|Eka pada bakasana|
We all go to yoga for different reasons, but there are many results that come which are not always expected. Did you know that asana practice can make you taller? I am sure some of you have been going to yoga for years and have not even noticed that perhaps you have grown a half an inch or so. Better posture and increased mobility are two great benefits of a regular yoga practice, and we discover more every day how extension and flexibility greatly contribute to a balanced, healthy life. This is why I find it so important to really listen to the alignment cues that a teacher is giving you. Not only do such cues protect from injury and physical stress, but they will also help to train your muscle memory to do the postures correctly. With practice, eventually you will be able to feel it in your body when you are misaligned. There is a keen sense of postural awareness that is eventually attained, which some may consider an added bonus or peripheral benefit to the practice. You could someday find yourself standing in line at the grocery store, at the bus stop, or behind the wheel of your car, checking your posture and bringing your spine up a little bit straighter. Or perhaps you already have... and this little self adjustment makes you feel better, more comfortable, and more confident.
It’s essential to start thinking about posture and develop that physical awareness of how it feels to be ‘aligned.’ Ideally, yoga asana practice is meant to bring the body back to anatomically neutral, or Tadasana Pose. Things like gravity, sitting in a desk chair all day, standing for long hours, heavy lifting, and slouching all pull our bodies out of alignment. Often you see people with crunched up or slumped shoulders, sunken chests, the neck protruding forward at an awkward angle. After a pattern of holding the body in this way, this is what we begin to recognize as what feels normal or comfortable, in spite of what it looks like or is actually doing to your body. How many times have we seen photos of ourselves and been embarrassed by our slouching? Or frowned with pity at the sight of an elderly person slumped over a cane? Here it becomes evident that these patterns of holding do not lead to the longevity of an anatomically neutral body.
In an effort to take your asana practice into your daily life, try to be more conscious of your posture when you are off the mat. The next time you happen to notice yourself slumping over on the couch, take a forward roll with the shoulders, draw them up by the ears, and then roll them back down behind you, opening your chest. Do it now! Bend your knees and begin to sway as you wash dishes at the kitchen sink, keeping the body moving and the joints fluid. Perhaps even relax your face and try to take a few breaths with focus. As you practice asana, listen to the cues the teacher is offering you, and really try to understand them in a postural way. As a teacher and practitioner, I notice the parts of the body that tend to slack or overwork to make up for tightness or weakness elsewhere. Stack the knee over the ankle in your lunges, relax your shoulders when lifting the arms in Utkatasana, draw the tailbone forward and tuck in the lower ribs in Virabhadrasana 1. When you feel a sensation in your knee, back out of the posture. When you feel your breath shorten, come out of your twist a little. These little tricks in your practice will start out as enlightening moments of what it feels like to be good and aligned, but eventually they will become second nature, and you will adjust yourself instinctively.
Quite recently as I was practicing my ujjayi pranayama in downward facing dog, I discovered my favorite yoga teacher on her mat to the left of me. I greatly admire her teaching style, and have derived a lot of my class ideas from her creative and thoughtful sequences. I couldn’t help but glance over to her mat from time to time throughout the class. I have known her for years but had never practiced with her. She is kind, bright, has a gorgeous body, keeps a vegan diet, and remembers her students’ names. She is an inspiration to me, and I have often wondered what her own practice looked like. I expected to peek over there and see her perfectly executing every posture every time with immense strength and flexibility. While I did see many things that greatly impressed me, such as Eka Pada Bakasana (One Legged Crane Pose) or Bound Standing Split, there were times that I looked to her mat and saw exactly what others in the class were doing. I held her in such reverence that I neglected to consider that her body is just like the rest of ours, with kinks and tightness, along with its elegant beauty. Ironically, this diversion of my attention was a great reminder to myself not to push my own practice beyond its limit or crank my body into a stretch because of what I think it should look like. Instead, I should always strive to point my practice inward and reach for what I think it should FEEL like (and keep my eyes on my drishdi, instead of others’ mats). Yoga isn’t supposed to hurt; in fact quite the opposite. These asanas have been proven over thousands of years to assist the human body to be more fit, healthy, and flexible. With all this in place, it becomes easier and more comfortable to live in our bodies. Little tweaks, kinks, and cracks are alleviated when effort is taken towards developing an asana practice. It always makes me happy to see my students walking out of class with their shoulders away from their ears, chest lifted, crown of the head reaching upwards. It gives me hope for all of us that we will walk through this life in such a way until our old age, aware, present, and aligned.
By Shanti Caiazzo