What Is A Yogi? (And How Do I Become One)- Part Four: Asana

The third limb of yoga is Asana which translates to posture. This is what most people think of when they hear the word yoga. Basically, asanas are what you see all over my (and many others) Instagram. πŸ™‚ Β So, asana is the physical practice of yoga. The purpose of these postures is to build a steadiness of body and mind, and they are known to develop agility, balance, endurance and vitality in the body. One of the best things about yoga asana is that you don’t really need anything to practice it. It’s a great physical activity that can be done anywhere at anytime, no equipment needed. A yoga mat can be helpful, but it is not necessary. And the only weights needed are the weight of your own limbs, which also reduces risk of injury.

Yoga asana has been developed and tweaked for centuries resulting in an array of postures that will work every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. Yoga asanas are not meant just to build muscle or lose weight, they can also increase flexibility, reduce fatigue, soothe the nervous system, activate digestion, and maybe most importantly, they can discipline the mind. This may be what sets yoga apart from other physical activities. Yogis absolutely don’t ignore the body, but they tend to put more importance on the mind, the senses, the intellect, and the soul. But they use the body to access and discipline these parts of themselves. The goal of yoga asana is to conquer the body in order to make it a β€œfit vehicle” for the soul, and to maintain a healthy body so as to live out their true purpose for being on this Earth.

The more you practice yoga, the more postures you will learn, and you will begin to realize that a lot of yoga postures are named after animals. This was not a coincidence. The names of all the asanas are very significant and have a purpose. You will notice that the postures are named after all kinds of living things. Plants, insects, sea creatures, birds, mammals, amphibians. Some postures are even named after legendary heroes. The postures often resemble the animal of which they are named, but also the purpose for these types of names is to reiterate the idea that a yogi should not despise any creature. So, when a yogi is in a posture, for example, scorpion, she is in a way transforming herself and her body into that creature, and she is reminded that she and scorpions are one in the same. We all share the same universal spirit, which brings us back to ahimsa (non-violence in thought, word, or deed toward any living creature). The yogi β€œfinds unity in universality.” (Light on Yoga). Translation: same same, but different. πŸ™‚ (And if any of that is too far-fetched for you, that’s okay, too. Take what works for you and leave what doesn’t. I encourage you to keep an open mind, but it’s also okay to just see the name of a pose as the name of a pose, and leave it at that. Don’t let some of the spiritual talk dissuade you from a yoga practice. Yoga is whatever you want it to be.) In short, the body is used for a vehicle of change, helping to develop discipline of the mind assisting the yogi in following the yamas and niyamas.

As part of this introduction to yoga asana, I thought I’d break down a sequence of postures. The first sequence I’ve ever practiced personally was Sun Salutation A, so I thought that’d be a perfect place to start. Sun Salutations are an energizing sequence of poses that activate all muscle groups of the body. They are sometimes referred to as the β€œcardio of yoga,” and they are very focused on the body/breath relationship, so each posture of this sequence coordinates with either an inhale or an exhale. Sun Salutations were originally meant as a sort of worship of the sun. Ancient yogis believed that the sun from the sky is deeply connected to our inner sun or our spiritual heart. So, this sequence was created as a form of gratitude, and it’s a great way to start your day or warm up for any type of exercise, reminding you to stay grateful throughout your day and your life.

So, let’s get started and practice some yoga! I’m going to break down each posture, showing modifications for beginners and certain areas of the body to focus on, then we will combine them all into the full sequence. (You’ll notice that the postures all have an English name with their Sanskrit name in parentheses. The more you practice, the more you will become familiar with the Sanskrit terms, but for now, it’s totally fine to only learn the English names.)

1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana) – We will begin and end the sequence in this pose. It may look like you are just standing here, but your body should actually be very active. Root strongly into the balls and heels of your feet; your toes can be light. Once you get your balance down a bit, you should be able to lift all ten toes from the mat. Activate your legs, squeezing all the muscles. Tuck your tailbone towards the ground so that your pelvis is directly under your center. Suck your belly up and in towards your spine. Your arms can be down at your sides, with the palms facing the front of the room, or your palms can be pressed together in prayer position at your heart.Β Your shoulder blades should be relaxed down your back, so squeeze your shoulders up to your ears, roll them back and down, squeezing your shoulder blades together. This allows your chest to be open, with your collar bone shining up and out. Make sure to standΒ super tall with the crown of your head reaching toward the ceiling. Relax the muscles of your face and jaw. Overall, the back of your body should be grounding down while the front of your body is lifting toward the sky. This is mountain pose.

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2. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana): INHALE – Reach your arms to the sky, and bring your palms to touch over head. Look up toward your hands. You might take a slight backbend here (as shown in the 2nd picture below Β – this is not necessary if it doesn’t feel good in your body).

 

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3. Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana): EXHALE – Dive forward, tracing your palms through your midline, bending your knees. Let your torso hang toward the floor. Your head and neck should be relaxed. Your knees can be bent as much as you need to be comfortable. Your hands can rest gently on the mat or wherever they are the most comfortable.

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Beginner Option – Bend knees generously. Rest your belly on the tops of your thighs.
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More Advanced Option – Straighten legs without locking your knees. Pull yourself closer to your legs by wrapping hands to the back of the ankles.

4. Halfway Lift (Ardha Uttanasana): INHALE – Straighten your spine by reaching the crown of your head toward the front of the room, gazing straight down at the floor. The line from the crown of your head to the tip of your tailbone should be very straight here. Your belly should be sucked up and in to support your lower back. Hands can be on the thighs, shins, or mat here, whatever feels best for you. Your shoulder blades should be squeezing together, almost as if you are trying to pull your chest forward. Straighten your legs, but keep your knees soft, and shine your tailbone toward the back of the room.

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*EXHALE – plant your palms on the mat on the outside of your feet. *

5. Plank Pose (Kumbhakasana): INHALE – Step (or hop) back into a plank pose or the top of a push-up. Your entire body should be strong and activated here. Your shoulders should be directly over your wrists. Don’t let your body sink into your bones here. Press up and out of your hands. Shoulder blades should be wide. Gaze straight down. Belly sucked up and into the spine. Tailbone should be tucked toward the heels (we don’t want the back to be arched here). Leg muscles activated. Heels should be reaching toward the back of the room. (If this pose is too much, you can come down to the knees.)

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6. Lower to belly or Low Pushup (Chaturanga Dandasana): EXHALE – The traditional pose here is to lower into a low push-up or chaturanga. However, this takes strength and you will most likely have to build up to it. Options for beginners are to lower slowly all the way to the belly or to lower your knees for a modified chaturanga.

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Lower all the way to the belly, flipping your toes so that you are resting on the tops of your feet.
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Chaturanga. You will shift your body slightly forward so that your shoulders are a couple inches in front of your wrists. As you slowly lower down, keep a straight spine as you squeeze your elbows in toward each other so that your inner arms graze your rib cage. You will stop and hover when you have lowered half-way down. The line between your shoulders and elbows should be parallel to the floor, and your elbows should be bent at a 90 degree angle.

7. Cobra (Bhujangasana) or Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana): INHALE – The traditional pose here is upward-facing dog. However, if you are lowering to the belly, you will transition into baby cobra or cobra. If you are doing chaturanga, you will pull the chest through and flip the toes for upward-facing dog.

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Baby cobra. Press your palms into the mat and take a very gently backbend here. Keep your gaze down to keep a neutral neck. Press the pelvis and the tops of the feet into the mat.
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Cobra. Press into your palms until your arms are more fully extended. This will be a little bit of a deeper backbend. Gaze can be forward here. Tailbone should be tucked toward the heels, with the pelvis pressing down into the mat. Try to press the pelvis down without clenching the butt muscles. Press the top of the feet down into the matt.
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Upward-Facing Dog. Press strongly into the palms and tops of the feet so that your thighs and shins lift off the ground. Your leg muscles should be strongly engaged here. Your shoulders should be directly over your wrists. Chest open. Your gaze can be forward or straight up if it’s okay on your neck.

8. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana): EXHALE– If you are in baby cobra or cobra, you are going to release back onto your belly, push up to your hands and knees (tabletop position)Β and lift your hips up and back into downward-facing dog. If you are in upward-facing dog, you will use your core to press into the palms, roll over the toes, and lift your hips up and back into downward-facing dog.

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For beginners, you will most likely need to keep the knees bent and the heels raised. It’s important to keep the spine strong and as straight as possible with the tailbone tilting toward the ceiling. The head should be relaxed, gaze should be between the toes. Pressing out of the palms here. The shoulders should be rolling away from the ears. Belly should be sucked up and in, and the toes can point slightly inward toward each other. This will encourage the inner thighs to rotate in and upward toward the ceiling.
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Eventually, you can work toward straightening the legs and resting your heels on the mat. (Don’t worry if your downward dog doesn’t look like this right away. This pose takes awhile to feel comfortable. Practice practice practice. For me, it helped to take pictures or videos of myself in these poses to see what my alignment looked like, then I would adjust accordingly. Don’t get frustrated. It’s called a yoga “practice” for a reason. πŸ™‚ )

*Stay in downward-facing dog for 3-5 full breaths, then look forward and step to your hands. (If it takes more than one step, that’s totally okay.)

9. Halfway Lift (Ardha Uttanasana): INHALE
10. Standing Forward Fold (Uttanasana): EXHALE
11. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana): INHALE
12. Mountain Pose (Tadasana): EXHALE – Bring your hands to your heart, and prepare to do the sequence again. πŸ™‚

Below, I’ve posted a YouTube link to a short video where I go through the above postures. I go through the entire sequence four times, each time showing different options moving from beginner to more advanced. Feel free to stick with whatever options work best for you throughout the entire video (lower to belly rather than chaturanga and/or cobra instead of upward-facing dog). And always, always listen to your body. If a pose is hurting you, back off a bit. Also, please keep in mind that this is my first attempt at an instructional video and my first ever voice over, so I apologize for any bumps along the way. Practice makes progress. For all of us. πŸ™‚ I plan on making a lot more instructional videos in the future, so if you have any video requests, send me an email!

Sun Salutation A (click the link to view the video on YouTube. I apologize for the not-so-great video quality. Still learning. πŸ™‚ Any feedback is very much appreciated!)

Thank you so much for reading and for practicing with me. As always, please email me if you have ANY questions regarding asanas in general or any of the poses I’ve gone over today (nicol.eliz.yoga@gmail.com). I hope you enjoy the video, and I hope you get something out of it! If you share any yoga pictures or videos on Instagram or Facebook, use the hashtag #NamasteWithNicky so we can all share our yoga journey together! Above all, never EVER compare your yoga journey to anyone else’s. We all have different bodies, so our yoga is going to look different. We’re also all on different points in our journey. But no matter where you are today, yoga is there to meet you. And so am I! So please reach out. I would love to help you ease into this practice. It has changed my life, and I want to help you discover that same type of change.

Stay tuned for my next post on the fourth limb of yoga, Pranayama.

Namaste, my friends!

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