The contemporary approach to Yoga therapy is often, like most things in our modern world, a little more linear and scientific than the ancient approach. Not that there is anything wrong with it, it’s just the times we are in. The patriarchal, masculine mindset of compartmentalising and logically analysing has taught us so much about the microcosm and the inner beauty of our bodies and the world.
(Edit – I am referring to the masculine and feminine principles of Purusha and Prakriti, Shiva and Shakti, linear and chaotic, logical and intuitive, as described in the vedas. Not to the men and women of this world)
But when we use an ancient system like Yoga, we cannot take it out of it’s original context and still hope to understand it.
It also doesn’t quite work to take Asana out of the whole picture of Yoga. That would be like taking one puzzle piece out of a picture and trying to sqeeze it into a new one, branding it outdated and cutting it’s edges off to change it’s shape.
So, to really understand the therapeutic value of asana we have to look through the eyes of the old Yoga masters and the knowledge they had based on their own systems of science and anatomy, which are as valid today as they ever were.
But these ancient systems were never, as is often the case in our modern approaches, reductionistic sciences. They do not view the body in a mechanical manner or describe parts of it in isolation, but instead they see it as a whole, an expression of consciousness that has evolved from the essence of our soul.
Nor does Yoga therapy refer to mere mechanical issues, joints and muscle groups, or even the nervous system or the much talked about myofascial system, although they are all part of it too.
Yoga therapy, as the old masters intended, was much more than that.
The difference was in their holistic intention – and in the life science that provided the basis for it – Ayurveda.
In the ayurvedic view of anatomy, the body is not divided into single muscle groups but rather into different types of tissues. It’s elements and parts are not even described with nouns, as fixed things that have fixed place in the body, but as ever changing qualities, using adjectives to describe a fluctuating, living organism that is in constant communication with the world around it.
Substances in our body’s are therefor either light or heavy, hot or cold, fluid or solid, sticky or smooth, etc, and these qualities increase or decrease according to the influencing environment.
Just like all of nature and all of the universe, our bodies too are programmed to reach a certain balance, an equilibrium of these qualities, and it’s effort to achieve it, creates the constant dance of life.
During these fluctuations, imbalances within the system can of course easily occur and disease happens all too quickly when imbalances get out of hand.
In Ayurveda, the basis of all disease is seen as a build up of waste, caused by dysfunctions or blockages in our metabolic pathways. This, in combination with a doshic imbalance (ie too much heat, too much cold, too much dryness, etc), is the cause of all disease, from bloating and allergies to heart disease and cancer.
Therapy is therefor always aimed at clearing the waste products from pathways while nourishing the tissues and recreating balance in all systems of the body.
And furthermore, as both Yoga and Ayurveda are based on the philosophy of Samkhya, these therapies have to also include the emotional and mental level, as the body is only a manifestation of the more subtle realms of consciousness.
So, how does this reflect in Asana practice?
Let’s look at a traditional sequence like the Ashtanga Yoga primary series, which is also called “Yoga Cikitsa” (“Yoga Therapy”).
The sequence had evolved through a few generations of teachers, with the late P. Jois making it into a fixed template designed for western minds.
In my experience this template is one of the most effective sequences there is, however also one of the most dangerous, if it is used too rigidly and without appropriately adjusting it to the individual. It works best with the right balance between a masculine (linear/logical/fixed) and feminine (circular/intuitive/creative) approach. Anything too “fixed” can easily loose it’s worth as therapy but as a template, it is, in my opinion, of amazing value.
So how does it work?
Metabolic pathways can only be cleared by one’s own metabolism, by burning away the toxins that have clogged them up with our own digestive fire (Agni). Agni works most strongly in the upper digestive tract/liver but also on a more subtle level through cell metabolism.
Our asana practice can support this in different ways:
1. By creating heat in the body which stimulates the cellular metabolism (done through surya Namaskara at the start and in between postures). How much heat is necessary, is different for each individual.
2. By inducing sweating, which is an important way of removing toxins from the body. Although not a lot of sweating is generally needed for it to have a therapeutic effect.
3. By stimulating agni (the digestive fire) in the stomach (through specific asanas like Paschimottanasana and other forward folds, of which there are a lot in this series).
4. By practicing on an empty stomach (to allow the agni to deal with already present toxins rather than with new food).
There are also different methods that help to balance the doshas in the body:
1. Creating a balanced flow of Vata energies in the body (balancing all five Vayus in their flow of movement in all directions) which in turn influences all other doshas. For this reason in particular it is important to respect the individual constitution and allow for modifications in the frequency of vinyasa movement between posture as to balance, and not aggravate the Vatas of the body.
2. Creating a balance between inhale and exhale which balances the nervous system
3. Creating a balance between movement and stillness in the body
4. Using a balanced effort in each asana (ie using all of our muscles equally in each posture).
5. Ensuring that all asana are carried out in balance of the Gunas – equally steady & stable, dynamic and spacious/expanding – which also means balance between strength, flexibility and a calm, relaxed nervous system.
To control the mind, and the more subtle realms of consciousness (as described in Samkhya philosophy) we follow Patanjali’s eight step guidance on how to achieve a perfect mental state, free from programmed unconscious behaviour and distracting thought patterns. This of course should be practiced not only on the mat but during all times and each individual part can be a practice in itself. But even during our asana practice alone, we can use these guidelines to train our mind. It is because of this integration of the eight limbs into our asana practice, that we refer to it as Ashtanga Yoga.
1. Yama – we practice asana mindfully, not forcefully, truthfully starting wherever we are at in each moment in time, remaining present and not grasping to any outcome, and respecting our bodies as divine expressions of consciousness.
2. Niyama – arriving on the mat clean (inside and out) and being content with wherever we are at. Practicing disciplined & daily with consistent self inquiry and devotion.
4. Pratyahara – paying attention to our internal senses, rather than an external goal. Internal awareness on what a posture feels like rather than what it looks like. This practice in particular can establish an important connection with the sacred intelligence of our body.
5. Pranayama – keeping the breath even and slow. Gentle Ujjay techniques are used to help controlling the breath – as long as the breath still flows freely.
6. Dharana – One pointed awareness/Concentrating on the different energy centres of the body or the points of direction of movement (drishti) – and focusing on the breath.
7. Dhyana – with practice, the effort of concentration will become sustained and our asana practice becomes a moving meditation.
8. Samadhi – the equilibrium that can thus be reached between our bodies, minds and outer world – the perfect state of mind – body balance.
Energy flow in Ayurveda is represented in the system of Marmas, Nadis and Chakras, energy pathways or centres where different tissues meet and where there is a heightened activity (ie hormonal activity, circulation, nervous impulses, etc).
Each posture is designed to manipulate these energy flows, similar to other eastern systems like Shiatsu (which is sometimes called “Yoga for the lazy”), acupressure or acupuncture (without the needles of course).
The sequence is designed to strengthen and clear the energy centres from the ground up. The practice of Mula bandha activates the Mula Dhara Chakra and from there, lifts the energy upward through the spine. It is this activation that keeps the spine lengthening and moving almost snake-like, supported by the hips and shoulders, while the arms and legs merely follow. From the grounding base chakras (Earth & Water – standing postures & hip openers) to Manipura Chakra (fire – in the abdominal region, all forward folds, navasana, core strengthening postures) to Anahata Chakra (Air) in the chest (back bending), to the purifying area of Visuddhi in the throat (Shoulderstand sequence) and finally the energy centres in the head (Ajna and Sahasrara) during headstand.
Thinking of the chakras as centres of heightened physical activity, we can influence our hormonal system as well as our nervous and circulatory system through it’s consistent practice.
We also have to realise that our bodies are Prakriti – divine nature – and that cosmic intelligence (Mahat) is present in every one of our cells. It is intelligence in it’s purest form, before the formation of ego creates any illusion, fear or distraction and the more we can connect to it and listen to it, trust our own body and get to know and love it in all it’s glory, the more we can transcend our ego and balance the dualistic state of our existence. Our bodies are not fixed things to be pressed into fixed moulds and as long as we don’t understand this, true healing cannot happen.
In the functions of our body, Purusha and Prakriti, Shiva and Shakti, the divine masculine and feminine are coming together in this purest form of being. Our bodies are literally pure love. Everything our body does, it does for us, for the greater good of our being. If we can manage to return this love to our bodies, we will be blessed with much abundance in our lives.
We can honor the masculine principle by following the same routine, the same sequence that provides a thread through the ever changing chaos within our bodies. Against this sameness, we can be discerning, see the changes occurring in us every day, observe those changes and respect them as what they are – an attempt to create balance.
And we can honor the feminine by learning to listen to the messages our body gives us. Cultivating intuition and implementing changes in the sequence when we need them, a circular approach rather than a linear, and learning to listen what the ego-less body needs as opposed to what the ego-centred mind wants.
Even if that means going “astray” for a while to explore what needs to be explored. We will likely return to it with greater perspective.
In the end, Asana alone may not be enough to truly achieve perfect health and happiness but if we see our body’s divine intelligence and tap into it to recognise our own divine potential, we can change so much in our lives for the better.
Haven’t so many of us started with Asana as a means to become more flexible/loose weight/etc and ended (although it never really ends, does it?) with lifestyle changes, better nutrition, better friends, a better job, etc…
And is there a need to change the set sequence a little to suit our different constitutions? Of course! A Kapha type woman in her 50s will not need the same approach than a Vata type 22year old or a Pitta man in his 30s. Genetics also have a role to play as does lifestyle and pre-conditions of body and mind.
In my personal experience, the primary series has provided me with an abundant amount of “Yoga Therapy” on many levels but it was effective only because it provided many obstacles and fluctuated over time. It changed and moved and it morphed into something different than I would have thought and then returned back again to start the process all over.
The secret lies, as everything in Yoga, in the “how” instead of the “what”. What we do is not as important as how we do it.
And like everything in life, it’s all about balance.