“When an asana is done correctly, the body movements are smooth, there is lightness in the body, and freedom in the mind.” B.K.S. Iyengar
A yoga posture is to be stable, steady and firm, yet also relaxed, comfortable, and delightful!!
To be stable, a movement needs both balance and strength. All the muscles in our bodies work in pairs to give an equal support to our joints, spine, and inner organs in response to gravity. For example, it’s important to have an equal strength between the muscles in the lower back and the abdomen to give a balanced support to the lumbar spine. A sway back is a common example of an imbalance, where the back muscles are tight and the abdominal muscles are weak. In a collapsed chest, the frontal chest muscles are tight and the upper back weak. This imbalance leads to a compression that causes a continual wear and tear on the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and nerves and with time, strain, pain and no delight.
Some arthritic problems are also caused by compression in a joint that can gradually cause degeneration. So, many back, neck, and knee problems, as well as internal problems, are caused by imbalances and compression.
Compressed muscles and areas in our body are dark areas that act like a traffic jam, hindering the natural flow of circulation through the body with blood, oxygen, and nutrients as well as blocking the lymphatic flow, hindering the cleansing of toxins and waste material. Good health is good circulation. When there is balance in the support of the muscles, there is space and freedom for our circulation to cleanse and rejuvenate every cell in the body. We open up the traffic jams and invite health and healing into our spine, joints, and inner organs. Imbalances and tensions in our muscles can even trap our energy. When we open up tight and blocked muscles we receive energy—and we all want more energy!!!
The mind is also affected by imbalance. When there is an imbalance in the body, the nervous system signals a disturbance to the brain. When the body is brought into balance with gravity, the nervous system and the mind move into silence. There is “outer balance and inner silence.”
So what causes imbalances in the body? The reasons are many. They can be either physical, mental, or emotional. For example, kyphoses, a collapsed chest with a round upper back, can be acquired by sitting at the computer for an extended time, or from bicycling, or even depression. And lordosis, a sway back, can be caused by weak abdominal muscles, running, or high heel shoes! Or an imbalance in the left and right side of the body can be caused by carrying a baby on one hip, a one-sided sport like tennis, or keeping one foot on the gas pedal.
So how can we bring balance back into our bodies and create stability and delight in our Yoga poses and life? The secret is Alignment, Action, and Breath! Which is the main focus of Iyengar Yoga and together cultivate awareness.
The first secret is “Alignment.” In each Yoga posture we mindfully align the body parts, starting with our feet and continuing upwards to invite balance, space, and freedom. For example, we align the feet to bring balance to the knees. We align the pelvis to bring balance to the spine, and we align the shoulder girdle to bring balance to the shoulders and neck.
The second secret is “Action”: a movement with a counter movement which brings inner core strength, circulation, and energy to the body. For example, in the Warrior Pose we actively press the feet down, lift and open the chest, and extend the arms dynamically in opposite directions. This mindful integration of balance and strength, alignment and action, brings stability and steadiness to the Yoga poses.
However, if we only focus on creating stability in each pose without relaxation, the postures will be tense and forced. So, the third secret is the “Breath.” In each Yoga pose we focus on smooth, even breathing, with a long exhalation which brings relaxation to the body and the brain. And by consciously relaxing the face, eyes, and throat, the body and the brain relax even deeper. I have also heard that a little smile on the lips relaxes most muscles in the face!
To create a balance between stability and relaxation requires the mind to be quiet and fully present. If the mind wanders we lose stability and the pose will be dull. If the mind is aggressive, with ambition and expectation, we lose relaxation and end up with force and strain. This mindful balance between stability and relaxation evokes a sense of dignity and grace in our Yoga practice.
A few years ago, I had a new student in my advanced class. She was very flexible and had done lots of Yoga before, but not much Iyengar Yoga. Her back was in pain and doctors told her that if she was to go on with her usual activities like snowboarding, climbing, Yoga, running, etc, she needed an operation!! She had a severe swayback and was taking the swayback with her into every Yoga pose. Gradually, with weekly classes and guidance, she learned to mindfully align and balance her pelvis in every Yoga pose, and her back stopped hurting! She was a keen student and practiced religiously and daily what she learned in class. And she went on to become a NOLS instructor in Arizona with a happy back and no operation! And she is now a Certified Iyengar Teacher in California!!
So, we can take old habits and imbalances in our feet, back, and neck with us into our Yoga practice, but also into running and other daily activities and create more wear and tear. The power of Iyengar Yoga is its focus on alignment that makes us face the dark and compressed areas. And with gradual, conscientious practice, we bring light into the dark places; we bring de-light and en-lightenment back into our body and hearts.
The balance and awareness you learn in your Yoga practice with sthira, sukham, asanam—stability with relaxation, dignity with grace—you can also take with you into your daily work and play, in the garden or the office, while surfing the web or out on the trail, while running, biking, kayaking, or in the mountains hiking and skiing.
Here are a few words of wisdom by Yoga Master, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar:
Balance is the gift of the creator.
When your posture is imbalanced, the practice is physical. Balanced asanas lead to spiritual practice.
When there is external and internal balance, a rhythmic flow of energy and awareness is experienced evenly through the body and being. A pure state of joy is felt in the cells and the mind. The body, mind and soul are one. This is meditation in the practice of an asana.
The perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.