Yoga for a sense of ease that soothes your whole self
A good habit to get into as you begin your yoga session is to take a moment to consider an intention to shape and ease your practice. This is called a sankalpa, or yogic resolution. A sankalpa would usually take inspiration from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — the foundational text of Ashtanga, or Raja, yoga.
Intentions, particularly those involving physical activity, are often achievement-oriented and, as with all good intentions, you want to do your best. For yogis, in particular, the combination of setting an intention and overcoming obstacles seems a logical step on your path to self-realisation. And yet, in my experience, many people setting intentions for their practice seem to benefit most when that intention has to do with being more easeful and less achieving in their nature. Why? Could yoga possibly be the antidote to the condition of the over-thinking, over-demanding mind?
Yoking the mind and body
Without a doubt, Patanjali’s path of Raja yoga highlights the link between mind and body, particularly in how you should be situated physically and mentally in your yoga postures. Two of his directions from book two of The Yoga Sutras are “asana is a steady, comfortable posture” and “by lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered”.
We all experience that tendency for restlessness and we know these days that physical activity releases endorphins, which benefit the body and balance our state of mind. Could that be the reason why yoga has become such a favourite pastime?
It’s just my opinion, but I believe there’s a lot more to it, so let me illustrate why I think yoga might be beneficial.
Yoga is a very mindful practice. The emphasis on precision and “flow” makes the experience like a kind of moving meditation, however energetic or slow the movements are. There is a strong focus on breathing, which often serves to draw your awareness to the way the fluctuations of the breath mirror the changes you experience in life. As Donna Farhi points out in her holistic guidebook Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, this sometimes brings difficulty and pain and at other times brings ease and joy.
Many yoga poses are initially experienced as a challenge to fit the mould of how you think they should look, but eventually you adapt each posture to suit your individual physical framework.
And then there are the asanas, the physical yoga postures themselves. I feel they deserve more attention as a means of finding ease. Many yoga poses are initially experienced as a challenge to fit the mould of how you think they should look, but eventually you adapt each posture to suit your individual physical framework — finding ease is finding asana.
How do you combine effort and stability with grace and comfort? How do you find ease in asana?
At the beginning of a practice, it’s always a good idea to have a sankalpa you can use off the mat as well as on the mat; something that will have a simultaneous effect both physically and mentally (for example, setting an intention to be mindful of your breath in each moment). This forms the basis for combining effort and ease: you don’t set a goal, but you do have a focus.
This also awakens you to the truth that a physical yoga practice is going to affect you mentally as well as physically. It’s a meditative movement designed to create mobility, strength and flexibility as you move into and out of each posture, following the lead of the breath — encouraging the free unrestricted breathing you may have lost through bad postural habits and unnecessary holding patterns, possibly even from emotional blockages.
With full, deep breathing, there is a dislodging or releasing of held emotions, whether you are aware of it or not. Stability comes when the breath is leading the movement. Ease and comfort come when you are able to breathe fully and deeply in each posture.
Many of the moves in yoga require a breath-synchronised movement. So what postures should you practise to find that balance of breath and movement, effort and ease?
It’s impossible to answer that for everyone as we are all different: various postures and sequences work well for different people. However, let me specify some of the breath-synchronised movements I believe help to bring more ease. The movements are, of course, much more complex, but this little introduction will indicate how one of the primary movements — the rounding/compressing-lengthening/extending vinyasa — can contribute to your quest for finding ease in your practice.
Most warm-up postures are based on the way your body naturally moves with the breath; movements that allow the body to expand on inhale and find a softening release on exhale. The choice of asanas is plentiful: child’s pose and cat-cow, in particular, underlie the free movement of the head, tail, spine, shoulders and hips in extension and flexion, as well as a natural oscillation. All are initiated by the breath.
Finding your ease means finding what works for you, establishing stability and comfort in each and every posture.
These warm-up postures also allow you to respond to gravity; they teach you to yield. In other words, you learn that the pose is holding you and not the other way around. When practised in synchrony with the breath, this encourages circulation in the body and brings a sense of ease and effortlessness in the movement. In yoga, if you are able to find this combination of letting the breath move you while yielding to the Earth early on in your practice, this will set the foundations for finding ease for the duration of your time on the mat.
Finding your balance
As you move on in your practice, you can become more dynamic, adding more vinyasa, or flow, to the movements by saluting the sun.
From standing, you use an inhalation to reach the fingertips to the sky and, at the same time, ground the feet down into the Earth in extended mountain pose, creating length and space through the entire body. You relieve the effects of gravity in this way: reaching up and grounding down allows you to maintain enough integrity through your structure that you receive the rebound of gravity up through your body. By lengthening the spine and creating openness in the front of the torso, neck, chest and shoulders, you reverse the compression effect you get from day-to-day life, allowing you to maintain an upright posture, even in later life. This position is the basis for the standing poses, where you find ease by being able to expand and release from a stable foundation.
The sun salutation sequences also include the primary movements of rounding and compressing. The first of these postures is the standing forward bend, uttanasana. Forward bends cool and calm the nervous system and they also allow you to look inwards, bringing your awareness back to the stillness of your centre. The effort, however, is in keeping active through the lower body; as you press the feet into the floor, you are also drawing up through the legs to get a good healthy stretch along the whole back side of the body. By grounding down with the feet, the rest of the body can lengthen and extend as a result of that push, thus reinforcing the balance between effort and stability with comfort and ease. You accept that the Earth is there to support you while at the same time using gravity to help stretch and release.
Combining effort and stability with grace and comfort is the key to finding ease in your practice.
Some people may need to make this pose more easeful. Experiment with softening the knees and taking the feet apart but, at the same time, also really drawing your abdomen onto your thighs and the crown of your head towards the floor. Everyone is unique. Finding your ease means finding what works for you, establishing stability and comfort in each and every posture.
In yoga, much of the focus is based on finding this balance between stability and comfort. It is most noticeable in the restorative postures, in particular the final posture of savasana: you lie down and let the ground take the weight of your body and all you have to do is be still and breathe. The balance is less noticeable in the standing postures, unless the teacher cues it well; nevertheless, you should maintain this awareness in order to keep the ease in your practice.
Another key to finding ease is to really engage with the alignment of your body and how that fits into the posture you are practising. This is where people are often drawn to the urge to align the body to the posture instead of the other way around. By setting an intention at the start of your practice, you can use this to keep check of when you are disengaging from your focus and trying to fit a mould that exists only in your own mind. It will be clear when your focus has slipped: the more you lose your mindfulness, the quicker the breath becomes and, in some cases, you may completely lose your balance. But that’s all just part of the experience of learning.
Much of what is learned in yoga is based on the “mindset” around the intention of the practice. Think of the sankalpa mentioned above, for instance, where the focus was “to be mindful of the breath in each moment”. For an obvious example of slipping away from this intention, think of times when you’ve been pushing yourself to the point where your breath has quickened and your heart rate sped up. In yoga, it is only through the control of having a regular heart rate and long, deep breaths that you can keep your awareness intact as well as practise safely and with ease, without risking loss of mindfulness.
Combining effort and stability with grace and comfort is the key to finding ease in your practice. With an easeful practice, you can build strong, healthy bones, muscles and ligaments by comfortably sustaining postures, and lubricate your joints to create a sense of lightness and freedom. Yoga is a practice that also works the mind; as you lengthen and expand away from the Earth, you feel energised, as in backward-bending postures, while the rounding and contracting you get from forward-bending postures means these are more nurturing, introverted and calming.
Together, these dynamics form a balanced practice. Focusing only on lengthening and expanding feels unsupported and can be exhausting over time, while the rounding and contracting without the opening reach outwards will shorten the muscles across the chest and make you feel lethargic. Together, the postures create a complete practice: a practice for finding ease, a practice you can rediscover and re-explore each time you are on the mat. This may be something to think about when setting your intention.
A sequence for finding ease
Start in child’s pose, feeling your breath flowing in and out for five to 10 breaths. Feel the spine lengthen as you inhale and, as you exhale, soften and release through the back body.
Come onto the hands and knees: shoulders, elbows and wrists stacked one on top of the other, hips directly over the knees. Moving slowly, exhale into cat pose, inhale into cow pose. Feel the spine awakening on the inhale and releasing on the exhale. Repeat five times.
Extended mountain pose
Ground the soles of your feet into the Earth, spreading all 10 toes across the floor, and draw up through your legs, engaging the quadriceps. Lift the shoulders up and then draw them back so the chest is open. Reach the arms out and up as you inhale, bringing the palms of your hands together above your head. Enjoy the length in the spine. Exhale as you return the arms alongside your body. Repeat three times.
Standing forward bend
From extended mountain pose, take your hands down past your heart as you exhale, folding forward, keeping your feet active. Bend your knees, placing your hands on the outside of your feet as you fold onto your thighs, moving your face towards your shin bones. Lift up onto the fingertips as you straighten your legs, inhaling, with the spine lengthening from the tailbone to the crown of the head. Exhale as you bend the knees and fold again with the palms on the floor outside of your feet. Repeat five times.
Step your feet to the back of your mat, forming a deep inverted V from the shoulders to the wrists and from the hips to the heels. Bend the knees if you’re tight in the hamstrings and take your dog for a walk, bending the left knee and pressing the sole of the right foot towards the mat. Alternate from side to side; breathe in to create space in tight areas and breathe out to release tension. Repeat five times on each side.
Come onto your toes with the knees bent, sweep the right leg towards the sky and step the foot through the hands into a lunge. Plant the back foot, inhale and sweep the arms up, keeping the front leg bent. Hold your warrior I for five breaths. Keep the arms up and the shoulders apart to enjoy space across your back as you lengthen and expand.
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