General notes for the practitioner
The following practice notes should be thoroughly understood before going any further. Although anybody can practice asanas, they become more efficacious and beneficial when performed in the proper manner after correct preparation.
Breathing: Always breathe through the nose unless specific instructions are given to the contrary. Coordinate the breath with the asana practice.
This is as essential to the practice of asana as it is to all yoga practices. The purpose of asana practice is to influence, integrate and harmonize all the levels of being: physical, pranic, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual. At first it may appear that asanas are merely concerned with the physical level because they deal with the movement of different parts of the body, but they have profound effects at every level of being if they are combined with awareness.
Awareness in this context may be understood as consciously noting sensations in the body, the physical movement, the posture itself, breath control and synchronization, movement of prana, concentration on an area of the body or chakra and, most importantly, witnessing any thoughts or feelings that may arise during the practice. Implicit in the concept of awareness is the acceptance of any thought or feeling which comes uninvited to the mind. This awareness is essential in order to receive optimum benefits from the practices.
Right or left side: An example of the necessity for continual awareness is that most right-handed people will find it easier to commence an asana on the right side, which is more
developed due to habitual patterns of behaviour. Once the asana is learned, however, it is better to lead with the left side and promote its development.
Relaxation: Shavasana may be performed at any point during asana practice, especially when feeling physically or mentally tired. It should also be practiced on completion of the asana program.
Sequence: After completing shatkarma, asana should be done, followed by pranayama, then pratyahara and dharana which lead to meditation.
Counterpose: When practising the middle and advanced group of asanas particularly, it is important that the program is structured so that backward bends are followed by forward bends and vice versa, and that whatever is practiced on one side of the body is repeated on the other side. This concept of counterpose is necessary to bring the body back to a balanced state. Specific counterposes are recommended for certain asanas described in this book.
Time of practice: Asanas may be practiced at any time of day except after meals. The best time, however, is the two hours before and including sunrise. This period of the day is known in Sanskrit as bralmwmuhurta, the most conducive time for higher yogic practices, when the atmosphere is pure and quiet, the activities of the stomach and intestines have stopped, the mind has no deep impressions on the conscious level and is empty of thoughts in preparation for the day ahead. The practitioner will probably find that the muscles are stiffest early in the morning compared to the late afternoon when they become more supple. Nevertheless this time is recommended for practice. In the evening the two hours around sunset is also a favourable time.
Pregnancy: Many asanas are helpful during pregnancy, but it is important to check with a midwife/doctor/competent yoga teacher prior to practising. Do not strain. Do not use inverted asanas in the later stages of pregnancy.
Age limitations: Asanas may be practiced by people of all age groups, male and female.
Place of practice: Practice in a well-ventilated room where it is calm and quiet. Asanas may also be practiced outdoors, but the surroundings should be pleasant, a beautiful garden with trees and flowers, for example. Do not practice in a strong wind, in the cold, in air that is dirty, smoky or which carries an unpleasant odour. Do not practice in the vicinity of furniture, a fire or anything that prevents free fall to the ground, especially while performing asanas such as sirshasana. Many accidents occur because people fall against an object. Do not practice under an electric fan unless it is extremely hot.
Blanket: Use a folded blanket of natural material for the practices as this will act as an insulator between the body and the earth. Do not use a mattress which is spongy or filled with air as this does not give sufficient support to the spine.
Clothes: During practice it is better to wear loose, light and comfortable clothing. Before commencing, remove spectacles, wristwatches and any jewellery.
Bathing: Try to take a cold shower before starting. This will greatly improve the effect of the asanas.
Emptying the bowels: Before commencing the asana program, the bladder and intestines should preferably be empty. If constipated, drink two or three glasses of warm, slightly salted water and practice the asanas, namely tadasana, tiryaka tadasana, kati chakrasana, tiryaka bhujangasana and udarakarshan asana. This should relieve the constipation. If not, practising pawanmuktasana part two should help. Choose one time daily to go to the toilet before doing asanas. Do not strain; try to relax the whole body. After some weeks the bowels will automatically evacuate at the set time every day. Try to avoid using laxative drugs.
Empty stomach: The stomach should be empty while doing asanas and to ensure this, they should not be practiced until at least three or four hours after food. One reason why early morning practice is recommended is that the stomach is sure to be empty.
Diet: There are no special dietary rules for asana practitioners, although it is better to eat natural food and in moderation. Contrary to popular belief, yoga does not say that a vegetarian diet is essential, although in the higher stages of practice it is recommended. At meal times it is advised to half fill the stomach with food, one quarter with water and leave the remaining quarter empty. Eat only to satisfy hunger and not so much that a feeling of heaviness or laziness occurs. Eat to live rather than live to eat. Foods which cause acidity or gas in the digestive system, which are heavy, oily and spicy, should be avoided, especially when asanas are practiced with a spiritual aim.
No straining: Never exert undue force while doing asanas.
Beginners may find their muscles stiff at first, but after several weeks of regular practice they will be surprised to find that their muscles are more supple.
Contra-indications: People with fractured bones or who are suffering from acute infections or backache, or chronic ailments and diseases such as stomach ulcer, tuberculosis, cardiac problems or hernia, and those recuperating from operations, should consult a competent yoga teacher or doctor before commencing asanas. Carefully observe the contra-indications given in the introductions to each section, and those given for individual asanas.
Inverted asana: People with heart problems, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, glaucoma, an active ear infection or any disease of the brain should refrain from inverted postures. Those with cervical problems should not practice postures where the neck is weight bearing.
Termination of asana: If there is excessive pain in any part of the body, the asana should be terminated immediately and, if necessary, medical advice sought. Do not stay in an asana if discomfort is felt.