PART 2 Asana. The Primary Series
Like the entire creation, the names of the asanas can be divided into four groups: lifeless forms, animal forms, human forms, and divine forms.
Asanas such as Trikonasana (Triangle Posture) and Navasana (Boat Posture), representing lifeless forms, occur predominantly in the Primary Series.
The Intermediate or Second Series is dominated by postures named after animals, for example Shalabasana (Locust Posture), Kapotasana (Pigeon Posture), and Krounchasana (Heron Posture).
The human race is represented by asanas dedicated to the ancient rishis. Examples are Marichyasana (Posture of the Rishi Marichi), Bharadvajasana (Posture of the Rishi Bharadvaja), andDurvasasana (Posture of the Rishi Durvasa).
Asanas named after divine forms — such as Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Posture), Hanumanasana (Posture of Lord Hanuman), and Skandasana (Posture Dedicated to Lord Kartikeya) — occur, like those dedicated to rishis, mainly in the Advanced A or Third Series.
The Yogic Approach
The Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice is a movement meditation. The goal is that every breath taken becomes a conscious one. The set sequence, the consistent flow, the internal holding of the bandhas, thedrishti, and listening to the sound of the Ujjayi pranayama are all techniques designed to withdraw the senses.
This facilitates focused concentration so that meditation becomes possible. Absence of the Ujjayi sound, shallow breathing, and fidgeting usually indicate that the mind has taken over and focus has been lost.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives three stanzas on asana.1 Their simplicity is profound.
Posture is steadiness and ease.
True posture is then when effort ceases and meditation on infinity occurs.
In asana there is no assault from the pairs of opposites.
Posture is steadiness and ease.
This stanza describes the qualities of posture. Steadiness implies effort and strength. Ease implies relaxation and release. These opposites are complementary. The effort required to build a strong body produces steadiness and gives ease of posture.
True posture is then when effort ceases and meditation on infinity occurs.
The ultimate aim of any limb of yoga is for us to experience our true nature. In practice, and in the following descriptions of how to perform each posture, sensitivity, awareness, and heightened concentration are demanded. Eventually, when the posture is known, we can drop the details and “be” in the posture. Effort ceases; the posture is expressed from within; meditation on infinity occurs. Infinity is a quality of our true nature.
In asana there is no assault from the pairs of opposites.
Steadiness and ease are themselves a pair of opposites, and yet, when in balance, each supports and allows the other to express itself fully. With excess effort the body becomes insensitive and the mind agitated. With excess ease the body becomes sluggish and the mind dull. Both aspects of this duality must be embraced. In his book Awareness through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais points out that, if one lifts an iron bar and a fly alights on it, no difference can be noticed. If, however, you hold a feather you will notice if a fly lands on or takes off from it. With excess effort there is no room for improvement, as full effort has already been exerted. Sensitivity reserves the space to observe differences, to adapt the posture and to learn. In the space between the opposites, the mind falls still.
Action and Counteraction / Posture and Counterposture
These opposites also exist as fundamental differences between the actions that transport us into a posture and those that maintain it. As a rule of thumb, actions that take us into a posture need to be reversed when working in the posture itself. For example, while forward bending is performed by the hip flexors, once we are in the posture we use the hamstrings, which are hip extensors.2 Backbending is performed by the trunk extensors, but once in the posture we counteract these by engaging the abdominal muscles. To arrive in Baddha Konasana we use the external hip rotators; once in the posture we use the internal hip rotators.
The fact that every action performed in yoga does not continue endlessly means that we automatically perform the opposing action to counteract it and so reach a balanced state. As each posture is balanced by a counterposture, so each action within the posture is balanced by its counteraction until a neutral position is reached.
The neutral position is that in which the initial action has been balanced and correct alignment has been achieved. Alignment is correct when steadiness and lightness in the posture are achieved, holding it becomes effortless, and meditation is possible. This state is reached when all actions are balanced by opposing actions.
The posture remains alive and active as we continually play with balancing these opposites.
How to Stretch
There are three ways to stretch in a posture: passive, active, and dynamic/ballistic stretching. An example of passive stretching would be folding your torso forward from a standing position and then just hanging from your hip joints with your arms dangling down or your elbows clasped. Passive stretching is relatively ineffective, as it takes a long time to produce results. A person with high muscle tension could hang in a passive stretch for half an hour without getting very far.
This type of stretching has the added disadvantage of not protecting the muscle stretched. For example, if in the posture previously described we reached for the toes and drew the torso down with our arms, the stretch would mainly be taken at the origin of the hamstring muscles, the ischial tuberosities, which are a part of the sit bones. This can result in tearing of muscle fibers, the so-called pulling of the hamstrings. Another downside of passive stretching is that it does not build strength to support the flexibility gained.
The technique employed in Ashtanga Yoga is active stretching. In this type of stretching we use an inherent reflex without which the body could not move. Whenever a muscle contracts, its antagonist (the muscle with the opposite function) releases. To understand this reflex one may look at the elbow joint. When the biceps (biceps brachii) contracts, the triceps (triceps brachii) releases, so that the elbow may be flexed. If the triceps also contracted, the elbow could not move. Likewise, when the triceps contracts, the nervous system simultaneously sends a signal to the biceps to release, and the elbow is extended.
A muscle that is being stretched will receive a signal to release when the opposing muscle is activated. In addition to gravity, it will also be stretched by the strength of the opposing muscle. At the same time, the opposing muscle will be exercised and increase in strength. With this method we will be able to close a joint — flex it — to about 85 percent. To access the remaining 15 percent, we will use a technique we call “active release,” which is covered later.
The other form of stretching is dynamic stretching, mainly used in martial arts, rhythmic gymnastics, and calisthenics. Here one uses momentum to stretch. It is not often employed in yoga as it is considered too forceful. There are some exceptions in Vinyasa Yoga, such as Supta Konasana in the Primary Series and Supta Vajrasana in the Intermediate Series. Dropping into a backbend from standing, handstand drop-backs, and Viparita Chakrasana are other examples of dynamic stretching.
Apart from these exceptions, active stretching is used in the whole of the Ashtanga Yoga practice.
Full Vinyasa versus Half Vinyasa
With the full-vinyasa system, one returns to Samasthiti (the basic standing posture) between each and every asana. The format I learned from Shri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore was the half-vinyasa system. This has one return to Samasthiti between different standing postures but transiting from one sitting posture to the next without coming to standing. This approach appears to be the more common one today.
It can be advisable to practice full vinyasa for some time to improve strength and stamina, for example after recovery from disease or to speed up metabolism. The full-vinyasa approach has an intensified flushing effect and can stimulate a sluggish liver. Although full vinyasa is more work, it also allows time for the practitioner “to come up for air” so to speak, and may actually de-intensify a practice. It certainly does eventually repay the energy expended. However, as a long-term practice it may be difficult to sustain.
If you practice in a hot country, you will heat up quickly. This is especially true of males. Care needs to be taken not to overheat if one is engaging in strenuous practice in a hot environment. As with any type of engine, so also with the human body: overheating is not good. Sweating is healthy, but if sweat drips from the body it is a sign that the body is no longer able to cool itself adequately. Sweating to this degree on a daily basis literally drains life force from the body. A temperature of 68°F would be ideal for practice, with a range of 15° below and above that still possible, but practice speed needs to be adapted — faster when it’s cold to increase heat and slower when it’s hot to cool down. On a hot day, focus on the cooling quality of the breath.
Heating the yoga room to above 77° may produce more flexibility, but it decreases strength, stamina, and concentration. If yoga were only about flexibility, contortionists would be the greatest yogis. It is worth noting that extreme flexibility is often a result of biochemical imbalance. True posture is about the ability to focus deeply within.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa practice attempts to balance flexibility with strength. Real yoga “will walk the edge between opposing extremes.”3 Rather than desperately cranking ourselves into one particular direction in a posture, we expand simultaneously in all directions. The first pair of opposites that we discover in physical yoga is strength/flexibility. Excess flexibility is an obstacle because it means loss of strength and vice versa. We should never build up a degree of flexibility that is not matched by the necessary support strength. On the other hand, building up great strength without increasing one’s flexibility restricts the range of joint movement.
A heated yoga room helps flexibility because it increases vata and pitta. A cold yoga room helps strength because it increases kapha.4 A cold room also increases awareness and attention to detail. We have to study the posture more deeply to get to the same point in a cold room, but this pays off in terms of benefits. There is more learning if the temperature is low, and the body becomes sturdier due to the awakening of physical intelligence. We can avoid this process by turning up the thermostat, but everybody who has worked through a couple of winters with only moderate heating values the gain in refinement that it brings.
If temperatures are high, proper ventilation is necessary. The western fashion of keeping all windows closed in sweltering temperatures so that you can see puddles of sweat on the floor is surprising, considering that I have never seen a yoga room in India that even had closeable windows. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika warns in several places of the dangers of too much heat and too much heating, by staying too close to the fire for example, and also of excess physical exertion. Getting too cold, for instance by taking cold morning baths, is also not recommended. The idea here is moderation: staying away from the extremes and abiding in the center. Once a yogi is fully established, however, extremes will no longer be of concern.
Samasthiti is the basic standing posture. We stand with the base of our big toes touching and the heels slightly apart so that the feet are parallel. The straight line of the foot is from the second toe to the center of the heel. If we were to bring the heels together, the thighbones (femurs) would be outwardly rotated to a slight extent.
We start by establishing Ujjayi breathing with a smooth and even sound. The rib cage expands evenly in all four directions, and the bandhas are consciously engaged if they have not automatically been initiated with the breath. The inhalation reaches down in front of the spine and hooks into the pelvic floor, creating a lifting sensation from the center of the perineum (Mula Bandha). At the same time, the lower abdominal wall, between the navel and the pubic bone, gently draws in toward the spine. The natural up-and-down movement of the diaphragm and the accompanying movement of the upper abdomen or stomach area are unrestricted.
The toes spread as one would spread one’s fingers, in order to completely awaken the feet. The weight of the body is placed above the ankles and equally distributes to all four corners of the feet — the bases of the large and little toes and the inside and outside edges of the heels. The body weight is also evenly distributed between the inner and outer arches of the foot, while the arches are lifted and active. The action of the toes influences the pubic bone while the heels relate to the tailbone (coccyx).
The fronts of the thighs are contracted, with the quadriceps pulling up the kneecaps. Quadriceps means four heads, referring to the four points of origin of this large muscle group. All four heads join into the common quadriceps tendon, which leads down to the shin. The kneecap (patella), a floating bone, is embedded within it.
Many students will have to tilt the pelvis posteriorly (backward), which reduces any excess curvature in the low back and makes one stand taller. This movement is achieved by engaging the abdominal muscles, which lifts the pubic bone as the coccyx drops. The strength of the legs creates a vector of energy whose resonance is felt up the entire length of the body’s core.
The front of the rib cage, the sternum, is lifted. (In common with many teachers, I will refer to this area as the heart.) One way of doing this pinches the shoulder blades (scapulae) together, which puffs the chest out as in a military posture of attention. This leads to a hardening and closing of the area behind the heart. Instead, as the heart is lifted, the area of the back behind the kidneys broadens and the shoulder blades widen and gently sink down the back. The shoulder blades flatten onto the back of the chest and support the elevated and open position of the heart area. The lower ribs in the front of the chest soften back in toward the body. The arms may need to be “looped”5 in the shoulder joint to reposition the head of the arm bone (humerus) so that it sits in the center of the shoulder joint. These actions leave the chest open and broad in all directions. The rib cage and lungs are free to expand, facilitating a full, free-flowing breath.
The bony vertebrae of the spine house the spinal cord, and its nerve ends exit between each vertebral body. The strong outer form of every posture supports the spine, enabling it to be fluid and extend freely. The nervous system remains unimpaired. This is the inner integrity that should be maintained within every posture.
Many chronic diseases, aches, and cultural ailments do not come from sick organs but from poor posture, which results in compression of the spine and impairment of the spinal nerves. Restoring the spine to its original state can alleviate these symptoms.
The spine becomes weak through lack of exercise and eventually loses its alignment due to weakness of the core muscles of the body. In many cases the spine actually shortens. The vinyasamethod is an ideal tool to invigorate the spine and restore its natural elasticity. Any hardening, or any inability to extend the spine in a posture, is a sign of overexertion.
The chin drops slightly while the ears move back in line with the shoulders. Drawing the ears back in line with the shoulders corrects the common postural condition of a forward head, where the ears are positioned in front of the shoulders when viewed from the side. In some cases this may measure more than four inches, which usually indicates that one’s mind is racing ahead of one’s actions. At the other extreme, those who remain in the past with their thoughts will often lean well back when they stand.
SPINE WITH PELVIS AND CRANIUM
The human spine has four natural curves. The first primary curve, developed in the fetal stage of life, is kyphotic and is retained throughout life in the thoracic spine and the sacrum. The first secondary curve (lordotic) is developed in the neck (cervical spine) as a baby lifts and supports the weight of its head. The second lordotic curve, in the lumbar spine, develops during infancy upon standing and walking. These natural curvatures complement each other and reduce the compressive forces placed upon an upright spine. Work to balance any imbalance or excesses within this natural form. Care should be taken to avoid a “military stance,” which is a lack or excess of any one of these natural curves.
FIGURE 2 ERECTOR SPINAE
The erector spinae keeps the spine and thus the torso upright. Since it is situated posterior to the spine, it extends the spine (bends it backward) as it contracts. Its origin on the posterior crest of the ilium (hip bone) and the sacrum enables it to excessively curve the low back if it is permanently shortened.
The insertion of the erector spinae at the base of the skull enables it to take the head back. The many layers of the erector spinae also originate and insert at the transverse and spinous processes of most vertebrae and at the ribs, through which this complex muscle can maintain the integrity of the spine.
Equal distribution of the weight of the body in the feet is imperative for balanced posture. When the body weight is placed too far forward in the feet, the low back (lumbar spine) hollows excessively (hyperlordosis) as the sacrum and coccyx lift. This puts excessive compressive forces onto the lumbar intervertebral discs and tightens the corresponding musculature (erector spinae and quadratus lumborum).
At the same time this positioning of the pelvis causes the abdominal muscles to release and weaken and the ribs to flare open. The area of the back behind the kidneys tightens and constricts, while the neck straightens, losing its natural lordotic curve, in an attempt to compensate for the excessive curvature produced in the lumbar spine and to bring the head back in line with the body’s center of gravity.
On the other hand, if the weight is too far back in the feet, the hamstrings tighten and draw the pelvis and coccyx down in the back, while the pubic bone lifts at the front of the pelvis. As the body always strives toward equilibrium, this posture is usually accompanied by an increased curvature in the chest or thoracic spine (hyperkyphosis). The heart area collapses and the abdominals tighten. The shoulders round and the head shifts forward as the body compensates in an attempt to keep the center of gravity over the feet.
If too much weight is placed on the inside of the feet, the inner arches will collapse, placing stress on the medial menisci of the knees. This usually results in an anterior tilt of the pelvis, leading to excessive lumbar curvature.
To complete the picture, lift the highest point of the back of the head up toward the ceiling without losing the grounding of the feet. This action elongates and awakens the entire spine. Indian yogis have the exemplary tendency to humbly cast their gaze downward in Samasthiti. T. Krishnamacharya suggested that not to look down is to lose one’s head.
Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa one, correct shoulder position (left) and incorrect shoulder position (right)
The ideal alignment in Samasthiti is reached when all the major joints of the body — ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders — align one above the other, creating a vertical line that also passes through the ears. This establishes a posture with the least resistance to the forces of gravity, making effortless standing a possibility. Samasthiti is the blueprint for all other postures. Allow lightness and balance to be your guide.
Surya Namaskara A
SUN SALUTATION A
Drishti Thumbs, nose, navel
Surya Namaskara means Sun Salutation. It is traditionally done facing east, to greet the rising sun. Surya, the sun, is worshiped in many cultures as the giver of life; so too in India. The Sun Salutation is a warm-up exercise that is done a number of times to improve cardiovascular fitness. Surya Namaskara A is usually repeated five times, but more can be done on cold days, less in extreme heat — until the body feels awake and balanced. This sequence of asanas is also practiced to alleviate depression. It is said to bring health and vitality to the body and sunlight to the spirit.
At the beginning of the inhalation turn the palms out and reach far out to the sides and up, embracing as much space as possible until your palms are together above your head. The neck should always move as an extension of the spine, as indeed it is. The gaze lifts at the same pace as the lift of the arms. When the palms meet we are gazing up to the thumbs. The movement of the arms, the shifting of the gaze, and the movement of the breath should all be perfectly synchronized. This needs to be deeply understood, as it applies to the whole of the practice.
The lifting of the arms originates deep in the abdomen. This is done by hooking the breath into the abdomen and letting the power of the inhalation lift the arms. All lifting and upward movements are performed on the inhalation. The breath initiates each move and brings intelligence, grace, and ease to movement and posture.
When raising the arms, prevent hunching the shoulders up around the ears by actively drawing the shoulder blades down the back. This not only looks more elegant, but also prevents jamming of the neck (cervical) vertebrae and sets the correct pattern for arm balances and backbends. When looking up, do not throw the head back so that the face is parallel to the ceiling. This would be done either by collapsing the back of the neck or by overcontracting the trapezius muscle at the back of the neck.
The action of the latissimus dorsi in drawing the shoulder blades toward the hips is anatomically called the depression of the shoulder girdle. Belonging to the outermost layer of muscles on the body, this muscle is difficult to overwork — in fact strengthening and toning of the latissimus dorsi relieves the burden usually placed on the trapezius and the other muscles that elevate the shoulder blades. The ideal approach is to commence training this muscle early.
Either way, it achieves no strength and offers no support to the neck. Instead, lift the chin to the ceiling, elongate the neck and the trapezius by engaging the latissimus dorsi muscle (the muscle that draws the shoulder blades down the back), and keep the back of the neck supported.
The head gently tilts on the atlas, the first of the neck vertebra. In Greek mythology, Atlas was the god who carried the world on his shoulders. This vertebra is also called C1, being the first of the seven cervical vertebrae.
As we commence the exhalation, the pelvis begins to tip forward. On the way down, lead with the heart. The heart area remains lifted and open; do not collapse the chest. The arms are lowered at either side until eventually the hands are placed onto the floor, with the fingertips in line with the toes. Beginners and those with tight and shortened hamstring muscles should take care to keep the low back straight. As necessary, bend the knees when the pelvis no longer folds forward and the low back begins to round instead. Rounding of the low back places strain on the discs of the lumbar spine, eliminating the intended action of stretching the ham-string muscles. Even with the knees bent, one needs to feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
FIGURE 3 TRAPEZIUS AND LATISSIMUS DORSI
When the arms are raised above the head, the movement of the humerus is accompanied by an upward rotation of the scapula (shoulder blade). This upward rotation is performed by the trapezius muscle. At the same time, the trapezius performs the action of taking the head back and of elevating the shoulder girdle, which leads to hunching the shoulders up around the ears as the arms are raised. This tendency needs to be counteracted by engaging the antagonist of the trapezius, the latissimus dorsi. Engaging the latissimus dorsi draws the shoulder blades down the back and thus keeps the neck elongated.
Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa two
All stretching needs to be done with sensitivity and awareness. In this way we work with, rather than against, the body. The breath is a great sensory tool that carries the natural intelligence of the body. It enables us to sensitize our awareness and thereby regulate the intensity of the stretch. As we inhale, we explore the new territory created and explored. This is the creative aspect of the posture. As we exhale, we release and relax into the new space gained. If you cannot breathe freely and extend the spine with your exhalation, you are trying too hard. All postures need to be worked with awareness, sensitivity and intelligence.
Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa three
The abdominal muscles should be firm and supportive but not overcontracted, as this action would shorten the spine. At the end of the exhalation the crown of the head points down toward the floor. The neck is extended, with the head acting as a weight to lengthen the entire spine. Action is forever present in the feet, with the legs long, strong, and supportive. The groins are deep and soft (seePadangushtasana, page 37, for more details). The spine remains passive as it spills out of the hips, and only the shoulders are supported and lifted away from the ears.
With the inhalation, lift the whole torso, attempting to concave or at least flatten out the low back while gazing up between the eyebrows. Unless one is extremely flexible, it is recommended to lift the hands off the floor and let only the fingertips keep contact with it. The legs work strongly, and the torso is buoyant, supported by the extensor muscles of the back. Keep the heart lifted, broaden the shoulders, draw the shoulder blades down the back, and press them on to the back. This positioning of the shoulders prepares them to take the weight of the body for the jump-back into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa four (Chaturanga Dandasana) — beginner’s stance (above), final stance (below)
Vinyasa Four (Chaturanga Dandasana)
With the beginning of the exhalation, firmly ground your hands. The hands should be shoulder width apart, the middle fingers parallel to each other and the fingers spread. As the exhalation proceeds, move the feet back with a single hop so that the body forms a straight line from the head to the feet. Land the feet so that they are hip width apart and flex them. Completing the exhalation, slowly bend the arms, lowering your body until you hover just above the floor. The elbows hug the body. Do not allow them to wander out to the sides: this stiffens the shoulders and tightens the pectoralis minor muscle. On the way down, the movement should be even, with the heart leading the way. Lift your face away from the floor to strengthen and support the back of the neck. By extending out through the heels, the coccyx drops, which lengthens the low back and positions the pelvis correctly for Upward Facing Dog, which follows. This action is balanced by an equal extension of the chest forward. The entire spine lengthens and the lower abdomen lifts away from the floor to support the lumbar spine.
Stance for Beginners
As depicted in the top photo above, beginners may adopt a longer stance in Chaturanga Dandasana so that, on lowering down, the shoulders remain above the hands. Experienced students can work toward vertical forearms, tracking the elbows directly above the wrists on lowering the body. On moving into Upward Facing Dog, we aim toward positioning the shoulders above the wrists. Viewed from the side, the arms are perpendicular to the floor.
Vinyasa Five (Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana — Upward Facing Dog)
Initiating the movement with an inhalation, straighten your arms and draw your chest forward, rolling the toes over until the feet point away from you. Press the tops of your feet down into the floor, using them as brakes to resist the forward-dragging action of the arms. Combined, these actions put the back in traction and elongate the spine.
Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa five (Upward Facing Dog)
Rather than rolling the shoulders back (which pinches the shoulder blades together by contracting the rhomboid muscles and leads to a closing behind the heart), keep the shoulder blades wide (serratus anterior muscle) and draw them down the back (latissimus dorsi). Rolling the shoulders back will free up the chest to move forward and puff out proudly like that of a lion. Imagine the arms as the upright support of a swing, the shoulder joints as the fulcrum, and the chest as the seat of the swing. Slide the heart through the arms to gain length in the spine. The lowest ribs now move forward and lift upward.
Lifting the chin to the ceiling and keeping the back of the neck long, the head is taken back. Those with previous whiplash injuries should avoid this movement and keep the neck straight, gazing down toward the tip of the nose; this will prevent overcontraction of the back of the neck. Students who are in need of inducing more backbend can look up between the eyebrows. At the same time be careful not to limit the backbend to the neck only.
This posture is frequently confused with Bhujangasana (Cobra) from Hatha Yoga, and often hybrids between the two postures can be observed. Upward Facing Dog is distinctly different. As well as the arms being straight, the legs are kept strong and straight, so much so that the knees remain off the floor. The strength in the legs provides support for the lumbar spine. By keeping the legs straight, the stretch is taken in the front of the hip joint, lengthening the hip flexor muscles, which is imperative in all backbending postures. It is important to draw forward with the arms and lengthen the whole spine, rather than to collapse and dip into the low back. Incorrectly performed, this posture can easily lead to low-back pain. Performed correctly, it can relieve back pain caused by spending long hours sitting at a desk or in a driver’s seat.
The place where the spine meets the head (the cranium) is one of the important junctions of the spine. The others are the last cervical vertebra (C7) and the first thoracic vertebra (T1); the last thoracic vertebra (T12) and first lumbar vertebra (L1); and where the last lumbar vertebra (L5) articulates with the sacrum (S1-5). Laterally, the sacrum articulates with the pelvis, the sacroiliac (SI) joints. These are all areas where the spine encounters greater stresses. These areas have muscle attachments that work in opposing directions to equip us with a greater range of movement possibilities. It is therefore important to work these areas with awareness and respect in regard to their structural limitations and their vulnerability.
At the same time, the rectus abdominis muscle (the six-pack muscle) must be engaged to anchor the lower ribs and prevent them flaring open. Flaring the lower ribs accentuates swaying of the low back. The rectus abdominis will also lift the pubic bone and allow the coccyx to drop. This will enable one to carry the spine long and tall in all postures.
Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana is an extremely important posture in the sequence, as it is the only real preparation for backbending in the Primary Series. It should be deeply experienced every time it occurs in the series to awaken the spine for backbending. Take your time, with long, conscious inhalations rather than a short breath, moving quickly into and out of this posture.
Vinyasa Six (Adho Mukha Shvanasana — Downward Facing Dog)
With the beginning of the exhalation, flex your feet and roll back onto the soles. Release the heels toward the floor. Raise your buttocks to the sky like a mountain as the hip flexors engage and the legs work toward straightening. At the same time, push the floor away with your hands to shift weight back toward the feet. Set your shoulders broad with the armpits facing downward. If the shoulders are hunched around the ears, the armpits will face out to the sides; performed this way the trapezius muscle is overcontracted and the posture will tighten the neck and the shoulders. The correct shoulder position needs to be learned here, as it builds upper-body strength and is needed later on in backbends and arm balances. If the armpits face out to the sides, the arm bones (humeri) need to be outwardly rotated until the desirable result is achieved.
Stance Variations in the Dogs
The Upward and Downward Dog postures also have their intrinsic stances, which differ from person to person and may even change within one’s practice life.
A person with a stiff backbend needs a longer stance in Upward Dog. If the stance is too short, the low back or neck muscles can spasm. A beginner will get more opening and be safer by choosing a longer stance. As the spine becomes more flexible in backbend, one can shorten the stance in Upward Dog.
Initiated by the feet, the legs work strongly in Downward Facing Dog. Attempt to ground the heels with weight equal to that which naturally falls into the balls of the feet. The strong action of the legs and hip flexors is used to tip the pelvis forward, tilting the sit bones so that they point up toward the ceiling. Those with a flexible forward bend must resist the tendency to sag in the low back by keeping the junction of T12/L1 supported. The junction of T1/C7 is also supported, preventing the inside of the shoulders and the head from collapsing toward the floor. Instead, the top of the back of the head reaches forward toward the hands. Keep the chin dropped to the extent that there is no hardening in the front of the throat. The arms work as if you would try to lift your hands off the floor. The weight in the hands is cast forward so that only 40 percent is placed on the heels of the hands while the roots of the fingers carry 60 percent. Be sure that the bases of the little and ring fingers carry a load equal to that taken by the thumbs and pointing fingers.
Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa six (Downward Facing Dog)
The arms and legs act as strong supports so that the spine may be fully lengthened. The trunk flexors and trunk extensors are stretched, strengthened, and awakened, and carry the spine elongated.
Anyone who experiences stiffness in forward bending or who has short Achilles tendons needs a short stance in Downward Dog. If the heels are more than an inch or two off the floor, the angle of the legs to the floor does not enable the legs to be worked in such a way as to get sufficient stretch on the calves and Achilles tendons. In this case one needs to step the feet forward and shorten the stance. On the other hand, if the stance is too short the strengthening and lengthening effect on the spine and shoulders is reduced. To maximize this effect, ideally we would choose a long stance. For beginners, however, a long stance will place undue strain on the shoulders and wrists. Once the heels reach the floor, one should therefore lengthen the stance in Downward Dog. A competent teacher can assess the appropriate stance length.
FIGURE 4 INFRASPINATUS
The infraspinatus muscle outwardly rotates the humerus. “Infra” means below, “spinatus” means spine, referring to the ridge of the shoulder blade (scapula). If you touch your shoulder you will feel a transverse ridge running across itBelow this ridge is the infraspinatus musclcommonly weak and underdeveloped. Hownot everyone needs to roll the humerus outwardly: some people have it naturally outwardly rotated. This movement should onbe performed until a central or “neutral” position is achieved, which can be assessed by a qualiteacher. Overworking the infraspinatus results in unnecessary shoulder tension and pain.
Left, Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa seven (see next page)
Downward Dog is held for five breaths and, although the gaze would ideally be toward the navel, for most beginners this would lead to a collapsing of the shoulders and sacrificing the much-needed elongation of the spine. Gazing toward the feet or the knees is therefore recommended for beginners. It may take years to develop the flexibility and support strength to establish the final drishti, which is toward the navel. If a beginner starts with this gaze, it usually leads to compromising the inner integrity of this magnificent posture.
Similarly, the attempt to thrust the head down to the floor leads to a closing and hardening behind the heart, to a splaying open of the lower ribs as the abdominal muscles are released, and to a collapsing around the junction of C7 / T1. Downward Dog is like a handstand with the support of the legs and therefore needs a balance of trunk extension and trunk flexion. To go into either extreme misses the still point of balance.
With the end of the exhalation, the legs bend slightly, and with the inhalation the feet hop up between the hands. As the feet land they touch each other, and the torso lifts as the gaze is cast upward to the third eye (Brumadhaya Drishti). This is a repetition of the third vinyasa.
The exhalation folds us forward, with the fingertips eventually coming into line with the toes. This is a repetition of the second vinyasa.
The inhalation lifts the heart so that the back remains straight as the torso lifts, with the arms reaching out to the side.
The next exhalation returns us to Samasthiti.
Surya Namaskara B
SUN SALUTATION B
Drishti Thumbs, nose, navel
Inhaling from Samasthiti, bend the knees deeply without the heels lifting off the floor. At the same time draw your arms up above the head, working them back toward the ears and bring the palms together. The gaze lifts upward beyond the folded palms. This is Utkatasana.
Utkatasana is a good example of the principle of simultaneous expansion in opposing directions (see figure 5, page 34). The ideal here would be to squat down until the thighs are parallel to the floor; then the trunk and arms lean forward as the body regains its center of gravity. This extreme gives the optimal effect in regard to strengthening the leg and buttock muscles. The other extreme is to keep the back completely upright, without bending the legs enough. In this case we would compromise the powerful work of the legs and buttocks, which occurs only in a deep squat. The ideal is a balance between these two actions, working simultaneously in both directions.
Above, Surya Namaskara A, vinyasa eight; right, vinyasa nine
Approach the limit of your flexibility slowly when squatting down, to give the ligaments time to lengthen and strengthen. While bending the knees do not tilt the pelvis forward or backward, but allow the pelvis to maintain its neutral position and the low back its natural curve. The knees remain together. Keep the arms drawing back into the shoulder joints to keep the shoulder blades down and the neck free of excess tension. If you have a tendency to whiplash symptoms, gaze straight ahead.
From left top, Surya Namaskara B, vinyasa one (Utkatasana), vinyasa two, vinyasa three; above, vinyasa four (Chaturanga Dandasana)
Beginners are advised to raise their arms straight out in front of them, drawing them from back to front. This action avoids hyperextending the low back. The more challenging option of raising the arms out to the side may be adopted when sufficient awareness and strength have been developed.
With the exhalation draw your palms, folded into prayer position, to touch the chest (heart center) and, folding the torso forward as you straighten your legs, place the hands down on the floor on either side of the feet.
Inhaling, lift the chest.
Exhaling, hop the feet back and lower into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Inhale into Upward Facing Dog.
Exhale, draw back and up into Downward Facing Dog.
These last four vinyasas are the same as in Surya Namaskara A.
Vinyasa Seven (Virabhadrasana A)
At the beginning of the inhalation, turn your left foot on its ball and place the heel on an imagined center-line of the mat. The left foot becomes positioned at a 45° angle.
We now step the right foot forward, with a straight line going through the second toe, the heel of the right foot and the heel of the left foot. The placement of the right foot is crucial. Even when it is onlyslightly turned out, the tibia (shinbone) will externally rotate, disturbing the subtle balance of the posture. The front knee is bent and remains tracking directly above the ankle. To track the knee farther out beyond the ankle would promote forward travel of the femur (thighbone) on the tibia. Although this movement is prevented by the posterior cruciate ligament, it places undue strain on it and should be avoided. Likewise, to have the knee fall inward or outward of its position above the ankle, while it bears weight, places unnecessary stress on the inside (medial) and outside (lateral) collateral ligaments of the knee joint.
From left, Surya Namaskara B, vinyasa five (Upward Dog) and vinyasa six (Downward Dog)
FIGURE 5 GLUTEUS MAXIMUS
The low squatting in Utkatasana develops the gluteus maximus. This muscle performs the action of hip extension together with the hamstring group. The hamstrings are the prime hip extensors when the hip joint is flexed less than 15° and the legs are extended. This happens during activities such as walking. If we bend the legs more than 15°, the hamstrings become inefficient since they are two-joint muscles, reaching over the hip joint and the knee joint. This means that we need to squat down low in order to exercise the gluteus maximus.
Work your hips toward being completely square. This aids in stretching the hip flexor group of muscles, which run over the front of the hip joint. Bring the torso vertical so that the shoulders hover above the hips. Be sure to engage the abdominal muscles to draw the lower ribs in, as the back of the chest below the shoulder blades stays broad. The sit bones are heavy and sink toward the floor.
Surya Namaskara B, vinyasa seven (Virabhadrasana A, right side)
The strength of the back (extended) leg is important in supporting the softening needed to bend deeper into the front hip. This is achieved through totally awakening the back foot by spreading the base of the toes and keeping the outer arch of the foot grounded. Extending out through the heel of this foot will automatically position the foot at the perfect angle complementary to the direction of the knee of that leg. This also enhances the inward (medial) spiraling required by the back leg in this posture. The bent leg spirals outward (laterally) to complement its partner, until a neutral position is reached — that is, when the hips are square. Although there is an obvious preponderance of weight distribution into the forward leg, maintain the action of distributing weight back into the back foot by grounding the heel of that foot. This will create equilibrium between the flow of action in the legs. The strong support of the legs creates a vector of energy that supports the base of the spine and activates the bandhas, enabling the core of the body to rise.
Importance of Correct Foot Position
All foot positions given in the standing postures mirror the direction of the knee at its final position in the posture. In Virabhadrasana A, we attempt to square the hips to the front foot. The knee will eventually face approximately 45° toward the front. If the back foot were, for example, placed at 90°, the knee would have to mediate between a thighbone (femur) that rolls in and a shinbone (tibia) that is turned out. In other words, the knee joint would do the rotation needed to accommodate the position of the foot. A 45° angle is therefore necessary on the back foot to work the hip into the required position. To place the foot so that it faces in the same direction as the knee protects the knee joint from excessive rotational force.
While arriving in the final posture, the arms are simultaneously being raised above the head. Gaze upward beyond the folded hands.
With the exhalation, lift the left heel off the floor, lower the arms out to the side, drop the sit bones farther, and eventually place your hands down on either side of the front foot. When the hands touch down, step your right foot back to the left foot, feet hip width apart, and lower down into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Inhale into Upward Dog.
From the top, Surya Namaskara B, vinyasa eight (Chaturanga Dandasana), vinyasa nine (Upward Dog), vinyasa ten (Downward Dog), vinyasa eleven (Virabhadrasana, left side), vinyasa twelve (Chaturanga Dandasana)
Exhale into Downward Dog.
Vinyasa Eleven (Virabhadrasana A)
Turn the right heel into the center, step the left foot forward, and repeat Virabhadrasana on the left side. The complex movement of stepping forward, lifting the torso, and raising the arms should all be completed on one inhalation without haste. It is a great tool for learning the extension of breath.
If you run out of breath on the way up, do not hold the breath. Beginners may need to commence by stepping the foot into position at the end of the exhalation in Downward Dog. Otherwise an additional short breath may be taken. You will soon be able to do the movement on one breath. In Ashtanga Yoga, movement is never done during kumbhaka (breath retention).
With the exhalation, lift the right heel while placing the hands down, step the left foot back, and lower down. Again, this is a movement that requires us to extend the breath.
Inhale into Upward Dog.
Exhale into Downward Dog. This last Downward Dog is held for five breaths, while the other two are only transitional.
On the inhalation, hop forward, landing with the feet together, lift your chest, and gaze upward (identical to vinyasa three).
Exhaling, fold forward, straighten the legs, and place the fingertips in line with the toes (identical to vinyasa two).
From the top, vinyasa thirteen (Upward Dog), vinyasa fourteen (Downward Dog), vinyasa fifteen, vinyasa sixteen
Inhale, bend your knees, draw your arms up above the head, and gaze up in Utkatasana (identical to vinyasa one).
With an exhalation, straighten the legs, lower the arms, and gaze softly.
Surya Namaskara B, vinyasa seventeen
Do Surya Namaskara B until you start to perspire. Five rounds should be sufficient under average conditions, three in the tropics, and up to ten in colder regions.
The standing postures teach us the basics of alignment and develop strength and poise.
From Samasthiti, jump on inhalation and, exhaling, land with your feet parallel, hip width apart, placing hands on hips. “Hip width” means the ankle joints are positioned under the hip joints.
A disc bulge (see page 38) can occur when a weight is lifted off the floor with the spine flexed. Pressure on the discs between the vertebrae deforms them into a wedge shape and predisposes them to bulging. The intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae. They consist of a fibrous band enclosing a fluid-filled nucleus. When this liquid-filled cushion is pushed beyond the boundary of the vertebrae, it is called a disc bulge. Often the disc will press against the spinal cord and cause considerable pain. The adjacent muscles spasm to arrest and thereby protect the spine, resulting in a complete inability to bend forward. A disc bulge usually corrects itself in a few weeks. A disc prolapse differs from this in that the fibrous nucleus of the disc is pushed beyond the boundary of the vertebrae. Allopathy6 considers that this condition does not repair itself.
It is therefore important to avoid rounding the low back when bending forward, as in this position it bears the weight of the body. Instead, bend the knees while still maintaining some stretch in the hamstring muscles.
Inhaling, grow the legs tall and strong, and lift the torso up and out of the hips. Exhaling, fold forward at the hip joints, keeping the back straight and the heart lifted. Reach for the toes, hooking the big toes with the first and second fingers, palms facing inward, and closing the clasp of the fingers with the thumb. Students who cannot yet reach their toes may bend their legs. Bending of the low back toreach the toes is not recommended, as this places pressure on the lumbar discs, and may cause them to bulge.
FIGURE 6 DISC BULGE
See description on page 37.
On the next inhalation, keeping hold of the toes, lift the head and chest and cast the gaze up between the eyebrows.
On exhalation, fold deeply forward, lifting the kneecaps. The lifting of the kneecaps is done by the quadriceps muscle, which is the antagonist to the hamstrings. Performed in this way, the stretch is active, which signals the hamstrings to lengthen. Deepen and soften your groins to lengthen the hip flexor muscles, and breathe into the hamstrings to release them.
The elbows draw out to the side, the shoulder blades move up toward the hips, and the crown of the head reaches to the floor. Let the weight of the head lengthen the spine and neck. As you support the posture with the action of the legs, the spine releases and is passive. The drishti is toward the tip of the nose. In this vinyasa we are in the state of Padangushtasana. Stay in the posture for five breaths.
Inhaling, lift your chest and gaze toward the tip of the nose. Exhaling, place the hands under the feet, stepping onto the fingertips and eventually the whole palm, with the toes touching the wrists.
From vinyasa three of Padangushtasana, inhaling, lift the head and chest and gaze upward. Attempt to concave the low back and keep the legs strong, keeping the hands under the feet.
Actively balancing the body in every posture means it is necessary to isolate those muscles that need to be contracted from the ones that need to be released and lengthened. Too often one sees students who contract their entire body. Active balancing strengthens the core muscles of the body as well as the superficial muscles. This creates a light carriage, as the skeletal structure is carried more efficiently. Pada Hastasana is a great posture to experience these principles at work.
Exhaling, fold forward. You are now in the state of Pada Hastasana. Hold it for five breaths. As in the previous posture, keep the low back straight and, only when that is guaranteed, work at straightening the legs. The gaze is toward the nose. This posture is a more intense version of the previous one. You can make the stretch even more intense by shifting weight forward toward the toes.
The abdominal muscles — the term refers primarily to rectus abdominis — are engaged here to protect the low back. Uddiyana Bandha (the lower part of the transverse abdominis) prevents the breath from distending the lower belly, which would destabilize the low back. Excess use of the abdominal muscles, however, would shorten the spine and lift the head away from the floor, as the abdominal muscles are primarily trunk flexors. Only a sensitive combination of leg work with trunk flexion and trunk extension will bring the desired result of elongating the spine. This is mainly felt at the waist. Subtle, intelligent work will increase the space between the lowest ribs and the pelvic crests, the upper rims of the hipbone. Both muscle groups of the trunk work isometrically (under tension but without shortening) and therefore both will be strengthened. This is active balancing.
Inhaling, lift the head and chest as you straighten the arms. Exhaling, place the hands on the hips and return to Samasthiti.
Returning to Samasthiti on one breath is obviously a complex move. Beginners may break it down to retain the integrity of the movement.
Breath count for beginners: Exhale, place the hands on the hips, drop the tailbone, strengthen through the legs. Inhale and come up to standing, leading with the heart. Exhaling, hop back to Samasthiti.
FIGURE 7 HAMSTRINGS AND QUADRICEPS
Bending forward should involve flexing the hip joints and not the spine. The flexing of the hip joints is limited by the hamstring muscle group, which performs the action of hip extension and knee flexion. The hamstring group consists of three individual muscles. Of these the biceps femoris externally rotates the femur as it extends the hip, and the semitendinosus and semimembranosus internally rotate the femur as they extend the hip. We will encounter these muscles later in their secondary function as rotators of the femur.
If we passively hang in Padangushtasana, soreness can develop at the ischial tuberosities (sit bones), which is the origin of the hamstrings. To prevent this we need to engage the antagonists of the hamstrings, the quadriceps.
The quadriceps is engaged by pulling up on the kneecap (patella). The quadriceps consists of four separate muscles that jointly insert, via the patella tendon, at the tibia. The four heads of the quadriceps are the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis. The rectus femoris is the only two-joint muscle in the group. It originates at the front of the hip bone and can thus not only extend the leg at the knee but also flex the hip joint. The three vasti originate at the lateral, anterior, and medial surfaces of the femur respectively, and only perform extension of the knee joint.
Drishti Raised hand
Inhaling, turn to the right and hop your feet about three feet apart and parallel. The arms extend out to the sides at shoulder level.
There is no “one stance fits all” here, but rather an ideal stance for every level of flexibility. This is of such importance that it should be assessed by the teacher on an individual basis. If the stance is too long, the inner integrity of the posture will be lost and its execution will bring little benefit. If it is too short, one will not gain spinal support, strength, and elongation. As flexibility increases over time and with practice, stances can be lengthened.
Exhaling, turn your right foot out 90°. For the sake of precision, visualize a line going through the center of your mat lengthwise. Place the second toe of the right foot precisely along this line and check that the center of the heel is placed on the same line. A deviation of only 2° could be significant. Beginners often turn the foot out too much in order to gain stability, but this will result in a lateral (outward) rotation of the tibia, which is sometimes accompanied by a compensating inward rotation of the femur. This places stress on the knee. Dancers often prematurely wear out their knees through turning the feet out in this way.
Turn your left foot in approximately 5°, with the heel positioned on the same center-line on the mat. The 5° position will ensure that foot, shin, and thighbone all point in the same direction, again as the optimal position for the knee. To stay at 0°, or to turn the foot out, would place stress on the knee joint. On the other hand, if you turn the left foot in too far, say 30°, you will not achieve sufficient opening of the groins.
With the feet correctly positioned, let the right hip drop down (lateral tilt) as far as possible, bringing the pelvis toward being vertical to the floor. If the pelvis is left in a horizontal position, the spine has to flex laterally (sideways), which is not intended in this posture. The left hip swings up and out to the left to allow the right hip to drop.
Opposite, Utthita Trikonasana
The Knee Joint
The knee is a modified hinge joint. A hinge joint can move in only one plane, but the knee does allow for some rotation. The action of straightening the leg is performed primarily by the quadriceps femoris muscle (front of the thigh), while the primary knee flexors, the hamstrings, draw the heel to the buttocks. But if we sit on a chair with the thighs held firm, we notice that we can swivel the feet left or right and the tibias will follow the movement.
The knee joint is complex, as the femur and tibia do not articulate well with each other. The lower end of the femur consists of two rounded protuberances called condyles, similar to two wheels, that roll — and also glide — over the upper end of the tibia. To cushion and secure this movement, two half-moon-shaped cartilages, the medial and lateral menisci, lie between the bones. Their function is similar to that of rail tracks for a train, the train being the femur and the wheels being the condyles. The difference is that the menisci actually follow the movement of the femur to allow for the roll and glide.
If the leg rapidly extends under pressure, the menisci may be unable to withdraw fast enough and are crushed. If we attempt to rotate the knee joint and at the same time straighten the leg against resistance, we can inflict serious damage, as often happens in some sports. The knee joint should never be rotated when under pressure or bearing weight.
Torn menisci heal very slowly, and medical doctors usually recommend surgery, but in many cases meniscus injuries can be healed with yoga in six to eighteen months. Cartilage has minimal blood vessels and therefore minimal nutrient supply, which is needed for the healing process. Yoga accelerates healing because the postures and transitions, when performed with precision, stimulate nutrient exchange. To heal a damaged knee will take much perseverance and patience, and especially careful precision. Whoever has worked with a meniscus injury knows that a change of only 2° in the positioning of the feet in standing postures can make the difference between comfort and healing and pain and aggravation.
Most knee problems, however, do not start with meniscus problems but with a strain of the cruciate ligaments. The posterior cruciate ligament prevents the femur from dislocating forward on the tibia, while the anterior cruciate ligament prevents backward dislocation. They are named after their points of insertion on the tibia, in the back and front respectively. Once the cruciate ligaments are strained, the knee becomes loose or unstable. Imprecise tracking of the femur on the tibia results, leading to wear on the menisci.
Strain of the cruciate ligaments comes about through hyperextension of the leg, in other words its extension beyond 180°. The anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments and the popliteus muscle restrict hyperextension, but it will occur if sufficient stress is applied. Continuous hyperextension of the leg will eventually weaken and strain the cruciate ligaments.
Hyperextension of the knee can often be observed in Trikonasana, students with low muscle tension being especially predisposed to it. Lifting the knee away from the floor and isometrically engaging the hamstrings counteracts this tendency. The engaging of the hamstrings can be achieved by attempting to draw or swipe the front foot over the floor toward the back foot. The foot will of course not move because it carries weight, but the muscles used to perform the action — the hamstrings — will engage. This important action needs to be performed in all postures where the front leg is straight.
If pain in the back of the knee persists, the knee needs to be bent slightly.
FIGURE 8 KNEE JOINT
Reach out to the side and then down, imagining staying between two panes of glass that prevent any leaning of the torso out in front. The left shoulder remains on one plane above the right leg. The right hand eventually clasps the right big toe. If you are not able to reach the toe without compromising the posture (laterally flexing the spine), place your hand on the foot or shin. Do not lean into this leg, but keep both sides of the torso and neck lengthening and supported away from the floor. If it is comfortable, turn the head to gaze up to the thumb of the left hand, which hovers above the left shoulder. Keep the neck in a straight line with the rest of your spine without performing an unnecessary backbend in your neck. Otherwise gaze out to the side. Five breaths.
Getting into Utthita Trikonasana we externally rotated the right femur to turn the foot out. Once in the posture, we inwardly rotate the femur until we reach the neutral position. The left thigh, which was medially (inwardly) rotated to take us into the posture, is laterally rotated once in the posture until the leg is again in the neutral position, with the four corners of the foot equally grounded. Check especially that both the outside of the left foot and the base of the right big toe are grounded. There needs to be a subtle balance between grounding the inner and outer arches of the front foot. This will lead to a subtle balance of inward and outward rotation of the thigh of the front leg, which is necessary for the hamstrings to lengthen evenly. Many beginners have a tendency to roll the thigh out to escape the stretching of the inner hamstrings — a tendency also common in Padangushtasana and Pashimottanasana, that needs to be counteracted if present. Keep the left hip lifted back over the right one as the right groin moves forward.
The underneath side of the torso reaches forward so that the right waist gets the same stretch as the left. Stay in the state of Trikonasana for five breaths.
Inhaling, come up to the middle position: feet three feet apart and parallel; arms out to the side with hands positioned over the feet, looking straight ahead.
Exhaling, repeat Trikonasana on the left side and hold for five breaths.
The inhalation carries us back up to the middle position.
REVOLVED TRIANGLE POSTURE
Drishti Raised hand
Since we do not return to Samasthiti between Utthita and Parivrta Trikonasana, the first vinyasa of Parivrta Trikonasana remains uncounted and we start with vinyasa two.
Ideally, we enter the posture on one exhalation. Beginners will need to break down the surprisingly complex entry movement into its constituents.
From the middle position, first shorten the stance by four to eight inches, unless you have really long hamstrings. Shortening the stance deducts the difference in distance between the hip joints from the intrinsic stance of Utthita Trikonasana, where the hips are parallel to the mat, to that in Parivrta Trikonasana, where they are square. Otherwise the position of the sacrum will be compromised — it should be parallel the floor — and the position of the spine will be compromised as a result. Students might think keeping the longer stance will produce a greater stretch, a more thrilling sensation, but in fact it impinges on the flow of prana up the sushumna (the central energy channel of the subtle body) and of cerebrospinal fluid in the gross body, which may or may not have some correlation.
Uninterrupted flow in these channels is a goal of yogic practice. If the underlying scientific principles of the practice are not understood, yoga may be of little use.
Having shortened the stance, turn the right foot out 90° and the left foot in approximately 45°. If the left foot is turned in farther than 90°, balance is easily lost, while if the left foot is not turned in sufficiently it is too difficult to square the hips — or if they are squared excess strain is placed on the left knee, since the tibia rotates outwardly and the femur rotates medially, following the movement of the pelvis. Now pin the right hip back by grounding the base of the right big toe, and draw the left hip forward by grounding the outside of the left foot, until the hips are square.
The lumbar spine is structurally unsuitable for twisting due to the orientation of its facet joints (L1–L5). Although twisting movements are limited in the lumbar spine, it has a great range of movement in flexion and extension (forward- and backbending respectively). In comparison, the orientation of the facet joints in the thoracic spine (T1–T11) allows ample rotation but limited extension. Extension is also limited here due to the direct attachment of the ribs onto the vertebral body and its transverse processes (twelve pairs of ribs attach to the twelve thoracic vertebrae).
With the left hand, reach far forward beyond your right foot. Exhaling, lower the hand and place it on the outside edge of the right foot, with the little finger next to the little toe. The fingers are spread and point in the same direction as the toes. Maintain the lift of the heart by not flexing but rather continuing to lengthen the trunk. Draw your shoulder blades down the back and bring your heart through from between the shoulders. If this is not possible with the hand on the floor, place it on your foot or shin. The left hand pushes the floor away. The right fingertips reach up to the ceiling, where the gaze is focused. Beginners may gaze down to the foot if looking up makes them lose their balance.
It is important to keep both hip joints at an even distance from the floor. To achieve this, avoid leaning into the front (right) foot. Instead, pin the right hip back by grounding the roots of the toes of the right foot and engaging the abductors of the hip on the right side. These actions prevent the left hip from sagging.
Position the head above the front foot and continue lengthening the spine and neck in this direction. Both hands and both shoulders are positioned on the same plumb line, this being achieved by rotating the thoracic spine 90°.
We stay in the posture for five breaths, working the legs strongly as support for the torso and spine. Extend out through the big toe and at the same time create a suction of the thigh back into the hip. Counteract the forward tendency in the posture by keeping the heel of the back foot heavy. Counteract the hip flexion on the front leg by drawing the front foot on the ground toward you. Ideally, as the feet ground downward there is a continuous line of energy flowing up the legs, over the hips, along the spine, and up through the crown of the head. In this way the posture is grounded and, simultaneously, energy is drawn upward.
Inhaling, return back up to the middle position.
Repeat Parivrta Trikonasana for five breaths on the left.
Inhaling, return to the middle position. The next exhalation returns you to Samasthiti.
SIDE ANGLE POSTURE
Drishti Raised hand
Inhaling, turn to the right, hopping into a long stance (the longest of all the standing postures).
Exhaling, open the right foot to 90° and turn the left foot in 5° only. Bend the right leg until the knee is positioned exactly above the ankle, which brings the tibia perpendicular to the floor (seeVirabhadrasana A in Surya Namaskara B, page 33). It is not a defining factor of the posture to have the femur parallel to the floor: this is achieved when the strength necessary to support such flexibility is developed. Place the right hand on the floor alongside the outside edge of the foot, with fingers pointing in the same direction as the toes. Keeping the base of the big toe grounded, the right knee presses against the right shoulder. This action engages the abductors of the right hip posture is neutralized. Keep tension between the bent knee and the opposite hip to work the groins open. The palm faces down to the floor and the left armpit faces out to the side (and not up to the ceiling). This is achieved by engaging the infraspinatus muscle, which laterally rotates the humerus (arm joint. At the same time, take the left arm over the head to form a diagonal line from the left foot all the way up to the left hand. Beginners may need to increase their stance at this point to achieve this line.
Lord Subramaniam, second son of Lord Shiva, also known as Skanda the fierce lord of war, once went to visit Lord Shiva and complained that the current world, which was created by Lord Brahma, was imperfect — full of corruption, crime, and injustice. Shiva suggested that he create a better world. Subramaniam then defeated and incarcerated Brahma, and destroyed his world. Then he created his own, better world.
After some time Lord Shiva visited Subramaniam and looked at his perfect world. In it nothing moved or lived or changed, as everything was arrested, frozen in the static state of perfection. There were not even sentient beings, as their essential nature is to strive for perfection and, if perfection is reached, life has come to an end. Liberated beings are not reborn. The Buddha, after reaching Mahaparinirvana, never came back. That is why bodhisattvas avoid perfection: they are thus able to continue to serve others. According to Indian thought, the state of perfection exists only as consciousness, called purusha or atman, which is the seat of awareness. What changes is the transitory world of manifestation, which includes body, mind, egoity, and all objects made up of the gross elements and subtle elementary particles.
Shiva pointed out to Subramaniam that this world was not a world at all, but only a frozen image of perfection. The purpose of a manifest world is to supply beings with the right cocktail of pleasure and pain, which eventually leads to self-knowledge. For this purpose it has to be in constant flux, and hence imperfect. Seeing the flaw in his world, Subramaniam freed Brahma to reinstall his old, imperfect world.
In this posture it is important not to collapse into the hips but to keep them supported. There should be a feeling of buoyancy in the hips and legs away from the floor. Ground the outer arch of the left foot and use it as an anchor to establish an outward rotation in the left thigh, which will lift the left hip back over the right. The right hip joint makes an attempt to dive through under the left one to stretch the right adductor group (see figure 17, page 101) in anticipation of the half-lotus and lotus postures to come.7 The right thigh rotates inward until the lateral rotation that brought us into the bone). This movement does not need to be performed by people whose arm is naturally in this position, which can be assessed by a qualified teacher. Indiscriminate outward rotation may lead to inflammation of the rotator cuff and an infraspinatus that is chronically in spasm.
Keep the shoulders down, away from the ears, by depressing the shoulder girdle using the latissimus dorsi muscle. The shoulder is kept up off the neck by abducting the shoulder blades with the serratus anterior muscle (see figure 9, page 48). Stay in the state of Utthita Parshvakonasana for five breaths.
FIGURE 9 SERRATUS ANTERIOR
The serratus anterior originates on the lateral surface of the ribs and (seen from behind) runs underneath the shoulder blade (scapula). It inserts on the medial border of the scapula, the side that is close to the spine. As it contracts, the serratus anterior draws the shoulder blades out to the sides, thus widening the area behind the heart. This action is of prime importance. Serratus anterior also strongly contracts during Shirshasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana, and handstand. It works together with the pectoralis minor in Chaturanga Dandasana, but is the prime mover of the shoulder girdle during the transition into Downward Dog and the jump back from the sitting postures.
The puffing out of the chest in standing postures is often achieved by contracting behind the heart. This action is performed by the rhomboid muscles. It represents an energetic closing and hardening, and can be counteracted by engaging serratus anterior.
Winged shoulder blades indicate a weakness of the serratus anterior muscle.
The head turns to face the raised arm, looking along the arm to gaze at the palm of the hand without contorting the neck. If all instructions so far have been followed precisely, the face will show an expression of serene bliss. If we are pulling a face of strain, effort, or ambition, the chances are that we have become lost in some extreme of the posture, and it is time to pull back.
If we have achieved the subtle balance between all muscles involved, freedom, lightness, and inner silence will result. This is yoga.
Parshvakonasana is a beautiful teacher for learning the balancing and embracing of opposites, as are many other postures. The complexity of the standing postures especially calls for simultaneous awareness in all directions. As Shankara says, “True posture is that which leads to spontaneous meditation on Brahman.”
Only after the effort that moved us into the correct posture (and not the perfect posture, since everything that is perfect is static and therefore dead) has been recognized as empty in nature can this moment of silence and lightness, which is true posture, be experienced.
The inhalation carries us back up into the middle position.
Exhaling, we repeat the posture on the left side.
Inhaling, we come back to the middle.
REVOLVED SIDE ANGLE POSTURE
Drishti Raised hand
Parivrta Parshvakonasana is not really a posture for beginners, but it can be added in after some proficiency has been gained in Marichyasana C (see page 86). Since we do not return to Samasthitibetween Utthita and Parivrta Parshvakonasana, the first vinyasa of Parivrta Parshvakonasana is uncounted.
Exhaling, shorten the stance slightly and turn the back foot in 45°, as we do in all standing postures where the hips are squared. The right foot is turned out 90°. Keeping the back leg straight, again track the right knee over the right ankle. Squaring the hips, hook the left shoulder outside the right knee (the emptier the lungs are the easier this is). You can assist yourself by pressing the right thigh toward the center with your right hand. Press the left hand into the floor outside the foot, spreading the fingers.
Now take the right arm overhead to form a diagonal line from the left foot to the right hand. The palm faces downward, the face is turned toward the right arm, and the gaze is up toward the palm. Spread the base of the toes of the back foot to encourage the leg to be straight and strong. Strong abduction of the right knee, countered by the left arm, will inspire the spine to spiral.
Do not fake the spinal twist by letting your right hip sag toward the floor, but work the hips toward being level and square. Lift the shoulder blade off the neck and draw it down away from the ear.
Keep the lower abdomen firm and use deep breathing into the chest to elongate the spine. Create space between the left shoulder and right hip. Extend out simultaneously through your sit bones and through the crown of the head. Hold Parivrta Parshvakonasana for five breaths.
Any movement in a posture can be over-exercised, and at any stage one should be able to initiate its countermovement, which is to retract the action. This is intelligent action.
Most muscles have more than one action. For example, latissimus dorsi primarily extends the humerus.8 It also medially rotates the humerus. The first of the two actions indirectly causes the arm to bend at the elbow. This is counteracted by the deltoid, which flexes the humerus (raises the arm above the head). The medial rotation of the humerus calls the infraspinatus into play. One action is played against its opposite to reach the desired balanced posture.
For beginners who cannot enter the posture in one breath, it may be approached in phases:
• Turn to face the right leg and place the left knee on the floor. Keeping the leg bent, hook the left shoulder outside the right knee and press the left hand into the floor.
• Keeping the knee over the ankle and the shoulder hooked outside the knee, lift the back knee off the floor and straighten the leg.
• Maintaining all of the above, work the left heel down, placing the foot at a 45° angle.
• Raise the right arm and gaze at the palm.
Stay at any of these phases for as long as necessary until the stage is attained. In this way your integrity in the posture is not sacrificed. Once you can do the complete posture, attempt to enter into it on one breath.
Inhaling, come back up to the middle position.
Exhaling, repeat the posture on the left side.
Inhaling, come back up and, on exhalation, return to Samasthiti.
Prasarita Padottanasana A
WIDE STANCE FORWARD BEND A
Inhaling and turning to the right, jump to land in a medium-width stance. The exact width of the stance will be determined by the ratio between the spine length and leg length of each individual practitioner.
The outside edges of the feet need to be parallel to track the knees, as the thighs tend to roll forward when folding forward. Recheck that the feet have not turned out after each of the four versions of this posture. The hands are placed firmly on the hips. As the hips sink toward the floor, lift the entire spine, including the sacrum, out of the hips. The heart lifts and leads the forward folding of the trunk.
Exhaling, fold at the hip joints and place the hands on the floor. Spread the fingers and work toward having the fingertips in line with the toes. Position the hands shoulder width apart.
Inhaling, lift the chest, straighten the arms, and concave the low back. The legs work strongly to support the passive lengthening of the spine. Gaze toward the nose.
Exhaling, fold forward. Counteract the medial roll of the thighs by drawing them back out to the side. Position the torso between the thighs, then “close the door” with the thighs by returning to medial rotation until the knees face straight ahead. Flexible students can rest the crown of the head (the highest point) on the floor. Students with long torsos compared to the length of their legs may have to bring the feet closer together to keep their necks elongating, while students with relatively short torsos may have to widen their stance to get the same effect.
If the crown of the head is rested on the floor, a flushing effect of the cerebral glands (hypophysis, epiphyses) will ensue.
To enhance this purificatory effect, four versions of the posture are given. This is a subtle posture. Initially one thinks that contracting the abdominals and hip flexors as much as possible will get one deeper into it, but both rectus abdominis, the main abdominal muscle, and the psoas, the main hip flexor, shorten the torso and therefore draw the head away from the floor.
See Padangushtasana (page 37) and Pada Hastasana (page 39) for the subtleties of forward bending. We assist with the hands in bringing the torso between the legs, while the shoulder blades draw up to the ceiling. Hold the asana for five breaths.
Prasarita Padottanasana A
Contraindications: If there is pain in the outer ankle, ground the inside of the feet. With pain in the inner ankle, ground the outside of the foot. A tendency of the hip abductors to spasm in these postures (pain on the outside of the hip above the greater trochanter) indicates an underdevelopment of these muscles. In this case, shorten the stance.
Inhaling, lift your head and straighten your arms. Exhaling, return the hands to the hips.
Inhaling, come to upright and exhale.
Prasarita Padottanasana B
WIDE STANCE FORWARD BEND B
Inhaling, raise your arms out to shoulder height, and broaden the chest and shoulders.
Exhaling, place the hands back on the hips. Inhaling, lift the heart high and lengthen through the waist.
Prasarita Padottanasana B (top) and C
Exhaling, fold forward at the hip joints, keeping the hands on the hips with fingers lightly pressing onto the abdomen to keep Uddiyana Bandha alive. Keep the groins deep and the psoas long to maintain the lengthening of the torso gained in vinyasa two. Hold this posture for five breaths.
Inhaling, raise the trunk back up and exhale.
Prasarita Padottanasana C
WIDE STANCE FORWARD BEND C
Inhaling, extend the arms out to the sides.
Exhaling, draw the arms behind your back and interlock the fingers. It is important here to roll the arms back in the shoulder joint and work the arms straight. If the arms sit forward in the joint, it is both uncomfortable and impossible to open the shoulder joint. Inhale and lift the heart.
Exhaling, fold forward, dropping the head.
There are two hand positions for this posture. The first is where the palms face each other and the thumbs point down when one stands upright. This is the same hand position as in Halasana (page 118) and Karnapidasana (page 119). Pressing the heels of the hands together to intensify the stretch is contraindicated in students who have hyperextended elbows. If this condition is present, the teacher should not apply weight to the student’s hands to get them deeper into the posture, as it may exaggerate the condition.
Once the first hand position is mastered, one can switch to the second, which is more challenging. Here we medially rotate the humeri (arm bones). In the forward bend the palms will face away from you with the thumbs pointing down to the floor. Apart from the arm position, the instructions for Prasarita Padottanasana C are the same as for B, with the added weight of the arms opening the shoulder joints and bringing more gravitational force into play in the stretching of the hamstrings. Hold this posture for five breaths.
Inhaling, come upright.
Exhaling, place the hands on the hips.
Prasarita Padottanasana D
WIDE STANCE FORWARD BEND D
Inhaling, lift the front of the chest, keeping the hands on the hips.
Exhaling, fold forward and clasp the big toes as in Padangushtasana.
Inhaling, lift the heart, gaze up softly, and straighten the arms.
Exhaling, fold forward, placing the torso between the thighs and, if possible, the crown of the head down onto the floor. Shift the weight forward toward the toes to intensify the stretch. Keep spreading the toes.
The wrists and elbows draw out to the sides. The shoulder blades and the sit bones reach up to the ceiling. The crown of the head and the heart reach down to the floor. Hold for five breaths.
Prasarita Padottanasana D
Inhaling, lift the torso to straighten the arms and look up.
Exhaling, place the hands back on your hips.
Inhaling, come upright.
Exhaling, return to Samasthiti.
INTENSE SIDE STRETCH
Inhaling, turn to the right and jump into a short stance. This is a square-hip position as in Parivrta Trikonasana. The vinyasa count encourages us to turn toward the right foot and place the hands in prayer on our back, all on the same inhalation.
For the sake of precision, beginners may break down these movements. To do so, turn out to the right on exhalation, to face the back of your mat. The left foot needs to be turned in 45°. Place the palms together behind the back and bring them up as high as possible between the shoulder blades. On the next inhalation spread the toes and lift the chest high, wrapping it back over your folded hands.
Exhaling, fold forward over the straight front leg. The subtle alignment of the front foot is here probably more important than in any other standing posture. There needs to be a straight line going through the second toe and the center of the tibia and femur, with both bones in neutral rotation. The common tendency is to turn the front foot out too much, which rotates the tibia and femur away from each other. Pin the right hip back by grounding the right big toe. The entire thigh of the front leg is sucked back into the hip by engaging the quadriceps and the hamstrings. Without lifting the heel of the foot off the floor, point the toes. This action also engages the hamstrings, which serves to protect them in this intense stretch.
There is a strong tendency here to lean into the front foot, which causes the left hip to sag down to the floor. This avoids the stretch of the right hamstrings. Counteract this tendency by casting weight back into the left foot, spiking down the back heel. Keep the hips square and at an even distance from the floor. The back leg is straight and active, with an emphasis on grounding the outer arch of the foot. Gentle inward rolling of the thigh supports the squaring of the hips. All rotational movements need to be individually assessed by a teacher with knowledge of anatomy, as they can easily be overdone.
The elbows and shoulders have a tendency to droop forward and are lifted by the action of the rhomboid muscles, which lie between the shoulder blades. The palms, especially the roots of the fingers, press together. The entire trunk still performs Samasthiti, with the spine, neck, and back of the head in line as if standing upright. Allow neither the forehead to collapse to the shin nor the chin to jut forward to meet the shin. Instead, encourage the crown of the head and the heart to reach forward toward the front big toe, while the shoulder blades and sit bones draw backward, thereby putting the entire spine into traction. Hold for five breaths.
Inhaling, come up and turn to the left.
Exhaling, duplicate the posture on the left.
Inhaling, come up and enjoy stretching the arms as the shoulders release.
The exhalation carries us back to Samasthiti.
Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana
UPRIGHT HAND-TO-BIG-TOE POSTURE
Drishti Toes, out to the side
From Samasthiti, inhaling, shift your entire weight into the left foot and draw the right knee up to the chest with both hands. This intermediate position is an opportunity to “set up” for the posture. It lengthens the hamstrings over the hip joint — here check that the right hip has not been lifted with the leg and deepen the groin by releasing the psoas.
Strengthening the Feet
Beginners often develop cramps in their feet, especially if they have fallen arches. This should not be discouraging. Cramping indicates a weakness of the foot, but this will quickly be corrected through this posture if it is performed correctly. This is important, as fallen arches stress the medial meniscus and eventually weaken the knee joint. To correct this we have to lift the inner and transverse arches away from the floor. The anatomical names for these actions are plantar flexion (pointing the foot) and inversion of the foot (turning the sole of the foot upward) respectively. We will return to this action again and again, as it is the same one that protects the knee on entering into the half and full lotus postures. The muscles that perform both actions are tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus, and flexor hallucis longus. All three originate on the tibia and fibula and insert on the underside of the foot.
Establish the support of the standing leg by grounding the base of its big toe. The subtle medial spiraling achieved in the leg indicates the awakening of the abductor muscles. When you are standing on one leg, these muscles are vital in supporting the suspended hip and leg.
The right hand reaches down the outside of the knee and “binds” the right big toe, that is, wraps two fingers around it. Place the left hand on the left hip. Now straighten the right leg, but only to a point where the back can be held upright. Sacrificing the alignment of the spine defies yogic principles. With the leg straight, lift it high and lengthen out through the inseam11 of both legs. If the right shoulder has been pulled forward by the weight of the leg, draw it back until the shoulders are again square.
Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana, vinyasa one (left), vinyasa two, vinyasa four, and vinyasa seven
Outer Structure and Inner Freedom
Yoga Sutra II.47 says that the posture is correctly performed when the effort to perform it develops a quality of emptiness.
What does this mean? Initially effort is necessary. Otherwise the gross body, which is tamasic by nature,9 will never become vibrant and alive in every aspect of the posture. Once the outer frame of the posture is achieved, we need to meditate on the inner nature of effort. When this is witnessed, it is recognized as the deep nature of all phenomena: shunya — emptiness.
There is effort at the surface and silence in the heart; form at the surface, formlessness at the core; structure outside, freedom inside.
Needless to say, this method does not work without first putting in the effort. Both aspects of this duality must be embraced; both need to be experienced. As Patanjali says, “abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah”10 — the thought waves cease through application of the dual means of practice and letting go.
Check that both hips are an even distance from the floor. The hip is often pulled up to escape the hamstring stretch. Check that the standing leg is still straight. Grow tall and elongate the spine up to the ceiling as the sit bones descend to the floor. The spine has the tendency to compress from carrying the additional weight of the lifted leg.
When you have managed to fulfill all the above instructions you can lean forward on the exhalation. Place the torso squarely along the front leg, without altering its position.
Initially this position may feel awkward, but it is a powerful tool for gaining access to Uddiyana Bandha. It is, however, only effective if the alignment has been closely studied and the necessary flexibility gained. Hold this vinyasa for five breaths.
Inhaling, come back upright, raising the torso.
Exhaling, take the leg out to the right side while shifting the gaze to the left. It is important to do this movement without raising the right hip. Beginners can achieve this by first laterally rotating the thigh, which encourages the hip to drop but lifts the right heel into the center.
Once the leg is out to the side, the thigh can be rotated medially to turn the heel back down. The foot is taken out to the side as far as possible and the right hip joint worked open. The aim is to bring both hip joints and the right foot into one plane, which provides a maximum stretch for the right adductor muscle group (see figure 17, page 101). This is a perfect preparatory warm-up for the next posture,Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. The stretching of the adductors is a safety precaution for the knees, necessary for all lotus and half-lotus postures. Hold this vinyasa also for five breaths.
Inhaling, bring the leg back to center.
Exhaling, fold forward again onto the right leg.
Inhale and come upright. Let go of the foot and hold the leg up away from the floor. This is an important exercise for strengthening the psoas muscle (see figure 12, page 67). This action is initiated by the psoas and completed by the rectus femoris (hip flexor). Due to its origin (anterior superior iliac spine), it tends to tilt the pelvis anteriorly (forward). A tight/weak psoas also has the tendency to exaggerate the lordosis of the low back (swayback). Both of these tendencies need to be counteracted by the rectus abdominis muscle (see figure 16, page 89), which pulls the pubic bone up in front and tilts the pelvis posteriorly.
If the abdominal muscles do not work, the leg cannot be lifted very high. Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana is an optimal exercise for both the hip flexors and the abdominal muscles.
FIGURE 10 ABDUCTORS
The muscles that draw the right foot out to the side and stretch the adductor muscles are their antagonists, the abductors. This muscle group consists of the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fascia latae. All three are situated on the outside of the hip. The gluteus medius and gluteus minimus both originate just below the crest of the ilium on the outside of the hip and insert on the mount of the femur, called the greater trochanter. The anterior fibers of the gluteus medius internally rotate the femur while the posterior fibers externally rotate the femur as the muscle abducts. The gluteus minimus internally rotates as it abducts, and the tensor fascia latae internally rotates as it flexes and abducts the femur.
The abductors are important during walking, as they prevent the opposite hip from sagging. Chronic imbalance of the abductor muscles might lead to the pelvis being raised on one side.
Exhaling, lower the right leg.
Vinyasas Eight to Fourteen
Repeat for the left leg.
Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana
INTENSE BOUND HALF LOTUS
Since this is a surprisingly complex posture, we will break it down into phases. Beginners should study these phases closely.
Inhaling, lift the right knee to the height of the chest and draw the heel to the right sit bone. To do the posture safely, we have to be able to touch the sit bone with the heel. This means that we have completely closed the gap between femur and tibia. Only then can the two bones move as a unity in the posture, which avoids any strain on the knee joint. If you cannot perform this movement, you should not attempt to go all the way into the posture, but concentrate instead on preparation. If you cannot completely close the knee joint you need to lengthen the quadriceps. Long quadriceps are also of great advantage in backbending.
Pick up the right foot and, cradling it in both hands, point and invert it. Now direct the knee far out to the side. Gently draw the foot up into the right groin, with the knee still out to the side. This educates the hip to perform lateral rotation. The main prerequisite for the lotus and half-lotus postures is the ability to rotate the femur in the hip joint, and resistance may be encountered here. It is important to realize that the half-lotus and lotus postures belong to a group that involve hip rotation and not knee rotation. If we do not open the hip joints (which are ball-and-socket joints and move in all directions), the “opening” will go into the knee joints. These are, however, hinge joints, designed to move in only one direction. The “opening” will be nothing but a destabilization.
The ancient yogis had no problems in this area: they always sat on the floor, which keeps the hip joints mobile and flexible. In our society we sit in chairs off the floor and with the hip joints flexed. We therefore need to invest extra time into postures that prepare us for the Primary Series.
From having the knee pointed far out to the right and the right heel in the right groin, we now lift the heel toward the navel, keeping foot and knee the same distance from the floor.
If you closed the gap between tibia and femur, both bones will now move as a unity, preventing any strain on the knee joint. I like to refer to this knee position as “sealed.” It ensures that the rotation happens between the femur and its hip socket (acetabulum) and not between the femur and the tibia (knee joint). When you have acquired the necessary hip rotation, you will be able to touch your heel to your navel.
Keeping the heel in line with the navel, let the knee slide down toward the floor. Ideally at this point we would medially rotate the femur to an extent that the previous lateral rotation is annulled, and the sole of the foot faces forward instead of upward. Lift the right foot into the opposite groin, making sure the heel stays in line with the navel. Keep hold of the foot with the left hand while the right hand reaches around your back for the left elbow. Bind the elbow or if possible the big toe of the right foot. Check that there is no limitation here from failing to lift the shoulder as the arm reaches back. Now draw the shoulder blade down the back.
Only when you have managed to bind the big toe with the opposite hand can you safely proceed to fold forward. The ability to bind indicates that the knee is in a safe position to fold forward. If the toe cannot be bound, the foot is probably not high enough in the groin but rather somewhere on the opposite thigh. This means that the knee joint is not flexed completely and the ligamentous structures and cartilage will be subject to stress.
Lengthening the Quadriceps
The easiest way to lengthen the quadriceps is to spend fifteen minutes or longer each day engaged in Virasana and, later, Supta Virasana. Do this outside of your vinyasa practice.
In the beginning you may sit on blankets or pillows. As flexibility increases, slowly reduce the height of your seat. After Virasana has become easy, practice Supta Virasana.
It is beneficial to use a belt in this posture. Without a belt the knees will have the tendency to come apart. Actively drawing the knees together every day for an extended period will shorten the adductor muscles.
From opposite page, left to right, going into Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana phase 1, phase 2, phase 3; vinyasa one Top, Virasana; above, Supta Virasana
Opening the Hip Joints
To open the hip joints, we need to spend as much time as possible sitting in Ardha Siddhasana.
Practice this posture after Virasana. Again, blankets can be used and slowly decreased in height as your flexibility increases. Keep the knees as wide apart as possible. You can eat, write, or watch TV in this posture. If one spends an hour in it daily, the hip joints will quickly open. After you have gained some flexibility, progress on to Siddhasana.
Top, Ardha Siddhasana; above, Siddhasana
Exhaling, bend forward, keeping the big toe bound, and place the left hand on the floor alongside the left foot. Spread the fingers and point them forward. Spread the base of the toes of the standing leg. Gently shift a little more weight than that held in the heels forward into the base of the toes. Lift the inner arch of the foot away from the floor to protect the knee. Release the hip flexors and the buttocks (gluteus maximus) but work the supporting leg strongly (vastus group), eventually placing the chest squarely down on the leg. The crown of the head points downward toward the floor. The shoulder blades are drawn up to the ceiling to keep the neck long.
Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, vinyasa two
The folded knee gently works toward the back end of the mat with a light medial rotation of the femur. To prevent the hip of the bent leg from sagging, keep this foot and leg active so there is an even tone in both legs. The angle between the two femurs should be 35° to 45°, depending on the ratio of tibia to femur length. (People with a long shinbone need to have the knee lifted farther out to the side to level the hips.) This action is performed by the abductor muscle group, especially the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.
Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, vinyasa three
They are two very interesting muscles, as they are often the cause of a twisted pelvis if there is an imbalance between the two sides.
Stay in the state of Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana for five breaths.
Bending the Leg in Transit
A trick for beginners to gain confidence is to bend the standing leg a little to reach the hand to the floor. When you have the hand securely on the floor, straighten the standing leg.
The same method can be used on the way up. The bent leg will help the other foot to slide deeper into the groin, with the bent leg more forgiving as you develop your sense of balance.
FIGURE 11 INTERNAL ROTATORS
The muscles that inwardly rotate the femur perform this action as a secondary function. The semimembranosus and semitendinosus, belonging to the hamstring group, are primarily hip extensors and knee flexors. The tensor fascia latae is primarily a hip flexor and an abductor. The main action of the gluteus minimus is abduction and that of the gracilis is adduction. Together these five muscles perform the medial rotation of the femur.
This function can most easily be observed when one lies on one’s back and lets the feet turn out to the side. It is medial rotation of the femurs that brings the feet back together.
Inhaling, lift the torso and head and, maintaining the posture, exhale.
Inhaling, come up, but keep the half lotus bound until you are completely upright. This will draw the foot farther up into the groin and increase the opening effect on the hip joint.
Exhaling, release the big toe, carefully take the foot out of position using both hands, and stand in Samasthiti.
Vinyasas Six to Nine
Repeat on the left side.
Caution: If you experience pain in your knee at any point, go back and attentively study the previous steps. If you are starting out with very stiff hip joints, it could take the better part of a decade to open them. It is well worth the work.
The following three postures build strength and stamina. They are the only standing postures that are woven together with full vinyasa. The sequence concludes with a vinyasa to sitting.
Inhaling, hop your feet to your hands, big toes together. Bend the knees and, keeping the heels grounded, lower your sit bones toward the floor. Raise the arms, bring the palms together, and gaze up past your hands to the ceiling. Balance between the two poles of keeping the torso and arms upright and deepening the squat (see Surya Namaskara B, vinyasa one, page 32). Keep the lower abdomen firm and allow the rib cage to pulsate with the breath. Hold the state of Utkatasana for five breaths.
Exhaling, place the hands on the floor and, with the inhalation, hop up into an arm balance. The knees are bent. Attempt to hover here for the duration of the inhalation. Keeping the legs bent will develop greater strength, whereas straightening the legs into a full handstand enables us to rely more on our sense of balance.
Top, Utkatasana, vinyasa seven; above, vinyasa eight
Balancing on the arms develops core strength. The body must draw all forces together and work as one unit. This is an important aspect, especially necessary for those whose bodies are naturally soft and flexible. There is a tendency for students who swiftly gain flexibility to progress more and more in that direction. Flexibility, however, often accompanies low muscle tone. Low muscle tone is the ability to lengthen muscles with a relative inability to contract them. This tendency needs to be counteracted by focusing on building strength rather than more flexibility.
Asana — The Seat
In some contemporary forms of yoga the lotus and half-lotus postures are neglected. If the student practices out of ambition, and the underlying technical principles are not understood, these postures can in fact be detrimental. This is a great shame, as the hip rotations are arguably the most important yoga postures, with Siddhasana and Padmasana (lotus posture) high in their ranks. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika calls Siddhasana “the principal asana” and claims it to be “the gate to freedom.” About Padmasana it says, “It opens the path to liberation.” The Gheranda Samhitasays about Siddhasana, “It leads to freedom” and about Padmasana, “It wards off all diseases.”
Shiva Samhita recommends that Siddhasana should be adopted if quick success in yoga is desired, and agrees with the Gheranda Samhita that Padmasana “protects from all diseases.” TheYoga Yajnavalkya says that, “Padmasana is esteemed by all.”
There is enough evidence to deem the hip rotations as the most important category of yoga postures, with all other postures preparing us to stay for a longer time in asanas such as Padmasanaand Siddhasana.
This exercise might initially seem daunting, but a sincere effort every day will take you a long way in a year.
WARRIOR POSTURE A
Since we follow in this text the half-vinyasa system, which is the common practice in India, every posture from now on will commence from vinyasa seven. In other words, from Downward Dog in the previous posture we enter the following posture. To start every posture with the first vinyasa would mean returning to Samasthiti between every asana, which is the full-vinyasa practice.
Inhaling, turn the left heel into the center of your mat so that the foot is placed at 45° to the center-line of the mat. Step the right foot up and place it between the hands (check that the hips are square and the left foot correctly positioned).
Continuing the inhalation, bring the torso upright and raise your arms. Bring the palms together and gaze upward. Draw the shoulder blades down and out to the side to prevent the shoulders from hunching around the ears. The outer arch of the back foot grounds, and the thigh rolls medially to aid the left hip in remaining forward. The sit bones are heavy and sink downward. Without losing the squareness of the hips, track your right knee out over the right ankle, bringing the shin perpendicular to the floor.
If we sacrifice the squareness of the hips here, we forsake the best opportunity in the Primary Series to stretch the psoas and quadriceps muscles. For this stretch to occur, it is necessary to keep the pelvis upright.
The tendency will be to tilt the pelvis anteriorly and collapse into the low back. Apart from avoiding the lengthening of psoas and quadriceps, we will also weaken where we need to be strong: in the low back.
To protect this vulnerable area we need to bring the abdominal muscles into play. Engaging rectus abdominis lifts the pubic bone and tips the pelvis posteriorly, allowing us to stretch those important muscles.Hold Virabhadrasana A for five breaths.
Exhaling, lower the gaze to the horizon and, keeping the arms up, turn to the left and repeat Virabhadrasana A on the left side. Once fully into the posture, lift the gaze upward.
WARRIOR POSTURE B
Exhaling, draw the right hip back until the pelvis is parallel with the long edge of the mat. At the same time lower the arms until the hands hover above your feet. Open the right foot to 5° to accommodate the opening of the groins (technically, “groin” here refers mainly to the adductors). You will need to elongate the stance up to ten inches, the distance gained from opening the hip position. The gaze reaches out to the right hand. Hold for five breaths.
The outer arch of the right foot grounds and the right leg rolls laterally to open both groins. Note that the rotation of the thigh of the back leg, which is determined by the turn-out of the foot, is different from that of Virabhadrasana A. Sink the hips down as low as possible until you get the feeling of being suspended between two rubber straps. Resist the tendency to lean the torso toward the front leg by positioning the shoulders squarely above the hips. For the working of the legs see Utthita Parshvakonasana (page 46), which is identical.
Exhaling, turn and imitate the posture on the right side. The gaze shifts to the right hand. Five breaths.
Exhaling, place both hands down at the front end of the mat and, inhaling, lift up and hover for the length of the inhalation in an arm balance, with the left leg straight and the right leg bent. This is again an opportunity to balance flexibility with strength.
In the Mahabharata, Arjuna is frequently addressed as “Oh mighty armed one.” With regular training, vinyasa eleven will give us a chance to replicate Arjuna’s strength.
Exhaling, lower into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Inhaling, arch into Upward Dog.
Exhaling, draw back into Downward Dog. We are now ready to jump through to sitting.
Virabhadra was a fierce warrior of Lord Shiva’s army. The head priest, Daksha, was an orthodox rule-maker and preserver of traditional society. Against his consent, his beautiful daughter Sati married Lord Shiva. Shiva destroys the world at the end of each world age, and he also destroys the ego. He is therefore the Lord of Mystery.
For various reasons Daksha considered Shiva impure. Shiva had peculiar habits such as meditating in burial grounds smeared with the ashes of the dead, and meditating on mountaintops for long periods, rather than participating in society. But the main reason for Daksha’s disdain was that Shiva always carried a skull with him. The story behind this was that, to punish him for his vanity, Shiva had once cut off one of the five heads of Lord Brahma, whereupon Brahma laid a curse on Shiva: that the skull would stick to his hand. To this day some worshipers of Shiva always carry with them a skull.
At one time Daksha organized a great ceremony to which he invited all deities and dignitaries with the exception of Shiva and Sati. Against Shiva’s advice, Sati attended her father’s ceremony. Before the thousands of guests she asked her father why he had not invited her husband. Daksha responded by exclaiming that Shiva was a despicable character, an outcast who did not know the conventions of society.
With this insult to her husband, Sati’s anger was so aroused that she burst into flames and was reduced to ashes. When Shiva, in his solitude, heard of Sati’s death he became terribly angry, jumped up and danced the dance of destruction.
Eventually he tore out one of his jatars (dreadlocks) and smashed it to the ground. From the impact the terrible warriors Virabhadra and Bhadrakali arose. Shiva ordered them to proceed to Daksha’s festival, destroy the hall, kill everybody one by one, behead Daksha, drink his blood, and throw his head into the fire.
The story continues, but as far as our posture is concerned we can leave it there. Virabhadrasana is dedicated to this terrible warrior.
INTENSE WESTERN STRETCH12
As with all following asanas (excluding the finishing postures), here we pick up the vinyasa count at seven.
Inhaling, jump through to a seated position.
At first you may execute this movement using momentum. With increased proficiency you will be able to jump through with little or no momentum while still clearing the floor. The key to effortless performance here is to connect the breath to the bandhas. As long as we are airborne in the jump, we must continue to inhale, as the inhalation has a lifting and carrying effect. Once the lift-through is complete we initiate the exhalation to lower down.
To learn this movement it should be divided into two clearly distinguishable separate phases. Phase 1 is hopping forward into an arm balance with the shoulders over the wrists, and the hips and folded legs lifted high. Phase 2 consists of letting the torso and legs slowly swing through the arms, using the shoulders as an axis. As you swing through, suck the feet up into the abdomen and the knees into the chest to clear the floor. With the last of the inhalation, straighten the legs into Dandasana, still suspended in the air. With the exhalation, slowly lower down like a helicopter. Performing the movement in this way will establish a firm connection between breath and bandhas. It will also strengthen the abdomen and the low back, preparing for the challenging backbends and leg-behind-head postures in the later sequences.
Sit in Dandasana for five breaths. Dandasana has no vinyasa count of its own: rather, the seventh vinyasa of Pashimottanasana is the state of Dandasana. Nevertheless Dandasana is the basic sitting posture. We will usually transit through Dandasana before and after each half vinyasa.
Left to right, top to bottom, jump through to Dandasana
Dandasana is like Samasthiti seated. The sit bones ground and the spine lengthens with the attempt to reproduce its natural curvature. The heart is lifted and buoyant, open in the front and broad and open in the back. The armpits lift in the front as the tops of the arm bones (humerus) are positioned in the center of the shoulder joints. Extend the arms and place the hands on the floor with the fingers pointing toward the feet. If your arms are longer than your torso, place the hands slightly behind the hips. The kneecaps are pulled up. Lengthen out through the base of the toes and spike the heels down into the floor to awaken the hamstrings. The gaze is toward the nose.
Pashimottanasana, vinyasa eight
Exhaling, reach for the big toes. The low back must be kept flat. To round the back in a seated forward bend is the equivalent of bending down from a standing position to lift a heavy object off the floor while rounding the back and keeping the legs straight. To avoid the danger of disc bulge and prolapse (see page 37, and figure 6, page 38) it is necessary to keep the low back straight in any weight-bearing situation. This includes all forward bending postures and also leg-behind-head postures like Ekapada Shirshasana. In postures where gravity is the only load, such as Karnapidasana andBujapidasana, the spine can be safely flexed.
Without resorting to bending your back and/or using a strap, you have two options if you are too stiff to reach the big toes in Pashimottanasana. One is to bend the knees and take the toes. This enables the pelvis to tilt forward, which is the imperative first stage of a forward bend. Keeping the iliac crests (upper front of the hip bones) in close proximity to the thighs, work on slowly straightening out the legs. Press out through the base of the feet and, at the same time, reach the sit bones away from the feet. The pubic bone slips down between the thighs. The other option is to take hold of the shins, ankles, or whatever you can reach. With a firm grip, slowly work your way forward as the hamstrings lengthen.
Some students will find their hamstrings so stiff that the pelvis tilts posteriorly when sitting on the floor with legs straight. This means that gravity is working against you. In this case, it is advisable to elevate the sit bones by sitting on a folded blanket. This helps to bring the pelvis upright, enabling proper alignment of the spine. Whichever approach you choose, with the inhalation lift the chest and straighten the arms.
The Use of Props
All asanas are designed to form energetic cycles — especially postures like Pashimottan asana and Baddha Padmasana, where the hands are connected to the feet. The earth, being receptive, draws out our energy. These bound postures recycle energy that is otherwise lost. Yogis often meditate on a seat that consists of consecutive layers of kusha grass, deer or tiger skin, and cotton to insulate them from the earth. These energy cycles are thought to have a profound influence on the pranic sheath (pranamaya kosha), which is reduced when the energy flow is interrupted through belts and straps.
The use of a strap or belt might seem like an easy solution for students with stiff ham-strings who find it difficult to reach their toes with their back straight. However, as Shri K. Pattabhi Jois has pointed out, the use of props interrupts the energy cycle of the posture.
Look up between your eyebrows as you pull up on your kneecaps, and draw your shoulder blades down your back. Lengthen your waist, letting the lower ribs reach away from your hip bones by releasing the psoas muscle. The psoas is the only muscle that connects the lower extremities to the spine, which makes it an integral stabilizing core muscle.
Psoas — The Seat of the Soul
The hip flexor muscle group includes the rectus femoris of the quadriceps, the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae, and the deeply internal psoas muscle. Continuing to contract the rectus femoris after it has tilted the hips in a forward bend causes it to bunch up in the front of the hip and prevent one from working deeper into the posture. The psoas muscle originates from the sides of the body of T12 (the last thoracic vertebra), where it touches the diaphragm and all five lumbar vertebrae. It runs along the back of the abdominal cavity (the front of the spine) through the pelvis and inserts at a mount on the inside of the thighbone (femur), the lesser trochanter. It flexes the hip joint and laterally rotates the femur in the process.
When the thigh is fixed, as in standing and seated postures, the psoas is flexed. Ida Rolf states that a healthy psoas should elongate during flexion and fall back toward the spine.13 It is necessary to release and lengthen the psoas, once the hips are tilted forward, in order to deepen any forward-bending postures.
The superficial muscles of the body relax completely after they have been worked, but the deep muscles always retain a certain tension, even at rest. This is especially true of muscles that originate on the spine, like the psoas. They are therefore prone to spasm if worked intensely. The conscious relaxing of these muscles is as important as exercising them.
The psoas is the deepest muscle in the body. Its importance is such that it has been described by some as the “seat of the soul.” To see the psoas in action one has to imagine the graceful gait of African or Indian women carrying large water containers on their heads. To do this, the head has to maintain a continuous forward motion without any sudden jerks. The movement is only possible with a strong but relaxed psoas muscle. The psoas swings the pelvis forward and backward like a cradle. This swinging action initiates the movement of the legs with the rectus femoris (the large hip flexor at the front of the thigh) only coming into action well after the psoas. The swinging of the pelvis creates a wavelike motion up the spine, which keeps the spine healthy and vibrant, and the mind centered in the heart. If you have ever tried to walk with a large object balancing on your head you know how difficult this makes it to follow the tangents of the mind. Connecting with the core of the body (the psoas) shifts the attention from the mind to the heart — this is why the psoas is regarded as the seat of the soul.
The other extreme can be observed when we watch an army march. Soldiers are required to keep the psoas hardened. Being constantly shortened, the muscle spasms and is weakened. In the military attention posture, when the chest is swelled, one naturally dips into the low back, which also weakens the psoas muscle. When marching, the pelvis is arrested and the thighs are aggressively thrust upward and forward. This movement only uses the rectus femoris. The spine is frozen, and this keeps the soldiers’ attention in their minds. In this state the mind can more easily be convinced to be noncompassionate to fellow human beings, who are instead labeled as the enemy.
If we all walked with our psoas active and our spines caressed with the wavelike motion this produces, our minds would possibly arrive at a state of silence. We would then see every human being as part of the same consciousness that animates us all. One of the reasons our Western culture has conquered much of the world with its arms is that we have abandoned natural awareness and have fallen under the tyranny of the mind. Yoga calls for restoring this awareness, which draws us to naturally abide in nonviolence. Nonviolence becomes a nonimposed ethical law.
As one starts practicing yoga it is very important to abandon the Western aggressive conquering attitude of wanting to derive an advantage out of yoga, but rather to approach the postures from a deep surrender into what is already here. All forward bends inspire this attitude. If, rather than developing yet another wish — such as to lengthen the hamstrings, which actually shorten and contract with greed — we let go into the knowledge that everything we may ask for is already here, the hamstrings will release by themselves. Ambition shortens hamstrings.
FIGURE 12 PSOAS AND ILIACUS
Exhaling, fold forward at the hip joints, maintaining the lift created in vinyasa eight. Rather then collapsing the head down toward the knees, lift the heart forward toward the toes.
The work of Uddiyana Bandha is important here to support the low back. Do not breathe excessively into the belly, as is often done in forward bending, but encourage the rib cage to participate in the breathing process.
The inhalation is used to reach the heart forward, whereas the exhalation is used by surrendering deeper into the posture. If this instruction leads to the student “bouncing” up and down in the posture, we can conclude that Uddiyana Bandha is not engaged sufficiently. Let these movements be motivated from deep within, working the posture from the core out toward the periphery.
The kneecaps are permanently lifted in all forward-bending postures. As explained in Padangushtasana (page 37), the antagonist of each muscle to be stretched needs to be engaged. The muscle group being stretched here is the hamstrings; their antagonist is the quadriceps. For beginners it is often impossible to keep the kneecaps pulled up due to an inability to access the quadriceps. It may seem as if we need to grow a new nerve connection to this muscle. This learned coordination is possible through concentration and perseverance. The teacher may gently press the thumbs into both thighs to “awaken” the quadriceps.
In all forward bends it is important to release and spread the buttocks. The buttocks are often tightened in a fear response to the stretch felt. Tightening the buttocks, however, draws us up out of the forward bend since the gluteus maximus muscle is a hip extensor. The ligaments of the sacroiliac joints (sacrum/pelvis joints) can also be strained. Focus on releasing the buttocks, allowing them to spread, and lengthen through the low back. This is eccentric lengthening of the quadratus lumborum muscle. Eccentric lengthening means that the muscle is active, as we need it to keep the back straight, but at the same time it becomes longer as we elongate the waist. In other words the muscles lengthen against resistance. It is important to create additional space between the hipbone and the lowest rib because a shortened, contracted waist is an obstacle in all forward bending, backbending, and leg-behind-head postures.
Pashimottanasana A (the state of the asana)
The shoulders move away from the ears in Pashimottanasana. Contracting the trapezius and levator scapulae muscles hunches the shoulders around the ears and blocks the flow of energy to the cervical spine. Excessive contracting of the neck muscles can lead to a red face in forward or back bending, which indicates a constriction of the blood flow to the head. Use the anchoring of the hands to counteract this, by drawing the shoulder blades down the back, which is called depressing the shoulder girdle (latissimus dorsi), and by drawing them out to the sides, called abduction of the scapulae (serratus anterior).
Pashimottanasana is another great posture to demonstrate the principle of simultaneous expansion in opposing directions. The feet, the heart, and the crown of the head are reaching forward to elongate the spine. The shoulder blades, the sit bones, and the heads of the femurs are extending backward. The elbows and the shoulder blades reach out wide to the sides. The muscles hug the body, compressingprana into the core. The core remains open, receptive, and bright. Its luminescence permeates the whole of the posture and shines forth.
Surrender is most important in Pashimottanasana. This posture is not about conquering the hamstrings but about letting go. To breathe into and release the hamstrings can be very upsetting. We store many powerful emotions, such as suppressed anger, competitiveness, and fear of inadequacy, in our hamstring muscles. All suppressed emotions are potentially crippling to our health: they are toxic and have an impact on our personality. It is essential that, if strong emotions do arise when we breathe awareness into the hamstrings, we acknowledge whatever we feel and then let go of these emotions. Breathing through a posture requires that the stretch be kept at a manageable intensity. If the stretch is too strong we will harden and numb ourselves further. One needs to stretch with compassion and intelligence. Otherwise, instead of letting go of our old unconscious conditioning, we will superimpose yet another layer of abuse. Stay in the state of Pashimottanasana A for five breaths.
Pashimottanasana B (top) and C
Inhaling, lift the torso away from the legs, straightening the arms. Exhaling, take the outsides of the feet.
The next three vinyasas reflect Pashimottanasana B, and the three vinyasas after that reflect Pashimottanasana C.
Inhaling, lift the heart and the entire front of the torso.
Exhaling, Pashimottanasana B, five breaths.
Inhaling, lift the torso away from the legs, straightening the arms. Exhaling, reach around the feet to lock the wrists.
Inhaling, lift the torso, straightening the arms.
Exhaling, fold forward, Pashimottanasana C, five breaths.
These three variations of Pashimottanasana stretch the inside, outside, and center of the hamstrings, which coincide with the three separate muscles of the group: semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris (see figure 7, page 40).
Inhaling, lift the torso, straightening the arms. Exhaling, place your hands to the floor.
Inhaling, lift up and move the feet back with a single hop so the body forms a straight line from the head to the feet.
The inhalation has a natural upward lifting function; the exhalation has a grounding and rooting function. Imagine the autumn wind playing with leaves and effortlessly lifting them off the floor. The same power is used in the vinyasa movement. The inha lation inspires the lift, with the shoulder and arm muscles providing the structural support. This is only possible with Mula and Uddiyana Bandhaengaged. The inhalation reaches down, hooks into the bandhas, and lifts the body up like an elevator. Movement must follow the breath. If the breath is connected to the bandhas, it will move the body effortlessly and one will feel light and rejuvenated after the practice. If the bandhas are not firmly established, one might feel drained and exhausted after practice because energy has been lost. Feel how the inhalation reaches down and attaches itself to the engaged pelvic floor and lower abdominal wall. Continue to inhale, creating a suction that lifts your trunk off the floor. Support this lift with the frame and action of your arms and shoulders.
Above from left, vinyasa eleven jump back, in phases Left, start of vinyasa twelve
Below, top to bottom, left to right, Chaturanga Dandasana (vinyasa twelve), Upward Dog (vinyasa thirteen), Downward Dog (vinyasa fourteen)
If your arms and shoulders are weak, do the following exercise. Sitting on your heels, cross your ankles, point your feet backward, and lift your knees and feet off the floor. Hold Lollasana for as long as you can. Add on one breath every day until you can hold it for ten breaths. Then gently begin to swing back and forth without dragging your feet over the floor. Eventually insert this movement into your vinyasa.
Exhale into Chaturanga Dandasana, the fourth position of Surya Namaskara A.
Inhale into Upward Dog.
Exhale into Downward Dog.
We are now ready to jump through to sitting for the next posture.
Different Foot Positions in Forward Bending
There are three different foot positions for forward bends. In the first, the foot is flexed (dorsal flexed), which means that the upper side of the foot is drawn toward the shin. This position can be used for the less intense type of forward bends — for postures where the hamstrings do not bear the weight of the torso, such as Dandasana and Marichyasana C.14
The second foot position, the one used in Pashimottanasana, is between pointing and flexing. To achieve this, first extend out through the heels and then through the bases of all the toes. Keeping the feet flexed in Pashimottanasana is one of the main sources of hamstring injuries. This second foot position is also chosen in other semi-intense forward bends like Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana, Janushirshasana, and, very important, in Upavishta Konasana.
The third foot position is to have the feet pointed (called plantar flexion, which means that the surface of the foot draws away from the shin). Pointing the feet gives maximum protection to the hamstrings. This position is employed in the most intense group of forward bends, which includes Hanumanasana, Trivikramasana, Tittibhasana, and Vasishtasana.
INTENSE EASTERN STRETCH15
Drishti Nose or third eye
Purvottanasana is the counter and complementary posture to the Pashimottanasana series.
Inhaling, jump through to sitting. Place the hands shoulder width apart on the floor with a hand’s-length space between your fingertips and your buttocks. The fingers are spread and pointing forward, toward the feet.
Inhaling, broaden the shoulders and draw the shoulder blades down the back. Straighten the arms and free up the chest. Lift the heart high and tip the chin toward the chest.
Purvottanasana, vinyasa seven
The legs are straight and strong. Point the feet. Drop the coccyx toward the heels and dig the back of the heels down into the floor. This engages the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus. Lift the pelvis and uncoil the spine. Work the toes toward the floor until the soles of the feet cup the floor. Once up in the posture, the hamstrings can take over and you can release the buttocks; to go on contracting themwould place a strain on the sacroiliac joints. Keep lifting the chest and continue to open it by positioning the shoulder blades broad and drawing them down the back, and by arching the upper back (erector spinae).
The head is the last to go back. Release the front of the throat and allow the head to hang back, relaxed. Gaze to the tip of the nose to keep the back of the neck elongated. This head position should not be adopted, however, if the student has neck problems or has suffered whiplash. The old pattern of a whiplash injury could be set off in the transitions in and out of this posture.
Instead, one can gently place the chin on the sternum and keep it there throughout the posture. Gaze toward the feet. The head should be lifted only when one has come back down to sitting. Done in this way, the neck muscles are not provoked into a spasm reflex. Hold Purvottanasana for five breaths.
Purvottanasana, vinyasa eight
Exhaling, exit the posture by first replacing the buttocks on the floor, then bringing the head back upright. Finally, the hands come forward.
Inhaling, lift the feet between the hands.
Exhaling, jump back into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Inhale into Upward Dog.
Exhale into Downward Dog.
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana
BOUND HALF LOTUS FORWARD BEND
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana starts a new cycle of postures that combine forward bending with hip rotation. The Primary Series mainly consists of these two themes.
The postures are grounding and rooting, and they form the basis of the more exhilarating themes of backbending, leg-behind-head, and arm balances, which form the subject of the Intermediate and Advanced Series. From a yogic point of view the foundation must be properly prepared before we advance to a more complex practice.
The next five postures establish the rotation pattern of the femur for the Primary Series. Sown here, this seed can eventually fructify in the performance of such complex postures as Mulabandhasana (the most extreme medial rotation) and Kandasana (the most extreme lateral rotation). The rotation pattern is as follows:
• Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana — medial rotation
• Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana — lateral rotation
• Janushirshasana A — medial rotation
• Janushirshasana B — lateral rotation
• Janushirshasana C — medial rotation
The Paradox of Active Release
This is an important understanding that needs to be grasped in order to master the art of working deeply and harmoniously in all postures. Active release derives its effectiveness from the following principle: To enter a posture we use prime muscle groups that perform particular actions. Once in the posture, we must release those muscle groups and engage their antagonists to work harmoniously and more deeply into the posture.
For example, to go into a backbend we engage the trunk extensors (erector spinae, quadratus lumborum). Ultimately, however, these muscles limit backbending. They shorten the back and pinch the spinous processes of the vertebrae together. Once we have arrived in a backbend we need to release the trunk extensors and instead engage the trunk flexors (abdominal muscles). This lengthens the back, creates space between the spinous processes, and deepens the backbend.
The same principle is applied in hip rotations such as Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana and Baddha Konasana. We laterally rotate the femur to go into hip rotations, but when in the posture we release the lateral rotators by medially rotating the femur. This action takes us much deeper into the posture. In all forward bends such as Pashimottanasana we engage the hip flexors, particularly the psoas and rectus femoris, to go into the posture. Once the hip joint is flexed to about 160° we won’t be able to close the joint any farther because the bulging hip flexors are in the way. To illustrate, try out the following: Standing, bend the knee joint by merely contracting the hamstrings and the calf muscles. You will not be able to close the joint completely because the very muscles that perform the action also prevent its completion. Now use your hand to draw your heel to your buttock. At the same time resist your hand by gently attempting to straighten your leg. This slight leg extension, performed by the antagonists of the prime movers, will release and flatten out the leg flexors so that the joint can now be completely closed.
In the case of Pashimottanasana the principle of active release is applied by drawing the heels down into the floor. This engages the hamstrings and enables the psoas and rectus femoris to release. Once they are released the front of the hip joint can be fully closed and the forward bend completed.
This action does not mean the kneecaps will be released. The quadriceps, which pulls up the kneecaps, has four heads, rectus femoris being only one of them. If rectus femoris (the only two-joint muscle in the group) is released, the other three heads (vastus lateralis, medialis, and intermedius) can still pull up the kneecap and work to extend the leg.
These femur rotations refer to the action performed after one has arrived in the posture. To get into the posture the action is the opposite. When the rotation pattern is performed in this way, the more challenging postures in the series, such as Marichyasana D and Baddha Konasana, become easily accessible.
Inhaling, jump through to sitting and straighten the legs. An experienced practitioner would go into the posture in one breath. For the sake of precision and safety we will break this rather complex movement down into various phases, identical to the standing half lotus (Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana).
Sitting in Dandasana, flex the right knee joint completely until your right heel touches the right buttock. If this is not possible, resort to daily practice of Virasana and Supta Virasana. (See “Lengthening the Quadriceps,” page 57.)
From here abduct the right thigh until the right knee touches the floor. Establish a 90° angle between the thighs. Pointing and inverting the right foot, draw the right heel into the right groin, or as close to it as possible. You are now in the position for Janushirshasana A (page 79). Transiting through this posture on the way into half lotus prepares the adductor muscle group. Keeping the foot pointed and inverted, draw the knee far out to the right to further stretch the adductors. Tight adductors constitute the main obstacle to lotus and half-lotus postures. This method gives beginners maximum opening. It is not recommended that beginners pull the foot into position without first releasing the adductors. This movement can be repeated several times to produce the desired effect.
Draw the heel in toward the navel. Transiting via the navel on the way into half lotus will ensure that the knee joint remains sealed.
Now draw the right foot across to the left groin. Reach your right arm around your back to bind the right big toe. The palm faces downward. The palm facing up would lead to excessive inward rotation of the humerus and, with it, hunching of the shoulder. An inability to bind is often due to stiffness in the right shoulder because of a short pectoralis minor muscle (see figure 13, page 76). In this case reach the right arm far up and out to the right side. Spin the arm inward so that the palm faces backward. Reach far behind, lowering the hand. Abduct and depress the shoulder girdle to avoid jutting the shoulder forward. As you proceed, release the muscle that draws the shoulder forward (pectoralis minor). If you still cannot reach the toe, work intelligently in Parshvottanasana, Prasarita Padottanasana C,Urdhva Dhanurasana, and Upward and Downward Dog. These postures reduce tightness in the shoulders.
From top, going into Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, phases 1, 2, and 3
If you are unable to bind your big toe, you are not ready to fold forward in this posture. If the foot is situated on the thigh rather than in the groin, bending forward can strain ligaments and/or damage cartilage.
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, vinyasa seven
Instead, continue to work on opening the hips. Sit upright and keep drawing the foot upward with the left hand while you work the extended left leg. Be patient. Many of the other postures will aid the loosening of your hip joints and adductors. Then you will be able to perform the posture safely.
If you managed to bind the right foot, gently place the knee out to the side and down toward the floor. The left hand reaches forward and takes the outside of the left foot. Inhaling, lift the chest and straighten the left arm. Square your hips and shoulders to the straight leg.
Exhaling, fold forward. The straight left leg works in the same way as the legs in Pashimottanasana. To place the right foot into the left groin we performed outward (lateral) rotation of the thigh. To work in the posture, we now medially rotate the thigh. To aid medial rotation, keep the right foot pointed and inverted. The muscles that inwardly rotate — two hamstrings (semimembranous, semitendinous) an adductor (gracilis), an abductor (gluteus minimus), and a hip flexor cum abductor (tensor fascia latae) — all have the tendency to suck the thigh into the hip. This can lead to a build-up of tension in the knee.
To counteract this, let the femur reach outward and away from the hip. This action releases the adductors, and its importance cannot be overemphasized.
Continue to gently draw the knee down to the floor and out to the side. The ideal angle between the two thighs is around 40°, depending on the ratio between tibia and femur length of each individual. The heel of the foot sits in the navel during the entire posture. Only then can the purpose of this posture, the purification of liver and spleen, be fulfilled.
Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana, vinyasa eight
Square your shoulders to the front leg and keep them at an even distance from the floor. Draw your elbows out to the sides, away from each other.
The sit bones ground; the buttocks spread. The crown of the head reaches toward the feet while the shoulder blades draw toward the hips. Hold for five breaths.
Inhaling, lift the chest and straighten the left arm. Exhaling, take the leg out of half lotus and place the hands on the floor.
Vinyasas Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana
ONE-LEGGED FORWARD BEND WITH THREE LIMBS FACING FORWARD
Inhaling, jump through to sitting. Bend up the right leg and fold it back so that the right foot is placed outside the right buttock, with the sole and heel facing upward. Eventually, one can work toward jumping through and folding the right leg back in mid-air to land seated, with the left leg straight and the right foot pointing backward.
If necessary, lift the right thigh off the calf muscle and use your hand to roll the calf muscle out of the way. Now draw the right sit bone down to the floor. Adjust the rotation of the femur to make sure the front edge of the tibia points straight down to the floor. Most students will have to laterally rotate the femur in this posture. Medial rotation is necessary to get into the posture. If you experience discomfort or pain in your knee as you attempt to get your right sit bone down, proceed with compassion toward yourself. Inability to ground the right sit bone is due to stiff and short quadriceps. This prevents complete flexion of the knee joint.
FIGURE 13 PECTORALIS MINOR
The pectoralis minor is a small but important muscle beneath the pectoralis major. It originates on the third to fifth ribs and inserts at the coracoid process. The coracoid process is part of the scapula (shoulder blade), but reaches forward, underneath the clavicle (collar bone), to the anterior aspect of the rib cage.
As it contracts, the pectoralis minor moves the shoulder forward. It works together with the serratus anterior in performing Chaturanga Dandasana, but it is the prime mover of the shoulder during the transition into Upward Dog and the jump through into the sitting postures.
A permanent collapsing of the shoulders forward indicates a tight pectoralis minor muscle.
To give the quadriceps time to lengthen, sit on a folded blanket. The blanket should be under your sit bones and the foot down on the floor. This tips the pelvis forward, returning the lordotic curve to the low back, enabling you to sit upright with ease. A tight quadriceps is often the cause of knee problems. Sit in Virasana whenever possible to lengthen it (see “Lengthening the Quadriceps,” page 57, which includes a photograph of Virasana). This posture consists of two Triang Mukha Ekapadas combined. Performed outside of vinyasa practice, this posture is even more effective. Then residual stiffness in the cold muscle is targeted — stiffness that may not be apparent when the muscles are warmed up. Spend as long as possible in Virasana and the quadriceps will quickly lengthen. As in Triang Mukha, it is essential that the foot does not turn out to the side and that the heel faces upward.
Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana
Ground both sit bones. Now reach forward with both hands to take the left foot or shin. Initially there may be a tendency for the right sit bone to lift off the floor and the body to lean over to the left side. This can be counteracted by using your right arm as a support, but it is more therapeutic to use the combined effort of the core muscles of the trunk and the work of both legs to stay upright. Both thighs have to rotate to the right, which means that the left thigh needs to rotate medially and the right thigh laterally. The abdominals, lengthening eccentrically, draw the right sit bone down. If you are still in danger of keeling over, elevate the blanket on which you are sitting.
Inhaling, straighten the arms and lift the chest while still holding the foot.
Exhaling, fold forward. Keep both buttocks evenly grounded and your shoulders at an even distance from the floor. In the beginning one often makes the mistake of focusing too much on the forward-bending aspect of the posture. It is much more important to ground the right buttock, which works directly on the hip and develops abdominal strength. Apart from jumping through and back, Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana, Marichyasana A, and Navasana are the three main producers of abdominal strength in the series. This abdominal strength is much needed, later in the series, for Supta Kurmasana. Allocate at least 50 percent of your effort to the hip work in this posture — grounding the sit bone and stretching the quadriceps — and the rest to the forward bend. With its stretching of the quadriceps and creation of abdominal strength, this humble posture is one of the most underestimated in the framework of the Primary Series.
FIGURE 14 EXTERNAL ROTATORS
External (lateral) rotation is performed by a group of six muscles that are situated under the gluteus maximus. The uppermost of these lateral rotaters, the piriformis, originates at the sacrum. The large sciatic nerve usually emerges from beneath the piriformis muscle. Sciatic pain is often caused by a chronically tight piriformis pressing onto the sciatic nerve.
The other five lateral rotators, the gemellus inferior and superior, the obturator internus and externus, and the quadratus femoris, originate at the posterior aspect of the ischium (lower posterior portion of the pelvis). All six lateral hip rotators insert into the greater trochanter of the femur.
Since the pelvis is suspended like a hammock by the lateral rotators, any irregularity between the two sides will result in the pelvis not being level. Lateral rotation is also performed as a secondary function by the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius, the sartorius, the biceps femoris, the adductor magnus, the adductor brevis, and the psoas muscle.
Extend out through the heel and the bases of all toes of the left foot. Folding forward, make sure that you lift the heart toward the foot and keep the low back flat. Lengthen through the low back and let the buttocks spread. Do not hunch the shoulders. Lengthen the back of the neck. Practicing in this way, you might look stiffer, but also more elegant. Maintaining the inner integrity of the postures makes the practice far more effective. Hold this vinyasa, which constitutes the state of the asana, for five breaths.
Inhaling, lift the chest, still holding the foot. Exhaling, place your hands down. There are two ways to jump back:
• At count ten, lift the left leg up off the floor and hop back. This version demands a little more flexibility, but, as one can assist the jump back by pushing the floor away with the right foot, strengthwise it is not as taxing.
• Bring the right leg forward to Dandasana and jump back from there.
This makes for a cleaner lift and generates greater strength. It is therefore the preferred method to commence with.
Vinyasas Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
HEAD-BEYOND-THE-KNEE POSTURE A
Janushirshasana A, like no other posture, combines the two main themes of the Primary Series — forward bending and hip rotation. Pashimottanasana and Baddha Konasana are the cardinal postures of these two actions. Janushirshasana A is in fact identical to performing Pashimottanasana on one leg and Baddha Konasana with the other. There may be more exhilarating postures in the sequence, but it is Janushirshasana A that most lets us experience the underlying principles of the first series.
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Bend the knee and take the right thigh back, working toward creating a 90° angle between the thigh bones. This action, called abduction, hip flexion, and lateral rotation of the femur, is primarily performed by the sartorius muscle. Point and invert the right foot, as this aids subsequent medial rotation of the femur. Draw the right heel into the right groin, thus completely sealing the knee joint. Ideally the right heel would touch the right groin, but beginners may take some time to cultivate the necessary length in the quadriceps. This length needs to be gained in the previous posture, Triang Mukha Ekapada Pashimottanasana. We can now move the entire folded leg as a unity, minimizing friction in the knee joint.
As you reach forward to take the left foot, the right thigh begins its countermovement, rolling forward (medial rotation). If possible, the left hand binds the right wrist. Inhaling, lift your heart and square your shoulders to the left foot. Lift through the entire front of the body while the shoulder blades flow down the back and the sit bones ground down.
The Buddha’s Lotus
Pointing the foot while executing Janushirshasana A allows the tibia to track the medial rotation of the femur until its front edge (it is a triangular bone) points down to the earth and the heel up to the sky. This fundamental movement can be applied in all lotus postures. It will lead to sitting in lotus posture with the heels and the soles of the feet facing upward, as in depictions of the Buddha. This is the anatomically correct position. The position adopted by many Westerners, in which the heels and soles face toward the abdomen, places undue strain on the knee joints.
To invert the foot at the same time as pointing it deepens the medial spiraling of the thigh, thereby deepening the lotus position. Combining these actions, create a vector of energy out from the groin. This counteracts the tendency for beginners to suck the thigh back into the hip, which shortens the adductors and creates an obstacle to opening the hips. All hip rotations require that the adductors are released and lengthened.
Lengthening along the insides of the thighs in Janushirshasana A loosens the adductors and reduces pressure on the knee. The knee gently draws down and back (abduction of the femur), increasing the length of the adductors.
Habitually short adductors (see figure 17, page 101) are observed in many Westerners. Our culture trains us to govern and to subdue nature; we place ourselves above nature. This is reflected in our habit of sitting on chairs — above the earth and removed from it. Asians and those of many other civilizations sat on the ground. This corresponded to a view in which humans are a part of nature and not its lord. And sitting on the ground leaves the hip joints open.
Exhaling, fold forward squarely over the inseam of the straight leg. The left leg and the torso follow the instructions for Pashimottanasana. The right foot points and inverts. The thigh rolls forward (rotates medially) and reaches back until a state of equilibrium is achieved. Every movement needs to contain its countermovement. In the present case the inward rotation of the thigh is terminated by a corresponding outward rotation, when the neutral state is reached. To prevent the excessive performance of a movement, receptivity is necessary to recognize the neutral state. Work for five breaths in the posture. Both shoulders are kept at an even distance from the floor.
Janushirshasana A beautifully lengthens the quadratus lumborum, a small back extensor muscle in the low back. Lengthen the low back, attempting to square the whole of the chest to the straight leg. Keep the back of the neck long. Jutting the chin forward in an ambitious attempt to touch it to the shin impairs the blood and nerve supplies to the brain, and the contracted neck muscles have the strength to subluxate cervical vertebrae. This action cultivates an aggressive go-getter attitude and a decrease of compassion.
It often helps if the teacher places a finger on a particular vertebra and encourages the student to lift it upward, C7 being one vertebra frequently in need of support. Students who have a tendency to whiplash or who carry a whiplash pattern should maintain a straight line from the spine along the neck and across the back of the head. Do not look up to the foot until your neck is cured. HoldJanushirshasana A for five breaths.
Inhaling, hold on to the foot, lift the torso, and straighten the arms. Exhaling, place the hands down, ready to lift up.
FIGURE 15 QUADRATUS LUMBORUM
Janushirshasana A beautifully lengthens the quadratus lumborum in the low back. The quadratus lumborum is a small back extensor muscle that lies beneath the erector spinae muscle group. It originates at the twelth rib and runs along the five lumbar vertebrae to insert onto the iliac crest. It is frequently hard and shortened (hyperlordosis) from standing for long periods of time. The quadratus lumborum muscle often spasms from overworking in backbending and leg-behind-head postures. Janushirshasana A and Parighasana, in the Intermediate Series, are the chief therapy for this. Janushirshasana is a great tool for lengthening the waist, which is imperative for performing backbends and leg-behind-head postures.
Vinyasas Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
HEAD-BEYOND-THE-KNEE POSTURE B
Inhaling, jump through and fold the right leg back to a maximum of 85°. Place the sole of the flexed (dorsally flexed) right foot against the left inner thigh. Without changing the position of the right foot, place the hands down and lift the buttocks off the floor. Shift your weight forward by letting the left heel glide forward over the floor, and sit down on the inside of the right foot (rather than on the heel only). The toes of the right foot still point forward to the left foot.
In Janushirshasana B the right foot is flexed and the right thigh rotates laterally, as opposed to Janushirshasana A, where the foot is pointed and the thigh rotates medially. Both these thigh movements are crucial to opening the hip joints for the more advanced postures.
Right, going into Janushirshasana B; below, Janushirshasana B
Those whose tibias are short compared to the length of their femurs will have to bring the knee farther forward than 85° in order to find a comfortable seat on the foot. Both sit bones are off the floor. Square the chest to the left leg and reach forward to clasp the left foot.
Flexible students can reach around the foot to clasp the right wrist with the left hand. Inhaling, lift the chest and straighten the arms.
Exhaling, fold forward, keeping the spine and neck extended in a straight line. The right kidney area reaches forward to the left foot in an attempt to flatten out the back. The shoulders are at an even distance from the floor.
Draw the shoulder blades toward the buttocks. The lower abdomen and the pelvic floor are firm. The buttocks release, and the sit bones reach backward without touching the floor. The right knee grounds down while the right thigh rolls laterally until neutral. The heart and the crown of the head reach toward the left foot. Hold Janushirshasana B for five breaths.
Inhaling, still holding the foot, lift the chest and straighten your arms.
Exhaling, take the leg out of position and place the hands down.
Vinyasa Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
HEAD-BEYOND-THE-KNEE POSTURE C
Inhaling, jump through. Fold the right leg as if you were placing it into half lotus, but with the foot flexed. Now thread your right arm between the inner thigh and the underneath side of the calf. Hold the front of the foot, pulling the toes back toward the shin. Keeping the foot and toes flexed, draw the heel toward the navel. Let the right thigh roll medially, until you can place the base of the toes down on the floor, running along the inside of the left thigh.
Ideally, your foot would be vertical to the floor, with the heel directly above the toes and pointing upward. If this is not yet the case, place your hands down on the floor, lift your sit bones, and gently slide forward to bring the foot more upright. Continue to rotate the thigh medially.
Top, going into Janushirshasana C; above, Janushirshasana C
Square the hips and allow the right knee to find its position. This will depend on the end position of the heel: the more upright the heel, the farther forward will be the knee. With the heel sitting directly above the toes, the knee will rest at 45° to the left leg. Draw the knee down to the floor. It may be necessary to lift the left buttock off the floor to bring the knee down. With the aid of gravity, the lifted buttock will in time meet the floor. To reach the knee to the floor with muscular action would require contracting the hamstrings, which is contraindicated in this posture as it sucks the thigh back into the hip joint.
Take your time with this posture. If necessary stay weeks or months in any of the phases described above. Done correctly, the posture is very therapeutic for the knees, and it can cure chronic knee inflammation.
If you could follow the instructions so far, reach forward to bind the left foot. Flexible students can take the right wrist with the left hand. Inhaling, lift the chest and straighten the arms.
Exhaling, fold forward over the inside of the left leg. Continue to medially rotate the thigh here. While the right knee keeps contact with the floor, the left sit bone sinks down to meet the floor. Continue to flex the right foot, drawing it deeper into the left groin. The heel should press into the lower abdomen. In females the heel presses into the uterus. This posture is especially therapeutic for the female reproductive system, just as Janushirshasana B is therapeutic for the male reproductive system.
The left foot is between a flexed and a pointed position, with the underneath of the leg actively working. The right femur reaches out of the hip joint. Reaching outward along the inside of the right thigh will release the adductors.
As with all postures where the drishti is up to the toes, it is essential not to kink the neck. With correct alignment the chin will eventually meet the shin. Never compromise the alignment of the spine to meet illusionary goals; rather, always retain the inner integrity of the posture, and the real goals of yoga will be attained. Stay here for five breaths.
Inhaling, lift your chest while still holding the foot. Exhaling, take the right leg out of position and place your hands down on the floor.
Vinyasa Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
POSTURE OF THE RISHI MARICHI A
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Fold the right leg and place the right foot outside the right hip, as far back as possible. Keep about two hands’ width, or enough space to fit your torso, between the right foot and the left inner thigh. The right foot is parallel to the left leg and not turned out. With the right arm, reach forward until your shoulder is in front of the knee. Wrap your right arm around the shin, ideally half way between knee and ankle. As your forward bend progresses, you will be able to wrap the arm lower down your shin. Work toward binding the left wrist with the right hand. Inhaling, lift the heart high. The right buttock deliberately leaves the floor.
Marichyasana A is like a forward bend with a handicap. It is very challenging for those with tight hamstrings. The tendency here is to avoid taking weight into the bent leg, but to be propelled instead over onto the straight leg. This defeats the very challenge of the posture: to soften the hip of the bent leg. This posture prepares the hips for the Kurmasanas. Such flexibility is needed to perform the action of placing the leg behind the head.
The action of forward bending is performed solely by the hip flexors and is supported by the feet, legs, and trunk. With our hands bound, the temptation to use our arms for assistance to fold forward in the Marichyasanas is removed. Marichyasana A offers the therapeutic benefit of strengthening these muscles. The handicap becomes the gift.
Exhaling, tip the pelvis forward and lengthen out your trunk. Keep weight, and thereby action, in the foot of the bent leg. Use both feet, both legs, and both hip flexors to propel yourself forward. Continue to lift your heart and place the chest squarely down on the straight leg. To soften deeper into the posture, once forward ground the right buttock down toward the floor and lift the right knee away from the floor. The heel of the straight leg continues to press down into the floor.
The Rishi Marichi
Here we start a new group of postures, called the Marichyasanas, which first and foremost are hip openers. They are dedicated to the Maharishi Marichi (meaning ray of light). Marichi is one of the six mind-born sons of Lord Brahma and father of the Rishi Kashyappa, who is the ancestor of gods, demons, humans, and animals. Marichi appears several times in the Mahabharata, where he celebrates Arjuna’s birth and visits Bhishma at his deathbed. In the Bhagavata Purana we learn that Marichi performed a ritual to purify Lord Indra from the sin of slaying the Brahmin Vrtra. After the conclusion of his earthly life, Marichi is said to have become one of the stars of the constellation Ursa Major.
Lift your heart away from the knee, but forward toward the left foot. This action not only prevents hunching your back, but also strengthens the back muscles as the trunk extensors are engaged. Hold this posture for five breaths.
Inhaling, come up and release the hands. Exhaling, place the hands down to the floor, keeping the knee behind the shoulder if possible.
Vinyasa Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
POSTURE OF THE RISHI MARICHI B
Marichyasana A and B are almost identical, the only difference being that the leg that is straight in A is in half lotus in B.
Inhaling, jump through and straighten your legs. Bend up the left leg and place it into half lotus in the way described in Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana (page 74). Bend up the right leg, lifting the right sit bone off the floor and drawing the left knee down to the floor. Place the right foot so that the right ankle is in line with the greater trochanter of the femur (the bony outside of the hip joint).
Draw the left knee out to the side until an angle of 45° is reached between both thighs. Be sure to maintain this angle when folding forward. With the knee far out to the side, this posture is a very effective hip opener. Otherwise, it becomes just another forward bend.
With the right arm, reach up to stretch the right waist and then far forward inside the knee, until the right shoulder is in front of the right knee. Stay as low as possible, ideally hooking the shoulder half way between the knee and ankle of the right leg. Now, touching the right outer ribs against the right inner thigh, wrap the arm around the leg and if possible clasp the wrist of the left arm with the right hand. Holding on to the wrist, inhale deeply and lift the chest high.
Right, Marichyasana B, vinyasa seven Below, Marichyasana B
Exhaling, fold forward, placing your torso in the center between the right foot and the left knee. At the same time prevent the left knee from moving into the center by drawing the right hip joint forward. Rather than bending toward the left knee, fold forward along the inside of the upright right leg, always maintaining contact with the outer ribs.
At the same time rotate the left thigh medially and extend out along the inside of that thigh. Place the forehead and, once that has become easy, the chin down on the floor, without ever compromising the position of the neck. The heart reaches forward to the floor supported by strong abdominals.
A frequent problem encountered in Marichyasana B is pain on the outside of the ankle of the leg in half lotus. The pain is caused by excessive inversion of the ankle, which in turn is brought about by lack of medial rotation of the femur. All lotus and half-lotus postures need to be performed with a medially rotated femur. If this is not done due to a dormant hip joint, then often the knee joint, but in this case the ankle joint, will bear the brunt. The solution is to first avoid the inversion of the ankle by using the peroneus group on the outside of the leg. The everting action of the peronei will return the foot to a pointed, neutral position. The creative tension ensuing has now to be directed into the hip joint, and the femur medially rotated. If this is not possible, study medial rotation more closely in the previous postures. Stay in Marichyasana B for five breaths.
Inhaling, come upright and sit as tall as possible, keeping the hands bound. Exhaling, release the hands, straighten the upright leg first, then take the leg out of half lotus and place the hands down.
Vinyasa Fourteen to Twenty
Repeat the posture on the left.
POSTURE OF THE RISHI MARICHI C
Marichyasana C is the first sitting twist. The thoracic spine (upper back) from vertebra T1 to T12 is designed to twist. Here, the angle of the facet joints facilitates the greatest amount of rotation possible along the entire spine. Most of the twisting action is performed here. Twisting stretches the intercostal muscles, which lie between the ribs. As tight intercostal muscles are one of the main limitations to backbending, twists are an ideal preparation for it. The lumbar spine, which is very pliable in the forward- and backbending directions, is limited in its ability to twist. This provides necessary stability. Excessive twisting of the lumbar spine can destabilize the low back, so un-square the hips in seated twists and instead direct the twist into the upper back.
Inhaling, jump through and enter Marichyasana C on the same count. Fold the right leg up and place the foot close to the left thigh. Draw the right hip back with the foot until the hips are no longer square. The left leg remains straight. Beginners may place the right hand behind the sit bones (fingers pointing away from them) for support. Soften at the waist. Reach around with the left arm, stretching the waist, and exhaling place the left outer ribs against the right thigh until no gap remains. The left arm wraps around the knee. Clasp the right wrist with the left hand. Turn the head and gaze over your right shoulder.
Sit down and sit up. Ground the sit bones evenly. At the same time the crown of the head rises up to the ceiling. The shoulder blades glide down the back; the heart floats in front. Keep the left foot perpendicular to the floor. Counteract the tendency of the left thigh to roll out by medially rotating the femur.
Let the entire torso twist with the breath. Use the left arm as a lever by pressing it against the right knee. Counteract the tendency of the right knee to cross the midline of the body by engaging the right abductor group, which draws the knee out to the side. Hold Marichyasana C for five breaths.
Exhaling, release the posture, spin around, and place the hands onto the floor. You can keep the upright leg in position and hook the right shoulder in front of the knee as in Marichyasana A. Lifting in this way builds additional strength. If this is too difficult, lift in the same way as for all other postures.
This posture has a shorter vinyasa count:
Vinyasa Twelve to Sixteen
Repeat the posture on the left.
POSTURE OF THE RISHI MARICHI D
This posture is like Marichyasana C with the straight leg in a half lotus.
Prerequisite: The posture should only be performed after one is proficient in Marichyasana B.
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Bend up the left leg and place it into half lotus, using the same method, precision, and care described under Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana (page 74). Now bend up the right leg as in Marichyasana A, with the right foot in line with the outside of the right hip joint. Take the right hip back with the right foot, un-leveling the hips. If necessary, lift the right buttock off the floor to draw the left knee down to the floor. You are now sitting on a solid tripod, consisting of the left knee, the left buttock and the right foot. This is the same position as the set-up forMarichyasana B. Here, instead of bending forward, combine this seat with the twist of Marichyasana C.
Place your right hand on the floor behind your sacrum, fingers pointing away from you. Revolve the thorax, aligning shoulders with your bent knee. Place your left elbow on the outside of the right knee. Inhaling, lengthen the entire spine and lift your chest free. Exhaling, use your external and internal oblique abdominis muscles to glide your arm along your knee, until your left shoulder is on the outside of the right knee. You may need several rounds of breath until the shoulder is in the correct position.
Draw the upright right leg toward the center using your adductor muscles (see figure 17, page 101). If your adductors have a tendency to spasm, place your right hand on the outside of the knee and draw the knee toward the midline. Rotate the left arm inward, wrap it around the knee, and extend it until it is behind your back. (Extension is defined as returning from flexion, and flexion of the humerus is defined as raising the arm out to the front.) Now reach the right arm behind your back and clasp your fingers or take the left wrist with the right hand.
The left femur spins inward until it has reached its neutral position. Maintaining floor contact with the left knee, let the right sit bone become heavy. Inhaling, lift the front of the chest and sit up tall. Draw both shoulders back and sink the shoulder blades down. With each inhalation lift the heart area to counteract the tendency of compression in this posture. So the length of the spine expands evenly in both directions, the sit bones reach down to the earth and the heart rises up to the heavens. Initiate a spiraling movement in the spine and allow the space created between each pair of vertebrae to inspire an even deeper spiral. Hold this vinyasa for five breaths.
Exhaling, release your arms and turn to the front. Straighten the upright leg and then remove the half lotus (never the other way around, as this endangers the knee). Place your hands to the floor.
Vinyasa Twelve to Sixteen
Repeat the posture on the left.
• A deposit of adipose tissue (fat) on thighs or abdomen makes this posture very difficult and places strain on the joints.
• Adjustments in Baddha Konasana may give the needed openness in the hip joints to do the posture without stressing the knees.
• Proficiency in this posture is essential prior to attempting Supta Kurmasana. Marichyasana D develops the trunk flexors and extensors and the abdominals, so that Supta Kurmasana can be performed safely.
• Marichyasana D is one of the three main creators of support strength in the Primary Series.
The main action in the following posture is hip flexion. The weight of the legs has the tendency to pull the pelvis anteriorly (forward). This is counteracted by the abdominal muscles, which lift the pubic bone and tilt the pelvis back. For this reason Navasana is one of the prime creators of abdominal strength in the Primary Series. It is thereby an important preparation for Kurmasana.
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Lean back, balancing behind the sit bones and in front of the sacrum. Lift your legs off the floor until there is a right angle (90°) between torso and legs. Attempt to have the legs straight. The toes rest at eye level and the feet are pointed. As you decrease the angle between torso and legs, less strength is required.
Extend your arms straight out toward your feet and at shoulder height. Hold them parallel to the floor with the palms facing each other. Draw your arms back into the shoulder joints. Do not collapse the low back. Maintain a straight back and the lift of your heart. Your body is the hull of the boat and your arms become its oars.
If the abdominals are underdeveloped, however, the low back could be put under strain in this posture. For beginners the following approach is suggested:
From sitting, fold the knees into the chest and hug them. Lift the heart and, keeping the back straight, lift the feet just off the floor. Take the arms into position.
Continue to increase the angle between the knees and the chest and to lift the feet away from the floor until the lower leg eventually runs parallel to the floor.
Navasana, vinyasa eight
Proceed to straighten the legs to a point where the abdominals are fully engaged but the back remains straight.
Place your palms on the floor beside your hips. Cross your legs and, inhaling, hook the breath into the bandhas and push down through the arms to lift your body off the floor. Make a sincere effort here, and don’t be satisfied if you cannot yet lift off. For many students, this exercise brings the breakthrough in jumping back. If you can only lift a little bit, keep working until eventually you are able to lift through into Lollasana. This movement confers the ability to curl the trunk into a ball. It teaches bandha control and is the key to jumping back. (See page 70 for a photograph of Lollasana; see also page 90, “Toward Lollasana.”)
FIGURE 16 ABDOMINALS
One of the most common postural imbalances is the excessive anterior tilt of the pelvis. Among other reasons, it can be caused by tight hip flexor muscles, mainly the psoas. This tendency can only be counteracted by a strong rectus abdominis muscle, which forms the outermost layer of the abdominals. The abdominals perform trunk flexion and twisting. The rectus abdominis originates at the crest of the pubic bone and inserts at the sternum (xiphoid process) and the rib cage (5th to 7th ribs).
Successively deeper layers of the abdominals consist of the external and internal oblique abdominis muscles, which primarily twist and secondarily flex the trunk. These muscles are developed through Marichyasana C and D.
The deepest layer of the abdominals is formed by the transverse abdominis muscle, which draws the abdominal contents in toward the spine. The lower par t of this muscle is used forUddiyana Bandha.
Exhaling, sit back down.
Repeat the last two vinyasas four more times, totaling five sets.
On the inhalation, instead of jumping through, jump your feet around your arms. Keep the buttocks lifted in this transition, an action that requires bandha control. The key is to keep inhaling as long as you are airborne, which means to inhale until your inner thighs touch your arms. Then wrap your legs around your arms and interlock the ankles, preferably all without touching the feet to the floor.
If this is too difficult, try the following approach:
Inhaling, hop forward so that your feet land outside your hands. If your hands are as wide as the mat, your feet will be just outside the mat. Without taking the hands off the floor, straighten your legs as much as the hamstrings permit.
Take the right heel with your right hand and lever the right shoulder behind your right knee. Repeat on the left side. The farther you get your shoulders under your knees the easier it will be to hold the posture. Now replace your hands on the floor as close as possible to your feet.
Slowly shift the weight back into your hands until your feet come off the floor. If you are comfortable, lift the feet and interlock the ankles. If your knees are close to your shoulders, the posture will be quite easy. If they are down around your elbows, getting the feet off the floor will be strenuous, as your abdominals must lift higher. Hold the posture for five breaths, then unlock your ankles and straighten your legs while inhaling. Fold back your legs by bending your knees, and jump back from here.
Exhaling, turn the feet so that the toes point backward, ideally without touching the floor. Lower your chest to the floor by bending the elbows back. Eventually place your forehead and, once that has become easy, your chin lightly onto the floor. Done in this way, Bhujapidasana is the ideal preparation for Kurmasana. It awakens the core muscles of the body, particularly the abdominals, the trunk extensors, and the psoas.
If you have difficulties with Lollasana, which is part of the jump back and jump through, use the following approach: Go down on your knees and place one ankle over the other. Now place your hands on either side of the knees and, inhaling, lift your knees off the floor and up to your chest. Count the number of breaths for which you can hold this position. Repeat the exercise daily, attempting to add one breath each day.
When you have reached fifteen breaths, begin lifting your feet off as well. You will find this more difficult and the number of breaths will decrease. Work back up to ten breaths. If you make no progress, practice this exercise more than once a day.
When you have reached ten breaths, start to swing back and forth slowly, keeping your feet clear of the floor. When you can swing for ten breaths, begin to increase the amplitude of the swinging movement. Increase the swing until you can press through from Lollasana into Downward Dog without touching the floor.
Now attempt the same movement from sitting. It may take you a few days — or a few years — to execute this movement properly. Be patient.
Beginners may attempt this full version after they have gained proficiency in the previously described Phase 3. Once you can place your chin down, eliminate the five breaths of the upright version. The last step is to learn jumping straight in and out of the posture.
Bhujapidasana, vinyasa seven
Inhaling, come up, straighten the arms, and bring the feet forward without touching the floor. Unlock your ankles and work the legs strongly to straighten them. Point the feet and gaze upward. This transitional posture to exit Bhujapidasana is Tittibhasana (insect posture).
Exhaling, bend your legs, suck your knees into your armpits, and lift your heels up to your buttocks.
Hold for the duration of the inhalation. This second transitional posture is known as Bakasana (crane posture).
Right, Bhujapidasana final version
Kurmasana AND Supta Kurmasana
TURTLE POSTURE AND RECLINING TURTLE POSTURE
Drishti Third eye
Prerequisites: Proficiency in Marichyasana D and Bhujapidasana
Importance of Leg-Behind-Head Postures
Supta Kurmasana is one of the key postures in the Primary Series. Whereas all other postures in the primary sequence are forward bends or hip rotations or combinations thereof, Supta Kurmasana opens an entire universe of leg-behind-head postures. There are three in the Intermediate Series, six in the Advanced A Series, and seven in the Advanced B Series. Leg-behind-head counteracts backbending. These postures invigorate the spine and strengthen the abdominals and trunk extensors; they also develop the chest and increase blood supply to the heart and lungs. As well, they increase humility and decrease pride. This is one of the most important categories of postures. Combined with the sequences of backbends and arm balances, it purifies the nervous system and induces meditation.
Apart from its significance in introducing the leg-behind-head postures, Supta Kurmasana creates the support strength that is needed to carry the spine safely in dynamic backbends. For this reason proficiency in Supta Kurmasana needs to be recognized as a prerequisite for the drop-back (dynamic backbend from Samasthiti and return).
Proficiency in Bhujapidasana is necessary before one attempts this posture. Some progress in Pashimottanasana is also required for the hamstring length needed. Inhaling, jump around your arms as when entering Bhujapidasana. With the knees up close to your shoulders, straighten the legs and lift the buttocks until your legs are parallel to the floor.
Exhaling, slowly lower down like a helicopter, bending your elbows back behind you. On the floor, make another attempt to bring your knees right up on to your shoulders. The legs need to be almost parallel, without a gap between the inner thighs and the sides of the rib cage. Straighten your arms and bring the hands forward until they are in line with your shoulders. Palms press down into the floor. Place your head on the floor, first with the forehead and later with the chin, as in Bhujapidasana. Point your feet — as with all extreme forward bends this protects the hamstrings and the cruciate ligaments. Straighten the legs and work toward lifting the heels from the floor. Hold Kurmasana for five breaths.
If your legs are straight but the heels do not come off the floor, check that your arms extend out in line with your shoulders.
If the hands are farther back, there is a tendency for the sit bones to lift off. If you do not have enough space available to extend the arms out to the sides, you can extend them backward with the palms facing up. This version is inferior, however, as there is a tendency for the shoulders to hunch and collapse forward.
It takes a lot of strength to lift the heels off the floor. It is, however, an important aspect of this posture for various reasons:
• The quadriceps and the hamstrings are strengthened, enhancing all other forward bends.
• It improves access to the quadriceps if you have difficulty keeping the kneecaps pulled up in the standing postures.
• The spine is strengthened in preparation for drop-backs.
• Most important, it creates the abdominal strength required for Supta Kurmasana.
Do not attempt Supta Kurmasana before you have gained proficiency in Kurmasana. If the back is greatly rounded in Kurmasana, the lumbar discs are in a vulnerable position. The additional weight of the legs behind the head can cause strain if the body is not prepared. The strength required to lift the feet clear of the floor offers the necessary protection.
Vinyasa Eight: Primary Version
Exhaling, bend up the legs, bring your shoulders farther under the knees, reach your arms around your back, and clasp your hands. If possible take hold of the wrist.
Vinyasa Eight: Intermediate Version
Students who are practicing the Intermediate Series can come up to sitting and enter Dvi Pada Shirshasana to transit into Supta Kurmasana. (Do this variation only when you have gained proficiency inEkapada Shirshasana. The weight of two legs behind the head requires considerable core strength.)
To do this, first place the left leg behind the head. Take care to move your knee well behind your shoulder to ensure that you can hook the shin below the C7 vertebra. This prevents the neck from carrying the weight of the legs: it should be borne on the shoulders and the upper thoracic spine. Exhaling, place the right leg on top of the left leg, ensuring that the left stays behind the head.
Going into Supta Kurmasana, 1 (top) and 2
Practiced in this way, the posture will not cause more discomfort than carrying a mid-sized backpack. Performed poorly, it can cause considerable irritation of the spinal nerves in the neck, with all the accompanying symptoms.
Vinyasa Nine: Primary Version
Inhaling, cross the ankles and place your forehead on the floor. This is the state of Supta Kurmasana. Stay in it for five breaths, supporting the spine with a combination of abdominal and back extensor work.
Vinyasa Nine: Intermediate Version
Place your hands on the floor and lower your forehead to it, keeping both legs behind the head. Reach around your back and interlock your fingers or take a wrist.
Release your hands, bring them forward, and place them under your shoulders. Inhaling, lift the entire body off the floor, if possible keeping the legs behind the head. Then, as in Bhujapidasana, straighten your legs into Tittibhasana (see photograph on page 92).
Exhaling, fold the legs back until the knees rest on the back of the arms. Inhaling, lift up into Bakasana, straightening the arms. Point the feet and tuck the heels up under the sit bones. At the end of the inhalation, when you are most buoyant, move into vinyasa eleven.
Prerequisites: All postures covered so far, especially Marichyasana D.
Inhaling, jump through and straighten your legs into Dandasana.
Exhaling, fold into Garbha Pindasana. Seasoned practitioners may do this on one exhalation; others may prefer to break it down into stages. Padmasana and its variations in Western circles have a reputation for causing knee problems. If our hip joints are stiff from a lifetime of sitting in chairs, we cannot expect to learn this posture in a week. It has been mentioned already that Indians traditionally sat on Mother Earth, which opens the hip joints for Padmasana. If the hip joints are stiff and we force ourselves into Padmasana, the knees may be injured.
The solution is to open the hip joints first (if necessary through years of work), and then attempt this posture. If you are not proficient in Marichyasana D, do not attempt Garbha Pindasana.
From Dandasana place the right leg into half lotus, precisely following the instructions under Ardha Baddha Padma Pashimottanasana (page 73). In short:
• Point and invert the right foot.16
• Draw the right knee far out to the right.
• Close the knee joint completely by drawing the right heel into the right groin.
• From here, draw the heel into the navel.
Keeping the heel in the navel, place the right foot into the left groin.
Note: If your right foot rests on the opposite thigh rather than in the groin, and your right heel has lost contact with the navel, do not proceed any further. In this case the flexibility needed to perform the posture is insufficient.
Garbha Pindasana: incorrect (left) and correct method of going into lotus
Only if the right leg is snugly in the left groin should one proceed further. Most mishaps in lotus posture happen when the second leg, here the left leg, is forced into position. The most precarious way to place the second foot is to bend the leg only to 90° and transit the foot over the right knee to bring it into position. Even flexible students damage their knees with this method.
To protect the knees in lotus and half-lotus postures, first close the knee joint completely, bringing tibia and femur close together. Then move them both as one unit. This method eliminates lateral movement in the knee, which is responsible for meniscus injuries.
To protect the knee of the second leg, visualize Padmasana as being two half-lotus postures united. This means that we follow the same steps for the half-lotus posture with the second leg, completely ignoring the fact that the right leg is already in half lotus. Try the following steps:
• Point and invert the left foot.
• Draw the left heel toward the left groin, closing the knee joint completely.
• In therapy situations, first place the left foot under the right ankle. Only proceed further if this position is comfortable. Still keeping the knee joint closed, draw the left knee as far out to the side as possible without moving the sit bones. Gently lift your foot over the right ankle toward the navel.
• From here, draw the foot across into the right groin.
If the movement is performed in this way, the knee joint is completely closed at all times, which means that, on the left side also, the tibia and femur move as a unity. If you experience pain in the knees at any point, reverse the movement to a point were you are pain free and proceed more slowly, paying attention to detail.
Practice the other postures until you have gained the necessary flexibility.
To prepare for Garbha Pindasana, medially rotate the femurs until the front edges of the tibias point down to the floor and the soles and heels face upward and not toward the torso. (Refer to “The Buddha’s Lotus” in Janushirshasana A, page 79.)
Gently bring the knees close together, to a point where the thighs are almost parallel. This will create the necessary space to insert the arms between thighs and calves. Insert the right hand, with the palm facing toward you, below the calf muscle where the leg is thinnest.
Going into Garbha Pindasana
Once you have inserted your right hand between thigh and calf, invert the hand until the palm faces away from you. This will help the elbow to glide through. Do not apply excessive force. Insert the second palm facing toward you and again turn it to allow the elbow to come through. After both elbows are through, bend your arms, place your hands on the chin, and touch your fingertips to your earlobes. Inability to do this often points to weak abdominal muscles, since a significant amount of trunk flexion is needed here. Lift the head and sit as upright as possible, balancing on the sit bones.
You are now in the state of Garbha Pindasana, which resembles the curled-up position of an embryo in the womb. Stay for five breaths.
Garbha Pindasana, vinyasa eight, hands on chin
For the second part of the posture, bend the head forward and ideally place the hands on the crown of the head. This rounds the back in anticipation of rolling onto the back.
Garbha Pindasana, vinyasa eight, hands on crown of head
Exhaling, roll down on the back and perform a movement similar to that of a rocking chair. When the buttocks are in the air swivel them slightly to the right. This action will turn you, on the spot, in a clockwise direction. Rock nine times, representing the nine months of gestation. Use the inhalation to rock up and the exhalation to roll down. If possible keep hold of your head with your hands. Let the movement come out of the connection of breath and bandhas.
Garbha Pindasana, rolling 1 and 2
On the last inhalation, use more momentum and rock up to Kukkutasana.
Inhaling, roll all the way up until you balance on your hands. As soon as the hands are on the floor, lift the head to fade out the movement and begin to balance. You are now in Kukkutasana, rooster posture, in which your two hands resemble the feet of the rooster. Garbha Pindasana and Kukkutasana are very effective in opening the hip joints farther and, if performed correctly, they are therapy for the knees. They strongly improve the quality of one’s Padmasana. They create support strength, exercise the abdominals, and invigorate the spine; and they are, together with Kurmasana, the prime preparation and counterposture for backbending at the end of the series. Stay in the state of Kukkutasana for five breaths.
Exhaling, sit down, pull the arms out, and place the hands down.
Bring the knees as close together as possible, so that they will fit through your arms. Inhaling, swing your legs to the front, and lift your knees high. Suck your thighs into your chest and swing your sit bones through your arms to gain momentum.
Exhaling, swing back and lift your sit bones high behind you. Keep the legs folded into the chest until the sit bones have reached their highest point. The spine needs to be parallel to the floor or the sit bones even higher than that. Only now let your legs, which are still in lotus, swing through. After your thighs have come parallel to the floor, flick your legs out to land in Chaturanga Dandasana.
• When swinging through, lift your sit bones really high, so that your knees can swing through without knocking the floor.
• If you want to build strength, do the movement slowly, using less and less momentum.
Opposite top, Kukkutasana
Opposite lower, jump back from lotus, phases 1, 2, and 3
• If you have not yet developed sufficient bandha control, or you experience discomfort in your knees, fold out of Padmasana one leg at a time. Straighten your legs into Dandasana and jump back from there.
BOUND ANGLE POSTURE
Inhaling, glide through to Dandasana. Draw the feet toward you until you can draw a straight line through both knees and both ankles, while letting the knees sink out to the side. There is no set distance from pubic bone to heel; it varies from person to person depending on the ratio between length of femur and length of tibia. If your pelvis tilts posteriorly at this point already, elevate the sit bones by sitting on a folded blanket. This will help you to use gravity more.
Baddha Konasana, vinyasa seven
Take the feet now by reaching with your thumbs in between the soles and then open the feet like the pages of a book. At the same time, use your abductors (gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia latae) to draw your knees down to the floor. Take a deep inhalation to sit as tall as possible, with sit bones reaching down into the floor, low back concaved, and heart lifted high.
Exhaling, fold forward, keeping your back completely straight and the heart lifting forward.
This is a potentially difficult posture, which might not even be mastered through years of adjustments, but it can be mastered through inquiry (vichara) and intelligence (buddhi). We have to understand that Baddha Konasana is two Janushirshasana A’s put together. If we have understood and practiced Janushirshasana A properly, then Baddha Konasana will unfold.
Let’s recall Janushirshasana A. When the right leg is folded back, we:
• point and invert the right foot
• draw the right heel into the right groin
• medially (inwardly) rotate the right thigh bone
• draw the knee down to the floor and backward
• extend out along the inside of the thigh bone.
You need to perform all of those actions in Baddha Konasana simultaneously on both sides. In vinyasa seven you already inverted your feet, which means that the soles face upward. Now point the feet, which leads to the heels moving apart from each other. This lengthens the insides of the thighs. The heels then reach toward the respective groins, which prevents the sit bones from escaping backward as we fold forward. The most important action, however, is the inward rotation of the thighs. The thigh bones should roll forward like the wheels of a cart (with the floor as a reference point). The thigh bonehas to inwardly rotate in Baddha Konasana to perform the same action as the tibia, which will close and protect the knee joint. The tibia rolls forward until its front edge points straight down. Since we externally rotated the femurs in vinyasa seven, we need to reverse this movement now in vinyasa eight to work deeply into the posture.
FIGURE 17 ADDUCTORS
The adductors all originate at the pubic bone, with the adductor magnus originating at both the pubic bone and the ischium (lower posterior portion of the hip bone). The adductors insert onto the entire length of the inside of the femur, with the gracilis inserting at the inside of the tibia just below the knee.
Depending on their exact origins and insertions, the adductors perform lateral rotation (adductor brevis and adductor magnus), medial rotation (gracilis), and hip flexion (adductor longus and gracilis) as secondary functions.
The smallest muscle in the group, the pectineus, performs both hip flexion and adduction.
As in Janushirshasana A, the knees draw down and backward. Finally, let the thigh bones reach out to the side, a movement that will release the adductors. This isometric movement was initiated already by pointing the feet and separating the heels. Often there is a fear reflex here to suck the thigh bones into the hip joints. This action is, however, performed by the adductors, and will prevent you from opening into the posture.
What prevents most students from going deeply into this posture is chronic tension of the adductors. This is often due to emotions such as fear, pain, and shame held on to in these muscles. These emotions need to be acknowledged and then released with the exhalation. In order to do that, the intensity of the sensation in the posture needs to be still tolerable. If one overstretches one’s muscles, a trauma is stored in the tissue. The muscles will prevent one from going again to that point as a mere protective mechanism.
The trunk actions for Baddha Konasana are the same as for Janushirshasana A and Pashimottanasana — drawing in the lower abdomen, lifting the heart forward, drawing the shoulder blades down the back, and letting the crown of the head and the sit bones reach into opposing directions. Press the elbows against the inner thighs to keep the knees grounded. Draw the feet toward you while they maintain their action of pointing and inverting.
If your sit bones lift off and escape backward in the process of folding forward, counteract this by sucking your heels into the abdomen using breath and abdominal muscles. The abdominals can do that by drawing the abdominal contents vigorously in against the spine, which lets the heart leap forward and creates a vacuum into which the heels are sucked. Finally place the toes on the chest, wearing them like a necklace. Stay in the state of Baddha Konasana for five breaths.
Tips for Different Skin Types
Practitioners with vata skin,17 which is rather thin, papery, and silken, and easily slips on cloth material, will generally find no problem with wearing long tights. They usually do not sweat a lot, but should they do so they will find it hard to slip through — wet skin on material offers too much friction. Students with pitta or kapha skin (thick, oily, sticky, and moist skin types) tend to sweat a lot, and they are better off to wear shorts and spray water on the arms and especially the elbows. In cold weather, when heavy sweating is less likely, they can wear long tights and long-sleeved tops. Material on material also slips easily.
Inhaling, we reverse the movement and sit upright in the same position as the seventh vinyasa. The knees draw down, the heart lifts, the low back concaves, the shoulder blades draw down. Exhaling, place your hands down and straighten your legs.
Inhaling, lift up. You will feel the benefit of the abdominals’ work, and now fly like a butterfly.
BOUND ANGLE POSTURE
Drishti Nose (vinyasa eight), upward (vinyasa nine)
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Widen your legs to the extent that you can still just hold the outside of the feet, which could be to an angle of anything between 90° and 120°.
If you can’t get hold of the outsides whatever the angle, take the big toes instead. Beginners may bend the legs at first to make sure the low back is not rounded and sit on a folded blanket to use gravity when extending forward.
Upavishta Konasana, vinyasa eight
Holding onto the feet, lift through the entire front of the torso. Draw the lower abdomen in and concave the low back. Lift the heart while drawing the shoulder blades down the back.
Exhaling, fold forward. Work the legs strongly by lifting the kneecaps and drawing the heels into the floor to protect the cruciate ligaments and hamstring origins. Keep the thighs in a neutral position, with knees and feet pointing straight up. Fold forward as far as you can while keeping the back straight.
The purpose of the posture is to balance the flow of the principal vayus (vital air currents) in the torso.
These different currents of the life force are balanced by exercising Upavishta Konasana. It is necessary for this purpose not to jut the chin down to the floor but to lead with the heart forward and downin an even movement. The inner integrity of the spine needs to be maintained as if still standing. Hold this vinyasa for five breaths.
Inhaling, straighten your arms, raise the torso, but still hold on to your feet. Exhaling, fold forward to take momentum. Inhaling, roll up and balance on your sit bones.
Upavishta Konasana, vinyasa nine
Experienced students can try to hold on to the feet on the way up. You will need flexibility in forward bending and a strong low back. Rapidly move the torso back up through hip extension. When your arms are almost straight, press the legs into the ground using the gluteus maximus and hamstrings. Once the legs lift off, continue the movement by using the hip flexors to actively lift the legs higher. Assist with the arms, which will draw the feet toward the midline. Take your head back to fade out the momentum and balance.
If that method doesn’t work, change the grip to the big toes. An even easier version is to let go of the toes, but lift the straight legs up to the hands.
The vayus, of which there are ten in all, are vital currents within the body. They are prana, apana, samana, udana, vyana, naga, kurma, krkara, devadatta, and dhananjaya. According to theGheranda Samhita, the first five of these are the principal vayus.18 The vayus are pranic currents that can be regarded as subdivisions of prana, the life force. The first item within this subdivision is also called prana, which is potentially confusing. If the term prana is mentioned together with apana, then it refers to the vayu prana. In the term pranayama, however, pranarefers to the life force itself, which is the sum total of the ten vayus.
Besides the ten vayus, which we can also call the ten vatas, there are ten kaphas and ten pittas in the body. The reasons why they are not often mentioned is that we can alter the vayus through our actions and therefore alter the entire organism. We cannot influence the pittas and kaphas directly.
In his commentary, Vyasa says about the five principal vayus, “Movement of prana is limited to the mouth and the nose and its action extends up to the heart. Samana distributes [the nourishment from food] to all parts equally and its sphere of action is up to the navel. Apana is so called because it carries the wastes away and it acts down to the soles of the feet. Udana is the vital force with upward direction and it goes right up to the head. The vital force vyana is spread all over the body. Of these forces, the chief is the prana.”19
Alternatively beginners may sit upright with the spine completely straight, then draw the knees into the chest as for Navasana preparation (page 88). Take the toes or the outsides of the feet and proceed tostraighten the legs as much as you can while keeping the back straight. The focus in the posture needs to be the integrity of the spine and not whether the legs are straight. There is no point in straightening the legs if the low back is rounded and the heart collapses. Hold this vinyasa also for five breaths. Then, exhaling, bring the feet together and place your hands on the floor.
RECLINING ANGLE POSTURE
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana. Exhaling, slowly lie down, keeping the arms at either side of the torso.
Inhaling, lift the legs, bring the hips over the shoulders, and place your feet onto the floor behind your head. Take the arms over your head, reach for your big toes, and take your legs out wide until your arms are extended straight. Work the spine long, lifting the sit bones up to the ceiling. Work the legs strong and straight. Flex the feet and keep the thighs in a neutral position, neither laterally nor medially rotated. Lift the T1 and C7 vertebrae away from the floor by gently pushing the shoulders and the back of the head into the floor.
Exhaling, create some momentum by rolling the buttocks a little toward the head and push off your toes.
Inhaling, rock up using the breath. Pause at the pivot point behind your sit bones, as in Upavishta Konasana. Lift your heart and your face to the ceiling. Flex the feet completely and contract the quadriceps fully.
Exhaling, resist the pull of gravity, landing on your calves rather than the heels of your feet, and reach your chest and chin toward the floor.
It is the coordination of movement and breath that gives one control and balance throughout this posture. Complete the inhalation when you reach the point at which you wish to balance. By lifting the heart and face here, the forward momentum is arrested — a moment of silence — before the exhalation completes the forward fold. Keeping the heart and face lifted and the legs strong and straight will make the movement smooth and the landing buoyant.
Supta Konasana, phase 1
If there is insufficient flexibility in the hamstrings to keep the legs straight at Upavishta Konasana, it is important to release the toes on the descent. Otherwise you will land heavily on your heels and risk a severe stretch of the hamstring muscles.
Done properly, this movement strengthens the back and abdominal muscles and improves the bandhas; it can also assist in correcting subluxations of the vertebrae.
Inhaling, lift your heart while still holding your toes. Exhaling, place your hands to the floor.
Supta Konasana, phases 2 (above) and 3
RECLINING HOLD-THE-BIG-TOE POSTURE
Drishti Toes and to the side
Inhaling, jump through. Exhaling, lie down in a slow, controlled movement. This uses the hip flexor muscles eccentrically, which have to lengthen slowly against the pull of gravity; you would otherwise land on your back with a thud. Now place both hands on your thighs.
Inhaling, lift the right leg without bending it and take your big toe.
Exhaling, lift your torso up to meet your leg rather than drawing the leg down toward your trunk. Ideally, lift the entire spine off the floor. This makes Supta Padangushtasana more of a strength-building exercise than one for enhancing flexibility. Keep the left leg straight and in contact with the floor. The heart lifts up to the knee, the chin eventually meets the shin, and the gaze is lifted to the toes. Hold the state of Supta Padangushtasana for five breaths.
Inhaling, lengthen the hip flexors and abdominals eccentrically and thereby lower the torso and head down to the floor.
Exhaling, and still holding the big toe, draw the right leg out to the right side. The entire length of the spine and the underneath side of the left leg maintain contact with the floor. Continue the sideward movement of the right leg only to the extent that you can keep the left buttock grounded. The left hand on your hip may aid you with this. It is the heel of the right foot that leads the movement down toward the floor. This causes the right femur to rotate medially. This action is necessary to counteract the opposite tendency (lateral rotation of the thigh), which avoids stretching and lengthening the adductor muscles of the inner thigh. The adductors need to lengthen eccentrically on the way down, a movement that can teach us a lot about Baddha Konasana.
On completion of the movement, lift the head a little off the floor and replace it to gaze out to the left side. Work the left leg strongly to stay anchored, while extending out through the bases of all toes of the left foot. In the final version, shoulders, buttocks, and feet are all touching the floor. Traditionally this posture is ascribed the power to correct the length of the extremities in relation to the torso. Hold this vinyasa for five breaths.
Supta Padangushtasana, vinyasa eight (top) and vinyasa nine
Inhaling, lift the leg back to the center, a movement that combines adduction and lateral rotation of the femur. Bring the gaze back to the toes.
Exhaling, lift the torso, repeating the movement of the ninth vinyasa.
Inhaling, lower the torso to the floor, repeating the movement of the tenth vinyasa.
Supta Parshvasahita (vinyasa eleven of Supta Padangushtasana)
Exhaling, release the big toe and draw the right leg down to the floor. Until we reach 90° of hip flexion (leg pointing up to the ceiling), this movement is hip extension, which is performed here by the gluteus maximus against gravity. From then on, the work is carried on by the hip flexors lengthening eccentrically, which prevents the leg from falling uncontrolled to the floor. On conclusion of the movement, both hands lie on top of the thighs.
Vinyasas Sixteen to Twenty-Three
Repeat the same movements on the left side. At count twenty-three we arrive at lying on the floor.
Above from left, Chakrasana, phases 1 to 4; right, phase 5
All postures that end with lying on the floor are exited through a movement called Chakrasana (wheel posture). Do not attempt Chakrasana when a whiplash or reversed neck curvature is present.
Version for Experienced Students
Inhaling, lift your legs off the floor by flexing the hip joints and place your hands about your ears, tucking the fingers under the shoulders. Continue this movement by flexing the trunk, using your abdominal muscles. Momentum combines these movements with those of the upper body; when only the shoulders remain on the floor, push your hands into the floor as if straightening out the arms. Keeping the legs strong and the hips supported away from the floor, roll over into Chaturanga Dandasana. Keep the gaze at the tip of the nose throughout.
Version for Students with Moderate Experience
Place a blanket under your shoulders to elevate T1, C7 and C6. On the last of the exhalation, lift your legs off the floor. After you have transited through 30°, inhale and take your legs over while you flex your trunk. Exhaling, place the feet down behind the head in Halasana (plough posture) and place the hands under the shoulders. At the end of the exhalation, when your chest is completely deflated, roll over and, inhaling, push your hands into the floor to transit into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Considerable upper-body strength is required to avoid excessive pressure on the musculature of the neck. Your teacher should assess whether you are prepared for this transitional move. Beginners may abstain from this transition entirely. Alternatively, draw your knees into the chest, rock up to sitting, and transit through your normal vinyasa.
Inhaling, glide through to Dandasana and, exhaling, lie down.
Keep the feet together and, taking your arms over your head, grasp both big toes. Lengthen the spine and reach the sit bones up to the ceiling. Straighten the arms and legs, flexing the feet. Exhaling, draw the buttocks over your head by flexing the trunk to create some momentum.
Ubhaya Padangushtasana, vinyasa eight
Inhaling, roll up, pointing the feet. To roll smoothly over the back, curve the low back sufficiently by drawing in the lower abdomen. Continue the upward movement by using the connection of inhalation and bandhas. Arrest the forward movement by lifting your heart and your face to the ceiling, coming to balance behind the sit bones. Concurrently the inhalation is completed at the balance point, flowing into an exhalation, while keeping the final position of balance. Lengthen the back of the neck and draw the shoulder blades down. Gaze upward and hold Ubhaya Padangushtasana for five breaths.
Ubhaya Padangushtasana, vinyasa nine
Exhaling, place your hands down. The feet stay, hovering in their final position.
Urdhva Mukha Pashimottanasana
UPWARD-FACING FORWARD BEND
Inhaling, glide through to Dandasana; exhaling, lie down.
Inhaling, take your legs over and place your feet on the floor behind your head.
In this posture, take hold of the outside of the feet and point them. Lengthen and straighten the spine by lifting the sit bones toward the ceiling. Draw in the lower abdomen and breathe deeply into the chest.
Exhaling, flex the spine and roll over your toes until your feet are flexed.
Lower left, Urdhva Mukha Pashimottanasana, vinyasas eight (top) and nine; below, final position
Inhaling, push off your feet and roll up until you balance behind your sit bones. This movement takes more hamstring flexibility, or alternatively more momentum, than the previous posture. Again, lift your heart, take your head back, and arrest the inhalation to capture the point of balance.
Exhaling, draw your legs in toward the torso, closing the gap between them. Deepen the groins, point the feet, and gaze up to your toes. Hold this vinyasa for five breaths.
Exhaling, release the feet, leave your legs in position and place your hands on the floor.
Inhaling, glide through to Dandasana. Exhaling, lie down.
With the buttocks grounded, arch your chest up to the ceiling and place the crown of your head on the floor. Keep the heels together and laterally rotate the femurs until the outer arches of the feet touch the floor. Now bend the knees so that the heels are approximately twenty inches from the buttocks, still keeping the heels together. This distance will vary greatly, depending on flexibility and leg length. Finally, cross your arms upon the chest and place each hand in the opposite armpit.
Inhaling, extend your legs and lift the buttocks off the floor. Roll onto your forehead and gaze toward the nose. Do not contract the muscles in the back of the neck (the neck extensors — trapezius, levator scapulae, splenius capitis) but keep the neck flexors (scaleni, sternocleidomastoideus) active to control the amount of extension and thereby protect the neck (see “The Paradox of Active Release,” page 73). Open the front of the throat. Lift your chest up into your arms with the elbows rising toward the ceiling, rather than taking the weight of the arms onto the chest. Keep the hip joint extended by using your buttocks (gluteus maximus) rather than your hamstrings, which easily spasm in this posture. The body becomes a bridge, arching from the feet to the head.
Top, Setu Bandhasana, vinyasa eight, variation for beginners; above, vinyasa nine, final version
VARIATIONS FOR BEGINNERS
If you have suffered a whiplash injury, have other neck problems, or your neck is not sufficiently strong, it is suggested that you stay in vinyasa eight until the condition improves.
If you wish to go a step further, from vinyasa eight take your arms out to the side, palms down. With the arms in this position, straighten your legs. This arm position assists in carrying the weight of the torso and provides greater stability. Do this version for some time to allow your neck to strengthen.
To progress even deeper into the posture, from vinyasa eight place the hands on the floor on either side of your head, fingers pointing toward the feet. You can now carry part of the weight with your arms while you explore rolling farther toward your forehead. Again, allow yourself the time to feel competent in this version before attempting the final arm position.
Setu Bandhasana, vinyasa nine, variations for beginners: top, arms out to side; above, hands beside head
If performed correctly Setu Bandhasana realigns the neck.
Exhaling, exactly reverse the movements that took you into the posture. Do not roll back down off your head, which would place too much pressure on the cervical vertebrae. Instead, retain the back arch and place the buttocks down close to your head. Now lift the chest and head and lie down, straightening the legs and returning them to a neutral position by medially rotating the thighs.
This is the second posture that, when completed, has us lying on our backs. As in Supta Padangushtasana, exit this posture through Chakrasana. If this is too difficult, rock up to sitting and hop back toChaturanga Dandasana.
UPWARD BOW POSTURE
Prerequisite: K. Pattabhi Jois contends that students need to be able to perform all postures up to this point proficiently before embarking on intense backbending. He explains that a subtle nerve (nadi) at the base of the skull can be damaged if backbending is undertaken without this preparation.
Forward bending and opening the hip joints create a platform from where we venture into more complex actions. Marichyasana D, Supta Kurmasana, and Garbha Pindasana create the core strength that is necessary before attempting more intense backbending exercises, like dropping back from standing.
Please note that Urdhva Dhanurasana is absent not only from Yoga Mala but also from other old lists of the Primary Series. The inclusion of Urdhva Dhanurasana in the Primary Series appears to be a later interpolation.
Inhaling, glide through to Dandasana and lie down.
Exhaling, bend the legs and draw the heels toward the buttocks. Place the feet down parallel and hip-width apart. Now place the hands on the floor on either side of your head, middle fingers parallel and pointing toward the feet. Spread your fingers. With the last of the exhalation, lift the torso off the floor just half an inch or so.
Urdhva Dhanurasana, vinyasa eight
With the inhalation, in a flowing movement straighten your arms and legs and raise the torso into the air. Do not suck the air in, but breathe in smoothly. Do not thrust the body up, which can lead to strain of the shoulder joints, the sacrum, and the spinal fascia.
There is a tendency for many students to turn out the feet and to splay the knees open to the sides with the thighs rolled out. This is a compensation for stiffness in the quadriceps and/or psoas muscles. By opening into the inseams of the legs, more space is gained without having to stretch the hip flexors. Although this may achieve a short-term goal, in the long run it can lead to jamming the sacrum, which leads to low-back pain. Rolling out the thighs engages the lateral hip rotator muscles, one of which, the piriformis, originates via ligaments at the sacrum. If the piriformis spasms from overuse, the sacrum can no longer float in the sacroiliac joints and becomes fixed.
Urdhva Dhanurasana, vinyasa nine
The subtle movements of the sacrum act as a pump, which stimulates the flow of cerebrospinal fluid between the protective layers of the spinal cord. Our brain floats in cerebrospinal fluid, which is responsible for nourishing it and the spinal cord, as well as protecting it by acting as a shock absorber. Jamming the sacrum not only impairs vertebral motion (domino effect) but also inhibits the flow of vital cerebrospinal fluid. This creates difficulties for everything from doing the daily chores to engaging in the subtle work of meditation.
This tendency to turn out the feet and thighs is counteracted by medially rotating the femurs until a neutral position of the legs is found. Medial rotation of the femur is achieved by the tensor fascia latae, gracilis, semitendinosus and semimembranosus (two of the hamstrings), and the gluteus minimus muscles. With this leg position, the hip flexor muscles (rectus femoris and psoas) will be stretched, which is necessary for real progress in backbends. All four corners of the feet will then be equally anchored.
FIGURE 18 SPINOUS PROCESSES
Apart from providing a site for muscle attachments and acting as a lever for the spinal muscles that move the vertebrae, the spinous processes, along with the anterior longitudinal ligament, also prevent hyperextension of the vertebral column, thereby protecting the spinal cord. If we bend backward using the trunk extensors only, the back arch is soon obstructed by the spinous processes. And if the back arch is performed forcefully, back pain will ensue to communicate that the proper method is not being employed. This symptom is avoided by creating space between the spinous processes through engaging the rectus abdominis and pectoralis major.
To open the chest we again need to prevent the compensation of the armpits turning out to the side. This is achieved through lateral rotation of the humerus, which is performed by the infraspinatus muscle.
Before animals walked upright, the spine was horizontal like a table, evenly supported on all four corners by four limbs. With an upright stance, the pelvic girdle, the thorax, and the shoulder girdle protect most of the spine not only from attackers but also from overzealous yoga students. One area that conspicuously lacks any protection, however, is the lumbar spine. Since the low back is the softest region, the novice will freely “push” into it, trying to “conquer” the backbend.
Instead, breathe into those areas that are tight, usually the chest and the front of the thighs, and soften and release them. Simultaneously, support those areas that are weak and soft. This is usually the low back, which needs to be protected by the firm corset of abdominal muscles (external and internal obliques, rectus and transverse abdominis). Additionally, the low back and neck already assume a natural lordotic curve (see figure 1, page 23), and overcontraction of these areas in backbends can lead to muscle spasm.
Similarly to the case of Upward Facing Dog, cultivate the support strength of the four pillars: your arms and legs. Once the torso is lifted into the backward arch, the work of the arms and legs conspires to lift the spine higher into the air, lengthening the trunk and alleviating any compression of the vertebrae. Imagine your trunk as a canopy billowing up, mounted on four strong and anchored supports. Protect the neck by lengthening rather than contracting it and releasing the crown of the head in the direction of the floor.
To Progress Deeper into Backbending:
Once you have lifted into Urdhva Dhanurasana and feel you have reached your limit, release some of the tension on those muscles that transported you into the posture and instead engage their antagonists. Around the shoulder girdle, this means releasing the trapezius and deltoideus muscles by engaging the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi. Along the trunk, release the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum by engaging the abdominals, especially rectus abdominis. At the hips, release the gluteus maximus by engaging the psoas and, in the legs, release the hamstrings by engaging the quadriceps.
This method of releasing the opposites is important for the following reasons:
• The back extensors contract and shorten the back. This is a useful action for transiting into Urdhva Dhanurasana, but it has its limitations. Continued beyond the objective of arching the back, the movement pinches the spinous processes of the vertebrae together, which prevents any further backward movement.
• To create a deeper backbend, we therefore need to lengthen the spine and back. This action is performed by the rectus abdominis, psoas, and pectoralis major, all on the front of the torso.
• When pushing up into a backbend, the main muscles that are overcontracted are those in the low back, this being the softest area of the spine. The quadratus lumborum is released and lengthened by engaging the psoas and rectus abdominis.
• At the commencement of yoga practice, the rib cage of the practitioner often has a wooden and dormant quality. Yogic breathing and backbends help to make it soft and pulsating, ensuring healthy functioning of the vital organs in the thoracic cavity and increasing tidal volume — the amount of air exchanged during normal respiration. With engagement of the pectoralis major muscles, the chest awakens and will open.
How to Achieve These Movements:
Maintain the support of those muscles that carried you into the posture (back extensors, shoulder flexors, hip extensors, and leg flexors) and then engage their antagonists to move deeper into the posture. To engage the pectoralis major in order to open the chest and armpits, make a swiping movement with your hands toward the end of the mat. This action brings the sternum toward the wrists or beyond, as the armpits and chest open.
Now, without compensating, walk your hands in toward your feet. Here engage the quadriceps as if you wanted to flex the hip joint. In this position, however, the hip joint cannot flex, as flexion is prevented by the hip extensor muscles. The quadriceps therefore deeply release and their work straightens the legs. Take up the space gained by bringing hands and feet closer together. Now come up onto the tips of your toes and lift your chest high above your shoulders. Keeping this newly gained height, lengthen your heels down to the floor again.
Engage your abdominal muscles now and use this contraction to lift the entire torso up to the ceiling. Engaging your abdominals will draw the spinous processes of the vertebrae apart. Deepen your backbend now by creating space underneath you.
Ensure throughout that the armpits, thighs, knees, and feet do not roll out. Take the stretch into the quadriceps and the rest of the front of the body.
Feel how the inhalations taken into the front of the chest and underneath the collarbones soften and open the rib cage. During the entire backbend the gaze is toward the nose. This drishti helps to prevent overcontracting the neck. Rather than taking the head back to look down to your hands, drop the crown of the head and lengthen the back of the neck.
Engage the latissimus dorsi, which works together with the pectoralis major to extend the arms. The latissimus dorsi also has the capacity to depress the entire shoulder girdle (drawing the shoulder blades down the back). With this function it is the antagonist to the trapezius and levator scapulae muscles. By depressing the scapulae, the trapezius is released and the neck and upper back lengthen. The action of the latissimus dorsi together with the pectoralis major draws the spinous processes of the thoracic spine apart. This arches the chest and enables you to open behind the heart.
Yoga students are sometimes seen standing in Samasthiti with a proudly swelled chest as if attending an army parade. The military attention posture consists of lifting and stretching the rib cage forward as character armor and fortification. This is achieved by hardening behind the heart, which gets us ready for combat. Anatomically this is done through contracting the trapezius and rhomboideus. The rhomboideus adducts the scapulae (pulls the shoulder blades in toward the spine).
In yoga the area behind the heart needs to stay as open as the sky. Closing off behind the heart makes us focus on what needs to be conquered in front of us. This is a function of the solar mind (related to Surya Nadi, the solar energy channel). In contrast, opening behind the heart allows us to see that we are right in the middle of everything: that everything just is and nothing needs to be conquered. This stance relates to suspended mind, which occurs when the breath enters the central channel, which is also called the heart, the devourer of mind.
FIGURE 19 PECTORALIS MAJOR
The pectoralis major originates on the clavicle, the sternum, and part of the ribs close to the sternum. It inserts via a flat tendon at the front of the humerus. Its actions are complex. In the resting position, it flexes the humerus and draws it toward the midline. When the humerus is raised above shoulder level, the pectoralis major extends it. When the arm is raised out to the side, the pectoralis major draws it to the front (horizontal adduction). It can also perform adduction, abduction, and inward rotation, depending on the position of the arm.
To stay open behind the heart in this particular posture we need to release the rhomboids by contracting their antagonist muscle, serratus anterior. Serratus anterior has widely fallen into disgrace and misuse. It is this muscle that sets the shoulder blades wide whenever weight is borne in the hands; it is therefore also a key muscle in Downward Dog and the arm balances. In all of these postures, the position of the shoulder blades needs to be depressed (latissimus dorsi) and abducted (serratus anterior).
The vigorous action of latissimus dorsi has a side effect, which is inward rotation of the humerus (arm bone). The “lats” share this effect with subscapularis and teres major. This medial rotation of the humerus lets the armpits flare out to the sides, an action that allows the shoulders to move up to the ears and ultimately decreases the backbend. This action needs to be counteracted by infraspinatus.
Caution: The proper alignment of the armpits must be assessed by a qualified teacher. The action of outward rotation, if overdone, can lead to chronic inflammation of the shoulder joint, especially in the case of someone who already has permanently outwardly rotated humeri.
Exhaling slowly, come down. Look up to the ceiling and place the back of the head down. Repeat vinyasas eight to ten twice more, each time working deeper into the backbend.
After completion, we counteract the heating, stimulatory effects of backbending with the cooling, pacifying effects of forward bending.
INTENSE WESTERN STRETCH
Inhaling, rock up to Dandasana.
Exhaling, reach forward and hold your feet. Inhaling, lift your chest and look up.
Above, Pashimottanasana; below, Tadaga Mudra
Exhale into Pashimottanasana. The posture can be held much longer here than at the beginning of the sequence. Especially after a long or strenuous practice it can be held for twenty or thirty breaths as a restorative asana.
Inhaling, lift your head and straighten your arms. Exhaling, lie down in Tadaga Mudra. Tadaga means tank or pond, and it is the stillness of a pond after the activity of backbends that is emulated here. The mudra resembles Samasthiti lying on one’s back. Keep all the main muscle groups engaged and your eyes open. Hold Tadaga Mudra for ten breaths or until your breath has returned to its normal, resting ratio. The breath during the finishing asanas needs to be calm.
For Sarvangasana, Halasana, Karnapidasana, Urdvha Padmasana, Pindasana, Matsyasana, and Uttana Padasana, vinyasa seven is uncounted, since we are already lying on our backs.
ALL LIMBS POSTURE
From Tadaga Mudra, lift your legs off the floor (hip flexion). The abdominals need to be well developed for this to be possible with legs straight. The weight of the legs will have the tendency to draw the pubic bone down in front, to tilt the pelvis anteriorly (forward), and thereby to concave the low back. This needs to be counteracted by contracting the rectus abdominis. If your abdominal muscles are not strong enough to hold the pubic bone down, lift the legs with bent knees.
Continue the lift until the hips come off the floor, extend the legs straight up to the ceiling, and point the feet. Keep the legs active and all postural muscles engaged to prevent the blood pooling down toward the head. Inversions are not relaxation postures.
Place the hands onto the low back with the forearms parallel. As you progress, slowly move your hands up toward the shoulder blades to open the chest. Proceed with care, as this increases neck flexion.
None of the cervical vertebrae should be in contact with the floor. Excess pressure on the neck can lead to headaches, wrist pain, a loss of natural lordotic neck curvature (see figure 1, page 23) and/or the condition called forward head (see under Samasthiti, page 23). If you already have forward head, abstain from Sarvangasana until you have corrected the condition through backbending. To take weight off the neck, gently press the elbows, shoulders, forearms, and back of the head into the floor. If you cannot keep the back of the neck off the floor, use one or two folded blankets under the shoulders and elbows.
Create a feeling of lightness and reach the entire torso and legs up to the ceiling. If your feet are over your head, shift them to come in line with your torso. This will take weight away from the head and toward the elbows.
Sarvangasana provides a great vantage point for viewing the freely fluctuating stomach area versus the non-oscillating area of the lower abdomen from the application of Uddiyana Bandha with Ujjayi Pranayama.
Sarvangasana improves blood circulation and keeps the blood vessels, the heart, and the lungs youthful. It has a general toning affect and is rejuvenating. After strenuous practice this posture can be held for longer periods. Inversions are not practiced during menstruation because they can interrupt normal menstrual flow. High blood pressure and wrist pain are contraindications for Sarvangasana.
Exhaling, from Sarvangasana lower your straight legs slowly down toward the floor. Do this only by flexing the hip joints and without bending the back. If your feet do not reach the floor due to stiff hamstring muscles, keep them hovering above the ground. In stiff students, especially those with underdeveloped abdominal muscles, arching the back here with the great weight of the legs places excessive stress on the intervertebral discs of the spine. This could lead to a disc bulge if one forces the feet down.
Let the sit bones reach up to the ceiling. Touch the legs down lightly by carrying most of their weight with the back. Keep drawing up on the kneecaps. Initially you can flex your feet to reach the floor; once established in the posture, point the feet. Interlock the fingers, straighten the arms, and draw the hands down toward the floor. Lift all cervical vertebrae off the floor. Use Uddiyana Bandha to distribute breath into the chest.
Exhaling, from Halasana bend the legs around the back and place the knees next to the ears. Release the knees down toward the floor. Keeping the hands interlocked as in Halasana, point your feet and bring them together. This is the strongest trunk flexion in the sequence. Breathe freely although the chest is compressed.
UPWARD LOTUS POSTURE
As with some other postures, there is some confusion concerning the vinyasa count in Urdhva Padmasana. Yoga Mala states that we arrive at count eight in the state of this asana, whereas Ashtanga Yoga lists the posture as vinyasa nine. I have followed Yoga Mala, since it represents the older source.
Inhaling, from Karnapidasana straighten your legs back up into Sarvangasana, extending the spine first and then the hip joints.
Exhaling, place first the right leg and then the left into Padmasana. This posture should only be attempted after proficiency in Padmasana is gained. At first use the assistance of one hand while the other stabilizes the posture.
Left, Karnapidasana; above, Urdhva Padmasana
Once in Padmasana, bring your thighs parallel to the floor and place the hands under your knees. Now balance on the solid tripod of your shoulders and the back of the head. Keep the cervical vertebrae off the floor by grounding down through the three corners of your tripod base while reaching the sit bones up to the ceiling.
Exhaling, fold the lotus down into the chest. Draw your knees closer together so that the thighs become parallel. This will draw the feet farther up into the groins. Reach around your thighs and clasp your hands or, if possible, your wrists. It is more difficult here to lift the lower cervical vertebrae off the ground. Rolling down a little onto the upper back can alleviate the problem.
Inhaling, release the arms and lower the back down to the floor. Extend the hip joints and place the knees onto the floor. Holding the feet, lift the chest up to the ceiling, arch the back, and place the crown of your head on the floor. Keeping hold of the feet, straighten your arms and continue to lift the heart to the ceiling. Matsyasana opens the throat and enhances the lordotic curvature of the neck, these having been reversed during the shoulder-stand sequence. Seen from the top, the posture has the shape of a fish, with the head and the shoulders forming the head of the fish, the bent legs representing the tail and the arms the dorsal and caudal fins.
INTENSE LEG POSTURE
Inhaling with your torso and head held in the same position as for Matsyasana, unfold your legs from lotus and straighten them out 30° over the floor. Extend your arms out at the same angle with the palms together. The abdominals work strongly here as they carry the weight of the legs, which will want to tilt the pelvis anteriorly. Breathe into the chest, as breathing into the abdomen would destabilize the low back. This is not a posture for beginners. The abdominal muscles need to be prepared by slowly adding on the preceding postures of the Primary Series.
Inhaling, lift the head and straighten the neck. Exhaling, lower the legs over the head into Halasana. Place the hands down on either side of the head and, exiting the posture via Chakrasana, lift over intoChaturanga Dandasana.
Vinyasa Ten Inhale into Upward Dog.
Vinyasa Eleven Exhale into Downward Dog.
Top, Pindasana; above, Matsyasana
Inhaling, bend the knees and, exhaling, place the elbows down onto the floor. Check for the correct width of your elbows by wrapping your hands around them: at the correct distance your knuckles will be on the outsides of the elbows. Without changing the position of your elbows, release the grip of your hands and interlace your fingers. Place both little fingers on the floor — not on top of each other — and separate your wrists. Be sure to keep your hands and wrists upright (perpendicular to the floor) by not rolling over onto the backs of your hands. This forms a strong tripod for support and balance. Keep the shoulders broad and the neck long and press the floor away with your forearms. This is the grounding action necessary in Shirshasana. The underneath side of the wrists is the point of balance.
Top, Uttana Padasana
Left, Shirshasana, vinyasa seven
Stability in a headstand depends on the distance between your fingers and the center point between your elbows. The more the elbows flare out to the sides, the shorter this distance becomes, and the headstand becomes accordingly less stable.
Alternative Arm Position for Short Humeri
If your humeri (arm bones) are not longer than the distance between the base of your neck and the crown of your head, the described arm position will compress the neck. If this is the case, press the heels of your hands together and allow the elbows to come apart. This will position your head more centrally in the triangle and the humeri will be perpendicular to the floor. This better accommodates the length of the upper arms, but the shortened stance makes this arm position less stable and thereby more challenging.
Place the highest point of your head down onto the mat with the back of the head resting against your palms. If instead you were to balance on your forehead, you would induce excessive cervical curvature and compress the vertebrae of the neck. The point of the head, which is the highest point in Samasthiti, needs to touch the floor. In fact most instructions for Samasthiti and Shirshasana are identical.
To come to the upside-down position, straighten your legs and walk the feet in toward the head. Keep the grounding of your tripod as you walk your feet in as close as possible while extending your sit bones high toward the ceiling. The sit bones will travel backward beyond the head, so that the back is slightly in extension. Now take all of your body weight onto your arms: the head should only lightly touch the floor. K. Pattabhi Jois instructs students not to place weight on the head, and in Yoga Mala he declares that, if we hold Shirshasana by carrying the body weight on the head, this will impinge on our intellectual development. Furthermore there is the possibility of damaging the subtle nadis in the brain.20
Inhaling, slowly raise the straight legs up toward the ceiling, extending the hip joints by engaging the gluteus maximus. Breathe slowly and keep the lower abdomen firm. Rapid breathing, especially into the abdomen, destabilizes all inversions. Keep your hands relaxed to the point that you can still wriggle your fingers. If the fingers are squeezed together in an attempt to hold the posture what often follows is that too much weight is placed on the elbows and the elbows are positioned too widely. To balance, press the wrists down into the ground and evenly distribute your body weight between the elbows and the hands.
Set the shoulder blades wide (abduction of the scapulae by serratus anterior — see Urdhva Dhanurasana, page 111). Then draw the scapulae toward the hips by contracting the latissimus dorsi. Initially this movement can be difficult without placing more weight on the head, as it requires a developed latissimus dorsi muscle.
To open the chest, reach the armpits toward the wall in front of you. This will eliminate the hump that might exist in the upper back around T6. The entire trunk and the legs are kept active and reach to the ceiling. The feet are pointed (plantar flexion).
Performed in this way, Shirshasana is a great posture for meditation. Open yourself to the fact that it is easier to maintain than standing on your feet! We have forgotten how much effort we put into learning to walk. The center of gravity is much lower in Shirshasana than when standing on one’s feet, and therefore balancing is easier. The arms, elbows, head, and hands cover a much larger area than the feet, which potentially makes the posture steadier than standing upright.
Much was said in medieval Hatha scriptures about the capacity of the headstand and shoulder stand to “conquer” death and gain immortality. This is thought to happen in the following way: The subtle moon is situated in the body inside the head, precisely at the upper back of the soft palate. This is also the end of the sushumna, called brahmarandhra, the gate of Brahman. Anatomically this location is close to where the cranium joins the spine. From this “moon” the cooling nectar of immortality, called amrita (mrta = death, a-mrta = deathlessness), is thought to trickle down. This nectar is also utilized in other techniques such as Nabho and Kechari Mudra.
The subtle “sun” in the body is located in the stomach, where the gastric fire (agni) is seated. The nectar of immortality exuded by the moon trickles down onto the sun, where it is consumed by its gastric fire. When the nectar is eventually exhausted, death is imminent. With the body inverted in space, the sun is placed above the moon. Gravity now inhibits the flow of amrita, so that it can be reabsorbed. Immortality or extension of the life span was thought to be the result. The preoccupation with physical immortality is, however, a fairly recent development in yogic history. As Mircea Eliade has shown,21 it only gained momentum after 1000 CE. In the original yoga tradition, immortality was gained by realizing that which itself is deathless: the purusha (consciousness).
The identification with the body is called egoism. The body is a manifestation of our past experiences, including our hurts, ambitions, and limitations. Why would we endeavor to hold on to the bars of our prison cell forever, when we could be free? Why should we carry a huge anvil on our shoulder when we could spread our wings and fly? The body is a statement that “I am separate from deep reality (Brahman),” as Shankara has sufficiently demonstrated. According to the Samkhya Karika, “As a potter’s wheel continues its movement even after the potter has ceased his effort, so the body will complete its natural course. Then after true knowledge is gained, no more physical manifestation will happen.” The body is surrendered when the ocean of infinite consciousness is entered. This is yogic immortality. The ancient yoga has been taught in this way in the Upanishads, and by the great masters such as Kapila, Patanjali, Vyasa, and Shankara. Medieval attempts to seek freedom by the very thing that binds us are manifestations of the Kali Yuga.
Urdhva Dandasana (see next page)
Left, Shirshasana lift off; above, Balasana
Shirshasana is a very useful posture for purifying the blood, the heart, and the lungs. It also helps to develop an awareness of the center of the body, which is useful in all other postures. Slowly extend the time spent in Shirshasana, twenty-five breaths being sufficient at first. After a longer, more strenuous practice more time in Shirshasana is recommended.
Exhaling, lower your legs, keeping them straight, until they are parallel to the floor. This posture — Urdhva Dandasana (inverted rod) — develops the hip extensors (mainly gluteus maximus) and the back extensors (erector spinae and quadratus lumborum). The sit bones have to travel backward beyond the back of the head to keep the balance. The spine is held slightly in extension and the chest is open. Point the feet (plantar flexion) in this posture. Gaze to the nose and hold the posture for ten breaths.
Inhaling, lift the straight legs back up into Shirshasana. From here lift the head off the floor completely. This is initiated by pressing the elbows into the floor (flexion of the shoulder joint). You are now in a forearm balance with the crown of the head pointing straight down and the fingers interlocked. First look to the nose and later lift the chin to the sternum and look up to the navel. Open your chest and draw the shoulder blades out to the sides and up toward the ceiling. Hold Uddiyana Bandha strongly and hold the posture for ten breaths.
This posture is the ideal preparation for Pincha Mayurasana in the Intermediate Series. For those who want to perform the handstand later, the ability to hold the head clear off the floor in Shirshasana is a necessary preparation.
Exhaling, gently replace your head to the floor and lower your straight legs to land silently on the floor. Bend the knees, take your hips back to rest on your heels, and place your forehead down on the floor. With your arms outstretched above your head, gently draw the shoulder blades down to release the neck muscles. We prostrate and surrender ourselves in this posture (Balasana, the child pose).Balasana facilitates pressure exchange in the head after Shirshasana. Depending on the length of the head-stand, we may hold Balasana for between ten breaths and two minutes. K. Pattabhi Jois stresses that, if one does not keep the head on the floor for some time to allow for pressure exchange, damage to the brain and nervous system can occur.
Inhaling, straighten the arms and legs. Exhaling, lower into Chaturanga Dandasana.
Vinyasa Thirteen Inhale into Upward Dog.
Vinyasa Fourteen Exhale into Downward Dog.
Padmasana is the principal yoga posture. Such benefits as the destruction of all diseases, to conquering death, to crossing the ocean of conditioned existence are all enthusiastically ascribed to it.
Inhaling, jump through to Dandasana.
Exhaling from a straight-legged position, fold first the right leg into Padmasana. To do this safely, flex the right knee joint completely by drawing the right heel to the right buttock. If this is not possible, do not attempt Padmasana, but instead sit cross-legged. If you can touch your heel to your buttock, let the right knee fall out to the side, pointing and inverting the right foot. Now draw the right heel into the right groin to ensure that the knee joint remains completely flexed in this abducted position. From here lift the right heel in toward the navel, bringing the knee closer to the midline. Keeping the heel in line with the navel, place the ball of the foot into the opposite groin.
Padmasana: Right Leg First
Why is Padmasana traditionally done only by first placing the right leg and then bringing the left leg on top? When asked this question, K. Pattabhi Jois quoted the Yoga Shastra as saying, “Right side first and left leg on top purifies liver and spleen. Left leg first and right leg on top is of no use at all.” He also explained that the lotus done in this way stimulates insulin production.
Contemporary teachers have suggested performing Padmasana on both sides to balance the body. Improving the symmetry of the body is achieved through the standing postures. However, the postures that strongly influence the abdominal and thoracic cavities, such as Padmasana, Kurmasana, Dvi Pada Shirshasana, and Pashasana, do not have the function of making the body symmetrical, but of accommodating the asymmetry of the abdominal and thoracic organs. To accommodate the fact that the liver is in the right side of the abdominal cavity and the spleen in the left, the right leg is first placed into position with the left leg on top. As leg-behind-the-head postures develop the chest, to place the left leg first in Kurmasana accommodates the fact that the heart is predominantly in the left side of the thoracic cavity.
Repeat these steps on the left, as if the right leg were still straight. First flex the knee joint completely until the underneath of the thigh touches the back of the leg over its entire length. Drawing the knee far out to the left, lift the left foot over the right ankle in toward the navel. Do not lift the left foot over the right knee, as this would mean opening the left knee joint, which would induce lateral movement into the knee during the transition.
Sitting in Padmasana, inwardly rotate your femurs until the front edges of the tibias point downward and the soles and heels of the feet face upward. In this way the knee joints are completely closed and thereby protected. Do not sit in Padmasana and retain the initial lateral rotation of the femurs used to enter the posture.
With your left arm, reach around your back and take the big toe of the left foot with the palm facing downward. The foot that is on top is bound first. Now bind the right big toe with your right hand, placing the right arm on top of the left arm on your back. This is Baddha Padmasana. If you experience difficulty binding, cross the arms above the elbows rather than the forearms. This induces opening of the shoulders and the chest. A tight pectoralis minor muscle is the greatest obstacle here.
The Importance of Baddha Padmasana
Baddha Padmasana is a very potent meditation posture. In the scriptures it is suggested that the yogi prepare a seat from kusha grass, place a deerskin or, better, a tiger skin over it, and a clean white cotton cloth on top. This set-up was suggested to me on several occasions during my studies in India. Such an elaborate meditation seat is used for the purpose of insulation. Energy always flows from the highest to the lowest potential. As the earth is receptive, the energy will flow from the body of the yogi into the ground. For this reason, insulation is suggested to preserve energy for the rising of kundalini. Mula Bandha is done for similar reasons. It prevents energy leaking out from the base of the spine.
The habit of yogis to meditate in the Himalayas must be seen in a similar light. The higher up into the mountains we go, the more the receptive pull of the earth decreases and the easier it is forkundalini to rise. We most readily lose energy from the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet. For this reason the soles are turned up away from the ground in Padmasana. In Baddha Padmasana the hands are connected to the feet, and in this way an energy circuit is created. All energy is now recycled within the body, apart from the energy that leaves through the nine sensory gates (two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the mouth, the generative organ, and the anus).
If you still encounter difficulties binding, look at the following areas:
• Hip rotation — the more we can inwardly rotate the femurs and bring the knees closer together, the more the feet will slide up into the groins. This brings the feet closer to the hands and thereby makes binding easier.
• Shoulder flexibility — if the shoulders are freed up, we can more easily roll them back to reach for the toes.
• We need to wrap the arms around the waist. The thinner the waist, the easier the task. Shedding excess weight can work miracles here, as is the case in Kurmasana.
Inhaling, lift the chest high, draw the shoulders back, and gaze upward.
Exhaling, fold forward, placing the forehead on the floor, and gaze toward the nose. With increasing proficiency you can place the chin onto the floor. Do not achieve this by jutting the chin forward and creasing the back of the neck. This blocks off energy and prevents kundalini from rising. Keep the back of the neck long and gaze up between the eyebrows. Keep inwardly rotating the thigh bones here and let the crown of the head and the sit bones reach in opposite directions. The shoulder blades follow the sit bones. This posture is Yoga Mudra (seal of yoga), and it is one of the most effective ways of sealing within the body the energy cultivated during the practice. Hold the posture for ten to twenty-five breaths, depending on the length of your practice, while focusing on the bandhas.
Inhaling, come up, let go of the feet, and place the hands on the knees, palms facing upward in a receptive attitude. Keep the arms straight to align the shoulders and to make the spine steady. Place the hands into Jnana Mudra (seal of knowledge) by joining the thumb and pointing finger and extending the other fingers. The significance of the fingers is as follows:
• Thumb represents Brahman (infinite consciousness).
• Pointing finger represents atman (true nature).
• Middle finger represents buddhi (intellect).
• Ring finger represents manas (mind).
• Little finger represents kaya (body).
Placing your thumb and pointing finger together seals the intention of realizing that your true nature (atman) is nothing but infinite consciousness (Brahman).
You are now in the classic position for meditation. It is preferred over the simple cross-legged position. In Padmasana we sit on a solid base of sit bones, thighs, and knees. This enables us to retain the natural double-S curve of the spine as if we were standing upright in Samasthiti.
Not only is this correct positioning of the spine required for kundalini to rise, it also promotes alertness. If we simply sit cross-legged, there is the tendency for the pelvis to tilt posteriorly, the heart to collapse, and the head to sink down toward the chest. Effort is required to avoid this slouching, which quickly leads to fatigue. If fatigue is present, meditation becomes difficult. Meditation is brightness and luminosity of the mind. If the mind is torpid during meditation, detrimental effects will result. (A more detailed discussion of meditation is given in part 4.)
To keep the mind alert, we need a posture in which the head can effortlessly be kept in line with the neck and the spine for an extended period of time. Padmasana is the ideal posture for this purpose.
Drop the chin slightly. Direct the gaze gently down toward the tip of the nose. Stay for at least twenty-five slow breaths.
Place the hands down on either side of the thighs with the fingers spread. Inhaling, lift the entire body off the floor into Utpluthi (uprooting).
The spine needs to curl to lift up, which involves flexing the trunk. This action is performed by the abdominal muscles, mainly the rectus abdominis. The shoulders are supporting by depressing the shoulder girdle (latissimus dorsi). Keep the breath ratio normal. This posture increases bandha control and helps in understanding the vinyasa movement. This is one of the best postures for restoring energy. It eliminates fatigue at the end of the practice.
Hold Utpluthi for twenty-five breaths, gazing toward the nose.
Exhaling, swing through, fold out of lotus, and lower into Chaturanga Dandasana. The movement and its possible variations have been described under Kukkutasana, vinyasas nine and ten (page 98).
Top, Padmasana with Jnana Mudra Above, Utpluthi
No drishti, as eyes are closed.
K. Pattabhi Jois refers to this posture as “Taking Rest.” Yogic literature, however, refers to it as Shavasana (corpse posture) or Mritasana (death posture). According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “Lying down on the ground, like a corpse, is called Shavasana. It removes fatigue and gives rest to the mind.”22 The Gheranda Samhita agrees: “Lying flat on the ground like a corpse is called Mritasana. This posture destroys fatigue, and quiets the agitations of the mind.”23 Both treatises attribute to this posture not only recuperation but also the important function of calming the mind.
Shavasana is an intrinsic part of yoga practice. Through the practice we heat and purify the gross (physical) body and the subtle (energetic) body. After practice, the body needs time to cool and settle. To jump up immediately and commence our daily pursuits can make one agitated and nervous. The calming, centering, soothing effect of yoga practice can only arise when proper rest is taken afterward.
During the practice we are absorbed with doing; in Shavasana it is time to be established in non-doing, time to simply be. The mystical state that is the goal of yoga cannot be reached through activity; instead it arises through the cessation of all activity. This cessation is allowed during Shavasana.
The Physical Importance of Relaxation
Shavasana is defined as the complete relaxation of body and mind. The relaxation of the body is important for the assimilation of prana. Prana occurs in the atmosphere. Attempts have been made to compare prana to solar wind and alpha rays.24 The practice is most beneficial at sunrise and sunset, because pranic levels are then highest.25 Only through accumulated prana is it possible to sustain the body for a long period of time. There are testimonies of yogis having been buried underground for up to a year and still being alive when disinterred. Although such feats are not the purpose of yoga, they are interesting in this context. Life is primarily sustained by prana, and the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is designed to store it in the body. The Ujjayi method turns the epiglottis into a valve, which increases the pranic pressure inside the body. The bandhas work like filters that skim the prana from the air we breathe. If we continue activity immediately after practice, the accumulated prana slowly leaks out of the body and is lost.
Shavasana gives us the chance to assimilate this prana. Through relaxation, the body, after it has been prepared through practice, becomes a receptive sponge that soaks it up. Shavasana is literally a bath in atmospheric prana. For this to happen we must let go completely.
The Mental Importance of Relaxation
The posture is called Shavasana because it prepares us for death. It teaches us to completely surrender and let go. When the time comes to die, this ability to completely cease doing — to surrender totally — will enable us to abandon all identification with this body, this personality, and this ego. Then we can separate from this life as easily as a cucumber separates from the vine.26 Only the concepts we have of ourselves that cause us to desire some things and reject others, the I-am-ness, make us believe that this is our body. It is not ours at all. Have we created it? Even after centuries of scientific research we still cannot understand all aspects of the body, nor can we create a body. We have no certificate of ownership. When it is time to leave this world behind, we surrender this body back to nature (prakrti). Our body is created by nature and not by us, as Yoga Sutras IV.2 and IV.3 affirm.
There is a Zen koan that says:
Butterfly takes off
To cross the lake
I come back to myself
There has been much deliberation concerning the meaning of this koan. One reading is to equate the butterfly with the thought. If we let go of it, if it leaves us to cross the lake, then we can return into the self. If we hold on to it, then we are one with the fluctuations of the mind (sutra I.4). If we let the butterfly take off then we can abide in our true nature (sutra I.3).
But the butterfly can also be equated to the body and the lake to the division between life and death. The body crosses this division; I do not. If I manage to let go of the body, then I will abide again in my true nature — the eternal, immutable consciousness. If I hold on, this return is not possible, and I will seek a new embodiment.
In Shavasana all effort, all determination, all will fall away from us. This falling away, this complete surrender, simulates the process that needs to occur at death. We can say that each Shavasana is a preparation for the moment when not us but our corpse is doing the posture. Death may be frightening if we think we are the body. If we surrender, if we hand ourselves over, then it is an invitation to return to the true and natural state, which is consciousness. Following Lord Krishna’s suggestion in Bhagavad Gita, we “surrender the sense of agency, since only a fool believes himself to be the doer.”
The ancient masters taught that we are not the body, which is subject to death, but rather that we are the unborn, uncreated and unchanging. The death of the body invites us to come back to our true nature, which is consciousness. This letting go of artificial identification with what is impermanent is Shavasana. Shavasana, when done properly — as the letting go of everything — shows us what we truly are. Both the Yoga Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita state that the pure existence, pure awareness, pure being that is left at the end of the body is without beginning and end.
It cannot be cut by knives,
It cannot be pierced by thorns,
It cannot be burned by fire,
It cannot be drowned in water.
It is eternal, the true self.
1. Their simplicity is profound.
2. Flexion means bringing bones together; extension is the return from flexion. An exception is the movement of the humerus (the arm bone), where flexion is defined as raising the arm from its resting position forward and over the head. The flexors and extensors are respectively the muscles that bring these movements about.
3. Yoga Sutra II.48.
4. Vata, pitta, and kapha are the three humors, or constitution types, of the body. The terms are used in Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine. They have been translated as wind, bile, and phlegm, but, since the concepts behind them are complex, it is better to use the Sanskrit terms.
5. Looping means rolling back in a circular movement that is directed sequentially forward then upward, then backward and finally downward.
6. The system of medicine based on Western science.
7. The Latin prefix ad- means “toward” and ab- means “away.” Adductors are muscles that draw bones toward the midline of the body, whereas abductors draw them away from the midline.
8. Extension is defined as returning from flexion, and flexion of the humerus is raising the arm out to the front.
9. tamas = inertia, dormancy, mass.
10. Yoga Sutra I.12.
11. An imaginary line roughly corresponding to the inner seam of a pair of trousers.
12. Referring to the back of the body, which traditionally faced away from the rising sun and therefore toward the west.
13. Rolf, I. P., Rolfing: The Integration of Human Structures, Santa Monica, Dennis-Landman, 1977, p. 112.
14. For the purpose of this explanation we can look at Marichy asana C as a forward bend. In this asana the hip flexors of the straight leg (the muscles that fold the trunk forward) are engaged to stay upright. This is also the case in Dandasana.
15. Referring to the front of the body, which traditionally faced the rising sun.
16. For the question as to why we sit only with the right leg first in lotus, refer to Padmasana at the end of the sequence.
17. Vata is one of the three Ayurvedic doshas, or constitution types.
18. The Gheranda Samhita V.61, trans. R. B. S. Chandra Vasu, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1986, p. 46.
19. H. Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali with Bhasvati, 4th enlarged ed., University of Calcutta, Kolkata, 2000, p. 315.
20. K. Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Mala, 1st English ed., Eddie Stern/Patanjala Yoga Shala, New York, 1999, p. 126. Shirshasana
21. Mircea Eliade, Yoga — Immortality and Freedom, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1969.
22. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika I.34, trans. P. Sinh, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1915, p. 37.
23. The Gheranda Samhita II.11, trans. R.B.S. Chandra Vasu, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1986, p. 15.
24. Andre van Lysbeth, Die grosse Kraft des Atems, O.W. Barth Verlag, Munich, 1991.
25. From this we can infer that the pranic level is related to the position of the sun. This makes it likely that prana originates from the sun. Many religions and cultures worship the sun as a deity and the giver of life.
26. This metaphor is used in a traditional Indian prayer. The separation between the cucumber and the vine is peaceful and without external force, whereas fruit growing on a tree or bush is violently torn off by gravity.