Guest Post - John on Yoga

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Today's Post is one of the first in a series of posts on Yoga. I've asked John Foster a rather accomplished Yogi friend of mine to give us his unique insight. Yes, that's your's truly (hazmat) in some of these photos, John and I thought it would be best to show you Yoga postures by a "non-expert" as well as an accomplished practitioner. Without further delay...John on Yoga. -hz

There are lots of videos on the web of famous fighters training for competition. I usually find these videos inspirational up until the point the fighter slumps into something a bit like a yoga pose and begins to “stretch”. At that point I wonder why on earth his trainer hasn’t put a fraction of the effort into flexibility training he put into strength, technique, and endurance work.

Many yoga poses have been adopted as stretches and most martial artists practice them regularly without knowing it. Unfortunately they practice them without following the principles which make yoga so effective

There are eight aspects, or “limbs” to yoga and the physical practice of yoga postures, or “asana” is only one of them. According to Patanjali, a yoga sage writing around 200BC the overall purpose of all eight limbs is to achieve “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”.

The physical practice of yoga postures is not static or passive stretching; it is a holistic approach providing holistic results, including a less tense and more balanced body and mind. Such a body and mind are, along with other benefits, more flexible. Yoga is not as effective as a way to increase flexibility as a good dedicated stretching routine but it offers many more benefits than such a routine and such a routine will include many things that seem to come direct from yoga.

In yoga as in everything else there is the agonist, the antagonist, and the synergist. It is essential to work the antagonist and the synergist when in a pose which lengthens the agonist. It is also essential to completely relax every part of the body not involved in the pose.

In yoga as in everything else there is a kinaesthetic chain. It is essential to begin a stretch from the right place and keep it moving all the way to the limit. When that limit is reached the stretch is still not static. Either the posture is held dynamically at that limit with the balance between the muscles involved shifting as the body opens and the breath moves the body or the posture fluidly moves into the next in a sequence.

The result, with practice, is a system that both stretches the body and works it, increasing its elasticity and reinforcing the optimal kinaesthetic chain for both dynamic and very subtle movement. Movement is driven by the breath and the goal is a practice where the attention is focused entirely on the breathing.

This is best explained by an example. Every one is familiar with the simple standing forward bend, the yoga posture uttanasana. Done as yoga the posture starts standing. As the yogi breathes out they bend forward from the very base of the spine, the pelvic floor lifts gently, the lower abdomen core lifts and tightens very slightly, the spine extends forward and downward under traction from the pull of gravity, spilling out of the pelvis as it tips forward, the muscles of the feet and lower legs work as if to rotate the lower leg in while the muscles of the upper legs work as if to rotate the thighs out. The toes spread and relax against the floor. The hands come down to the floor either side of the feet with the palms resting flat on the floor. The fingers spread wide and root into the floor relaxed but firm. The muscles of the forearm work to lift the wrist so the skin is soft and there is no pressure on the wrist joint. The upper arms role out and the shoulders draw down the back. Once completely in the posture the yogi continues to breath fluidly in and out. On the in breath the spine lengthens and the lower back expands; on the out breath the head comes down closer to the floor as the leg and back lengthens.

Forward Bend Pose

At the point where the posture is complete the next begins. In one popular sequence (surya namaskar A, ashtanga style) the out breath shifts the weight in a movement starting at the base of the spine which tilts the pelvis even further over, lifts the legs off the floor, drops weight into the hands and then expands out of the psoas and the core shooting the legs back to land softly on the floor with the body in a low press up position – chatturanga and the weight evenly balanced in the centre between the hands and feet and held by strength expanding from the centre.

Plank Pose

From chatturanga the in breath draws the centre forward slightly rolling the feet over and bending the thoracic spine back so the head rises.

Upward Dog

With practice the postures can flow into each other very quickly without ever jolting or over straining the body, reaching a maximum range of movement every time.

The postures are linked into a sequence according to various principles. The most obvious is common sense. There are only so many postures the body can fluidly move into from standing forward bend. Slightly less obvious is the principle of complementary movements. At the end of the forward bend the front of the body has compressed so much that it has to expand. The move to chatturanga offers some expansion but the body needs to go further, reversing the forward bend with a back bend that takes the front of the body to the extreme of expansion after which it will have to contract into the next posture, downward dog.

Down Dog

Another principle behind krama, the sequencing of postures, is that of progressive repetition. After one posture prepares the body another takes it even further in the same direction.

There are other, deeper, principles behind the sequence of postures, such as the placing of energising and cooling postures in the sequence, but these are best experienced to be understood and are often expressed in terms that can seem esoteric.

Training like this is phenomenally hard work. It requires intense focus over a long period to build up the body awareness. It requires a constant willingness to renounce the illusion of a short cut straight to the point of maximum flexibility and instead to move into the posture step by step focusing all the intention on the current step. In return you get a combination of strength, flexibility, aerobic, balance, awareness and kinaesthetic training in one package.

There are other, more esoteric benefits too. Most are probably best left to be experienced after practice but some are quite simply explained.

It quickly becomes a challenge to maintain smooth, even, natural, full, breathing in the yoga postures and transitions. It is tempting to grab for breath and pause breathing when moving into handstand. In postures like bound karnapidasna the body is forced to let go of restricted breathing patterns and breathe using the full lungs. This translates into an ability to breathe well in even the most restricted positions and to remain calm and relaxed when the breathing is restricted, both useful when grappling.

Training like this reveals imbalances in the body and forces the student to confront them. I can transition from downward dog to seated forward bend swinging my legs up towards handstand and then down between my arms two ways. I can either use my upper back and shoulder muscles to force through or I can use my legs and core to full advantage, exactly positioning the pelvis to direct my body movement. After 90 min of the first my shoulders are in knots and my elbow and wrist joints are protesting. After 90 min of the second my body is calm and energised and my joints feel strong. There’s no contest between the two methods, as long as I listen to the feedback my body gives me I’m going to use the correct kinaesthetic approach and gradually my overdeveloped shoulders and (in consequence) over tight upper, outer, abdominals will relax as the small muscles of my core and the big muscles of my legs strengthen and I learn to move in the most efficient way. With efficient movement comes increased endurance, more result for less effort.

Focusing on the breath is an excellent way to monitor the body. Practice with awareness and focus increases body awareness which leads to honesty in practice. It becomes easier to know when your ego is pushing you towards an injury which will put you out of action and cost you training time.

Correct yoga breathing and movement calm the mind and produce a positive response in the nervous system. The mind learns to relax and focus even in unusual and difficult postures which extends to life off the mat.

Building one posture on another, using crow to work the balance, energise the body, and strengthen the upper body then working the balance more intensely and adding hip opening by moving into lotus crow.

It is entirely possible to train in this way without doing yoga but you are on your own. With yoga you are not on your own, you are benefiting from thousands of years of dedicated practitioners behind you who have honed the asanas and the sequences and the breathing exercises to perfection.

How do you start getting these benefits? Find a good yoga class nearby and start practicing. Like anything else it takes time to find a good teacher who suits you and can offer what you are looking for. Different schools and teachers emphasise different aspects of yoga practice. Expect to have to try several different classes and “styles” of yoga to find one that suits. Be prepared not to find everything you are looking for in one teacher or school. Buy some books or DVDs to get a wider exposure.

Keep an open mind and try to investigate what you are being taught not your own preconceived ideas. Don’t reject anything just because it doesn’t fit what you think you know about yoga or because it involves listening to a philosophy you may not have adopted yourself. Expect to sweat, expect to sweat buckets at first, that’s just your body cleansing out impurities. In return you will gain essential techniques for your flexibility regime, an invaluable addition to your training, and an introduction to a comprehensive system for living.

-John Foster with thanks to Franziska Koller of Zisgo Yoga who introduced me to this approach

Thanks John, you're an inspiration. It's important to remember one of the key points about Yoga John drove home, much like Supersets (or strength training using opposing muscle groups back to back), Yoga works by alternating between contracting and relaxing muscles. That's why the flow or sequence of Yoga postures is just as important as which postures are selected. Don't worry though, you are in luck, we've been given an evaluation copy of a very interesting Yoga for Martial Arts DVD, look for a complete review in the next few days. Until then.. Namaste!

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