Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Statics and Dynamics of Asana - June 2011 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami

Statics and Dynamics of Asana - June 2011 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami

In May 2011, I taught a 20 hour five day program at Long Island
University in New York on the subject of Patanjali's Yoga sutra. We
had a small compact group. It was a pleasure to teach the Sutras
especially to an interested  group. Jyoti Chittur had arranged the
program. She followed it up with the University from beginning to end.
She ferried me everyday from my home in New Jersey to the University
and back. The high gas prices, multiple toll booths en route, traffic
and the long distance must have cost her a small fortune. The time,
effort and strain she bore with a smile and I am beholden to her for
her great help. With her long experience as a yoga teacher she also
contributed to the discussions. Thank you very much Jyoti.

Here is letter from Claudia Azula Altucher, one of the star
participants in the program

Dear Ramaswamiji, thank you for the Workshop on the Yoga Sutras, I am
in eternal gratitude (so is James) for you showing us the way of the 8
limbs. I have a question, which you may  answer directly to me or
include in the newsletter or whatever you may feel,... it is this:
when we sit for dhyana, do you think that it is easier if we  focus on
an object instead of the breath? I ask this because I find that the
breath moves and therefore it is more fickle. I have never tried it
with an object and I wondered if you had insight on this. Thank you.

Hello Claudia: Thank you for the message. In Vinyasakrama, we use the
breath concomitantly with movements in asana practice. Then in
pranayama practice, the physical movements are stopped but during
breath holding, in conventional pranayama, usually a mantra is
silently chanted. You could see that here the element of meditation is
used even in pranayama, so that when the yogabhyasis gets into mantra
meditation the mind is already attuned to meditation. So we may say
that even though breath can be used as a focus, a mantra or an object
may be used for better results. Breath is constantly moving even as it
has the advantage of being constantly available for meditiation, you
do not have to bring it back to focus like a mantra or an external
object. The sutras tell us the various objects of prakriti to focus
on, but for a start to get the discipline, one may start with a
mantra, an icon, a chakra in the body or whatever satvic object that
suits. Sorry, long reply. Brevity is not my virtue.
Srivatsa Ramaswami

The 200 hr hour TT program in Vinyasakrama Yoga starts at LMU on June
6th. 2011.Again this year it will have a small  compact group for the
program scheduled to run for six weeks.
Contact yoga@lmu.edu Register athttp://registration.xenegrade.com/lmuextension/

  *******

Statics and Dynamics of Asana

When I was a student I had to study a course in Mathematics (or was it
Physics or Engineering?) titled, “Statics and Dynamics.” That was the
time Mathematics left me but I liked the name of the course which I am
using as the title of the article.

When I was young I used to be called “Soni Ramaswami” by many
relatives, friends and many who were not very friendly. Soni means
puny. I used to be very thin, even so I used to be very interested in
outdoor sports activities. I managed to get onto the college/ school
teams in Tennis and Cricket. In fact, I was coached for several years
by the father of the National Tennis Champion in India at the time and
the father had coached the champion. I thought I did well in spite of
a lack of the required physique and stamina. I was the college
champion in Tennis for three years and also won the district
championship for college students. My best moment was the match I
played against the All India number 3 ranked player at that time.
Barely 18, I came close to beating him. In the close match, in the
final set I could not cope with the physical demands. My coach told me
later that I had a good ball sense and talent (please bear with me on
this, old men like me need some bragging for sustenance) but with my
kind of physique and lack of stamina I had little chance of making the
grade.

Much earlier  I had started learning Yoga from my guru, Sri
Krishnamacharya. Prior to that I had learned some Yoga asanas from my
father, several people in my school and a few other teachers. In my
school the physical education teacher usually doubled as a yoga master
as well and several students were familiar with yogasanas and many
were able to do several poses like sarvangsana, padmasana, etc. I used
to do asanas randomly, no coordinated breathing, no pranayama, more
interested in the form alone.

But when I started the studies with my guru the whole picture was
different. Slow synchronous breathing, the counter-poses, the
sequencing, the adaptations, pranayama, chanting, text studies were
all new and it was  astounding studying with him.  Initially I was
continuing to engage in outdoor sports which he was aware of, but did
not ask me to choose between the two. One day he said that the
philosophy of Yoga and outdoor sports were very different. He would
say that while Yoga is considered as a sarvanga sadhana or  practice
for all parts of the body (and mind) modern sporting activities were
anga bhanga sadhana as they affect different parts of the body
differently producing disequilibrium and asymmetry. I remembered at
that time I came across a story in a sports magazine about the left
wrist of Rod Laver an outstanding Australian Tennis player. It was
said that the wrist size of his playing left hand was twice as large
as the right one. Sri Krishnamacharya also used to say very
interesting things during the rest pauses between different asanas and
sequences.  Once he said that the Yogi should be thin or krisa.  One
should not be overweight

Overweight is bad
Lean (muscle) or fat.

Carelessly deveoped fat bellies and cultivated oversized biceps one
should guard against. It suited me as I refused to put on weight when
I was a young adult. After I became a senior citizen, of course I
started putting on weight growing sidewards.

He also emphasized individual home practice. Merely studying with the
teacher may not be sufficient. Regular comprehensive practice was
emphasized. He would quote the following sloka

anabhyase visa ham vidya
ajirne bhojanam visham
Visham sabha daridrasya
Vridhddhasys taruni visham

Knowledge without practice (application) is toxic. Food during
indigestion is poison. Partying is poison(ruinous) to the poor, while
to the old a young spouse is disaster indeed.


By then I had a copy of his Yoga Makaranda, the Tamil version.
Fortunately this book, a treasure of information and instructions for
everyone who wants to know the Krishnamacharya system is now at
everybody’s fingertips, literally. Yes you can click the following
link
Download Kriahnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda
with your fingertips and the whole text faithfully translated into
English will pop up.

Modern day yoga asana practice follows two different streams. There
are old schools which teach different asanas and require the
participants to stay in the pose for a long time, no appreciable
movements or breathing but just stay in the pose for a long time. They
emphasis the steadiness definition of yoga  even though many find long
stay in the poses painful and boring.  There is no 'sukha' in it. Then
there is another stream, more modern, in which the asana practice is a
continuous flow of movements like a train going at breakneck speed not
stopping and looking at at any of the beautiful stations and places
called asanas in between. A set of regimented  routines on a graded
scale of difficulty is done at a hurried pace without coordination
with slow breathing day in and day out.

In the Yoga Makaranda of   Krishnamacharya and the way I learnt Yoga
from my Guru, the asanas are described in two perspectives. The book
contains  pictures of a number of asanas. Krishnamacharya also in most
cases mentions that one should stay in these poses for a long time:
Chaturanga dandasana (10mts), Adhomukhasvanasana (15mts),
Urdhwamukhaswanasana(15 mts) Mahamudra/Janusirsasana (15 mts),
sarvangasana (niralamba)10mts, etc. It is clear that many of the
static poses require time to confer the intended benefits to the
abhyasi. He also details the benefits that accrue from the long stay
in these classic poses.

One  also finds that Krishnamacharya has described in the  Makranda a
number of Vinyasas  leading to an asana and then the return sequence.
These are not illustrated though. It it is gratifying to know that
Yoga Makaranda’s English version published by Krishnamacharya yoga
Mandiram has sketches to illustrate most of the Vinyasas which along
with the beautiful asana pictures of Krishnamacharya makes it a very
useful companion to understand the Krishnamacharya system of asana
practice. Further the required breathing also is described in the
Makaranda, whether a particular movement is to be done on inhalation
or exhalation or occasionally holding the breath. However the book
does not contain the several vinyasas done in the asanas or ‘in situ’
vinyasas mainly because the book is a small one. He has though
mentioned that several of the asanas like sarvangasana, sirsasana,
padmasana, etc. have a number of vinyasas emanating from the basic
poses. These vinyasas, as many and as varied as possible, should be
done. These vinyasas make the system of yoga a sarvanga sadhana as my
Guru mentions in the Makaranda.  In my book  ' Complete  book of
vinyasa yoga', I have attempted to include almost the complete range
of vinyasas in all the major asanas as I had learnt frm my guru. When
one exercises the body with deep vinyasas one is able to squeeze as
much of the venous blood as possible from the various tissues and thus
enhance the muscle pump effect. Then the deep associated breathing
used in Krishnamacharya’s system helps to enhance the respiratory
suction pump effect on the heart thereby increasing the rakta sanchara
or blood circulation especially the venous blood return  to the heart.
More and more  vinyasas help to stretch the blood vessels as well
keeping them more elastic.

The practice of vinyasas itself is made very interesting by my Guru.
Each expansive vinyasa would be done on slow ujjayi inhalation and
every contraction movement would be done on slow smooth exhalation.
What should be the length of the inhalation and exhalation as compared
to our normal breathing of about 2 seconds of inhalation and 2 seconds
of exhalation? He would ask us to take a slow inhalation, say about 5
seconds  and another 5 seconds for exhalation. It is the minimum. One
could slowly increase the time for inhalation from 5 to 6 and even up
to 10 or twelve seconds. The vinyasas were never done at the breakneck
speed with which they are done these days. The slower the movements
the better and more beneficial it is. A rate of five to six breaths
per minute in vinyasakrama is in order. At this rate the
suryanamaskara  routine of 12  Vinyasas would take about 2 to 3
minutes. By studying Yoga with him one could realize  how different
Yoga is from workouts, aerobics, outdoor sport activities and even
fast paced Yoga where
the slow, mindful breathing is compromised.

So Sri Krishnamacharya’s system of asana practice, as evident from the
Makaranda and also from how I have studied with him,  is a judicious
combination of dynamic Vinyasas and  classic asanas. Vinyasas also
help to achieve perfection in poses. A few years ago when I was
conducting  the teacher training program, we went through the entire
gamut of  vinyasas centered around Padmasana. We continued the
practice for several days gradually adding more and more vinyasas.
Then we did a number of movements staying in Padmasana. At the end of
it all, a participant came to me and said that it was the first time
he could do padmasana even though he was a yoga practitioner for more
than ten years. The quality of his padmasana improved  day by day as
he started practicing more and more vinyasas in padmasana which all
helped to make the final posture more secure.  And he could stay in
the posture for a longer period of time, say 10 or 15 mts, as Sri
Krishnamacharya would want the abhyasis to be able to do.

How can one stay in postures like paschimatanasana, sarvangasana,
sirsasana, etc. for 10 to 15 mts or even 30 mts as some yogabhyasis
do? Will it not be painful, won’t the limbs go to sleep and what about
the mind, does it not get bored?  It will be interesting to know the
way Sri Krishnamacharya taught Sarvangasana to me. First do the
preliminary poses like desk pose, apanasana and urdwa prasarita pada
hastasana, slowly with the appropriate breathing. Then get into the
more relaxed viparitakarani position. Keep the legs relaxed -even
limp- for a while watching the unhurried  breathing. Then come down.
Do it  for a few days and then after getting into the viparitakarani
position straighten the body, support the back behind the ribcage with
the palms placed close to each other. Stay for a few minutes, come
down, do an appropriate counterpose and do the routine a few more
times for a total of about 10 minutes. From then on try to increase
the duration of stay in the pose until you are able to stay for 10 mts
in one try. After a few days of comfortable steady stay in
sarvangasana, increase the stay to about 15 minutes the ideal duration
in sarvangasana. Now start concentrating on the breath. Your
inhalation can be short say 3 seconds or so in this pose as the
inhalation is a bit more difficult because of the cramped nature of
the chest. But one can have a very long exhalation. After a few days
practice try to introduce the bandhas as you start your slow
exhalation. Start drawing in the rectum and the abdomen in tandem  as
you exhale finishing the exhalation with mulabandha and uddiyana
bandha in place. Hold the breath out and maintain the bandhas for
about 5 seconds. Then release the bandhas and start the next slow
inhalation

After a few days practice count the number of breaths that you take
for the entire duration of your stay in the posture. Then try to
reduce the number of breaths you take for the same 15 minutes stay.
The aim is to reduce this number until you reach a steady state that
you can maintain consistently. There are people who are able to
maintain a breath rate of about 4, 3, 2, or even one breath per minute
staying in a static yoga posture as sarvangasana.  It is better to
learn these procedures from a teacher.

Many years back I used to teach in Houston for several weeks at a
time. It was a time when asanas like sarvangasana  and pranayama were
taboo and padmasana was a dreaded asana. I tried to encourage the
class to practice sarvangasana, learning it an orderly fashion through
preparatory Vinyasas and finally the posture. It took a while and then
the participants were encouraged to try to stay in the asana for a
while doing slow smooth breathing. They were able to stay for longer
and longer duration and towards the end of the program more than half
of the class could stay for the full fifteen minutes maintaining at
best a breath rate of  3 or 4 per minute. In my teacher training
programs the participants are encouraged to develop endurance to stay
in some of the important poses like the inversions, paschimatanasana,
mahamudra, etc. even as they learn several hundred Vinyasas in the
course.

Further while asanas are a necessary routine for a yogabhyasi it is
not sufficient. A well rounded yoga practice should contain other
angas of yoga like pranayama because they between them help to reduce
the systemic excess of rajas and tamas.
Day’s yoga practice should consist of a proper combination of dynamic
vinyasas and static asanas.  Add a stint of pranayama practice and
some meditation or chanting, and you have a wholesome daily yoga
practice.

Sincerely
Srivatsa Ramaswami


The earlier Newsletters containing articles can be accessed from my
website www.vinyasakrama.com and clicking the Newsletter tab. Comments
and suggestions may please be sent to info@vinyasakrama.com

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