Yoga, yoga asana and the art of relaxing!

It has been some time since I wrote a post on yoga and other forms of meditation. See here. While meditation is hard enough, relaxing is an art and a difficult one too! Yoga asanas (poses) and pranayama (breathing exercises) presumably help you to relax.

Yoga is what I really enjoy, even when the classes are held online as it is now due to the pandemic. People tell me that since I have been doing yoga for decades I can just do it by myself and do not need to attend classes. Theoretically, yes I can. But practically, it never happens. Even if it does, my mind will trick me into doing a quick 10-15 minute fixed set of yoga exercises and convince me that I have done enough for the day! Our teacher is a young, dynamic, friendly and always has a smile on her face while she coaxes us to try, try and not over-exert ourselves! You can do it, yes you can!

There are many forms of yoga. What we practice is Hath Yoga, ‘Hath Yoga is a branch of yoga which emphasizes physical exercise and some pranayama and mental exercise to detach oneself from the immediate’. Only a real yogi with years of practice can really detach herself from what is around. One of the finer arts of yoga is meditation, that is to be able to keep the mind free of thought and keep it from flitting. One way to practice a form of concentration, the beginning of meditation, is to focus on your breathing while doing the yoga asanas. If nothing else, this surely helps in relaxing! That is why they say ‘take a deep breath’ when you are agitated. As our teacher tells us ‘अपने आप में रहना है’, ‘Be yourself or remain within yourself’! Easier said than done. But I definitely think this is a way to relax and if you can manage this for the most part of the hour long yoga session you will come out in a sort of trance! The trick is to keep your eyes closed most of the time and concentrate on breathing.

A friend, Barin Das, who engages in glazed pottery, had these pictures of his unfinished version of ‘ॐ‘, ‘OM’. This is what we look like when we begin yoga. And the next piece of unfinished pottery version of  is when we have learnt some of the asana and begun to appreciate yoga and to enjoy it!

Yogi in the making ॐ ‘OM’. Credits: Barin Das’s pottery
Unpolished yogi! Getting there! ॐ Credits: Barin Das’s pottery

So what is this  ? It is a chant, ‘mantra’, that is a word or a sound repeated several times or chanted to aid concentration in meditation. , OM, is generally chanted thrice in the beginning and end of the yoga session. Three times apparently symbolizes the three worlds or stages of the soul, the past, present and future. The teacher tells us to concentrate on our breathing, some symbol, idol or person that you value most, or simply focus on the center of the eyebrows, the ‘third eye chakra’ that I describe below.

We visited the Vivekananda Rock in Kanya Kumari, the southern most tip of India, a memorial to Swami Vivekananda, a long time ago. Besides the crossing to the island in a boat and fascinating scenery of the island in the Indian Ocean, what I remember is the meditation chamber built in the Rock. It is a little hall below the main rock. Just go in there silently and listen to the chanting of   for a while. I forgot everything else and focused on the greenish-bluish image of  on the wall! It was a very long time ago, in fact before I started doing yoga seriously. But that image of  remains with me and helps me to concentrate, ‘meditate’ to the extent possible, every time I chant  !!

In yoga the concentration is on seven chakras that are the energy centers of the body. The various yoga asana or yoga poses are supposed to help activate each of these seven chakras which energize the body. These seven chakras and some basic simple poses for each chakra are described below. You are to hold each of these poses for as long as your breathing permits you to. Disclaimer: This it NOT expert advice. Please consult a professional yoga teacher for an accurate description of chakras and asana.

  1. Root Chakra (Muladhara) is located at the base of the spine or near the tail bone, Poses Relaxed sitting pose (Sukhasana): Sitting on the floor in a relaxed pose with your legs folded. Feel the energy flowing from the earth beneath you. Dead pose (Shavasana): Lie flat on the floor with your legs slightly apart and arms slightly away from your body. You are supported by the earth beneath you, let all your tension leave your body and relax. Concentrate on various parts of the body beginning with the toes on your right leg. Send all your mental energy to that part of the body. Bridge pose (Setu Bandha): Lie on the floor with your knees bend, slightly apart and your feet planted firmly on the ground. Raise your body till your chin is almost touching your throat.
  1. Sacral Chakra (Svadishthana) is located in the lower abdomen, below the navel, Poses: Goddess Pose (Utkata Konasana): Standing with feet wide apart and facing outwards, bend to bring your thighs parallel to the ground keeping your back straight and upright. Bring your hands to a Namaste pose with your palms together (Anjali mudra). Wide Legged Forward Bend (Prasarita Padottanasana): With your feet wide apart bend forward and place your head on the floor as close to the central point between your feet. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana): Sit on the floor with your feet stretched out together straight in front of you. Bend forward holding your toes, pull them towards you and try to bring your forehead as close to your knees as possible.
  1. Navel Chakra (Manipura) is located at the navel, Poses: Most of the asana that twists your torso and breathing exercises (Prayayama) help to activate the navel chakra. Twist in a Standing Pose (Katichakrasana): Stand erect, put your right hand on your left shoulder, and your left hand across the back. Twist to the left and look at your right heel. Repeat with the left hand on your right shoulder and twist to the right and look at your left heel.
  1. Heart Chakra (Anahata) is located in the middle of the chest. There are three chakras above it and three chakras below it. The heart chakra links the top three and lower three chakras, Poses: Butterfly pose in lying posture (Supta Baddha Konasana): Lie down, fold your legs into a butterfly pose. Knees to chest pose (Pavanmukt): Lying on the back, draw the knees gently in toward the chest. Inhale and release the knees slightly away from the chest; exhaling, hug them in.
  1. Throat Chakra (Vishuddhi) is located at the throat, Poses: Head Rolls and Neck Stretch poses activate the throat chakra. Lion’s Breath (Simhasana Pranayama): Sit on your heels in Vajrasana. Open your knees wide apart for traditional Lion’s Pose (Simhasana). Keep your hands under your knees pointing inwards. Lift your head, curving the back, inhale deeply. Exhale with a loud sound from your throat and with your tongue stretched out curving your back in the opposite direction with face down. Repeat 3-5 times.
  2. Third-Eye Chakra (Ajna) is located at the center of the forehead and between the eyebrows, Poses: Nadi Shodhana Pranayama. Avalom Vilom (Alternate Nostril Breathing): Close the right nostril and breath in normally through the left nostril, hold your breath for a few seconds. Close the left nostril and breathe out slowly through the right nostril. Hold for a few seconds. Repeat closing your left nostril.
  1. Crown Center Chakra (Sahasrara) is located at the top or crown of your head, Poses: Headstand (Sirsasana): Literally means standing on your head. Alternate easier pose is Shoulder stand (Sarvangasana): Lift the entire body straight up with all the weight on your shoulders. Use your hands to support the hips and back. Straighten your back and legs so that they are in a straight line and focus on the toes. Hold! Two asanas before and after the Sarvangasana are: Vipreetkarni: Before getting into the full shoulder stand, lift your body and hold your legs at a 45 degree angle. From this pose, straighten the back and lift your legs fully up into the Sarvangasna pose. From here you go on to the Plough pose (Halasana). Plough pose (Halasana): From the Sarvangasana pose take your legs back over your head till the toes touch the ground behind your head. Hold this plough pose. Makarasana (crocodile pose): Lie fat on your stomach with your legs stretched out and slightly apart with feet pointing outwards. Place your chin on your hands folded and fingers locked. This is a very relaxing position. This site provides a number of asanas. , OM (Sahasrara Mantra): Chant the mantra aloud while you focus attention on the space between your eyebrows. Feel the vibration during and after the chant. The chant mantras are to invoke sound vibrations in your throat.
ॐ Mantra, The complete yogi! Credits: Barin Das’s pottery

Some yoga poses done daily and from which we go on to other more difficult poses: Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose): Fold your feet below you and sit on your heels. This is the Japanese way of sitting and relaxing. Number of breathing and twisting exercises can be done in this pose. Mountain pose or Dog pose (Adho mukha svanasana): Facing downward form an inverted V shape with the feet and hands firmly on the ground and far apart. Press down the shoulders as far as you can so that the head/forehead reaches (almost reaches) the floor.

Two most important and almost complete asanas are Surya namaskar and Chakrasana. Chakrasana: This asana is almost the opposite of the mountain pose with your facing upwards. You can get into the Chakrasana from a standing pose or the easer way is to start from the Shavasana to Sethubandhasana (Bridge pose). Then lift the entire body backwards with your feet and hands firmly on the floor. This is an advanced asana and is said to align all the seven chakras and has great benefit to the body and mind. Surya namaskar, Salute to the Sun: This is a complete asana consisting of 12 poses starting in a stand up position with your hands folded in namaskar mudra and ending with the same pose. If you have limited time 6-10-12 Surya namaskars are like a complete routine. The only pose that it does not have are the twist of the torso. Power Yoga: This is a more intense version of Surya namaskar, with a couple of twist asanas added. I assure you it is ‘power’. While one can easily do 12 or 16 rounds of Surya namaskar, one round of Power Yoga will take your breath away!

Crawling on the Wall asana: Sorry, there is no such asana! It is an easier way to do a lot of asanas that I described above. I love what I call ‘crawling on the wall asanas’! Here below is an illustration of one of them. In a sitting pose get your bottom and legs against the wall and slowly lift your legs up in a right angle. From this primary pose one can get into many poses like spreading your legs wide apart and feeling the stretch in your inner thighs (see illustration below).

Wall Straddle Pose  (Wall Upavistha Konasana)

If you are able to manage most of these asanas and pranayamas then you are all set to become a polished product as in the glazed pottery of Barin Das! Just make sure you do not end up like the man in R.K. Laxman cartoon below. Completely twisted and unable to unlock himself!!

R.K. Laxman at his best at YOGA!

Courtesy Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta’s tweet: Here is little doggy Glitter in a yoga asana! Easy does it!

Glitter in yoga asana! Credits: Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta twitter

‘अपने आप में रहना है’, sound advice in troubled times such as when we are confined to the home. I am eternally grateful to all my Yoga Gurus! I started formal classes with a real old Guru. He had such a calm demeanour and an almost mesmerizing way of instructing us. I was hooked! Later for many years we had Gitaben! She was quite a stickler for the correct pose, which helped a lot. Now we have her daughter, Pratibha. I enjoy her relaxed and calm demeanour, no pressure on you. Take it as you can manage attitude helps all of us, particularly the beginners. Thank you Gurujis! Happy yoga and happy relaxing.

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