स्थिर सुखम् आसनम् Sthira sukham āsanam – Yoga Sutras. A Posture is one that is held in a steady and comfortable position.
The principles of Yoga encourage us to focus on action and be detached from results, but my old habits from corporate life encouraged me to put together few good practices for better results! :). The list is in random order and not in priority. Focus is mainly on “on the mat” yoga, higher forms of Yoga like jnana, karma, or bhakti yoga are out of scope of this article.
1. A time tested sequence
If you can make sufficient time for a full fledged practice session, the most effective order is āsanās – postures, prānāyāma – regulated breathing and dhyāna– meditation. Each stage is preparation for the next.
First āsanā, physical postures focusing on various muscle groups and organs. Concluding with śavāsanā (corpse pose) will help reduce bodily fatigue and calm breath and mind to prepare for prānāyāma.
Next prānāyāma, methodic control of the prānā(breath or life force) by varying the length of pūraka – inhalation, rēchaka – exhalation and kumbhaka – retention (with lungs either full of breath OR empty ).
Conclude with dhyāna. Dhyāna is also very effective when practiced as a standalone practice. You could begin with self-practice, but at intermediate and advanced stages, you will most likely need a seasoned meditator or guru’s help and guidance.
2. All about Awareness !
Unlike aerobics or gym workouts where you could be listening to loud music, watching TV or even talking over the phone during practice, an inseparable aspect of Yoga is attention and mindfulness. Improved body flexibility, balance, posture, strength, endurance are very basic goals considering the deeper benefits of Yoga like improved cognitive function, calmer mind, sharper focus, sense of well-being, mood management etc..
Observing and being a witness to the vibrations in the physical body, breath and mind is everything. It is ok if you can’t perfect a posture, but the key is to practice with mindful awareness to gain full benefit of Yoga practice.
3. Listen to your body
Knowing when to stop helps ensure injury free practice and also avoid unnecessary fatigue. Pause/stop at points (extent of stretch, bend, lift etc) in a posture where you start experiencing pain, specifically when it is piercing pain. Stretching and warming up before getting into postures and avoiding jerks in movement will also reduce risk of injury. With persistent practice, you will soon extend your boundaries. Keep going further by mindfully watching your body’s limitations till the posture is perfected. If you are practicing āsanās for longer periods, relax in śavāsanā in between to rest and rejuvenate the body. Same applies to prānāyāma practice. Work within your current limits of length of inhalation/exhalation or retention without comparing or competing with others. Realising one’s own potential is the goal of Yoga practice.
It you are a serious practitioner and want to make overall progress, it is quite important to mix your practice for strength,body balance and flexibility with appropriate āsanās. The emphasis on a good mix is to bring about all round development. Continuing to work on favourite postures and neglecting other areas will result in weaknesses. Some practitioners end up being good at balancing asanas, but just cant do any postures needing strength or vice versa.
Compensate forward bending āsanās with a few backward bending postures. Balance right bending or twisting āsanās by doing them for the left side too. This principle applies to including all three sub sciences (āsanās, prānāyāma, dhyāna) in your practice. Could do only āsanās in the morning? Find a few minutes later in the day(or next day) to practice the other two.
5. Fresh and Clean
A shower before Yoga practice is great for multiple reasons. A fresh smelling body makes practice more enjoyable. In many postures the face is placed against other body parts. From a hygiene point of view, it is best to remove dust and deposits from the skin before practicing. The cleanliness principle applies to the entire practice space.
Fresh air v/s air-conditioned environment is probably not a matter of choice today. Whenever possible, practicing with open windows during early mornings before sunrise yields best results.
6. Good Quality Mat & Props
I recommend using your own mat even if your school provides some for common use. One, for hygiene reasons. You don’t want to step on and breathe into someone else’s sweat . Two, mats come in different sizes, thickness, cushion, stickiness(grip) and fabric etc. Your body will accustom and get comfortable with a certain type of mat. Stick to your own mat to focus and enhance your practice, rather than being inconvenienced by a mat that does not suit you.
Occasionally cleaning or even replacing your Yoga mat is good as the sweat and dirt deposited over long periods are not entirely removed by cleaning alone. A high quality mat is the best investment a Yoga Practitioner can make. So don’t compromise !
Yoga belts and bricks/blocks are the most widely used props for Yoga practice. Again, high quality props will help enhance the practice.
स तु दीर्घकाल नैरन्तर्य सत्कारादरासेवितो दृढभूमिः॥ sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkārādarasēvito dridhabhūmih ||14|| Yoga Sutras. Persistent, continuous practice with dedication and reverence is a strong foundation for success.
Just like how it is important to schedule time for learning any art or sport, setting aside some time to practice Yoga helps. Short 20-30 minutes of 4-5 days a week practice will fetch better results than one or two marathon practice sessions. Training the body and mind requires disciplined practice over a long period of time and helps reap and sustain benefits.
May the divine grace you with the opportunities and motivation to further your Yoga!