Monday, August 16, 2010

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Statue of Patanjali
Many (maybe most) of us do yoga because of the physical and mental health benefits we enjoy from practicing the poses and breathing exercises.    This is a great reason to do yoga!  However, there's much more to yoga than the physical practice of asanas (poses) and pranayama (breath work).

The philosophy of yoga  gives us guidelines for living a meaningful, purposeful life in its entirety, not just on the physical plane.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ( from 1500 -- 2000 years ago) codifies the philosophy and practice of yoga into succinct aphorisms.  

Patanjali delineates The Eight Limbs ("Ashtanga"), or constituents, of yoga:
  • Yama -- Ethical and moral standards and sense of integrity, along the same line as "The Golden Rule".
  • Niyama -- Self-discipline and spiritual observances.
  • Asana -- Physical postures, for physical health and to develop discipline and concentration.
  • Pranayama -- Breathing exercises, breath control.  Connection between the body, breath, and mind.
  • Pratyahara -- Withdrawal of the senses -- looking inward.
  • Dharana -- Concentration
  • Dhyana -- Meditation
  • Samadhi -- Enlightenment -- the blissful union of self with the divine.
In upcoming posts, we'll look more deeply at each of these Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back-bending poses!

Urdhva dhanurasana photo by BeckyKP, CC License 2.0
We've been doing some backbending work these past two weeks, leading up to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward bow pose -- first photo) in some of the classes.  The first week we practiced a few of the prone position back arches, such as Salabhasana (locust pose), Bhujangasana (cobra), Urdhva mukha svanasana (Upward facing dog pose), Dhanurasana (Bow pose), Ustrasana (camel pose). Not all classes did all of these poses!  For both weeks some of the prep work included Adho mukha svanasana (Downward facing dog pose), various arm stretches, and work over a chair (Viparita dandasana) and/or over a bolster or rolled blanket to help open the chest.

Some of you love these poses (I certainly do!), and some of you, eh...well I know you're not particularly fond of them, but you know they're good for you!  

Back-bending and back extension poses aren't easy for many of us, especially as we get older -- our shoulders and upper back get tighter and stiffer over time since there's really nothing in our "usual" daily activities that requires us to move the spine in a backbending fashion.

Urdhva mukha svanasana photo by Tarnalberry, CC license 2.0
Many of us sit at a desk, perhaps in front of a computer, for many hours a day.   Many of us drive a lot.  Or sit slumped while watching television.   Or clean the house, or carry kids around.   In these positions, unless we work on our posture, our backs slump, our shoulders round forward and up, and our chests cave in.

Backbends counteract our slumping habits.  They're just one of the different categories of yoga poses that help to keep the spine supple in all of its directions of movement, and the back and shoulders more mobile.

In backbends we create more space in the chest so that the lungs and heart can work more efficiently.   Also backbends help us feel more energetic, and give us a boost if we're feeling down -- while slumping and drooping the chest saps our physical and mental energy!

If backbending poses are difficult for you (and even if they're not!),  lie over a rolled or folded blanket 3 - 5 times a week as we sometimes do in class, to gently open the chest.   Take time to stretch your arms as we do at the beginning of class, and do more downward facing dog poses.   Your backbends won't get easier unless you regularly practice these other poses first.

You have to regularly practice to improve your difficult poses!