’t learn how much yoga can be healing until last summer, in 2013 so much in my life changed. I went through a major career change, I left a work situation that was extremely unhealthy for me. And right around the same time, my dad died. I am so lucky to be able to say that I had two sets of loving and caring parents, but it was my biological father that passed away. This and the career change all happened within one week. My life felt like it had literally been flipped upside down, but I continued to stay faithful to my yoga practice and I swear this is what kept me sane, Even though I had spent everyday for a little while crying and feeling upset, I made numerous breakthroughs in my practice. Around this time I also began meditating. I was able to see that I was not a victim in any of this, there was nothing I could have done and it wasn’t about life being fair or unfair, it was just about life being a cycle. And this is just my example, there are countless stories of addicts overcoming their issues with the help of yoga and meditation or kids with a.d.d. experiencing significant breakthroughs through yoga. I can go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Yoga really can help you find stillness in the craziness you can sometimes experience in life and that’s one of the reasons that I LOVE it so much!
By awakening, I don’t mean some weird religious/cult-y awakening, what I mean is awakening in the sense of a new found awareness you get from cultivating a devoted yoga practice. So by devoted practice, I mean a devoted asana practice as well as a meditation and pranayama practice. I would say on average most people start with asana and then from there decide to try out meditation and pranayama. In my opinion, when all three are practiced regularly, an awakening happens. So through regular practice, I feel that you become more contemplative of the world and become a little more conscious of your ethical standards, this happens to be one of the 8 limbs of yoga (called yamas). So maybe you start to question things such as your diet, where the food comes from, how the food is grow/raised. You begin to become more keenly aware of your body, so maybe you really like the taste of candy, but now that you’re more in tune, you realize that it doesn’t digest well (something you may have never realized before). You become so in tune with your body that when practicing asana, you can adjust your own pose because you start to feel that your alignment may be off (even if by the smallest amount). Even when you start to consume better food you begin to feel that your body is functioning more efficiently! Maybe during meditation it is easier for you to gain the stillness and concentration to block out the other senses. Maybe over time you even begin to feel the amazing benefits that meditation and pranyama have on your body separate from asana. All-in-all you begin to view the world differently, questioning and researching where things come from and trying to pick the best options for you and the world. Certainly you begin to view your body in a differently light, you choose the best options for your whole body rather than what your tongue or ego demands. Overtime, your tongue and ego will quiet and you will be more receptive to food that nurtures you rather than caters to some craving. These amazing changes that just happen naturally contribute to the many MANY reasons that I LOVE yoga!
The De-Stressing Effects
One of my absolute favourite things that I love about yoga is how much it can help to melt the stress of your day away. I find that when I’m having or have had a very stressful day, rolling out my mat or going to a class to practice is exactly what I need. When I’m able to tune into my body and listen to/feel what’s going on while working with my breath, I’m able to let go of the stress that has been with me for the day or week or however long. Of course this may be easier said than done especially when you’re just starting out in yoga, but it really is true. Sometimes, when I first started yoga, I would unknowingly let go of stresses from my day, but I would get stressed out about my practice. I would feel embarrassed if I couldn’t do a pose (ahem, handstand!) or stressed out if I twisted in the wrong direction, or I would be practically buzzing to get out of savasana. But as time passed and I eventually became able to quiet my mind while I was practicing, this became my go-to de-stresser. In fact, I went through a hard time last year when I left my full time job because if that situation wasn’t stressful enough, my father who was battling cancer had passed away. It was such a hard time and I’m sure that many people would fall apart in a situation like that, without yoga I would have! I swear that maintaining my practice through all of that really saved me and gave me piece of mind, it helped me to see that I would make it through that storm. I actually even made a few significant breakthroughs during that time, it was the first time I was able to successfully get into eka pada koundinyasana 2. So basically, to me, doing an asana practice is not only “me” time, but it’s almost like a mini therapy session, you can leave all the stress and crap from the day on your mat (and clean it off after practice haha) and leave your practice feeling fresh and renewed. The ability that yoga has to help you de-stress is, in my opinion, so important and so powerful, it saved me during a very hard time in my life, and it is one of the very many reasons that I LOVE yoga!
Even though savasana is “just” a yoga pose, it is something I really love about yoga. Savasana, otherwise known as corpse pose or final resting pose, is sometimes considered one of the hardest poses to do in yoga. There are two groups of people I have encountered (so far) in the yoga world, those who LOVE savasana and have no clue as to why it’s sometimes called the hardest pose, and then there’s the people who HATE it and have a million things running through their minds, they feel like it is not an efficient use of their time, and there is so many better things they could be doing right now. For those of you reading this who don’t really know what savasana is, it’s basically lying on your back at the end of a yoga practice. It is such an important part of the practice, I actually can’t emphasize enough how much you need savasana in your life. The purpose of savasana is to bring a definite end to your yoga practice, so that your body doesn’t feel like you may still do some poses. Another purpose of this pose is to allow your body to relax and rest after what may have bee a vigroous or thought provoking class. The even more important purpose of this pose is to allow your body to steep in what you just practice. What I mean by this is that you need to give your body and mind a little rest after a yoga class (and really any exercise you may do), this is not only to prevent you from being exhausted or energy depleted throughout the remainder of your day, but it is also so that your body can rest and feel the practice and store it all in your muscle memory. So imagine you kicked up into handstand for the FIRST time, if you just ran out of the class and went home to show your friends and/or family, chances are you wouldn’t be able to do it again right away. This is because doing so would be WAY to jarring for your system. If you got a pose for the first time and then allow your body to rest in savasana at the end of your practice, you’re giving yourself a chance to let the pose soak into your practice so that your body knows where to go next time. So of the two groups of people I mentioned earlier, I was 100% the second type. I could not wait to get out of class, I would count in my mind how long we had stayed there, I’d get angry if it was too long, I even would sneak out of the class sometimes if I could. Overtime, I realized how disrespectful that was not only to the teacher, but to myself. Essentially my busy mind was preventing my body from resting and soaking in the practice. What I came to realize was that I had a really hard time sitting in silence, even in my daily life, sitting in silence made me feel very awkward and uncomfortable. Once I realized this I was able to work on that part of my practice and now I am 100% in the first group, the people who LOVE savasana. Now as a teacher, the time I leave the class in savasana varies depending on how strong the practice was that day. When I encounter someone who hates the pose or even (very rarely) complains to me about savasana, I try to explain to them the importance and hopefully help them to discover why they should practice this pose more. The shifts in not only you mind but also in your body that you can discover in savasana is one of the MANY reasons that I LOVE yoga!
The Yoga High
I have heard the feeling you get after a great yoga class being called “The Yoga High” on more than one occasion. It’s that feeling you get when the class is over and your body feels great, it’s more strong as well as more open than when you walked in the class, and your mind feels more at ease. Maybe you’ve forgotten about a terrible day, or an argument you had, or maybe you went into the class with a headache and are leaving the class without. The “yoga high” is when everything that was out of whack in your body is now back in balance, and everything just feels so much better when it’s properly balanced! The reason that I love the “yoga high” is pretty self explanatory, I like feeling good and yoga makes me feel that way. But on a less personal note, I love the yoga high because I think it is actually a really cool aspect of yoga. If yoga was just an exercise to help you lose weight, you wouldn’t have this same feeling. Sure you would feel good after a great workout because exercise releases endorphins, but you don’t necessarily feel balanced. You might feel stronger, but you probably don’t feel more open, and most exercise routines don’t have any meditative sections during the practice. I think the yoga high is a reason that so many people fall in love with yoga and stick with it as a lifestyle (like me!). Also, the fact that everyone in the class can feel the same way after is an amazing collective group experience. I find it really fascinating and think it is a really important factor for yoga because I think it helps people connect deeper into their own body and mind. The yoga high is just one of the MANY reasons that I LOVE yoga!
There is Always Room for Movement
As a continuation from last week’s post about why I love yoga, I find it so interesting that there is always room for movement in each and every pose. Just as I spoke about last week, no matter how far you get into the pose, there is always a more advanced option that you’re working towards. Similarly, no matter how far you get into a pose, you will find that if you focus and really use your breath, that there is always room to move. A common movement that I love to work on is expansion on the inhales and softening on the exhales. I find that a really good indicator that you’ve gone too far into a pose is if you find that you feel stuck or that you can’t breathe. For example, in a standing side bend, I used to just to just go as far as possible, with zero engagement, and I literally couldn’t breathe. What I eventually learned through practice was that I was basically crunching and compressing, so I needed to learn how to find engagement and bend with strength rather than collapse into the pose. Now I can go just as far as before, but I can easily breathe because I know how to engage my body to support myself. When teaching, I find this happens pretty frequently for people in hero pose. It seems like many people have it in their minds that they are a failure with the pose if they don’t lie all the way back onto the ground. The thing is, to be able to get into supta virasana, you have to have pretty flexible quads and psoas muscles. So then if they don’t have that flexibility and they go all the way back, they may feel stuck in the pose and definitely won’t be able to have a nice even breath. When I first started yoga, I went with a friend of mine and she did exactly that and she whispered to me that she was stuck and started panicking. It was really funny after the fact, but during she felt genuinely panicked. So I find that this indication from your body really helps you to start listening to your body. As we grow up and have to face many different life experiences and circumstances, I find that we become very good at ignoring the signals of our bodies. When we begin to practice yoga and begin to pay attention to our breath, we begin to tune back into our bodies. When we connect back into our bodies, then we can find movement through our poses and really work with our breath. You will even find that your body really varies from day to day depending on the activities you’ve been involved with. The potential for further movement, no matter how far you get into the pose, is one of the many reasons that I LOVE yoga!
There is Always Room to Grow in Your Practice
I find it truly amazing how there is always room for improvement in your yoga practice. To me, the term “practice makes perfect” should really be, “practice makes progress”. For example, my back bend practice is so deep that I thought for a little while that there was no way I could go further. I had my feet flat on my head and I had figured, that’s it, I’ve gone as far as one can go in back bends. That was kind of fine for me because I know how much work my inversions and arm balances can use, but I thought I came to the end of the road for back bending. Then one day I came across a beautiful account on instagram of a yogini named Talia. This woman is amazing, she trains so hard and competes. I’m nowhere near the level of her back bends and it made me realize for the first time that there is ALWAYS room for progression! And it’s not just in asana, there is always room for progress in all aspects of yoga, including pranayama and meditation. The other thing is, your body can be and is very different from day to day. Maybe one day you have just gotten into full hanumanasana and then the next day your legs are a little sore and you can’t. It doesn’t mean you’ve regressed, it just means your a little different in that moment, so keep working on it! Try not to ever think you’ve made it to the end of the line, keep reaching for the stars and you may just be amazed at what that leads you to. All the room for progress and growth that this practice offers us is one of the many reasons that I LOVE yoga!