Ashtanga yoga poses are practiced in a sequential and fluid manner and in parallel with controlled breathing. Speed is not important when first beginning this style of yoga. The synchronization of the breath with movement is more significant. Why? When proper breathing is combined with movement, the body releases energy that eases tension. As an effect, one feels more relaxed. The energy used by the body is transformed to intense heat and is released through sweating. Toxins and other impurities present in the blood stream are expelled from the body through this process.
Ashtanga yoga consist of three main parts: the opening sequence, one of the six main series, and the finishing sequence. These parts have been patterned such that the preceding movements prepare the mind and body for more difficult, strength developing poses. Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation) is the traditional opening sequence which is followed by the standing series.
This is then followed by one of the six fundamental series of the poses: The primary series known in Sanskrit as Yoga Chikitsa (translated as Yoga Therapy); the intermediate series called Nāḍī Shodhana (translated as Nerve Cleansing); and finally the advanced series A, B, C, D known collectively as Sthira Bhagah (translated as Steady Strength).
The Sun Salutation is like the preface of a book. This fundamental series is performed five times at the beginning of the Ashtanga yoga practice. The aim is to condition the mind for the session as well as to warm-up and strengthen the back and hamstrings.
There are two sets of sun salutation sequences. The first sequence has nine asanas (postures or positions) while the second sequence has seventeen asanas. The second sequence is just an extension of the first sequence. The sun salutation is then followed by a series of six standing postures that aim to strengthen the core. Mastering the opening sequence will provide a good base for anyone who would like to be a practitioner.
After the opening sequence, begins one of the six fundamental series of Ashtanga yoga poses. The primary series is called Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga Therapy. This series is composed of movements that aim to purify and restore physical health. It is practiced only after warm-up to prevent injuries. The overall effect of this series is the progressive strengthening of the body.
In the primary series, the movements are arranged in such a manner that each asana (posture or position) builds on the previous one. Postures in this series are primarily twists and forward folds that prepare the spine for back bending poses performed in the finishing sequence and intermediate series. Practicing the opening sequence is strongly advised before proceeding with the primary series. Doing so will ensure that one is protected from injuries and that the flexibility needed to smoothly transition to the next pose, has been developed.
The intermediate series of Ashtanga yoga poses is called Nāḍī Shodhana or Nerve Cleansing. The purpose of executing this sequence is to open and clear the subtle energy channels in the body. Proper execution of the poses in this series requires a higher level of strength and a sufficiently cleansed body. Therefore, mastery of the first series should be obtained to maximize the benefits of nerve cleansing.
The advanced series of Ashtanga yoga poses is called the Sthira Bhagah or Steady Strength. This sequence of postures aims to strengthen the inner spirit of the yogi. Hence, advanced ashtanga yoga practitioners have a more intense focus and are also able to have a steadiness of the body and mind.
The finishing sequence is the final series of Ashtanga. If the sun salutation prepares the body and mind for practice, the finishing sequence prepares the person for rest. This sequence consists of sixteen asanas specifically designed to cool the body. Ashtanga yoga poses in the closing set give practitioners the opportunity to reflect on the practice. Aside from developing strength, patience and humility are qualities that are cultivated as yogis go through the different postures. More difficult poses require patience in order to achieve proper execution safely and fluidly. More importantly, it's the finishing postures that allow us to reflect upon the concept of UNION and how our action contribute to the evolution of the entire world.
Ashtanga yoga can be a challenging and disciplined practice consisting of a series of asanas linked with the breath and performed in a sequence to build a flow between movements during the 60 to 90 minutes it takes from start to finish. The regular practice of Ashtanga yoga builds strength and flexibility and improves posture. Although Ashtanga is a challenging yoga style, beginners must remember it is a slow process. The focus of Ashtanga yoga is internal cleansing, not a workout.
Ashtanga yoga, meaning "eight-limbed yoga," it incorporates the eight paths to spiritual purification that include moral codes, self-purification and study, asanas, breath and sense control, concentration, meditation and mind control. Traditional Ashtanga practice opens and closes with a meditative chant intended for inner healing, prosperity or praise.
At its foundation, Ashtanga yoga focuses on Pranayama breathing, or “victorious breath in Sanskrit, which requires the student to narrow the air passage in the throat in order to control inhalations and exhalations more precisely throughout each move. The premise of controlled breathing is that it expands the lungs to create heat within the body, inspiring a meditative state of mind.
Practicing Ashtanga yoga at home is possible because the primary series of poses do not require a lot of space or special equipment. Each pose is repeated on both sides of the body to promote whole body balance. To begin, start with 5 rounds of Sun Salutation A; the muscles start to warm-up thus avoiding injury and bringing heat to the body. Once you’ve warmed the muscles, continue your Ashtanga home practice with 3 rounds of Sun Salutation B. Always practice according to your fitness level. Work through the posture but don’t force yourself into a position that is painful.
Opening the Hamstrings, Release the Low Back
When you begin moving into your standing poses, pay close attention to stretching the hamstrings , or the muscles that run behind your legs, and opening the low back. Standing Forward Bend calms the nervous system and stimulates blood flow to the brain. Practice Ashtanga yoga primary series gently and often, without strain or forcing yourself into poses you’re not quite ready for. It's okay to bend the knees slightly in the beginning, especially if your hamstrings are tight. Remember, it’s okay to modify when needed.
Ashtanga yoga doesn’t vary in the sequence; the asanas are always the same (Some people think that doing the same sequence of postures every day is too repetitive and they lose interest. Of course everyone is different but, I have found that performing the same sequence everyday enables you to become familiar with the physical movements that you can solely focus on the breathing throughout the practice). For a beginner, teachers advise to gradually build proficiency in each pose, given the physicality involved in the series. As a beginner, it’s best to practice Ashtanga yoga 4-5 days a week before trying the 6 day a week practice. The challenge of Ashtanga yoga is cumulative – as you practice, you will find that your ability to move into more difficult asanas comes from the previous foundation work.
Are you ready to start your Ashtanga yoga journey? Getting started is easy; here's a great video for beginners ranging from 10 minutes to 60 minutes with my teacher, R. Sharath Jois (practitioner and lineage holder of Ashtanga Yoga, in the tradition of K. Pattabhi Jois).
Marichyasana is named after the sage Marichi. The word Marichi literally means a ray of light. In Hindu mythology, Marichi was the son of Brahma and chief of the Maruts (also called vayu or wind-gods). He’s one of the seven (sometimes 10 or 12) sages (rishis) or lords of creation (prajapatis), who intuitively "see" and determine the divine law of the universe (dharma).
Benefits: Twists are important asanas for spinal health; they keep the spine flexible and bring fresh blood supply to the spinal nerves. Twisting also has an effect on the abdominals, alternately stretching and contracting as you twist one way and then the other. Spinal twisting enhances prana flow all around the abdomen, nourishing the pancreas, kidneys, stomach, small intestines, liver, and gall bladder while compressing and squeezing out excess flatulence that becomes trapped and uncomfortable in the body. Twisting should take place in the thoracic spine (where the ribs attach to the spine).
How to: Starting with your legs straight in front of you, bend your right knee so it’s flat on the floor close to your body. Sitting tall, place your right hand behind you to support you. As you exhale, twist to bring your left elbow across your body so it hooks on the outside of your right knee. If your elbow doesn’t reach, you can bring your arm across your shin and grasp your thigh with your left hand. Remember to keep pressing your right foot down into the earth, and sit tall with your spine straight and shoulders down. Stay here for five deep breaths then repeat other side (Sometimes breathing is difficult in twisting postures because the abdomen is compressed, as your flexibility increases and your abdomen twists clear of your thigh the breath will come easier).
Twists are a great way to wring out the internal organs, however, if you feel any pain in your knees, sit on a yoga block or bolster or move out of the pose. Also, pregnant women should always use caution or avoid twists altogether
Going to a yoga class at a studio can definitely get you in a calm mood, but sometimes a class just isn't possible. Fortunately, you can always practice yoga at home as long as you have the proper precautions in place. If you're not going to a yoga class, it's no excuse for skipping a yoga practice altogether. You can easily set up your home to get the same benefits of going to a yoga studio.
Home vs. Class
While you might not get the benefit of a trained yoga instructor at home, you can still practice yoga on your own. Some of the differences include the lack of a yoga teacher to walk you through the technique and posture of a given pose, as well as some of the mood-setting atmosphere benefits you get at a studio, like darker lighting, quiet and more space to stretch. However, there's nothing stopping you from getting the same benefits you get at a studio through home practice; self-led yoga practice is better than none at all.
There are some great benefits to practicing yoga at home, especially when it comes to the convenience of unrolling your mat in your home for a quick session. It's cheaper and quicker than going to a studio, even if you miss out on having a teacher walk you through each pose. And, since you're in control of the time, style of yoga, mood and atmosphere of your home, you can tailor each to your own specific needs and preferences.
Setting the Mood
One way to make a home practice more beneficial is to set the mood more like the quiet, peaceful setting of a yoga studio. Dimming the lights, using soft music and eliminating distractions can go a long way in setting aside special time to practice. If your phone is ringing, TV blaring and kids are interrupting you, you might not get in the right frame of mind for calming, beneficial yoga. Seek a space in your home that is quiet and gives you enough room to move freely.
Practicing on your own at home is great as long as you have a solid foundation and knowledge of the poses you practice. Trying a new pose at home can be difficult without a teacher to ensure you have correct posture and alignment. If you do want to try something new, try some online yoga or an app that you can use on your tablet or mobile phone; not only do you get instruction, but also a wide variety of teachers and teaching styles. Remember when you practice self-led poses you know how to execute properly to ensure you stay safe in your home practice.
Want more tips on creating a daily home practice? Check out my previous article on how to make yoga a daily routine.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana is from Sanskrit; Urdhva meaning Upward, Mukha meaning Face, Svana meaning Dog and Asana meaning Posture or Pose. Upward-Facing Dog is a powerful yoga pose that will rouse the upper body, help you build strength and provide you with a gentle backbend in preparation for deeper backbends. This pose is normally part of the traditional Sun Salutation sequence in Ashtanga and other Vinyasa yoga classes and is most often practiced with Downward-Facing Dog. Like Downward Dog this pose is named after the behavior of a stretching dog after a long nap!
Although this pose may appear to be simple, it offers more than its share of proper alignment and challenges. Despite its seemingly simple nature, this posture offers many benefits and can help advance your yoga practice in a variety of ways.
Modifications & Variations
Upward-Facing Dog provides a deep stretch to the entire spine and front torso. Be careful not to force your body into the pose. Practice this pose slowly and come out of the pose if you feel any pain or pinching sensations.
It takes time to build the flexibility and strength for Upward-Facing Dog. Practice Cobra Pose as an alternative pose if Upward-Facing Dog is not yet possible for you.
If your feet and ankles are stiff, from Chaturanga into Upward-Facing Dog, let your thighs come to the floor, then turn your feet over one at a time.
If you find it difficult to keep your legs lifted off the mat, place your thighs on the floor.
Yoga can sometimes be challenging. We all face challenges in our yoga practice. Challenges on the yoga mat aren’t usually as hard as the everyday challenges we face in life. What do you do when you tell yourself you can’t do something? How does it make you feel and what do you do about it?
So, what if you can’t touch your toes, stand on your head or bind your hands together in an asana? Or perhaps the challenge is getting on your mat consistently?
It doesn’t matter if you can do fancy yoga poses. What matters is how you learn to embrace what seems impossible. Can you work at something again and again that you tell yourself you can’t do? If you can manifest this attitude on your yoga mat, you can bring this new skill into your life. Imagine how much more you can achieve! You will find that the willingness to step into the space of what you thought was impossible, gradually, yet consistently, gives life more meaning and possibilities. Yoga has taught me patience and perseverance and sometimes I feel unstoppable.
How can you meet the difficulties on your yoga mat? Here are some tips:
As challenging as some yoga postures may seem, the key is perseverance. Listen to your body and safely explore your limitations, don't get overwhelmed, figure out where the challenges lie, don't take yourself too seriously and don't let resistance overpower you. Accept yoga as a lifestyle that needs to be learned and practiced with gratitude and patience.
The practice of yoga has been around for years benefiting both mental and physical health. These benefits help to improve balance, increase flexibility and strength, reduce cholesterol levels and promote heart health. Yoga can even trigger and boost energy thanks to deep breathing (pranayama), energizing both the body and mind. Yoga can be a great way to clear the mind and calm your stress. So, skip the morning cup of coffee and practice these seven yoga poses for more energy! It’s a quick and natural way to charge up your morning without coffee, energy drinks, or cold showers.
Tree Pose (Vriksasana) strengthens your spine and improves neuromuscular coordination. The pose elevates your mental faculties and builds strength in your shoulders. It stretches your chest, inner thighs and improves your sense of balance.
Chair Pose (Utkatasana) stretches your torso, hips and lower back. It increases your mind’s determination and stimulates your heart. The pose relieves joint and back pains. It tones your legs and strengthens your calves. Utkatasana increases the power and flexibility of your thighs.
Camel Pose (Ustrasana) opens your chest and the front of your torso. It strengthens your back and shoulders. The pose alleviates pain in the lower back and makes your spine more flexible. It strengthens your thighs and arms. Ustrasana tones your neck and cures constipation.
Bridge Pose gives strength to your legs, arms, buttocks and lower back. It stimulates the thyroid gland. The pose helps with asthma and stretches your core. It reduces depression and makes you feel energetic and full of life.
Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana) strengthens and stretches the joints and muscles of your legs. It reduces blood pressure and increases the intake of oxygen into your body. The pose treats urinary disorders and reduces stiffness in the hip, back and shoulder regions.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) stimulates the digestive system and tones the organs of your lower abdomen. It regulates metabolism and gives your lungs a good stretch. This pose improves blood and oxygen circulation throughout the body. It elevates your mind and decreases stiffness in the lower back.
Child’s Pose (Balasana) is a wonderful grounding, nurturing pose perfect to counter busy-ness and over-stimulation of the mind; allowing you to rest, slow down and breathe. It also helps to soothe a stiff lower back.
I live in a small apartment, so I sleep, work, live, and practice yoga in the same room. I don’t have the luxury of separate rooms/spaces to practice; there’s just enough space for my yoga mat on the floor. However, the act of moving a chair out of the way, lighting a candle, and rolling out my mat has become a little ritual that creates the mental space for me to practice yoga. Creating a proper yoga space in your home is essential for practicing yoga. Having the space will also encourage you to practice yoga more often, which can help reduce your stress and improve your health.
When Stuck with Small Spaces, Make the Space Multi-Functional
Designing a yoga space with 6 feet in all directions may seem impossible to the apartment dweller stuck with small rooms, but you can design the area by making the space multi-functional. The best way to do this is to fill the area you set aside with easy-to-move furniture and storage items, like a storage unit on wheels or easy-to-lift chairs and a coffee table. When you want to practice yoga, wheel or carry the furnishings into the hallway or wherever else you have space (like the kitchen or a closet). Comfortable apartment living means making the most of all of your space and you can set aside adequate clear space for yoga by making sure the area has other functions when you’re not using it for yoga.
Make Sure the Area is Quiet
When choosing your yoga space, you should try to pick the quietest area in your home where you can make the room. Because yoga so heavily relies on your ability to relax and free your mind of distractions, you don’t want to be inundated with traffic noises, noisy neighbors and barking dogs. You can also play relaxing music to drown out the other noises and help you set the mood.
Set the Mood with Lighting
Although not always avoidable, practicing yoga under the harsh glare of the light-bulb can make your practice less relaxing. Practicing yoga with natural sunlight can lift your spirits, if natural sunlight is not available to you, using dimmed light bulbs or battery-operated candles can give you enough light to see what you’re doing but also help relax you by keeping the room slightly darker with less glare. Remember that a proper yoga space allows for adequate movement, is quiet and relaxing and, as an apartment dweller, is easy to use for another function when you’re not practicing. Even in the smallest of spaces, you can make a space for yoga when you use these principles to create the space.
Having a home practice means that I can practice yoga regularly, and tailor it to the amount of time I have and what I need that day. I try to go to my Mysore-style yoga at least twice a week to make sure I’m maintaining good form and have a sense of yoga community.
Yoga can be a spiritual as well as a physical practice and therefore is beneficial at any time of the day. However, there times that are better for our own practice depending upon schedule, body and personality type. A morning person may need the stimulating effects of certain asanas to start the day, while someone who is slow to wake may be warmed up and ready to practice by sunset.
Early morning before sunrise is considered a spiritually charged time of the day in the Vedic tradition and is therefore ideal for yoga. Morning yoga will ease you into gentle movements shortly after you awaken in the morning. Sun Salutations are great for waking up the body, and after lots of movement and balancing, you can ease into some gentle inversions and heart openers. If your hips and spine are feeling open at this point – dive into the heart openers, like camel, bridge and wheel. These postures will leave you feeling awake and rejuvenated – maybe even more than your morning cup of coffee! Also, indulge in an extra-long headstand or shoulder stand to send fresh oxygen into your head. This will also allow you to feel ready to face your day.
Yoga before bed can be relaxing and contribute to a restful sleep. The perfect evening yoga practice should soothe and relax you after a long day. If you’re practicing later in the evening however (within a few hours of going to bed), you’ll want to resist moving into big heart openers and energizing inversions. You may want to practice soothing surrender postures like half pigeon and seated forward fold. Twists are also incredibly relaxing in the evening as well. Focus on breathing in positions such as Child’s pose, which stretches the back muscles and aids digestion. Just be aware how you feel and what you need.
There is no time of day that is “perfect” for everyone when it comes to yoga practice. The best rule to follow is the one of no distraction. Choose to practice at a time when you are least likely to be interrupted, whether it be early morning or late at night. The most benefits are yielded when fully conscious of each movement.
Consistency is also key in yoga practice perhaps even more than when you choose to practice. The more you do the same poses regularly, the more you will notice how your practice is producing change within your body and your life. The time of day we practice yoga should determine what postures we practice, and being aware of which postures are energizing and which ones are soothing.
Pay attention to which postures affect your energy levels at which time of day, and this will empower you to practice exactly when your body needs it. Remember – you are your best teacher!
Inversion poses involve any asanas that lift the feet above the head. Other inversion poses that are well known include shoulderstand (salamba sarvangasana) and half shoulderstand (viparita karani); but even lying on the floor with your legs up the wall is an inversion pose. The concept behind inversion poses is expressed in yoga texts as viparita karani. Viparita karani is translated as meaning ‘opposite processes. This means facilitating a different perspective. From the purely physical point of view, this different perspective in inversion poses is literal – in terms of looking at the world from a different physical viewpoint – as well as involving the body being supported in a different way.
Yoga is more than simply physical exercises, there are other processes that are assisted. Yoga is designed to help us change mental habits as well as physical habits. Through increasing our ability to adapt to change, instead of being stuck in old habitual responses, we increase our capacity for growth and transformation. This applies in all areas of our lives.
There is a theoretical concept in yoga about why inversion postures help. Ayurveda considers that many of the body’s impurities are in the lower abdomen. When we raise our feet above the head, gravity is assisting us to move these impurities towards what the Ayurvedic system calls agni, or ‘fire’. Agni particularly relates to our ‘digestive fire’, and is thus located above our lower abdomen. So, by being upside down, and by using the deep and slow breathing typical of yoga, we help ‘burn off’ the impurities that were previously stuck. Improved circulation is a more readily apparent and less ‘esoteric’ benefit of inversion yoga poses.
Although inversion postures have many health benefits, the ability to receive those benefits depends as much on one’s capacity to comfortably hold these sometimes difficult postures. For example, headstand and shoulder stand should not be done by women who are pregnant, those who have neck pain, high or low blood pressure, neck injuries, or are menstruating. Neither of these postures should be attempted without the appropriate preparatory postures. Otherwise the risk of injury, or stiffness, particularly to the neck area, will result. Likewise, if doing these postures is uncomfortable or difficult, one should practice the modified versions, or simply work on other yoga poses that strengthen these areas.
Tips for Doing Inverted Postures
For Half Shoulder stand:
* Lengthen the exhale
* don’t lock the chin
* Keep your weight not on the head but on the wrists and elbows
* Don’t try to pull your torso (and legs) vertical like in full shoulder stand if you have difficulties with your neck. By doing so, you’re placing more pressure on your neck.
* Make sure you do the appropriate balancing postures afterwards. These include shalabhasana and bhujangasana
* Don’t worry so much about keeping your elbows and arms parallel. This will create more tension in your neck if you’re not proficient in this posture.
* Do the appropriate balancing postures. These are the same as for half shoulder stand.
* Don’t ever make adjustments whilst in headstand. If you feel your alignment is not quite right, come down and do it again.
* Never do this posture first up, or without the prerequisite postures. It will lead to stiffness in the neck at best, and injury at worst.
This posture is never done traditionally without preparation.
* Use a wall for support as a learning stage
* Support your head with all of your fingers, including the little fingers and thumbs
* Finding the right position for your head will make sure weight is distributed evenly, and ensure you don’t have to overly press down with your elbows to compensate
* Don’t hold your weight too much on the back of your body. It will place too much pressure on your neck.
* Rest your neck before doing the balancing postures, however. Lie down with your legs bent.
* Other balancing postures include chakravakasana, dvipada pitham with the arms, and shalabhasana
There may be fears or a sense of limitation about doing inversion poses that will be confronted. Sometimes, it’s best to start an asana gradually. Most inversion poses offer variations that one can use to build up strength and flexibility, as well as overcome any fear based feelings about the posture and the ability to do it.
*Caution: Do NOT attempt any of these poses if you suffer from neck or shoulder pain/injury. Always seek the advice of your physician prior to beginning any yoga regimen. Remember to practice within your own comfort level as well as, only attempt these poses once you have warmed up.
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