wisdom from my teacher: "Statics and Dynamics of Asana"

Another newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami….enjoy

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….  Carelessly developed 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…..

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 morethan 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.

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2 thoughts on “wisdom from my teacher: "Statics and Dynamics of Asana"

  1. This is great, Linda! It seems to be similar to Kali Ray's TriYoga flow and thought in many ways. I'm only working on her level 3 so I don't know her full system, but I'd like to share it with her for her input. Thanks for the post; maybe I should try to meet this teacher, at Chicago Yoga Center?

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