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are you sitting comfortably?

3rd May 2007 permanent link

Yoga: what are all the fancy-looking body contortions for anyway? Part Two of a sporadic series. (Part One. Part Three. Part Four)

स्थिरसुखमः आसनमः
sthirasukhamḥ āsanamḥ

Posture should be stable (shtiram) and comfortable (sukham) is almost all Patanjali had to say about asana. But don’t underestimate what that takes. Arriving at stable, comfortable posture can be an epic journey.

Some people take the view that the whole point of all the other yoga postures (84,000 of them, according to some mediaeval tantric texts; a couple of hundred in regular use in current yoga schools) is “simply” (ha!) to prepare the body and mind to be able to sit in lotus position for long periods to meditate.

I’ve pointed out here before that getting the legs into into lotus position is only hard for westerners: Indians and others who grow up sitting on the floor find it easy. But there’s more to sitting for meditation than just being able to cross your legs. A few years ago I introduced an Indian beginner to ashtanga vinyasa yoga. [He lives in Mysore and now teaches Sanskrit at Pattabhi Jois’s yoga shala. I assume by now he probably has a way more advanced practice than I have, and will one day be famous as Sharath’s assistant. I hope he still remembers me when that time comes. Hi Lakshmish] Having grown up in a typical Indian village farmhouse with no chairs, he could get into all the lotus-related positions in the ashtanga primary series effortlessly (I at that point couldn’t do lotus at all, having injured my ankle a few weeks earlier.) His forward bending flexibility wasn’t up to much, though – and when I visited his college I noticed that most of the students there, although they could sit cross-legged or in lotus on the floor for hours, lacked either the core strength or the body awareness to sit upright. I’ve rarely seen so many slumped-forward torsos and rounded backs. That’s not conducive to meditation.

So what are the requirements for stable and comfortable sitting?

  1. “Open” hips. What this mainly means, in this context, is the ability to rotate the thigh outwards relative to the hip. That’s what getting into lotus without putting undue strain on the knees and ankles is all about. The right balance of strength and length in the hip flexors – the illipsoas complex – is also important: strong enough to hold the lower back upright, but not so tight as to pull it too much forwards
  2. A certain amount of strength and endurance in the core muscles of the lower torso. The abdominal wall and the spinal erectors need to be able to hold enough tension to support a straight and upright spine for a long time, but without straining or thinking too much about it. If the core muscles get tired, the lumbar spine will tend to sag either backwards or forwards, either of which is bad. This means you have to have developed both physical endurance in those muscles, and ingrained habits that train the nervous system to hold slight tension in them without having to involve the conscious mind all the time. (Moving nervous control of movements down from the conscious mind into the hindbrain and the spine is an important part of motor learning in all physical endeavours, from rock climbing to piano playing. It’s not for nothing that we talk about getting skills “wired”)
  3. An open chest - the ability to lift your sternum forwards and up, your shoulders and shoulderblades back and down. (The opposite of hunching over a desk). Without arching your lower back to tilt your whole ribcage. In order to breathe freely, you need an open and upright thorax on top of your strong and upright abdomen

… whereas your typical chair-sitting, desk-hunching westerner has almost no ability to rotate the thighs outwards, short, tight hip flexors, weak core muscles, a rounded upper back with hunched forward shoulders – and a long way to go.

So in a sense all yoga asana practice can be seen as just a way to develop these abilities – even stuff that to most people looks fancy and advanced. For example the ability to get into lotus no-hands, especially upside down, is not just a cool-looking stunt but also an important benchmark. (It is possible to use your hands to assist in shoulderstand; rather less so in headstand or handstand) The no-hands bit tests/demonstrates good hip flexibility, and in general spending time upside down builds the core strength needed to hold the torso straight and requires considerable mental focus. I can’t, yet, at least not on a regular basis – have managed it a couple of times in shoulderstand, on occasions when spells of particularly assiduous practice happened to coincide with spells of particularly hot weather.

So is it absolutely necessary to go through years of yoga asana practice before you can meditate? No. Lots of people don’t. Yoga teacher Godfrey Devereux says he asked his zen teacher how people who haven’t done yoga manage it, and the answer was that is possible to learn to sit just by sitting, but for the average westerner it takes a long time and involves a lot of discomfort. Maybe a few years of diligent yoga asana practice is a short cut for lazy people?

related entries: Yoga

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