January 2016 By Saraswathi Vasudevan Through diligent practice of asanas one gets into the habit of keeping the spine straight and erect which is the cornerstone of attaining optimum fitness, says Saraswathi Vasudevan Classically, all asanas were conceived for a specific set of functions that the usual body positions and movements do not address. The most important structure asanas influence is the spine. It helps if our spine is flexible, strong and aligned. Today, we have a crying need for asana practice. We are couch potatoes in front of the television, or slouch potatoes in front of the computer screen. We eat mindlessly and have no time to exercise. For the physically active, or sports persons, often there is an imbalance or over-extension of some parts, or a side of the body, more than the other. Therefore asana practice should be an indispensable part of our daily routine if we want to reverse the impact of poor posture and imbalance. Slowly, we will learn to sit with the back straight, keeping the head in line with the spine, neck and shoulders relaxed, eyes unstrained, chest forward, and the diaphragm free to move for good breathing. When the back is relatively straight, there is less pressure on the lower back and hips, better circulation to the digestive system, and better vagal tone that promotes parasympathetic activity to counter stress. Asanas to straighten the spine are not just back arches. In fact, for somebody who slouches, back arches may be very uncomfortable. So different movements of the spine must be encouraged, and coordinated with conscious inhalation and exhalation. Start with mild back arches and forward bends. Do mild axial twists to relax and make the neck, shoulders and upper back more flexible. Do lateral stretches to open up the sides of the chest for good breathing and the waist for good circulation to the abdominal organs. Good deep breathing also facilitates extension of spine and improves posture. Start with standing asanas and progress towards seated and lying postures with adequate rest inbetween. Breathing has to be long – at least five seconds of inhalation and exhalation with breath retention to enhance the effect of the posture. We can stay in some opening postures and twists to improve flexibility and strength and help the posture to facilitate cleansing of the body toxins. At the end of a good 20-minute asana practice, once we have achieved a relatively straight spine and are able to breathe in and out smoothly for longer duration, we are ready to do pranayama. There are many postures for pranayama – siddhasana, padmasana, even sukhasana or sitting on a chair is good enough. Hold the spine erect and sit for at least 10 minutes to focus exclusively on the breath. Vajrasana: Sit on your heels with your legs folded at the knees, classically knees together, thighs together. Keep your spine erect, neck and shoulders relaxed and chin down. Place your palms on the thighs or knees. Eyes closed. Breathe in and out in this posture and slowly extend your exhalation and inhalation in that order. About 100 rounds of kapalabhati can help with clearing the upper respiratory tract and preparing the abdominal muscles to engage with conscious breathing (exhalation). Any technique of pranayama can be practised in this posture. People with knee problems to avoid this posture if it is painful. About the author: Saraswathi Vasudevan is a yoga therapist trainer in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya. She specialises in adapting yoga to the individual. (www.yogavahini.com).
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