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Asanas: The Physical Aspect of Yoga

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Maybe you're already familiar with #yoga. Maybe you've made the assumption that yoga is better suited for those who are more flexible than you. Maybe you've avoided it because you had concerns about its underlying philosophies. Maybe, like me, you've had many misconceptions that you've failed to explore so that you've lost years, even decades, of transforming practice. This past year, I not only discovered yoga but completed a 200-hour teacher's training course. See my blog post here about my experience. One of the more interesting points I learned, was that unlike most other exercise classes, yoga is not about pushing yourself to your limit; it's about learning what is authentic to you.

The physical practice of yoga is called asana practice. These various poses, for which there are thousands, evolved as an integral part of a comprehensive spiritual practice oriented toward purification, accomplishment, and realization. Moving your body through the various asanas offers structural stability, physiological immunity, and improved emotional health. It has been said that if we started asana practice when we were young, it would help our bodies develop in a balanced way. Structurally, proper and consistent practice will promote stability, strength, flexibility, skeletal alignment, and mechanical freedom.

Take Responsibility of being a Healthy Human

Yoga is not just about the physical asanas we work to achieve, rather it is an all-encompassing practice that addresses our personal, social, and physical environment while at the same time being relaxed and at peace in our body, mind, and heart. We are challenged to do our work with full attention while at the same time providing a comfortable resting place for God in our hearts.

Our ability to be present and aware in an #asana is through the breath. It is through the breath that we can truly link the mind to the body, not at an imaginary level, but as an actual and tangible experience...(notes from my yoga journal, not properly cited to give due credit). Repetition increases circulation to our larger superficial skeletal muscles, making them stronger and more flexible. Repetition also helps us to identify habitual movement patterns and to develop new ones that are adapted to the structural and functional needs of our bodies. The most significant musculoskeletal and neuromuscular transformation occurs through this repetitive movement.

The more significant, inner purification and physiologic transformation comes through holding postures for an extended period and utilizing deep breathing techniques. These powerful internal movements activate the deepest layers of our spinal musculature which some refer to as "prana pumps." #Ashtanga is a type of yoga practice which is based on repetition, but also on coordinating one's breath with their movement. One becomes aware of their breath in coordination with movement, just as one becomes aware of the stream before they swim in it.

Ashtanga is one of the more challenging approaches to yoga, but also one of the more transformative and truly beautiful practices. I have had opportunity to learn Ashtanga with a local instructor and her passion and dedication is infectious. The flow, repeated every day for six days of the week, becomes part of who you are, deeply impeded in muscle memory so that the flow becomes entirely meditative. I share the video below not to intimidate, but to inspire.

Becoming a Master Yogi

I see it now, those who train and acquire truly sculpted bodies of great strength, but walk stiff and have limited mobility. They failed to balance their strength with flexibility. I also see it when one focuses their yoga practice entirely on the physical practice and not sufficiently on self-study or meditation. One of my mentors often says, a great yogi is not one who masters the crow; rather, a great yogi is one who learns to listen to her body. If you're listening to your body, you'll recognize your need for flexibility or strength. You'll appreciate your need for mental restoration. A master yogi is #embodied and honors her body.

No Gold Standard for Asana Practice

Part of embracing yoga means you get to explore what is unique to your body. There seems to be this desire in most of us to see someone perform a pose and want to replicate it exactly, pushing for more and more flexibility and agility. However, sometimes what we need to acknowledge is today, our body needs more rest. Today, we aren't as flexible. Today, we need more cooling, and less heat in our practice.

It also means we need to recognize where we can continue to find our edge allowing for further growth in either flexibility or strength, and where our unique structure differs from others, ultimately changing the look of our asanas. Personally, one great difference I've realized about myself is in my shoulder and even elbow extensions. Many shoulder openers will reach behind, clasping the hands together and then while leaning forward, the arms will raise up. When my hands come together behind my back, it is exceedingly hard for me to clasp my hands together (as if I were being handcuffed). In this position, my arms remain completely against my back and no amount of strength can lift them. However, if I hold a strap in my hands allowing my hands to separate, I can then raise my arms up behind my back and get a nice stretch. I had to accept that my asana will look different than others and it is honoring myself to reach for a strap when practicing this pose. Others may find limitations in their necks, hips, and even feet. Bone sometimes compresses bone whether others are allowed more stretch. Know what is unique to you and honor this.

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