Stretch versus Structure: How to Practise Yoga Effectively

Stretch versus Structure: How to Practise Yoga Effectively

Sometimes diving into the pure practicalities of yoga is a valuable reminder of what the physical body endures as we step onto the mat.

Many of us come to yoga because it ‘feels good’ or ‘calms the mind’ but at some stage we have to step up to the acknowledgement that we are supporting a physical structure that needs constant refinement in order to meet the day to day demands we place on it.
Enter the Annayamaya (or physical layer) as the ancients referred to it.
‘Anna’ means food, ‘maya’ means layer. This is the layer we nourish for the rest of us to be well.

Particularly as we age, we begin to become aware of a physical body that doesn’t do what it used to. We can try to push through this, ignoring the natural patterns of change or adapt the yoga practice to support where we are at this moment.
It is the latter that it is the most valuable as we start to listen ‘in’ to what we know to be natural progression –  acceptance of the stage we might find ourselves at.
There is so much we can do in practice to maintain and preserve that physical form we have shuffled through life with.
Without compromising stability.
Or maybe your goal is to build stability?

Sthira (structure) and sukham (ease) are concepts that stem from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and define how we should practice asana. Many of us get to class for more of the latter. Sliding into poses to ‘relax’, letting go of holding effort in order to stretch to our maximum.
This is a particular way of practising yoga that has little to do with the intention of the original teachings and more to do with our desire to look for what is easy and feels good.

One of the greatest structural issues I see in class is people who do not have core stability. This leads to a myriad of problems in yoga – slumping into and out of forward bends, not holding an upright torso, overstretching into twists rather than matching the stretch with stability… and more.
No control of the relationship between the torso and the pelvis. Back issues start to prevail.

The solution? (no, it’s not Pilates) – but instead focusing on the correct use of breath during yoga practice!

No matter how many postures we practice in yoga, if we are not working in rhythm and with awareness of the breath we will be creating weakness in our body.

Here is how a stable and steady diaphragmatic breath will build core strength and assist you with gaining stability in your body.

Inhalation starts at the nose and draws breath into the lungs. This aids the shifting of the diaphragm downwards. The rib cage, sternum and thoracic vertebrae all lift.
Anatomically this is what happens when we breathe naturally but a conscious breath magnifies this.
The whole torso lengthens purely from the movement of the breath. Muscles are moved and used.
In effect we slightly rise out of the sacrum and pelvic area when we inhale. We create space in the upper body.
Breath aides the natural movement of the spine.

Exhale slowly – beginning at the base of pelvis below the navel. This contracts the abdominal contents gently, the breath moves back out and shifts the diaphragm back to its original position. Then we relax the space to receive the inhale again.

When we exhale consciously this way we affect the deep abdominal and back muscles that we may have less connection to in daily life.
The pelvic floor naturally lifts via the conscious movement of the exhalation too.
We begin to create core strength through the subtle movement of the deep musculature of the lower torso.

Breath becomes the means to building tone and stability all the way through the torso so that we can hold ourselves up well.

And there are more reasons..
When we practise yoga with the breath it aids the natural movement of the spine. Our spine houses the nervous system, which sends messages from the brain to the body. When we compromise it we start to affect our emotional wellness.
Pain can become distraction and lead to suffering.  It leads us away from inner clarity and ‘that which sees’ – the eternal light, our deep and true self. 

The spine is the structure that holds our body upright – in many ways.   

Practising this way requires a shift of focus – breath arises before movement. To compromise breath, is to compromise the physical structure and we may not be doing yoga well. (The ancient texts would say we are not doing ‘yoga’ at all.)
As intention around breath changes in practise, the body shape changes.
You may find you can achieve postures more effectively – without force. This can be a lightbulb moment for many students.
‘I breathe therefore I do.’

How does this conscious breath benefit our body on other layers?
The navel centre down to the base of the pelvis is a revered space for the energetic Yogic anatomy – the first three cakras or ‘energy centres’ here are our identity with self, emotions and world. 
Lack of support and structure here can have a flow on effect to our thoughts, emotions and ultimately actions. When we breathe utilising this space we send prana (life force, energy, intention) to nourish us.

There is a dual effect always occurring in yoga practice – we are not just a physical being.
If we don’t breathe well during asana, we affect the physical space which in turn effects the mind and emotional layers.
Practice come back to ‘ATHA’ – paying attention.
Practising well and consistently – in time builds a steady core that springboards us towards a healthier approach to our body and increased capacity of our energy.
(Not to mention changing the way you sit and move day to day – new awareness!)

Enjoy your yoga!