The following are 5 important principles of yoga asana practice based on my experience, learning and teaching.
Asana practice is a beautiful and life long journey. As a part of the yoga philosophy teachings, asanas are a great tool towards becoming stronger mentally and physically, adaptable and flexible, steady and focused, compassionate and humble. Sometimes our practice is dynamic and strong, other times it is a gentle and soft. But we can always remember that it is a sadhana, a spiritual practice and not a performance of different postures. Therefore, we can learn to understand our practice better by doing it from a place of truth and willingness to explore the depths of it. These principles may provide us with some insight into how we can practice yoga asana more mindfully.
I will start with the breathing because in my opinion, this is the most important. If we are not breathing correctly in an asana, then it is no use being it in. The breath is the fuel of our physical existence, and every movement is guided by it if we allow it. The breath can take us into an asana with vitality & depth and it helps us exit one safely. It gives us the strength and flexibility to be steady in a posture. When you begin your practice, regardless which style you follow, first take some deep breaths. Begin to feel the rhythm of your breath and ground yourself. Being in the asana and breathing at ease, means that you can be more steady in it and all your body receive enough oxygen.
Each asana is different but there are some key postures which can help is understand the alignment for most of others. For example, the standing asanas follow the alignment of Tadasana, which is the foundational asana for all standing postures. For the seated ones, the foundational asana is Dandasana and so on. Alignment is important in my opinion, not because we want to be “perfect” in the posture, but to avoid injury or pressure on the body. No matter at what level you are, if you use yoga props, asana modifications or practice more advanced variations, understanding the way the body is aligned on each one is a key component of the whole posture. Through my many years of practice and teaching, the best way I have found to do so is by being aware of my body in the asana; is the breath flowing with ease? Are the shoulders & chest open? Am I grounding the feet? And so on. Depending on the asana, you can get an idea of this. Mirrors are not needed, it is best to feel it and learn to listen to your body. Traditionally, mirrors are not used in a yoga asana setting because the practice takes us inward, not outward to look at ourselves.
Drishti refers to the gaze or the focus point when in a yoga posture. Why do we need to use this? The main reason is that it keeps the mind focused. I always say “where the drishti goes, the mind stays focused”. It also helps us to guide the body into the asana. Drishti can support maintain correct alignment. For example, in Vrksasana (tree pose) the drishti is forward and it helps if it is a steady point you are gazing at. If for example, the gaze is down, then the head turns towards the floor, therefore the cervical spine is not in the correct alignment as this creates flexion in this area. For me, drishti is a key principle no matter which style of asana I practice or teach.
Regardless if we are more advanced in our practice or brand new to it, there is no place for ego on the mat. Every time we begin our practice, we can acknowledge that it is a new experience; forget about yesterday’s one and focus in this present moment. Our body changes constantly and so does the mind. The condition the body and mind are in today might be different from yesterday, so learn to adjust and acknowledge this. Approach the practice with a new beginning concept. Practice from a space of humbleness and willing to explore each asana without allowing the ego to disrupt. Even if a practitioner can do the most advanced asanas, there is always something to learn. So humbleness will set the ego back and always keep us open to the teachings of our practice.
Without a doubt, one of the most fundamental teachings of the yoga philosophy is that no matter what you practice, be consistent in it. This will give us the will-power to commit to it and to make it a priority (if this is something you want to do). Yoga asana is not about performing postures, but about balance, strength, flexibility and finally steadiness. These apply to our physical, mental/emotional aspects. Only when a practice is consistent, we can truly realise the beauty of it, the depth of each asana and of course develop a meaningful connection with our Self. The more we practice (following the above principles), the more fluid and open we become for our practice. Consistency will give your body and mind the tools to dive deep into your practice, not because you will be able to do asanas with more ease, but because harmony and balance will develop on all aspects of your life on and off the mat.