Asana: guides and gravity
When breath leads movement, and the mind rests in the body, we are in a physical flow state. This is practical energy work. The movement of breath is the movement of prana; the mind is still as it directs the breath and watches the effects manifest in the body as freedom in muscles and joints, renewed tone in organs and the supporting structures of the spine.
This is why we begin Ashtanga Vinyasa with sun salutations: the awaken the body-mind-breath connection. We work the spine in many planes of gravity (forward folds, push up, backbend, down dog, jumps) and this stirs kundalini.
Once we have the degree of self possession to enter the flow state at will, we can really work with form.
For form, we begin at center: hara (a Japanese term for the center of the body; center of gravity). This is where bandhas help focus our attention. With our attention centered, we can work with the main energy field we live in, gravity, to stack our bones so that the structure we create with our bodies allows the most fluent flow of energy.
Structure determines degree of function; good form begets better flow in a positive cycle. Having the expertise of a teacher who can both see your form and hear your flow is most valuable at this time, when you are looking to amplify the energy waves you create on the mat.
As you form your unique relationships with the postures you practice again and again, you can imagine the new ways you are experiencing gravity, the way that energy flows through and around you. The posture will be “correct” when your bones stack well with respect to gravity; then you will also feel the release of muscular tension and the suffusion of inner strength, mental clarity, and space for breath.
The various poses can be grouped together with respect to the shape of the spine, and how gravity pulls the body around it. Generally, the spine should keep integrity, creating one fluid form, whether pulled towards straight or consciously bent/turned.
The first groups of poses we learn are forward folds and twists; they are foundational.
Forward folds: the spine is elongated and pulled towards straight
The psoas learn to fall back, the chest learns to expand as the abdominals contract, creating new space in both front and back body.
In seated forward folds, the spine will eventually come horizontal with effect to gravity, having the same restorative effects as laying supine.
In standing forward folds, the spine eventually comes in line with gravity, allowing a full release of the weight of the head from the neck. The upper back learns to support the weight of the shoulder girdle.
Overall, forward folds are calming, soothing. Long holds of these poses are great for stress relief and readying the body for bed (unless your belly is too full!)
Twists: The spine is straight with torque. The stabilizing muscles of the lower body learn to keep the pelvis level, grounding the body for the rib cage to turn as a full unit. This turn/twist creates compression in the abdomen, benefiting the digestive organs with the toning action. The upper organs are massaged with the action of the diaphragm.
The ribs have to open nicely for a full breath in these poses, because the abdomen is tightened by the twist. This creates opening in the upper spine (the vertebra attached to the ribs) and facilitates fuller breathing.
Overall, the effects of twists are detoxifying, especially for the organs. The space created for breath in the ribs is uplifting and energizing.
Standing poses are usually straight spine: forward folds and twists. They are the “warm up” postures, though they are often the whole class for the fitness flows that are almost always for beginners (even if they make lofty promises). The standing postures are excellent for learning how to ground and lengthen the body simultaneously, find balance, and attune the mind for the more challenging seated poses.
Inversions are typically presented as the most challenging poses; traditionally, inversions are basic, foundational postures, especially headstand and shoulder stand. Inversions are characterized by having the heart elevated above the head. The legs are above the pelvis, creating this opposite but still linear relationship with gravity, allowing the circulatory system to function with a new sense of up and down. The pump of the heart usually has to work hardest to reach the legs; when inverted, the blood flows easily from legs back to the heart, and this is restorative (once you overcome the initial panic of being upside down).
Effect: whether the postures are restorative or terrifying, they are good for you— literally turning your world, your vision, your perspective upside down. You learn how to feel your body from within. Eventually, you will be able to do anything upside down or right side up, reflecting a flexibility in mindset and fluidity with respect to gravity/ the external world.
Arm balances: handstands are arm balances as well as inversions; many arm balances are not inversions, and are usually characterized by a purposeful, powerful rounding of the spine inwards. The font body pulls back towards the back body, the legs are elevated or tucked in, and the arms support the body. Often these poses are mistaken for upper body strength when they are best experienced from the center of gravity. Lifting the pelvis and ribs with the breath and bandhas gives a sense of levity, of being free from gravity’s pull downwards.
Effect: strengthening, empowering
Backbends: typically the most challenging category of postures and taught last because they require the ability to both flex and extend the back of the body simultaneously (otherwise the ceervial and lumbar spine will become compressed/painful). The front body opens, the breath expands the rib cage, and the spine becomes long, arched and open.
These poses can be standing, or on the knees, or with just hands and feet on the ground.
Effect: high energy, big love.
Of course, some postures will cross into every category. A scorpion will be an arm balance, inversion, and backbend. Like any structure, thinking of the postures in these categories will be eye opening in the beginning, when you are looking at the shape of your spine and considering gravity/energy flow. With time, like all rules, you can release them.