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The Basics: Essential Yoga Breathing, Postures, and Alignment for Health

Yogic breathing! Westerners tend to emphasize the inhale rather than the exhale. In yogic breathing, the exhale precedes the inhale, and it is necessary to have taken a complete exhale before the inhale can take place.

There are four different methods of breathing;

  • Abdominal, diaphragmatic, or low breathing
  • Intercostal or middle breathing
  • Clavicular or upper breathing
  • Complete yogic breathing is a combination of all three

Pranayama

Pranayama is yogic breathwork or breathing exercises. Pranayama specifically translates as control or lengthening of the life force energy, or prana. Prana is life force, energy, or breath.

There are many different pranayama techniques used for various purposes, but you do not need extensive knowledge of any of them to teach a yoga class. Some schools of yoga, such as Iyengar and Sivananda, teach pranayama separately from asana.

Some styles teach them simultaneously, such as in Ashtanga, power, or vinyasa, where ujjayi breathing is practiced throughout, and the breath and movements are synchronized. (In

Ashtanga yoga more advanced pranayama exercises are taught to advanced students and practiced separately from asana.) Essentially, pranayama, like asana, is something you will learn from a qualified teacher and only pass on to your students when you have mastered it yourself.

Pranayama is powerful and should be practiced and taught appropriately. You may use a book, such as Iyengar’s Light on Pranayama, and practice on your own. But do not attempt to teach anything you have only read about. You must have a personal experience of it before sharing it with students.

Ujjayi pranayama

The Sanskrit word ujjayi means victorious, and is derived from the roots ud, or bondage, and ji, or conquer. It is therefore the pranayama that frees us from bondage, and also refers to having conquered, or mastered, one’s own energy and power.

It is practiced by toning the back of the throat and breathing as though through a small hole on the base of your throat, instead of through your nostrils.

Both the inhale and the exhale are even and long, deep and controlled. It creates a soft snoring sound, and when practiced correctly there will be a simultaneous contraction of the abdomen.

The contraction in the throat and abdomen allow for the breath to be very long, slow, and deep. Ujjayi is calming and heating and is used to soothe the nervous system and the mind.

Ujjayi can be practiced alone, either sitting or lying down, or can be coordinated with postures, as it is in Ashtanga, vinyasa, or yoga flow, where the marriage of breath with movement promotes a deep level of awareness and gracefulness, builds heat, and cultivates stamina.

Yoga postures or asanas

In ytt Asana means posture, or seat. I believe that technically it has to do with how we sit or stand so that energy flows most effectively, as in “she has good posture,” although it has come to be synonymous with the practice of yoga postures or yoga poses. The terms posture and pose may be used

interchangeably, but either one is preferable to “yoga position” or “yoga move.” Various schools and styles of yoga emphasize different principles of alignment in asana, as well as different sequencing.

Some styles are very alignment-intensive, while others focus on other areas of the practice. I tend to teach quite a bit of alignment in my classes, as I have a lot of Iyengar and Anusara yoga in my background and training.

It is my opinion that if you, like me, are particularly interested in alignment, anatomy, and the therapeutic aspects of the yoga practice, you will want to have some Iyengar and/or Anusara yoga in your toolkit.

Based on my experience and conceptualization of postural alignment, there are some basic principles of alignment that are universal and may apply to all yoga postures: • Foundation: the body part that is on the ground (feet, knees, hands, forearms, or head) sets the foundation for the rest of the pose, and must be placed with intention and attention to proper alignment. • Rooting/recoiling: root down into the earth in order to lengthen and/or rise up • Expansion/contraction: energy moves outward expansively from the core of the posture to the extremities; and also draws inward muscularly from the surface to the core. • Shoulder engagement: the shoulder blades are firmly on the back, supporting the opening of the heart center and the lift of the chest. • Shins in/thighs out: the thigh bones are drawn back and apart, while the shin bones move forward and in.

These actions open the hips and pelvis and stabilize the knees. • The kneecaps are drawn up, but not “locked” or hyperextended. • The tailbone is down and in, or “scooped.” • The lower belly is engaged. • The sides of the neck are long. • The sides of the torso, or “side-body”, are long. • In standing poses, as a general rule of thumb, when the knee is bent, the weight should be on the heel of the foot; when the

leg is straight, the weight is in the ball of the foot, or the big toe mound. These actions help protect the knee. • Reach evenly through the “four corners” of the feet, whether you are standing on them, or not.

So, in seated postures, or when a leg is up in the air, the toes are spread and energetic, and there is expansion through both the heels and the balls of the feet. • Drishti: Sanskrit for “gaze” or “point of focus,” each asana has a prescribed drishti, such as the tip of the nose, the third eye (point between the eyebrows), the hand, big toe, or simply “side” or “up.”

These are not set in stone, and you may experiment with different drishtis, but they help the practitioner remain centered, balanced, and focused. • Breath: the breath is always free and unrestrained, in and out through the nose. Never hold the breath during posture practice.

As previously mentioned, it is essential that you have been attending classes and practicing regularly with at least one qualified teacher for a minimum of 1-2 years.

That is where you will learn postures and alignment and where you will experience and master them in your own body. It will also be helpful for you to choose some books on yoga postures to use as reference for your teaching.

You may choose books based on your specific yoga style, but there are a few that we recommend as general references: Light on Yoga and Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health , both by B.K.S. Iyengar; 30 Essential Yoga Poses by Judith Lasater; The Sivananda Companion to Yoga; Power Yoga and Beyond Power Yoga , both by Beryl Bender Birch; Journey Into Power by Baron Baptiste; and Moving Into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann.

There are hundreds of yoga postures, and thousands of variations on those, not to mention all the ones that have been made up in recent years and are regularly practiced now.

This book is not intended to teach you how to practice or teach yoga postures. This will not be an exhaustive study of yoga asana, but an overview.

For postures that need to be practiced on both right and left sides, I refer here to the right leg/arm, or front leg/arm, so make certain you practice or teach both sides!

The postures: Surya Namaskara

Surya Namaskara or Sun Salutations are usually practiced at or near the beginning of a session and are intended to warm up the body and prepare it for deeper postures.

There are many ways to practice Surya Namaskara, but the basic sequence is below. The postures correspond to the above graphic: 1-5, top row left-right; 6-7, middle left-right; 8-10, bottom left-right.

Tadasana (Mountain)

standing at attention, feet planted either together or hip-width, spine aligned, gaze straight ahead. Hands either in anjali mudra (prayer position) or Hands down at your side.

Urdhva Hastasana (Arms Up)

Inhale the arms up, lift the chest, and look up at your thumbs. You can bring your palms to touch or keep arms shoulder-width apart. 4. You may choose to arch back in a gentle backbend. (In the

illustration above, the guy is bending way back. He is just a cartoon, but your actual students may hurt themselves if they bend so far back before getting warmed up! You may have them just stand tall and take their arms straight up.)

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend, or literally “Intense Stretch Pose”)

Exhale as you bend forward from the hips and bring hands to the floor beside the feet. You may need to bend your knees. I prefer to touch just the fingertips rather than the whole hand. Keep hips over the heels, do not let them sway back. Gaze at the third eye.

Look out for rounding in the back—the bend comes rather from the crease of the hips. Knees may need to bend if the student has tight hamstrings.

High Lunge or Runner’s Lunge * (no Sanskrit name, just use “Lunge”)

Step one foot to the back of your mat, keep the front leg at 90 degrees, weight on the heel, back knee lifted, and back toes turned under, stay on fingertips.

Gaze straight ahead. You may also choose to drop the knee down in Anjaneyasana (low lunge), getting a deeper stretch on the front of the back leg. You may stay on the tips of the toes or drop to the top of the foot.

I prefer to stay on fingertips rather than flat palms so there is space between the torso and the bent leg. Keep the front heel grounded and do not over-bend the knee. *You may choose to step or jump back to plank and skip the lunge. 7. Plank Pose (this is another one of the postures that does not seem to have a Sanskrit name, just use “plank”):

In Plank, hands are flat on the floor, not cupped or in fists, and directly beneath shoulders. Use your core strength to draw up the belly, tuck your tailbone and your front ribs in, and soften between the shoulder blades.

Extend energy out through the heels and the crown of the head. Gaze at tip of the nose or straight ahead.

Ashtanga Namaskara (Knees-Chest-Chin)

As the name suggests, drop your knees, chest, and chin down, gazing straight ahead. The buttocks are lifted for a gentle arch in the spin.

Another option here is Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff, or low push-up)

Bend your elbows and shift slightly forward as you lower down until your upper arms are parallel to the floor and elbows bent to 90 degrees. Keep the heads of your arm bones up away from the earth so you do not dump into the shoulders.

Bhujangasana (Cobra)

Keeping the legs and hips on the floor, point the toes straight back, press the hands down to lift the chest and draw the shoulders back. The chest lifts so the shoulders do not scrunch to the ears, but the arms may or may not come to straight. The pubic bone should remain on the floor. Gaze forward or up, keeping the neck long.

Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog, or “Up Dog”)

May be practiced in lieu of cobra. Press the arms straight, roll to the tops of the feet, and lift the chest up till the legs and hips are off the ground. Only the tops of the feet and palms of the hands are on the floor, the arms are vertical, and the chest lifts up so that the shoulders are not up

around the ears. In both Cobra and Up Dog encourage students to stay engaged in the belly and to pull the shoulder blades into the back, so as to stabilize the lower back and open the upper back.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog, or “Down Dog”)

From cobra, or upward facing dog, lift the hips high so that only the hands and feet are on the ground, and the body creates the shape of an upside down “V”.

Hands are at shoulder width and feet at hips-width apart. Press strongly through the whole hand to lengthen the spine and lift the hips and press the thighs back to stretch the legs. The legs will eventually straighten, and the heels may come to the floor.

Gaze to the floor or to the navel. Look out for too much pressure in the wrist—the weight should be in the knuckles of the index fingers and thumbs. The shoulder blades need to slide down onto the back in order to keep the upper trapezius muscles from scrunching around the neck.

You may finish the Sun Salutation by stepping up to repeat the lunge, or simply stepping/hopping to the front of the mat. Repeat Uttanasana, Urdhva Hastasana, and Tadasana to complete the Sun Salutation.

Repeat the Sun Salutation 3-5 times. You may also incorporate these transitions between postures within a flow-style or vinyasa practice.

This article is for informational/educational purposes only. Healthtian does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, read more.

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