By Shameem Akhtar
It’s not how many poses you know but how long you can hold them that hones the body and mind to perfection.
I recently cribbed to my asana guru from Canada that I was not going beyond the classic poses. Having gotten into a rut I was not growing further with the more exotic poses that gripped my attention, I whined. He reprimanded me gently that such an attitude was more appropriate for a beginner to yoga, who needs to be goaded by such thrills to remain faithful to sadhana or steady practice.
Thrilling in poses, he reminded me, was not the goal for an advanced practitioner who needs to meditate in the poses. ‘There are thousands of poses. You can keep trying them. But that is not the goal. To be able to stay in paschimottanasana (the classic forward bend) for ten minutes is the challenge. If you do that regularly you can do any pose,’ he explained. That is true asana jaya (or the conquest of a pose).
It seems even yoga teachers (such as this columnist) can turn amnesiac about the original goal of the physical aspect of yoga: strength, both of body and mind. To stay still in a pose for long places these twin aspects of the self under tremendous strain, providing the ultimate challenge to both. Your body will shake and quiver embarrassingly as the muscle begins to fatigue at this demand of stillness. Your mind quivers, sometimes with boredom, more often with restlessness, from the mental pain provoked by this challenge of stillness. Sometimes the pain itself can be excruciating. But being able to endure this provides you with the strength to vault the other challenges of daily life. Also, at a certain advanced stage of your practice you can dissociate yourself from pain, identifying the ‘harmless’ sort (required to build stamina) and the harmful sort (which causes injury). This is a fine discrimination that comes only with sustained practice and it is among the many gifts that yoga confers on its faithful practitioners. This sensitivity to the nature of pain also ups the pain threshold of yoga practitioners, which explains the superb health enjoyed by them.
Holding a pose for long also trims the body superbly. Poses of the warrior sequence, all the classic poses such as headstand, shoulderstand, viparita karani asana, forward-bend, all back-bends including dhanu or bow, can be mastered by a beginner in just a few weeks. But the strength to remain in them for long comes only with sustained practice. Only with such stillness does the body carve itself into its perfect contours, whatever the age. That happens because the muscle is worked out to its maximum in such stillness.
In poses like locust, you are actually working against the subtle drag of gravity. In gym parlance, machines are used to create this sort of artificial resistance and the exercises are called resistance training. But in yoga, nature itself is used to challenge oneself. This is true for the bow pose too, where the muscle-gravity resistance is so powerful that it can be excruciating to hold it even for half a minute initially. But actual sadhana takes off only when one is able to slowly improve the time and stamina in each pose. Even those who hold the headstand comfortably will find that holding it longer than three minutes places a tremendous burden on the stamina of the heart, the lower arms, the neck, as well as the mind. All these need to be mastered stage-by-stage for true asana jaya.
Viparita Karani asana (inverted pose) is easy to learn. But it is when you slowly increase time spent in it, starting with a minimum of five minutes, that you will experience the slow burn at your hips. In just a few weeks of such a practice you will begin to notice fat actually leaving the hips which turn almost boyishly slim.
This is an anti-aging pose. But again, its impact is not felt if you just get into it and out of it in a few seconds. You need to hold it for five to 15 minutes to enjoy its rejuvenating impact. The inversion is believed to release the amrit, or eternal nectar, into you so you shine with tejas or the glow of yoga. It is among those poses considered to ‘halt death’.
Such stillness in each pose not only allows the muscle to flower to its maximum beauty, but also makes the bone truly hard. Bone health is determined by its hardness and ability to store nutrients. Bone is not just a framework for the body but also its factory and storehouse.It manufactures red blood cells, which are destroyed and created at the rate of 80 million per second. Apart from calcium it stores several nutrients including phosphorus.
When muscles are not challenged, bones alongside them turn slowly porous, making them fragile, prone to fractures. This steady leak of its strength causes osteoporosis and osteo-arthritis. Physiotherapists will vouch for the fact that those who hold yogic poses for long have much younger bones than their chronological age.
Sit up, with legs out in front. Keep both hands stretched at shoulder height in front. Inhale. Exhale, raising legs off the ground, simultaneously tilt back so the body forms a V-shape of a boat. Breathing normally, keep eyes focused on the feet. Remain as long as is possible in the pose. Exhaling, lower yourself back to starting position.
You can do this pose lying down too. But raising yourself from the ground calls for a lot of strength of the back muscles. Most beginners find this difficult. Older people can try this with support against the back. (This asana is not recommended for those with excessive back pain)
Benefits: It is a mood-elevator. It stimulates powerfully the digestive, circulatory, endocrine and nervous system. Encourages lymphatic drainage, particularly of the lower limbs. Tones stomach and the entire stubborn fat region in and around the hips and thighs. Regular practice, up to three to five minutes, is guaranteed to slim down this area. It is also therapeutic in uterus prolapse for women and regulates other uro-genital problems. It improves concentration. It is a stamina-builder.
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