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Most people today are physically very stiff. you can test this for yourself: from a standing position, keep your legs straight and bending forwards try to touch your toes with your hands. If you can’t (please do not force or strain), then this shows that your body is stiff. Because of this stiffness most people cannot sit in one position for a very long time, as is necessary in higher yogic practices, without feeling the urge to move their limbs in response to discomfort. The following simple exercises are designed to generally loosen up your body and prepare you for eventual mastery of meditational asanas. There are many possible loosening up exercises, far too many for daily practice. The following exercises are selected ones which we feel give optimum results, especially when performed systematically in the order that we have described them.
- Practise in a well ventilated, unobstructed room. Do not practise in a gale-force wind or draught.
- Use a folded blanket or rug placed on the floor.
- Wear comfortable clothing which doesn’t obstruct free movement. Use common sense in this respect.
- Please do not use unnecessary strain or force in any of the exercises. Though you may find that your muscles are a little stiff to begin with, they will begin to stretch even after a few days of regular practice.
GOOLF GHOORNAN (ANKLE CRANK)
The first of these pre-meditative asanas loosens up the ankle joints.
- Sit on a blanket.
- Stretch both legs out in front of the body.
- Bend the right leg.
- Hold the right ankle with the right hand.
- Place the right foot on the left thigh, as near as possible to the groin.
- Hold the right toes with the left hand.
- Mentally say to yourself: “I am loosening up my ankle joints and with practice they will become loose.”
- Simultaneously rotate your ankle 10 times clockwise.
- Try to relax your foot as much as possible, rotating your foot about the ankle with your left hand.
- Repeat 10 times anticlockwise.
- Repeat the whole process, 10 times clockwise and 10 anticlockwise, with the left foot folded on the right thigh.
ARDHA TITALI ASANA (HALF BUTTERFLY)
This exercise specifically loosens up the thigh, knee and ankle joints.
- Remain sitting as in the previous exercise.
- Fold the left leg.
- Place the left foot on the right thigh.
- Place the left hand on the top of the bent left knee.
- Relax your whole body, especially the folded leg.
- Gently push the left knee up and down.
- The bent leg should be as relaxed as possible, the movement being applied by the left arm.
- Simultaneously, mentally repeat to yourself: “I am loosening up my ankle, knee and hip joints and will eventually be able to touch the floor with my folded knee.”
- Move your knee up and down 50 times.
- After completing slowly straighten your bent leg, without jerking or twisting the knee.
- Then bend your leg, bringing your heel to the buttocks and lastly straighten it again. This releases muscular tension.
- Fold your right foot on to your left thigh.
- Repeat the same process, moving your right knee up and down 50 times.
Note: With practice and the right mental approach everyone should eventually be able to touch the knees to the ground. We emphasize that you must adopt the correct mental attitude; in other words, if you expect to eventually touch the floor with your knees, then you will.
Shroni Chakra (HIP ROTATION)
This exercise helps to strengthen the muscles and joints of the legs in preparation for meditational poses.
- Fold the left foot on the right thigh as in the previous exercise.
- Hold the bent knee with the left hand.
- Rotate the knee clockwise 10 times.
- Simultaneously mentally repeat to yourself: “I am loosening up my legs and will eventually be able to touch the floor with my knees.”
- Allow your bent leg to remain passive, using the force of the left arm to rotate the knee.
- Repeat 10 times anticlockwise.
- Now straighten your bent leg, without jerking or twisting the knee.
- Bend the leg once, bringing the right heel near the buttock- Then straighten the leg. This removes muscular tension and further loosens the joints.
- Repeat the same procedure with the other leg folded.
Note: We emphasize the importance of the mental repetition while performing the exercises. The whole point of it is to loosen up the legs so that you can eventually touch the knees on the ground. If you don’t have this goal in mind, the exercise is 75% less effective. Some people may find the exercise easier if they hold the foot of the folded leg with the opposite hand while rotating the knee with the other arm.
UTTHANASANA (SQUAT AND RISE POSE)
This exercise strengthens and loosens the whole leg, specifically the knees. When it is perfected, one should be able to squat comfortably on the ground with both heels flat on the floor.
- Stand erect with your feet about 1 metre apart Interlock your fingers in front of your abdomen and allow your arms to hang freely Slowly bend your knees and lower your trunk about 20 cms.
- Return to the erect position.
- Again descend, this time slightly lower.
- Return to the erect position again.
- Lower the body again.
- Your hands should be 30 cms above the floor.
- Rise again.
- Lower to the final lowered position with hands on the floor. Return to an erect position and relax.
Note: The final position, practised with hands on the knees, is known as kagasana, the crow pose.
KAWA CHALASANA (CROW WALKING)
This again is an excellent exercise for loosening and strengthening the legs.
Assume kagasana. Make sure the palms are on your knees. Start slowly to walk in this position. You can either walk on tiptoe or keeping the feet flat on the floor. Spend half of your practice on tiptoe and the other half of your practice on the flats of your feet.
CHAKKI CHALANASANA (CHURNING THE MILL)
This is an excellent exercise for shoulders, lower back, lower abdomen and waist. It is a movement which many Indian ladies use when they grind corn between two grinding wheels.
- Sit on the floor with the legs outstretched, feet apart.
- Interlock your fingers.
- Straighten your arms at shoulder height.
- Rotate your hands in as big a circle as possible on a horizontal plane.
- Keep your arms straight throughout the whole exercise.
- Lean forward and try to make your interlocked hands pass over the top of the feet at the outer stroke of the circle.
- Then try to lean backwards as far as possible, keeping your feet on the ground, so that your hands pass over the top of your thighs.
- Rotate your hands 10 times clockwise, then 10 times anticlockwise.
- Lie back and relax yourself completely.
Breathe in as you lean backwards. Breathe out as you lean forwards. When you can easily perform the physical movement alone, coordinate your breathing with the movement. When the practice has been mastered with the breathing added, then become aware of the movement of the muscles of the lower back as the exercise is performed.
GATYATMAK MERU VAKRASANA (DYNAMIC SPINAL TWIST)
This exercise gives the whole spine a good twist in both directions and thereby loosens up the vertebrae and tones important spinal nerves.
- Remain in the same sitting position as the previous exercise.
- Separate your legs as far apart as is comfortable.
- Raise the arms on each side of the body to shoulder height, keeping them straight.
- The arms should stay in a straight line throughout the exercise.
- Lean forward and touch your left foot with your right hand.
- In this position the left arm should point backwards, in exactly the opposite direction to the right arm.
- Both arms should form one straight line.
- The head should be turned to gaze at the arm extended behind you.
- Now twist your trunk in the opposite direction, touching the right foot with the left hand, the head turned in the opposite direction towards the right hand behind the back.
- This is 1 round. Do 10 to 20 rounds.
- As the body becomes more flexible the legs should be spread further apart.
- Keep the legs straight throughout the exercise.
Inhale as you twist the body to either side and exhale as you centre your body.
GREEVA SANCHALANA (NECK MOVEMENTS)
All nerves connecting the different parts of the body must pass through the neck to reach the brain. The following movements tone up these vital nerves and generally loosen up the neck vertebrae. It is also an excellent method of reducing tension and inducing calmness of mind. It can also help relieve headaches caused by too much tension in the neck and shoulder regions.
- Sit cross-legged.
- Rest your hands on your lap.
- Relax your whole body.
- Let your shoulders drop; make sure they are not hunched.
- Close your eyes.
- With control, very slowly tilt the head forwards.
- Then slowly return the head to the upright position.
- Slowly tilt the head backwards.
- Then tilt the head forward again to a normal position.
- This is 1 round.
- The whole movement should be completed in 1 smooth motion.
- Do 10 rounds.
- Slowly rotate your head clockwise in as large a circle as possible.
- Ensure that the shoulders are remain as relaxed as possible throughout the practice.
- Rotate 5 to 10 times.
- Then repeat the same rotation in the anticlockwise direction.
- Throughout the practice watch the space in front of the closed eyes.
- Try to imagine that your body is floating in this space and that your head is detached from your body. This will help to induce relaxation.
- Bend the head to each side, with the ear going towards the shoulder, in the same slow motion that was performed in the previous exercise.
- Do 10 rounds.
- We recommend that the time of rotation for 1 round be reduced to 15 seconds eventually.
Premeditative exercises are intended to prepare the body for meditative asanas, in which one remains in a specific sitting pose for a certain duration of time. This is the second group of such exercises given, and in the next lesson we will introduce all the important classical meditative asanas. It is necessary to describe these asanas at an early stage in this book so that you are able to participate effectively in the meditative practices described in the future, as well as the ones already covered. To practise these meditative asanas one must have reasonably supple legs; they are very difficult with stiff legs. For this reason we intend to recapitulate the relevant exercises that we have already discussed for loosening up the legs, and introduce you to a few more. Regular and earnest practice of the following exercises will help to loosen up even the stiffest legs and help to prepare you to at least attempt some of the advanced meditation asanas.
The following exercises are excellent for loosening up the legs:
- Ardha titali asana (half butterfly)
- Kawa chalasana (crow walking)
- Shroni chakra (hip rotation)
- Poorna titali asana (full butterfly)
- Kashtha takshanasana (chopping wood)
- Vayu nishkasana (wind releasing pose)
These last three exercises we will cover in this topic. Actually all asanas loosen up the legs in one way or another, but the six that we have given are particularly useful for people initiating a serious practice of meditation.
POORNA TITALI ASANA (FULL BUTTERFLY POSE)
This practice is so called because the legs move up and down like a butterfly’s wings, and when mastered it loosens the rigidity of the muscles and tendons in the groins which prevent the knees from touching the ground during meditative asanas.
- Sit on the floor with the legs extended in front of the body.
- Bend the legs sideways and place the soles of both feet in contact with each other.
- Don’t strain, but try to slide the feet as near as possible towards the buttocks keeping the soles in contact.
- Hold the feet with the two hands.
- Place both the elbows in contact with the inside tops of the thighs.
- Then gently push the knees of both legs towards the ground, using the elbows as levers.
- After a short duration release the legs and allow them to rise upwards.
- Again push the legs downwards.
- Without strain, try to push the knees as close as possible to the ground.
- Repeat this movement as often as available time will permit; up to 10 or 20 times is reasonable.
- Release the hold of the hands on the feet.
- Keep the legs in the same position.
- Place the hands on the knees; some people will find this a little difficult, but try.
- Relax the legs as much as you can.
- Using the arms push the knees up and down.
- Try not to utilize the leg muscles in this practice.
- Do this as many times as you want; 20 to 40 times is a reasonable number if you have the time.
KASHTHA TAKSHANASANA (CHOPPING WOOD)
This may seem a difficult way to chop wood but it is certainly an excellent method of loosening up the legs. Many people will find this exercise quite difficult for it is very easy to topple backwards when raising the arms.
- Assume a squatting position.
- Try to place the soles of the feet flat on the floor, with the knees fully bent and separated.
- Beginners, if they wish, can do this exercise with their backs close to a wall, but try to depend as little as possible on the aid of the wall for support.
- Clasp the hands together.
- Straighten the arms in front of the body.
- Then while inhaling raise your straight arms as high as possible above the head (see accompanying picture).
- Exhale while lowering the arms.
- This is 1 round. Practise as many times as you can – up to 10 or 20.
- Don’t strain, for this is a position that few people use in everyday life. However, in India, people habitually squat for long periods of time while eating, talking, working and many other activities. In fact, many Indians are far more comfortable in a squatting position than sitting in a chair.
VAYU NISHKASANA (WIND RELEASING POSE)
As the name suggests this is an excellent practice for removing wind, and at the same time it stretches and loosens up the muscles of the legs.
- Assume a squatting position.
- Again if necessary sit with your back to a wall.
- Grasp the feet with the hands, keeping the arms inside the legs (refer to figure 1).
- Then inhale and raise your head.
- Exhale and straighten the legs, while simultaneously pointing the top of the head towards the ground.
- This is shown in figure 2.
- The legs should be as straight as possible but without strain.
- Maintain this pose for a short period and hold the breath.
- Then while inhaling, bend the knees and return to the squatting position.
- This is 1 round. Do up to 10 rounds.
Note: the hands must hold onto the feet throughout the practice.
Many people will find some of these practices a little difficult at first. Do not become discouraged, only do your best. With regular practice these six exercises will definitely loosen up your legs, especially when supplemented with other asanas. Practise these exercises whenever you have the time. They can be done at any time (except directly after meals) and in any place. Aim to do all six, for they each have a part to play in making your legs more supple. The more you practise them the more likely you are to achieve the flexibility needed to eventually master the classical meditative asanas. Remember, an essential factor in loosening up the legs is your mental attitude. If you attempt these six exercises and find that your legs are too stiff, don’t immediately despair and stop the practices. In this case you have almost defeated yourself before you have begun. No matter how stiff your legs, you must believe that with practice and time they will eventually become supple.