(First published 28/7/2008)
Over the last few months I have introduced hatha yoga and its eight limbs or parts, with the aim of presenting an overview of yoga and hatha yoga.
In the next chapters I intend to focus on various parts of yoga: returning in this chapter to hatha yoga’s third limb – asana (yoga postures).
Classic yoga asanas can be divided into seven parts: standing, sitting, forward bends, twists, inversions, back bends and reclining asanas.
It is recommended to incorporate all of these types of asanas in a daily/regular practice – with the possible exception of inversions, which might be too difficult for some people (please note, some postures need to be modified or skipped depending upon medical conditions).
By doing this the practitioner will have covered/touched most parts of the body and mind in their practice and would feel the benefits.
Standing asanas can be regarded as the foundation of a yoga practice. Standing postures strengthen the leg muscles and joints, and at the same time they increase strength and suppleness in the spine – adding to core strength overall.
It is useful to begin your daily practice with standing postures (perhaps after a sun salutation warm-up), and for a beginner it is advisable to focus on learning standing postures, as learning these postures would help you to learn the other types of postures, such as forward bends.
Sitting asanas help to bring elasticity to the hips, knees, ankles, and groin muscles. They help to open up the hip area, which according to some experts, is the power house of the body. According to Iyengar these poses “remove tension and hardness in the diaphram and throat, making breathing smoother and easier.”
Forward bends help to squeeze the abdominal organs, which help to make them relax, this in turn helps to rest the sympathetic nervous system, bringing down the pulse rate and blood pressure. These postures also regulate the flow of blood to the brain, thereby cooling the frontal brain. Overall these postures help to rest the senses and reduce stress. Forward bends also strengthen the paraspinal muscles, inter-vertebral joints and ligaments, plus they help improve flexibility in the legs muscles and hips.
Twists are beneficial for the spine and the internal body (including the organs). In twists, the pelvic and abdominal organs are squeezed and flushed with blood – stimulating their activity and improving their vitality. Twists also relieve spinal, hip and groin disorders, while at same time help improve suppleness of the diaphragm. With regards to the spine itself, these postures improve its flexibility, improves blood flow and helps to increase energy levels overall.
Inversions, although challenging, offer numerous benefits to the health of your body and mind. According to the text Hatha Yoga Pradapika, the shoulder stand is regarded as the queen of asanas while the head stand is the king of asanas. By being inverted the heart, which normally works hard pumping blood to the head, now has a chance to relax while more blood than usual flows freely to the head. The hips, legs and adnominal organs “dry up” while in the inversion, giving them a chance to have a “flush”.
Back bends stimulate the nervous system and increase its ability to bear stress. They help to reduce stress levels, tension and nervous exhaustion. These postures tend to stimulate a more out-going feeling, by “opening up the chest to the world”. They stimulate and energise the body and mind, which is a good way of over-coming lethargy and depression. The internal organs such as liver and spleen benefit from these postures.
Reclining postures are the restful and soothing positions that can refresh both body and mind. They can be done at the start and end of a general yoga practice, or they can be practised exclusively in order to cater for your needs at the time, for example, recovering from sickness or exhaustion, or other such situations.
In general, I recommend to combine yoga classes (either at my group classes or private one-to-one classes) with some self-practice. Practising by yourself regularly will help you to learn more about yourself and thereby get a deeper experience.
The seven parts listed above will give you a template or skeleton to work with, depending upon your level of experience and your health needs (please note, some postures need to be modified or skipped depending upon medical conditions).