Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Climbing the Tree of Yoga: Asana

There is this great book by BKS Iyengar called The Tree of Yoga. In this book, Iyengar describes and pores over the elements the eight limbs of yoga by referring to them as a tree. However, asana is not the first limb on the tree of yoga it is the third. Asana means posture or seat. My reason for choosing limb number three can be compared to how several creatures spend their lives in real trees.

Let's take a bird for instance ( I like robins). Many birds begin life in the upper branches of a tree. For a sweet little robin hatchling, the inner branches are where life may begin, thus the robin views that part of the tree as maybe the only part at first. As little robin grows into big robin, it will probably continue to favor similar branches hidden among leaves, but it will also venture down to forage for tasty little insects and such. An ant's life on the other hand may begin within the very soil in a nest at the roots of the tree. When the ant matures, as long as it's boss aunt tells it so, it will go anywhere on the tree it is commanded to. And how about a caterpillar? It may be much like a combination of the ant and bird, one day climbing to munch on leaves only to secure itself in a cozy little cocoon and emerge a flying creature preferring flowers (which in their own way are like trees).

The tree is beneficial for all and in all aspects the tree does it's job. Though the many creatures who depend on the tree for food and shelter may never explore it in its entirety, we can all agree that it would be silly to judge the behavior of these living things. And it is such with humans. When exploring a new practice, or even working in an old one we all relate to and seek out different parts based on needs and resonance. For most westerners the entry point of the tree, the place where many recognize the biggest need and feel the most resonance is asana.

According to Iyengar's break-down of the tree, the limb of asana is actually represented by the groups of limbs that extend from the trunk. Each limb representing a different posture in the yoga asana practice. Like the limbs of the tree, they are all different and each unique and important. Each posture is designed to stimulate different parts of the body and the mind.

Take twisting postures for instance. These are the poses where we wring out the spine, the internal organs and squeeze breath through a constricted lower respiratory system.

As a culture we tend to be hyper stimulated. The spine is the central location of the the many nerves that run through our body.
How are we overstimulated? Through the senses. How do the senses perceive? Through the nervous system. Every thing you expereince starts with the nervous system receiving a physical message, weather through touch, smell, taste or any other. The brain receives these messages via the often over-saturated senses and then proceeds to think about them (or sometimes just stuffs the experience into a dark corner) I won't even start to talk about the gazillions of overwhelming messages I receive daily. Do think about some of your own. Recall something someone said to you and how your body reacted. Take a bite of something you like and pay attention to how your body reacts. Think about seeing something you did not want to look at and what your physical reaction was. So most of our big Western brains are teeming with all of this crazed Western thought...and really, sometimes that is not a good thing. So what can we do for over stimulated nervous system? If it can be likened to a saturated sponge, lets wring it out with a nice twist. And to settle the mind, how about choosing to focus on our breath (pranayama...that's another entry). Why does this work? I don't know. I have theories that might hog the entire internet, but then that is just my brain doing too much again! There is solid scientific evidence for just about everything a person wants to prove, but I think the best thing to do is try it for yourself.

A twist is a nice starting point to reference the myriad benefits of asana. Twists relieve stress in the back muscles, stimulate the immune system by moving lymph, improve digestion
and lots more. It is just one asana among hundreds- and maybe even thousands now that we are getting so creative with our yoga.

If this one asana, a simple twist to the spine can do so much then just imagine the possibilities of the depth and layers of benefit of all the other asanas. And for that matter, if I am getting such immense benefit from one just asana, what is the rush in practicing the rest of the limbs?

There is no rush, no hurry, no 911. If you are present in your body in whatever you do (and one of the main gifts of asana is body presence and awareness); if you suspend your self judgment for just a tiny moment in order to observe your expereince and simply watch your life then yoga is happening- no eight limbs required. However, the remaining eight limbs are something like creeper vines. First one slowly crawls and reaches it's way into your unique personal framework, spreading its tendrils through the bricks of your very existence. Then? Maybe more come. Maybe not. But it is vines that are alive and thriving and living within you- not the ones that aren't- that count.

Do the twist:
-Sit tall at the edge of a chair in which your feet rest fully on the ground. You can stack books under your feet to get them planted if need be.
-As you breath let your belly draw out and inward, but keep it toned.
-Bring your left hand to the outside of our right knee and hold the base of the back of the chair with your right.
-Visualize your spine and breath in.
-As you exhale, twist from the lowest place in your spine possible, then let the rotation move slowly up all the way to the neck (be gentle here) as you continue to twist to the right. Take several full breaths gently deepening your twist with each exhale if it feels right.
-Do the same thing on the opposite side.
Be happy :)