by Nicholas Orth
Asana practice is a never-ending journey towards the pinnacle of strength, flexibility, and grace. Over the years one seeks to gain mastery over the multitude of subtle techniques and details which give rise to a beautiful, seamless, poised practice, constantly observing every position and movement of the body with an eye towards greater ease. With time you will develop an intuitive understanding of how to correct or streamline each posture and movement, but you must start from somewhere, and in the beginning it is hard to know what to do, how to advance from the point of an uncomfortable, painful, awkwardly executed posture. This article gives three principles of asana practice that can be applied to any pose, and are sure to give direction to any practitioner stuck in place of discomfort, disease, and confusion on the mat.
1. Elongate the back.
When in just about any posture in which one is bent-over, the back must be elongated, extended, active (forward fold, downward facing dog, wide-leg forward bend, and head-to-knee pose are common examples). Another way to put it is to say that the back should not be rounded; it must be stretched so as to utilize all the muscles throughout the torso (with the exception of child’s pose, or any asana intentionally practiced in a restful, passive yin style). We want to create as much space as possible between each vertebrae so that the back is open and healthy and so that prana can run freely up and down the spine. This principle is absolutely essential due to (a) the central place that folding forward holds in most asana practices and (b) the adverse health affects which may arise after doing it incorrectly for extended periods of time. Folding forward repeatedly without extending the spine may loosen the two primary tendons running up and down the back, creating slack which allows discs to budge out of place. I personally know yogis with back problems due to the fact that they ingrained this bad habit into their practice, and were never taught otherwise until it was too late.
2. Start with the base
If a posture doesn’t seem right, if it feels awkward or weak or out of balance, the first place you should look is your base. Just as any sturdy building must rest upon a proper foundation, any strong, balanced, comfortable posture must rest upon steadfast, correctly aligned hands and/or feet. It should not be underestimated how the slight splaying of a hand off to the side or a lack of firm pressure in the outer edge of the foot can keep a pose from finding its fullest expression. No matter how hard your muscles are working, their strength will be useless unless it is correctly harnessed and “plugged-in” to the floor.
3. Don’t lock out your joints
You should almost never lock out a joint while practicing. Doing so is tempting because it can make certain poses easier when our muscles are tired, but it is senseless to do so when one has the long term effects in mind. First, it hinders the growth of our muscles, since to lock out a joint is to bear one’s weight in the ligaments and tendons rather than the muscles. This obviously doesn’t make sense once we remember that in practicing yoga we’re trying to make ourselves stronger. Second, it restricts the flow of blood through the limbs, and consequently the flow of prana throughout the body. In yoga we’re obviously trying to increase circulation throughout the body, not hinder it. Third, it’s bad for your joints. Especially in postures in which most of all of the body’s weight is supported by an elbow or a knee, it is not good for your ligaments and tendons to bear all this weight without the assistance of muscles. They weren’t made to support that load; that’s why we have muscles. Locking joints may be easy, but it in the long run it will only hinder your practice, so keep a micro-bend in those limbs at all times.
Nicholas Orth is a graduate of the Yoga Center of Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota, holding an inter-disciplinary certification in yoga instruction and a Bachelors Degree in philosophy. He has worked as a yoga instructor in Wisconsin and currently lives in Pico Bonito National Park, Honduras, where he continues his study and practice of yoga. To reach Nicholas with questions or comments, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.