Have you ever taken a yoga class that was far beyond your level or capacity? There were no options given other than to keep ‘pushing through’? Chances are you felt very little steadiness or much feeling of accomplishment – and maybe even exhaustion at the end. You may even know someone who had such a bad experience in a class like this that they never went back to yoga!
This type of purely physical yoga practice is referred to as ‘anga bangha’. Essentially movement is being isolated to one part of the body without considering the whole and the steps to actually teaching the postures ie. placing the body well, setting foundation and incorporating breath are all missing. Any internal awareness with self (pratyahara)is a long way off.
There are many reasons why this type of yoga practice isn’t sustainable long term physically and often prevents us from forming deeper self-connection and greater inner awareness that are the true gifts of yoga.
- Sympathetic Activation. Our nervous system is already under a barrage of pressures in daily life. Most of us step into the yoga space already scattered, needing some kind of reprieve from what our day has thrown at us. If we continue to run on adrenaline in the class, push our body to the limit and work beyond what feels ok we start to deplete our system and remain in the flight or flight mode that we are probably living with anyway. ‘Keeping Up’ is the greatest fallacy of modern society. Yoga class is the chance to step out in order to step back in. It is a break from our external life and the ground work for cultivating space to deeper self awareness. Ten minutes of savasana at the end of class is probably barely touching the sides of the relaxation response our body needs to start feeling at ease and to begin healing on deeper levels.
- Individual Starting Point. We all have one of these. And every day is different. Does the class honour that space you have come from and create transition to the one you are stepping into? Or are you expected to keep up with the teacher’s capacity? For example, the hormonal states of women can often affect how we feel on a given day. It may not be the day to be pushing the body too far. If we step into a practice that creates expectation to keep up we are not honouring that place in our self from which we grow and understand more deeply. In fact we start to create a pattern (samskara) that prevents this growth from being possible.
- Movement versus Stability. Our bodies need to be stable as we grow older but if we keep forsaking that for extra flexibility or maximum movement we create patterns that will cause future problems. There is a whole stream of medical specialists who benefit from the mis-use and gradual ageing of our body – replacing knees, hips and shoulders because our patterning over time has created instability. In yoga class. continual low lunging plus twisting might aggravate the SIJ (sacroiliac joint) or knees. Constant pressure in the shoulder joints from plank-like poses may create weakness if we are not aware of the supporting muscles that need to be strong. Are all these muscles being catered for in the class? These are just 2 common injuries seen when yoga is done without mindfulness or knowledge of creating correct stability. Each yoga pose has an intelligence that creates an effect in the body. If we are not finding correct structure in the pose we may not be receiving the true benefits.
- The Breath. The breath honours the asana. In the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga), breath is up there at number 4, right after asana and the yamas / niyamas. Not just our normal breath – but conscious regulation of breath. Does the teacher mention the breath other than reminding you to breathe? The myriad of benefits to breathing correctly (in and out of yoga class) are one of the main assets of the practice. It supports us through bathing the different systems of the body with oxygen, assisting blood flow and respiratory capacity, creating internal space and building strength in the musculature of the torso so that we can accomplish yoga postures more efficiently! Movement without breath awareness is only half the journey.
- Becoming Present. One of the true benefits of yoga is what happens outside the practice. That one-pointed focus that is developed through deeper practices like pranayama (breath techniques) and bhavana (visualisation) carries through into our daytime activities. Can we focus more efficiently at work, feel more equanimity with our emotions or focus on tasks we need to accomplish in our day? We don’t receive the benefits of this aspect of practice if our focus is on just ‘getting through’ the physical class. In fact any disturbance to the outer layer (body) can become a focal point of suffering. This will distract us from the inward journey the practice can offer.
Although this might be a fleeting experience for us in yoga class its benefit is the real gold of the practice. And it is through a combination of elements that we achieve it. Right placement of body, steadiness without discomfort, connection to breath and letting go of the results of all that we are engaged in. And then rest. The combined richness of all these focuses is yoga. And the more we practice, the more focus we create.
The physical practice is a stepping stone to something much more fulfilling and of greater benefit if we can find a class that supports us. Be curious – and search for the right practice.
Written by Jill Harris and published on kyoyoga.com.au/the-importance-of-foundation-in-yoga-practice/