Asana (physical posture with a focused state of mind) and Pranayama (life force - energy/breath - expansion & control) are part of the eight limbs of Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga. Relating to Raja Yoga, asana refers to the established sitting posture for higher pranayama and meditation. Here the asana and scriptural meanings are relating to the physical practice of many postures as a preparation for Raja Yoga.
The Sanskrit term Vinyasa (when referring to an asana practice) means linking movements with the breath. Traditionally, for classical yoga with respect to yogasanas, the scriptures state the asana should be practiced with vinyasa. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali give guidelines (these are basic translations as Sanskrit cannot be translated to a single term - it has many layers and it also depends on the context and practice) to practice with sthira (steadiness), sukha (comfort), and prayatna shaithilya - ease into effortlessly (smooth and long breaths) ananta samapatti (engrossment in infinitude) - the mind focused on the breath, transitioning to a sense of ease that takes over and the mind is relaxed as the synchronized movements become second nature. The ujjayi breath (mindful, willful throat breathing -"victorious" or "psychic breath") is traditionally used in vinyasa and many yogic practices as it - allows us to guide and control the length and quality of the breath, cultivates and directs the prana, increases the pressure of air in the lungs allowing us to breath more effectively - enabling more oxygen to the cells in the lungs. Increased oxygen transfer in the lungs promotes blood flow in the body even in a relaxed state. Ujjayi breathing stimulates the vagus nerve which controls the parasympathetic nervous system promoting parasympathetic dominance. As the rhythmic breath informs the nervous system it calms the mind and effects our psychic state. The contraction in the throat during ujjayi effects the carotid sinuses that regulate blood pressure - lowering blood pressure, reducing tension and slowing down mind chatter.
To practice vinyasa (and ujjayi) correctly one should not have short or shallow breathing, be panting and losing breath control or straining and uncomfortable in postures (contrary to modern vinyasa that has become aerobic, traditionally the heart rate is not supposed to increase during yogic practices). The breath must be conscious and deliberate, remaining long, smooth and controlled (with ease-although when beginning it may take more effort) with a pause after each inhalation and exhalation. The inhales and exhales remain at a uniform rate (when holding certain postures a longer exhale may be emphasized). The mindful movements are matched precisely to the breath (Inhale with Movement - Pause/Stillness - Exhale with Movement - Pause/Stillness-----When holding a posture the same applies as we are moving into a deeper stretch). The ujjayi (throated breath) makes a hissing sound and is not a shallow chest or nasal breath, it is deep in the belly. Eventually the practitioner can barely feel the breath under the nose. The advanced yogi strives to take fewer breaths per minute, practices with grace and ease, and has the mind fully concentrated on the breath. It is also very important to practice vinyasas in correct sequence or krama as transmitted via lineage for proper distribution of prana into the sinuous musculature of the body and the throughout the internal organs.
The bandhas (energy locks/gates) - mula (root), uddiyana (abdominal) and jalandhara (chin) bandha are important tools that control - contain and direct the energy flow (prana), create stability in postures, tone the neck -abdominal-pelvic floor muscles, stimulate the thyroid, stretch the spine, cleanse out toxins, improve digestion and strengthen the nervous, circulatory, respiratory and endocrine systems. In inversion postures the use of the uddiyana bandha is said to massage the heart.
Along with ujjayi in vinyasa, morning kriyas and seated pranayama practices play an essential role in purifying the energy channels (nadis), oxygenating the blood, increasing blood flow to the brain, calming the mind and nervous system, cultivating and channeling prana (energy/life force), cleansing toxins and helping digestion. Pranayama brings us into higher states of consciousness.
Yogic breathing establishes an interface between conscious and subconscious mind through the vagus nerve and reticular activating system (RAS) - which can influence control over heart rate, digestion, blood pressure, etc. The RAS is a network of nerve pathways in the brainstem connecting the spinal cord, cerebrum, and cerebellum that controls our consciousness and is a trigger for other parts of the brain. As we make the autonomic breath voluntary we also can voluntarily affect the RAS.
Due to the mechanics of respiration, when we consciously breath during our vinyasa practice we are spreading prana throughout the body and this consciousness permeates down to the cellular level. Our asana practice is not only creating a strong, healthy, supple body and massaging our internal organs, but also improving the flow of our energetic system and effecting us on subtler levels. Vinyasa enhances our capacity to cultivate this prana due to strengthening the muscles of respiration. The main muscles of respiration are our diaphram and intercostal muscles along with accessory muscles in the neck, limb girdles and abdomen.
Concentration on the breath links the body and the mind. The breath is linked to the prana (life force). When the quality of our ujjayi is perfected as long and smooth - as we precisely synchronize the SLOW movements to the breath with full concentration on the breath through a predetermined order (krama) of postures - we tap into our higher consciousness through the pranic energy. Conscious, optimal ujjayi breath control through asana on a physical level improves circulation, oxygenates the blood, tissues and muscles, and calms the mind; on a subtle level prana moves through and cleanses the nadis affecting our state of being. Conscious willful breath in asana promotes physical vitality as well as helps unlock our inner wisdom.
Healthy diet and lifestyle choices are essential. Specific ayurvedic diets support our bodies to receive and maintain the benefits of the practice. Choosing an organic and untampered with, high pranic, nonviolent, doshic appropriate diet with limited processed food is recommended. For discipline meditators or anyone who wishes to maintain a yogic lifestyle, a sattvic diet is best. Our food is medicine and effects us on subtle levels. Creating a lifestyle that is healthy, surrounded by people that support our endeavors and environments that are uplifting is most favorable - being aware of the impressions that we take in through our senses as they create a strong imprint on us.
Chanting, meditation, and yoga philosophy/scriptural study are necessary when practicing the vinyasa system, as vinyasa is not meant to stand alone, nor is it a complete system of yoga. They will also enrich our vinyasa practice adding more depth, and ignite a deeper connection and understanding of one's self. Traditionally, asana, pranayama and other physical cleanses are practiced to relieve bodily and mind disturbances, promote a healthy body that prepares and supports us for higher pranayama and meditation disciplines. Yoga Nidra is also a beneficial practice as is it one of the best ways to remove emotional disturbances that can get in the way of our other practices.
The most important aspect of an asana practice is uniting the body-mind connection with proper breathing and concentration on the breath. While learning postures and getting comfortable in the practice, it may not flow so smooth at first, but eventually after dedication our practice becomes smooth and graceful. This takes time and patience - remembering as we establish our practice - we receive the most health, therapeutic and spiritual benefits when we consciously breath.
Whether we are practicing asana, meditation, bhakti (devotion), mantra, scriptural study, or karma yoga - yoga is an inward journey of connecting our body, mind, and spirit - and eventually transcending our identification from body consciousness to soul consciousness. Self Inquiry/Self Knowledge.
My teaching strives to stay aligned with the traditional philosophy of approaching an asana based yoga practice. My intention is to offer instruction that emphasizes the meditative quality and subtle energies of a traditional vinyasa practice, that when understood and embodied, the practitioner can tangibly experience the profound effects of a pranic practice. Ultimately, inspiring others to take their practice home, be absorbed in the breath, and delve deeper into the inner discoveries that arise in a personal practice.
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