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Guidelines to be observed during asana practice
- The place of practice should be clean, quiet and well ventilated. There should be no bad smells, dampness or cold draughts. The area should be uncluttered with furniture and other objects.
- Try to use the same place every day to build up an atmosphere of peace.
- Take a wash or bath and go to the toilet before the practice if possible.
- Wait for at least three hours after food before doing asanas. You can take food after your asana program if you wish.
- The best time to practise is before breakfast, early in the morning, though other times are also suitable. In fact you will find that asanas are much easier to do in the afternoon and evening, because the body is always stiff in the morning. But nevertheless, the morning is the best time for there are peaceful vibrations in the air, and you gain greater benefits and a good preparation for the coming day. Also in the early morning there are fewer pressing distractions to drag you away from your practice, either physically or mentally.
- The duration of practice should be regulated according to your available time, though the longer the better. Don’t set your aims too high in the beginning; only do as much practice as you can easily manage everyday without fail. Fifteen minutes practice every day is better than one hour’s practice on one day, none for three days and then again one hour’s practice. Many people set themselves an unrealistic program which they do for the first few days, and then the enthusiasm slowly fades and eventually they don’t practise at all. So be realistic in choosing the duration of your program, and once you have set it, stick to it regularly.
- The program of asanas should be carefully chosen. The order of practising different asanas is very important to gain maximum benefits. Certain asanas supplement each other, whereas others detract from each other. Therefore it is important to choose a systematic program.
- If you feel physically or mentally tired before or during the program perform relaxation asanas such as shavasana.
- Don’t use excessive force to attain the final positions of the asanas. Your muscles should be slowly encouraged to stretch over a period of time – not stretched and severely strained in one day. You are trying to develop mental control over the muscles and to do this one should try to will the muscles to relax and then they will automatically stretch.
- Clothing should be as light as possible under climatic conditions, so that free movement is not impeded.
- Breathing should be through the nose, not through the mouth. It should be as deep and rhythmical as possible.
- A blanket or rug should be placed on the floor at the place of practice. Don’t use a spongy mattress and don’t practise on the bare floor.
- Close your eyes as much as possible throughout the practice. This will help to intensify your awareness.
- The less physical effort that is required the better. The aim is to perform asanas with as little tension or muscular effort as possible. Often we see practitioners grating their teeth while performing asanas, in the execution of the movement to and from the final pose and while in the final position one should check that the maximum number of muscles are relaxed. This applies particularly to beginners, for eventually as you gain control over the muscles this relaxation will occur naturally.
- Don’t hurry under any circumstances. If you lack time to complete your daily program, leave out a few asanas and do the others at a normal slow, relaxed pace.
- Remember that although you should be relaxed you should not sleep or feel drowsy. You should be as wide awake as possible to gain maximum benefits. If you are sleepy, take a wash or a bath, preferably a cold one and then continue your practice.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of the movements to and from the final poses. They should be done slowly, smoothly, with control and in synchronization with the breath.
- If you feel mentally or physically tired after the program of asanas, it is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong – perhaps trying too hard or tensing the muscles too much, or tending to concentrate too hard. If you can’t see the fault seek expert guidance. You should feel calmness and strength in both mind and body at the end of your practice, far more than when you started.
- Don’t try to stretch your muscles further than is comfortable. With persistent and regular practice the muscles will elongate, whether you are at present as stiff as a board or as supple as a piece of rubber. The mental attitude is very important in this respect. If you autosuggest to yourself that you want the muscles to stretch, then the mind will automatically take steps to prepare the body to attain what you want. Remember, it is the mind that is the controller.
- There are no specific limitations on the practice of asanas with regard to age or sex. However, people who have specific illnesses should not do certain asanas. For example, a person who has high blood pressure should definitely not attempt inverted asanas, or people with a slipped disc should not try forward bending asanas. These are more obvious examples; there are many such contraindications.
- Don’t practise asanas if you are ill with a cold or diarrhoea etc. At these times the body is directing its energy to specific areas to fight the illness; let it perform its duties unimpeded.
- Proceed from the simpler asanas to the more difficult ones.
- Asanas are not competitive. If you perform your asanas in a group don’t compare yourself with others. We all have differently shaped bodies and some people are able to stretch easier than others. But this is not indicative of how well a person is performing an asana, for one person may physically perform an asana perfectly, yet his awareness is jumping from here to there; while another person may not physically perform the asana very well but his awareness may be on the movements and the breath. In this case the latter is performing the asana much better than the former.
The importance of relaxing the muscles
In most systems of physical culture, gymnastics, etc., the muscles are brought into play during contraction and strengthened. During most asanas the emphasis is on stretching the muscles. The muscles cannot stretch themselves because their mode of action is through contraction. In asanas the muscles are stretched by assuming various body positions which will automatically apply an elongation to particular muscles. A muscle can be slowly and gradually stretched by practice, so that it can eventually extend well beyond its normal limitations. This elongation squeezes out stagnant blood and allows it to be replaced by pure oxygenated blood when the muscle resumes its normal shape.
To stretch the muscles it is important that they are fully relaxed. If your muscles are tense they will automatically resist any attempt made to stretch them. This relaxation of the muscles can be developed with practice as you systematically gain control over them.
Slow and controlled movements and coordination with breath
These are necessary to induce calmness in the body and mind. Quick and sudden movements use up excessive energy, whereas the object of asanas is to conserve energy. For this reason they are done slowly. Asanas also aim at slowing down the breathing rate to improve the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs as well as to induce mental tranquillity.
Muscular control is an essential feature and aim of asanas and is attained by slow movements, not by sudden jerks. The muscles are to be stretched and this can only be done if they are relaxed; fast movements imply excessive muscular tension. During slow movements it is possible to relax the maximum number of muscles not needed for the movement.
Maintenance of final static poses
The final position is the most important part of the asana practice. During this time specific parts of the body are influenced. The body is held in such a way that certain muscles are stretched to the limit of present flexibility and certain organs are given the best possible squeeze or massage and extra blood is directed to or removed from particular regions. This period of immobility is the time when profound and beneficial changes are occurring in the body. With some asanas it is also a time when deep states of concentration can be reached if the final position is held for extended periods of time. Correct, relaxed respiration is essential in the final static position in order to accentuate the influence of the asana on the body by increasing the massage of the internal organs and by stimulating the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide through the blood.
We have already emphasized the importance of avoiding mental tension caused by forced concentration. You should be aware of your mental patterns and extraneous thoughts that occur while practising asanas, but at the same time you should try to be aware of the asana being performed. All other thoughts – a cup of tea, worries about business or whatever – will automatically evaporate. The result will be calmness and peace of mind.
What facet of the practice should one be aware of during the performance of an asana?
This will be explained as we cover each asana. However, the following is a rough guide to the possibilities.
- While learning the asana your attention should be on correct performance. You can also be aware of relaxing as many muscles as possible to make the asana easier to perform and more effective.
- You can be aware of the physical movement, or of the breath while assuming the final pose.
- In the final position you can be aware of your breath, mantra or the parts of the body that the asana particularly influences.
Relaxation after completion of asanas
This is nearly as important as the asana itself. When one completely relaxes, the organs and muscles return to their normal shape. As such they are flooded with an influx of purified blood to replace the blood that has been squeezed out in performance of the asana. During this resting state the circulatory and respiratory systems also return to normal. During this practice of relaxation one should try to relax the body and mind completely maintaining awareness of the body and the breath.