The path of yoga is never a straight line. Most of the time it’s more like a winding road with some stop signs, the occasional traffic light and at it’s most liberating – a freeway that flows with ease. Our bodies are finely tuned mechanisms that experience change and the effects of the external world ongoing. If we don’t acknowledge there is change we will suffer. This is why staying in asana can benefit us in many ways.
Yoga asks us to constantly reflect on our self and this change. ‘Does this pose feel ok for me today?’ ‘Am I pushing my breath too hard?’ ‘Do I feel tired today?’ ‘Why is my back stiff?’ The practice of asana involves a whole internal dialogue that we are ultimately trying to quieten.
So what does staying versus moving really mean in yoga practice? Both are valid in their own right but here are some reasons why staying can be valuable.
1 – Movement Creates Excess Vata
The Flow or Vinyasa class that epitomises most of modern yoga rarely stops for long. We may never fully experience a pose before the mind (and body) is being asked to move onto the next one. Activation of vata (the dosha of movement, air, space) is at its peak in this type of class. Excess vata in our body often has us living in our head space – racing thoughts, constant over thinking, anxiety.
In an already fast paced, driven society – vata is naturally present in bucket loads for us, usually before we have even left the house in the morning. We may religiously check social media, emails, race to get to work or school… the mind is distracted and moving in all directions by 9am.
Stepping into a class that perpetuates this constant, mental activity may not be the best form of yoga. Yet if yoga is mainly ‘exercise’ for you then this is where you may choose to place yourself. Exercise perpetuates movement – think walking, cycling, running, cardio workout – and movement increases vata.
Sometimes the opposite – creating stability – is actually what most of us need more.
Asana as constant movement is far removed from the origins of classic yoga tradition where the ultimate goal of yoga was to sit down and reflect in meditation – dhyanam (see the 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga according to Patanjali). The body was prepared in a very specific way (through movement and staying) to reach this point of stillness.
For meditation practice, a stable body is key as well as mental alertness of the mind.
2 – Yoga is Breath
Breath is fundamental to yoga in assisting the flow of energy or prana through our system. When we push the body with continual movement we create a heating, energising effect (called brahmana). This may be valuable for us if we keep the breath steady and work within our limits. Most important is attaining dirgha (long breath) and susksma (smooth breath). When the breath is compromised to attain the posture we start to fatigue and lose that close connection to body stability. Unstable body patterns flows through to mind.
If the main focus is on releasing tension and feeling balanced in a posture, deepening the breath while holding the pose will assist a parasympathetic activation of the nervous system. (ie “This feels ok” as opposed to “I’m hating how this feels”).
On a physiological level, a short breath is not valuable to our body in the interplay of carbon dioxide output and oxygen input that occurs when we breathe. A full breath fills our bloodstream with vital nutrients and nourishes all our bodily system such as circulatory, muscular, endocrine etc.
If we push the breath during yoga we won’t be expelling the used air in its entirety or breathing the new air in to our full capacity. A short breath fatigues the body and agitates the mind. Not the goal of yoga…
3 – Poses have Functions
In yoga the idea that ‘moving brings flexibility’ and ‘staying brings stability’ is often floated. When we move and create a repetition with a posture we increase the effectiveness and ease of that posture once we arrive and stay in it. In effect, we are training the body, leading it towards a destination and then finally arriving. It might mean the pose is repeated several times but with the endgame of the student being comfortable enough to stay for a while.
Many yoga classes overlook the function of a yoga pose. For example, a forward bend can stretch the back, massage abdominal organs and have a more relaxing effect on the body. Backbends open the front of the body, energetically can give confidence, assist a slumped posture and create space for the organs to work a little more efficiently. When we maintain these postures we give the body an opportunity to really experience the benefits of the pose.
If the experience in asana is fleeting, the body may not fully experience the true functional benefits of that pose.
4 – Staying Forms Stability
Static postures challenge muscles. However if a pose is not repeated first, holding it may be less effective and negative for us. This is an important point and highlights why movement is necessary first before staying. If we are not ready for the pose we may stay in it in a contracted way.
Contraction happens when we are unable to release the muscles but hold on tightly to support the posture (think clenching the buttocks hard in bhuganghasana – cobra). If a muscle is locked in a shortened state it will not be working properly. (Here is where incorrect use may lead to soreness).
However if approached with preparation and awareness, staying in a posture will form a positive patterning in the body. “I can do this!” When we spend time in a posture we tap into an understanding of our body’s capability. Sometimes that might mean adapting or modifying a posture the teacher offers. This is jnana (knowledge) and ties back in with the idea of yoga as a self-reflective practice.
5 – Knowledge comes from Experience
We learn from experience. If experience is fleeting, can we ever be fully present or mindful with it? Giving the body a chance to stay in a posture gives us space around our thoughts, awareness of our movement and how we actually ‘feel’ being in that pose.
Svadhyaya (self reflection) is one of the greatest gifts of yoga practice but can be difficult to accomplish when the mind and body is being asked to ‘keep going’. It requires space and stillness to really tap into.
Moving quickly from one asana to another may not provide the stability and memory in our bodies or allow the experience of being fully grounded in our yoga. In some ways it may be an avoidance of going deeper into the practice.
6 – Mula is the Base
Which leads me to this concept of stability from the energetic viewpoint of yoga.
Muladhara (the base chakra or energetic centre) sits at the base of the pelvis and is the body’s foundation in the energetic anatomy of yoga. Beyond this are the legs and feet. These are also considered the foundation from the yoga point of view. Stability of lower body is key in order for us as humans to move with ease, especially as we age. Anyone who has experienced issues with feet, knees or hips will attest to the imbalance this can create.
Subtly but effectively providing strength is the benefit of staying in asana. When we plant our feet to the earth we grow metaphoric roots that stabilise and link us with what is eternal and constant in our practice – and our self.
When we sit in a pose like maha mudra or janusirsasana we draw steadiness and balance into the pelvis, hips, urogenital are and reproductive and elimination organs. With awareness we elevate from this space, rather than sink into it. We begin to activate lower abdominal and back muscles to support our structure. We have a base from which we can grow – like the lotus rising from the mud to the light!
Staying in asana supports the earth element in us. Moving supports air (see the ideas on movement of vata in the first point).
For the mind and body to have balance, the elements within the body also need balance.
As creatures that walk the earth we need to learn how to hold ourselves appropriately in order to bring health into our entire system. If the body collapses so does our health. So building stability and strength is key.
There will always be a role for movement in asana practice, but placing awareness around why we might move versus stay (and how this affects our whole body) is an important question for all yoga practitioners.
by Jill Harris