To help cultivate awareness, relaxation and concentration there are various asana types to stretch, massage and stimulate various organs and energy channels. Each category can help to provide us with a different perspective on life, from a physical, emotional, internal and external point of view, which in keeping with the theme of Yoga will simultaneously support a contradiction or polar opposite to bring about balance and harmony. Whilst there are many different asana types, most of us will be familiar and regularly practice the following five.
Backward bending asanas
Back bending by name, frontal stretch by nature whereby the opening of the heart and chest area enlarges our lung capacity. This increases our intake of oxygen, as well as creating a protective cushion around the thoracic part of our spine, thereby alleviating pressure on the spinal lumbar region, the most commonly injured part of our spine. During backward bending asanas muscles within the coronal (frontal) plane of the body such as the abdominal, groin and femoral area are elongated. Backbends are associated with the past and it is through confronting the past, accepting that it is a part of our identity, that we accept our present state and grow towards our future thereby preparing for the forward journey.
Top tip: Inhale before practicing back bends and practice lengthening your spine. This offers more protection and will help create space to alleviate unnecessary pressure on vertebrae and spinal discs.
Forward bending asanas
Forward bends use gravity to offer relief from tension and pain. A state of relaxation is encouraged through compression of internal organs during exhalation. Forward bends will massage the abdominal organs whilst stretching the legs muscles and tendons. Most importantly, forward bends help make the back muscles supple and strong, by moving the spine into the “primary curve” position separating each vertebra, improving circulation and stimulating the nerves. When we take a bow we face forward to see the world and surrender to fearlessly face what is and what can be with deep humility.
Top tip: Bend from the hips instead of the waist to achieve a greater range of movement, creating a stronger pressure to induce greater relaxation on the abdomen.
Spinal twisting asanas
Performing at least one spinal twist after forward and backbends in addition towards the end of a Yoga session is a fairly common occurrence. The spinal nerves are stimulated and by twisting from one side we increase flexibility, compressing and stretching our abdominal region to nourish and enhance the flow of oxygen to the abdominal organs such as the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas and kidneys, promoting health and vitality. On a symbolic emotional and spiritual level, mindful twisting embodies the nubs we can encounter in life. It is through our approach to explore them, loosen and disentangle ourselves with acceptance and control that we create insight and inspiration to overcome distensions in life.
Top tip: The base of your spine has the least range of movement so begin twisting from the base, controlling the range of movement from your abdomen to create a greater range of space. Inhale to elongate your spine before moving deeper into the twist on each exhale.
By encouraging the flow of blood to the brain we stimulate neurones to boost mental power and increase concentration including our pituitary gland which is responsible for growth and development. During inversions breathing slows and deepens which intensifies the interchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen and the endocrine system is purified through enriched blood flow. By reversing the way we stand in the world we throw light and a new weightless perspective on our state of being.
Top tip: Master each stage before progressing to the next. Always follow an inverted asana with a resting asana for at least half the duration of time taken to practice the inversion before undertaking the counter-pose.
Our mind and bodies are always compensating for a lack of balance for the simple reason that we are rarely ever still. The practice of balancing asanas helps to develop the cerebellum function that coordinates and regulates muscular activity of the body in motion, to improve posture, balance and calm unconscious movement. Our submission to attain balanced steadiness develops concentration. At an emotional level, balancing asanas acknowledge our sense of equilibrium at a given moment, whilst providing the opportunity to conserve energy or achieve peaceful grace in the present moment.
Top tip: To begin with, activate your drishti (focused gaze) on a fixed point at eye, navel or floor level and take comfort that progress can be made quickly with regular dedicated practice.
It is only natural that you may gravitate towards a certain group, wishing to avoid another. It is human nature to want to succeed by sometimes pushing the limits and getting frustrated when expectation is not met. I, for one, love surrendering into forward bends but always face my ego when attempting and falling over in balancing asanas. However I’ve slowly come to appreciate that it is with humbleness that we must accept our current capabilities, we should face our fears and fall occasionally, because this is how we let go. We should forget about what we think we should be doing and how we should be, to create the space to root down, grow and become exactly who we are meant to be.