Understanding Asana Practice in Yoga Meditation

Special yoga mats are not necessary!

Asana practice in Yoga Meditation is quite different from that of modern yoga studios. This guide to Asana practice is for those participating in Yoga Mentoring with Radhika Shah-Grouven.

The word asana is a Sanskrit word and is translated as "seat, pose". Our Tradition is a meditative Tradition and asanas were never meant to be dynamic but merely poses with little or no movement. The asanas are not the end of the practice but only an extremely small part of the practice. Static asanas are not exercises as understood by the conventional sense of the word.

The Anatomy behind Static Asanas

How can asanas with little or no movement help?

The brain and nervous system constantly sends out messages in the form of impulses to the nerve endings controlling the muscles. These impulses are carried by the motor neurons, acting like postmen delivering messages. A very active neuron might carry 40-50 nerve impulses per second to its muscle fibres, and a moderately active neuron might carry 10-20 nerve impulses per second. 

When motor neurons transmit impulses, the muscle fibre contracts, when they do not transmit any nerve impulses the muscle fibre relaxes. 

This physiological process was discovered by the yogis thousands of years ago and used to train and gain control of the nervous system.  Through experimentation they discovered that the converse also holds true: When the muscles relax the nerve impulses decreases.

So what does one do to make a muscle relax?

To relax a muscle requires only 2 simple conditions:

  • Do not move. Be still.
  • Do not fall asleep. Remain conscious.

In fact, when muscles do not move at all, the nerve impulses stop completely. 

A completely relaxed muscle such as in Savasana, the corpse pose, indicates that no nerve impulses are being carried. In this manner the yogis gain conscious control over the nervous system and some functions of the body, that science calls involuntary and reflexive.

A common misconception that still exists among biologists is that muscles continue to receive input from motor neurons at rest, however Biofeedback since the 1960’s has proven this to be incorrect. 

Dynamic versus Static Asanas

Due to the dramatic difference in the way they are practiced, dynamic asanas or physical exercise serves quite a different purpose.

The purpose of dynamic asanas is not attaining the state of Yoga. The purpose of dynamic asanas is increasing heart rate, exercising the circulatory and respiratory systems. Many modern institutions in the plains of India have integrated asanas in their exercise regime to promote public health and fitness. What is good for physical health is not necessarily suitable for Yoga Meditation. Dynamic asanas do not calm the nervous system. In fact depending on how they are practiced dynamic asanas even excite the nervous system. Dynamic asanas are not suitable for Yoga Meditation. 

Is it necessary to do asanas in Yoga Meditation?

Yes, correct asana practice is absolutely necessary for those who wish to practice Yoga Meditation because asanas:

  1. Balance the Nervous System: Asanas are an unique system of poses that calm down and balance the nervous system as a preparation for pranayama (breath and energy practices) as well as advanced states of meditation. 
  2. Facilitate Diaphragmatic Breathing: Asanas open the chest cavity and strengthen the diaphragm so that diaphragmatic breathing becomes effortless and natural even during deeper states of meditation when we start losing body awareness. 
  3. Train the correct Meditative Posture: Asanas stretch the muscles so that one can sit comfortably in a meditative pose. Poor posture during meditation will lead to discomfort and pain, which is a great obstacle that will force awareness to return to the body level. Asanas also strengthen the back for longer meditation sessions. Without a strong back it is almost impossible to sit in the correct posture for longer sessions. You may use support of the wall in the initial stages but those aspiring to higher states of meditation should have strong backs and erect posture during meditation. 
  4. Sharpen the Concentration like a Laser Beam: Besides the above reasons, one of the most important reasons to practice asanas is learning to train your awareness and focus your attention like a laser beam. The meditator first learns to withdraw his attention from all worldly objects and bring his attention to his own body, gradually moving to the layer of breath and energy, then bringing the awareness slowly to subtler aspects of mind and beyond. The entire process of Yoga Meditation takes the meditator gradually inward through the 5 layers of the yogic body. The attention is trained to gradually sharpen its focus like a laser beam from the gross to the subtle, from the large to the small, from the external to the internal.

How many asanas do we need to do in a Yoga Meditation session?

A session of asanas should contain asanas that:

  • Stretch the spine
  • Bend backward
  • Bend forward
  • Twist the spine
  • Reverse the spine
  • Relax the spine

Rather than quantity, focus on quality. Spend time on preparatory poses so that you can slowly and gradually  perfect the asana. Perfection of an asana is not like that of a circus artiste or acrobat. This perfection is not strenuous or contrived; it is natural and effortless.

Mastering Asanas: 3 Insider Tips

Imagine the muscle to be like a rubber band. When you stretch the rubber band it is very elastic.

However, once the tension is removed, the rubber band contracts immediately. 

Everyone remembers the severe muscle cramps after running a race in school or the first day at the gym. This is because the muscle contracted upon sudden stretching. This rubber band principle is known to science as the myotatic stretch reflex. 

The rubber band principle also applies when practicing asanas. Use of ropes, chairs or other props to suddenly and violently stretch the muscles, leads to contraction of the muscles. This is counterproductive making asanas strenuous and difficult. 

With exhalation the muscles in the body relax. With every exhalation relax deeper in to the posture. To make the asanas effortless and easy, stretch slowly and gently; instead of force use gravity to your advantage. 

To gain mastery in asanas:

  • Stretch slowly; avoid sudden jerky movements
  • Relax deeper into the pose with every exhalation 
  • Use gravity to your advantage

Guidelines for Asana Practice 

  1. Practice at the same time everyday. If you establish a routine, a regular pattern, the mind will be prepared to practice. You will struggle less with laziness and sluggishness. It is customary to practice 4 times a day in our Tradition; asanas is only a short part of this practice. Practice before in the morning breakfast, at midday before lunch, in the evening before dinner and at night before you go to bed. A healthy lifestyle and routine are a prerequisite. 
  2. Remember to be flexible in your routine. Touching the mat counts! Even a minute, 4 times a day is better than 3 hours on the weekend. It may be a good idea to choose one or two times in the day when you can devote a longer time for the entire practice. The other practices during the day may be short. You can use the shorter practices to strengthen weaker aspects of the practice or to do those practices that may be convenient to the circumstances. 
  3. Do not exceed your capacity. Pushing the body violently beyond its capacity not only causes injuries but also agitates the nervous system. This is a form of violence against your own body. Be gentle and loving to your body, and it will serve you well. 
  4. Alway relax and rest between poses. Let the heart rate return to normal and the breathing remain smooth and even. Dynamic asanas that flow from one in to another raise the heart rate and excite the nervous system are counterproductive to the purpose of Yoga. Yoga, the traditional way is meant to calm the nervous system. 
  5. Do not hold the breath when you rest in a pose. Breathing should be smooth, fine and without jerkiness. In our Tradition we do not hold the breath during asanas. In general, breathe out when the chest and abdominal area is compressed or twisted. Breathe in when the chest cavity expands.
  6. Keep your eyes closed whenever possible while practising asanas. This is especially important when you rest in the pose. This calms nervous system, leads the mind within and prepares for the next stage of the practice session, Pranayama.
  7. You should know the order in which you practice the asanas and all other practices by heart. Interrupting your practice to look at your list of practices, a book, an app or a website is counterproductive. 
  8. Never practice on a full stomach. This will cause indigestion, stomach pain and other related disorders. It is best to practice before meals since this also creates a nice habit pattern that is easier to follow. 
  9. Women should not practice asanas during menstruation. This is a good time for complementary practices such as Vichara or Internal Dialogue and  contemplation on profound yogic concepts found in the texts of our Tradition such as Mandukya Upanishad.

What do I need to practice asanas?

  • Wear loose comfortable clothing, preferably of natural fibre
  • If your floor is carpeted then you can practice asanas directly on the carpet. If not you may need a mat.  
  • You do not need to buy expensive Yoga mats. In India one often uses an old woollen blanket or carpet. 
  • In south India where it is very warm it is quite common to use a cane mat. 
  • Ancient texts such as the Bhagavad Gita 6.11 also mention animal skin. 
  • You may find cotton, silk and woollen shawls useful to prepare your meditation seat or to cover yourself during meditation.
  • Some meditators find a dark cotton or woollen hat useful to cover the head and eyes during meditation. 

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