Three Essential Yoga Postures
I have been practising Yoga for most of my life. I remember, at the age of six, sitting in the Lotus posture for fun, and demonstrating this to other children in my class. I don't know how I knew how to do this (probably a past-life memory resurfacing) but I was reprimanded by the stuffy teacher in charge of us.
When I discovered yoga properly later on, in my teens, I took to it naturally. I have been doing regular yoga postures now for over 40 years. At one time, I nearly became a qualified yoga Instructor, but other circumstances led me into different work avenues, so for the time being, that was not to be. (I still have the idea 'on hold' for a possible future date.)
Some of the benefits of yoga practice are of course, that it brings a natural suppleness to the joints and ligaments, stretching of the muscles, release of tension, improved blood circulation and better posture. There are countless other benefits besides these mentioned.
With yoga, it is almost impossible to list all of the many and varied benefits, and certainly there are too many postures to name and go into detail about. But let's take just three of the most beneficial postures that I favour, and find out what they can do for us.
1. Standing Forward Bend
This posture is one of the best yoga postures (or asanas, as the postures are properly known in the Indian Sanskrit language) that we have. It is very simple, and consists of merely standing with feet shoulder width apart and bending forward slowly at the waist and allowing the hands to stretch down towards the toes.
The image depicted shows an advanced Standing Forward Bend posture, and not everyone will be able to reach their toes, or go beyond them as in the photograph, so the idea is to bend forward and hang like a 'rag doll' and simply allow the weight of the body to gently pull the torso down towards the feet.
The idea is to relax into the pose, and allow the weight of the body to create gentle adjustments in the spine and the legs. Many people feel that the greatest stretch is in fact in the hamstrings, found at the back of the upper thighs. People with low backache often have very tight hamstring muscles, and this posture can relieve such tightness immensely.
The greatest benefits of this posture are achieved with more time dedicated to the pose. I always suggest that people start with two minutes and add a minute each week, building up to 5 minutes. In the time spent in the posture, a lot of blood will of course pool into the head; the brain will be flushed with blood and invigorated. The eyes, sense of smell and taste will all benefit from the fresh blood that floods into the arteries, veins and capillaries in these regions. Even the nerves in the head and face will benefit.
The Standing Forward Bend rests the heart, which has to pump blood all day long up into the head region, going against gravity, and this posture can give much relief to the heart muscles and allow an easier flow to the upper parts of the body and head. The forward bending of the upper body also massages the abdomen and so improves the processes of digestion.
The human spine is composed of essentially 24 moveable vertebrae, with an additional 5 fused vertebrae in the sacrum at the base of the spine, and 4 more fused bones in the coccyx at the very end of the spine, known as the tailbone. When we stretch forward in this posture, the entire spine is stretched right out, as the weight of the body pulls each vertebrae away from one another in small degrees. This is mostly measured in millimetres, but it makes a huge difference; the compression of the bony spinal vertebrae on the spongey intervertebral discs is relieved.
As the muscles and tendons of the body contain a 'memory' of postural habit, with regular practice of yoga postures such as the Standing Forward Bend, the muscles and tendons which hold the vertebrae in place will gradually become re-educated to release their fixed hold on the vertebral bones and allow them the freedom of movement which is so conducive to a healthy spine. This also means that the many radial nerves that branch out from between the intervertebral discs will be relieved of any pressure against them and so their nervous conduction to organs and other regions of the body will be greatly improved.
This posture can relieve sciatica, backache, shoulder and neck tension, even headaches. There are a host of other benefits too. The weight of the head is roughly about ten pounds in the average person. In the Standing Forward Bend, the head helps to pull out the vertebrae in the neck (the cervical vertebrae) and this means that there will be less tightness in the neck bones and the muscles of the neck and shoulder girdle. More blood can flow and there is better nerve conduction.
Other benefits of this posture are a reduction in stress and anxiety, which can bring peace of mind through its nerve calming effects.
Should you experience any pain in the back, gently bend your knees, place your hands on your thighs and gently come back out of the posture. Always proceed carefully, and if pain arises do not try and push beyond it.
I suggest that as you come out of this posture, slowly uncoil the spine as you gradually return to the upright position. Come up very slowly, and keep the chin down on the chest. As the body straightens up, slowly allow the head to come up straight, being the last part of the spine to uncoil. There will be a fall of blood pressure from the head, so keep a firm chair or table nearby if you feel the need, and rest a hand on it to steady yourself, just in case you feel dizzy. Most people will not feel dizzy at all, but if any dizziness is experienced, it will normally pass quickly.
2. Seated Forward Bend
Seated Forward Bend is basically the same as the Standing Forward Bend, but this time you are sitting on the floor on your yoga mat, with legs stretched out in front of you, as in the picture below. The idea is to sit with legs straight out and then reach up towards the sky with your hands and then slowly bend forward to reach the toes or thereabouts. Some people who are very flexible may be able to get their fingers around their feet as in the photo.
Don't worry if you can't touch your toes; even if you can only get as far as your knees or shins it will make a positive difference. In time, you may find that you can reach further. Certainly, as in the Standing Forward Bend, you will most likely feel the stretch affecting your hamstring muscles and probably the calf muscles too.
Just slowly stretch into the posture, and work up towards five minutes eventually, as suggested in Standing Forward Bend.
The Seated Forward Bend not only accommodates a similar stretch for the individual vertebrae, it also massages the abdominal organs due to the stretch over the lower body. There is a gentle massage to the small and large intestines, the pancreas, stomach and even the liver, kidneys and spleen. The natural fluids in these organs can flow better, and there is stimulation of the lymph system, so important in our immune support.
Wherever your hands can reach, just stay in the pose, bringing your attention to your breathing. As you focus on the breath, you will probably find that the stretch deepens and lengthens, and your fingers may go further along your legs and eventually reach your toes. Just allow these slight incremental stretches to lengthen naturally over time.
The Breath in Yoga
There is a special yoga breath known as ujjayi breathing which is deep and full and the exhalation is sent out through the nostrils, rather than the mouth. It helps to focus the mind on the posture and has a calming effect. The idea is to just keep your attention on breathing in slowly and deeply, with a deep exhalation; on the exhalation we deliberately make a sort of rasping sound, rather like a soft snore, so that the exhalation is audible. This helps with the calming effect and is very relaxing.
The ujjayi breath is of particular value in the Seated Forward Bend posture and really helps to improve and deepen the stretch. Some people may actually find that the out-breath is easier if expelled through the mouth. I often find that a combination of exhalations either through the nostrils or through the mouth works well. Either way, aim for the deep, rasping, sighing breath that expresses the release of deep tension.
3. Seated Spinal Twist
The Seated Spinal Twist is a little difficult to describe, so please do refer to the picture below and also study this posture demonstrated on YouTube or similar, so that you can follow it step by step. Many good Yoga books describe this posture and the Standing and Seated Forward Bends very well, in a step by step process. In fact, all of these postures would be good to view in this way, and also of course, with personal instruction from a qualified Yoga Teacher.
There are a few variations on this posture, and indeed, most yoga postures do have several alternative variations. In this version, you sit with both legs straight out in front of you, and first draw the left leg back with the heel of the left foot resting near the right buttock. Bending the right leg, we place the right foot just in front of the left knee.
Next, turn the body to the right and look over the right shoulder, placing the right hand on the floor just behind the buttocks. Keeping the chest upright, you can now use the left arm to lever on the right knee and thus deepen the twist a little more. If you are able to get the left hand down to hold your foot, then that will increase the twist. This posture turns the thoracic to lower vertebrae and gives a satisfying stretch to the spine. It can also help with alignment in the sacrum and pelvic girdle.
After let's say, two minutes, you now do the posture on the other side, using opposite legs and arms as indicated above. Perform the same amount of time on this side as on the first side. This posture is particularly invigorating I find. Again, if there is any pain, come out of the posture carefully.
Yoga for a Healthy Spine
The philosophy behind yoga states that if we look after our spine and our liver, we shall experience perfect health. There is so much truth in this concept. These three posture alone, if done regularly, every day, will make an enormous difference to your overall well-being.
I suggest that anyone who wants to improve their posture, increase their energy and sense of well-being, should practice these three fundamental yoga postures every day, at least once per day, and twice if you are able to. I suggest that building up to 5 minutes in each posture will contribute enormously to your overall health and well-being; that's just fifteen minutes per session. It may be the soundest health investment that you have ever made.
Always remember to get sound guidance from a qualified Yoga Teacher, either in a class situation or online via the many excellent classes available today via YouTube, etc. Remember that any form of exercise can produce injuries if you overdo it. Be gentle with your body. Don't push beyond the bounds of reasonable ability and don't try too hard. Your body will stretch out in its own good time.
There may be some cautions indicated in some of the postures; people with glaucoma of the eyes are normally advised not to do any kind of inversion postures, so do check with your physician if you have this problem. Some spinal injuries may be aggravated by any of these three postures, so once again, first check whether you can do these safely without causing further injury.
Once more, if you do experience pain, you should come out of the posture gently and carefully. Always double-check with a health practitioner whether any spinal or other issue you have may be worsened by these postures.
Finally, Yoga literally means to 'yoke' or to form 'union.' This means that we are uniting everything together, in body, mind and soul. It brings harmony to the body, the mind and the emotions, and is a merging of all aspects of the being. It leads to a deeper and greater consciousness, when fully understood. Ultimately, this union is said to be a uniting with the Godhead itself.