The restorative power of Yoga (Asana)

Sun Salutation – Surya Namaskar A

Yoga – an ancient, non-religious system designed to assist humans with the intricacies of living life, developed around the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal and Tibet.

Asana – translated from Sanskrit; to sit . Asana is 1/8th of the 8-limbed system of Yoga, which we now understand as creating postures and poses with the human body, designed to prepare the body for long periods of sitting.

Yoga’s popularity in the west grew exponentially in the 1970s. The dawn of celebrity culture and endorsed lifestyles of the rich and brainless pushed yoga into the spotlight as the new exercise fad. Since then, it has become a household name. Most people know what they think yoga is, they have at least heard of it. The reality is that most people have no idea.

Yoga is said to be an 8-limbed system to assist one with the intricacies of living life.
This article is about the restorative power of one of those limbs, asana; the physical component that combines deliberate breathing with specific postures, poses and movements, designed to prepare the human body for long periods of sitting.

The majority of people who attend yoga classes or at least dabble with them, understand yoga to be purely asana, when really asana is just one-eighth of the story. The other 7 limbs are fascinating and will be written about in future pieces but for now let’s focus purely on asana.

The oldest record describing the use of asana is said to originate from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – a special read if you’re not familiar.

In this book, Patanjali mentions that yoga is a discipline. Asana is a way of training the body and mind to act as one, to be mobile, to be stable and to rid one of restlessness energy. Some consider asana to be a martial art that one performs against oneself but unfortunately today, yoga is another fitness class option. It’s become a misnomer and a shame that such a powerful system has been remarketed and diluted into a sixty-minute stretch class, varying in quality from teacher to teacher, studio to studio.

The power of asana is really revealed when you spend the time to do a little research before you practice, so you’re more aware as to what you’re trying to achieve in the 10-120 minutes that you are engaged. Learning about what asana was created and compiled for, who by, and undertaking a deliberate search as to what might be in it for you, will reveal its power far more than just showing up to a class because you want to look good, lose weight or become more flexible.

Patanjali mentions that the only requirements for asana is that each position should be worked at until it is ‘steady and comfortable’. A delicate balance of effort without strain is said to be key to mastering the practice of asana.

From there, repeating the same selected movements and poses, at a respectable, consistent frequency (min. three times per week) will yield the best results. You can’t always bank on the same sequencing by only attending classes; some extra-curricular effort is required.

Yoga Sutra
1.21 – Victory over mind is close to those with intense desire.
1.22 – It is closest to those who are charged with the highest intensity of desire, and even that intensity could be mild, intermediate, or supreme.

What type of asana should I be doing?

MoveMind advocates asana primarily for restoration. As there are so many styles and brands of yoga out there, many of them terrible, where should you start?

There are two key things you need to know before you begin using asana to restore your body;

1) Where do you sit on the mobility/stability continuum?
In general, is your body stiffer, or more supple? This will dictate what protocols you use within asana (static-passive, active-dynamic, static-active, etc) and where you should be focusing 80% of your energy whilst practicing.

2) Based on 1, what positions / movements do you need to focus on? Hip internal rotation? Scapular retraction? Thoracic extension?

Once you have these answers, the question isn’t so much what type of yoga should I do? but more accurately, what positions, movements and protocols should I incorporate into my asana so that I can restore and balance my body?

Obviously, the answer to this question will look slightly different to everyone because each person’s mobility/stability needs do vary slightly. The good news is, if you don’t know your answers to questions 1 and 2 yet, there’s one asana sequence that ticks roughly 80% of the boxes for mobility/stability requirements in the human body; the Sun Salutation.

A great physical foundation available in a simple system

One of the best places to begin if you’re unsure what your personal asana and restorative requirements are, is the basic Sun Salutation, or Surya Namaskar A.
The beauty of this sequence is that it is very easy to learn and it covers 80% of the body’s movements that contribute to the key 20% of joint and corporal health markers.

The spine is encouraged to move into extension and flexion. The elbows, hips, knees and ankles also flex and extend, and the shoulder joints are also encouraged to rotate in various ranges.
Although the sequence takes place mostly in the sagittal plane of motion, it is very easy to add in movements into the transverse and frontal planes, too. If your body and joints can achieve their desired ranges of motion often, especially in a simple and time-efficient manner, you have a good physical foundation from which you can build upon.

The simplicity and ubiquity of asana is compounded with its approach to using gravity as a constant. It can be used as a force which the body must create deliberate levels of tension to resist against, or it can be used to encourage deeper ranges of motion.
Asana is by no means the only option for preparing the physical body. However, in as little as 10-15 minutes a day, the Sun Salutation sequence is high up on the leaderboard for simplicity, joint health + maintenance and cost-effectiveness.

Why is it good for me, you and the world at large?

In how to create an optimal educational paradigm, we looked at why MoveMind advocates systems that can meet personal, transpersonal and global needs, and why this is important.
Here’s some reasons why we advocate asana for me, you and everyone else;

  • You need only a flat surface to engage in asana. Using a mat is ideal but at its bare bones, you don’t need anything to start.
  • Asana is free to perform.
  • No matter your physical condition, race, gender, worldly location or literacy levels, some form of asana and pranayama (breath work) can be trained.
  • When have you ever completed an asana practice and felt even more angry than when you started?
  • As civilisation progresses, levels of sedentary behaviour and sitting in chairs has increased. Asana prepares anyone’s body for long periods of sitting.
  • Surya Namaskar, sequences A+B, will tick around 80% of your mobility/stability requirements and they are both very easy to learn and adapt to your current level.
  • Science has proven that asana improves pulmonary function, builds strength and flexibility, and reduces inflammation.

How Asana restores the body to a state of equilibrium

In order for a state of equilibrium to be reached, the necessary qualities that are lacking must be restored. Most people’s bodies sit somwhere on the mobility/stability continuum. Either you’re a stiffer body that needs more mobility-based protocols, or you’re at the other end; hyper-mobile and need more stability-focused procedures. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you’ll need both.

Asana can be modified to employ the protocols that will benefit you the greatest. It’s very easy to input your desired protocol into the movements of the Sun Salutation that you need to perform the most, putting the body back in a balanced state. Not sure where you are on the mobility/stability continuum? Take the test!

Daily life puts a stress on our bodies. The invention of the chair means many of us spend hours a day staying still, compressing our spines and not venturing into our joints’ ranges of motion.

Many of the poses in asana put your body through flexion, extension and various forms of rotation. These movements rid the body of stagnant energy that builds in daily life, by lubricating the joints, stimulating blood circulation and decompressing the spine. After anywhere from 20-120 minutes of asana practice, you feel different, partly due to these reasons.

But I already have a stretching / restorative practice.
Why should I bother with asana?

Because asana is a double whammy; it aids the body and trains the mind in one hit.
The incremental and perpetual challenge upon the body from asana, stimulates the mind in such a way that it wants to rebel, give in, or be lazy and non-attentive.
The asana practice becomes about controlling the mind’s reaction to these stimuli, as well as controlling the body.

There are many systems available out there for stretching, mobility, flexibility, etc. But how many of them have a deliberate mental component to them? To date, still the most notable is asana. However, even though lots of people attend yoga classes, they still miss the mental component of asana due to lack of understanding, education or attention.

How does asana incorporate and develop the mind? In general, if your muscles are challenged with a form of resistance, you will increase your need for oxygen. Ways to do this using the Surya Namaskar sequence include; increasing the speed of the sequence, increasing the time spent holding each static position within the sequence, deliberate breathing at a set frequency throughout the sequence, etc.

The increased need for oxygen can create a sense of panic that first arises in your mind. With awareness, you can override this sensation and control the delivery of oxygen, using your will, attention and muscular contraction. You are only able to respond to the reflex of ‘breathe now!’ with a more disciplined, conscious reaction because you are not giving the thought of ‘panic!’ any colour or any weight. This is known as an element of dispassionate objectivity.
Asana will develop this element, thus developing composure in the face of panic. This is achieved in a microcosmic environment; on the yoga mat. The benefits of composure on the macrocosmic level are obvious. In day-to-day life, the skill of consciously, delibrately responding to stimuli, instead of snapping reflexively, is incredibly valuable and useful.

The emotional centre of humans is often an unconscious realm that few have conscious control over. Emotional system inefficiency creates an increase in the likelihood of emotional exhaustion, if left unchecked. Most people don’t even know emotional system inefficiency exists, let alone how to pay attention to it and how to control it. One way to learn to control it is with asana; starting with daily attempts to override the panic reflex that arises when oxygen debt builds. By controlling your breath, you reduce your reflexive, emotional dependency upon it.

Another powerful reason to bother with the Surya Namaskar sequence is that of meditation via movement. Creating a meditative state is quite simple with the Sun Salutation; you simply combine one breath with one movement. The repetition of moving with deliberate attention to breathing creates a rhythm. This rhythmic movement creates a meditative state of concentration where your focus is pulled into the present moment of pure movement and breathing alone.
For beginners interested in learning meditation and its bizarre levels of intricacy, starting with the Sun Salutation programming of one movement to one breath is a fantastic place to begin their understanding and practice.

If you’re ready to give the basic Sun Salutation a try, then check out this post where each position is broken down with appropriate cues and suggestions on how to get the most out of each posture.

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