The habit of holding our breath when we enter a balancing posture mirrors the habit of holding our breath in difficult life situations. When things get a little wobbly – physically and metaphorically – it’s our breath that is the first thing to respond….
The Yoga Sutras say that the aim of Yoga is ‘chitta vritti nirodha’ – or ‘stilling the fluctuations of the mind’. Our breath very much reflects our current state of mind – you might notice that if you’re fearful or angry, that your breath is shallow, but when you’re relaxed and calm, your inhales and exhales are deeper and slower. These states or ‘fluctuations’ of the mind are known in sanskrit as vrittis, and its interesting that the term vritti represents the fluctuations of both the mind and the breath….
“When the breath wanders, the mind is unsteady, but when the breath is still, so is the mind still.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika
These two aspects of ourselves – breath and mind – are so closely linked, that conscious, deep breathing actually has such a strong effect that it wakes up and ‘switches on’ parts of our brain that aren’t often consciously used. Having these more intricate, subtle and highly evolved parts of the brain switched on means we begin to feel and experience more – we literally expand the mind.
With the mind calmer and our awareness heightened, we can see things a little clearer, and put our experiences, thoughts and emotions into perspective. As I mentioned a lot in class last week – if you get nothing else from your Yoga practice, the connection to this conscious breath is one of the most important things you will probably ever learn to do for yourself….
Garudasana is a balancing posture which clearly invites that breath – holding situation; it’s not easy to feel relaxed in this posture, and the binding of the arms and legs means we feel even more ‘tied up’ and unsteady. The preparatory posture we’re looking at here is great practice for learning how to breathe through difficulty, while opening the hips and moving closer towards the full expression of the asana…. Not to mention giving your leg muscles a good old burn….
To prepare the body for this posture:
Move through your surya namaskar A and B – taking a few extra breaths in utkatasana than usual to bring some heat and strength to the legs.
From there, practice a dancing warrior sequence (consisting of virabhadrasana 1 & 2, reverse warrior and parsva konasana or side angle) Stay in virabhadrasana 2 a little longer again to open out the hips and inner thighs.
After practicing this sequence on both sides of the body, step to the front of the mat and practice vrksasana (tree pose) to again open the hips and strengthen the instrinsic muscles of the feet. This is also a good time to become aware of whether you hold your breath in balancing postures. Work on taking 5-10 full and steady breaths, which will in turn help to calm the body. When you’ve practiced vrksasana to both sides, come back to standing in Tadasana (mountain pose).
- From Tadasana (mountain pose)
- Begin by bending your [right] leg, ensuring the kneecap stays pointing forward. Spread out the toes so you’ve got a sold foundation of support, and breathe.
- From there, lift the [left] leg and begin to cross the [left] ankle over the [right] thigh (as though you might do if you were sitting in a chair). Flex the [left] foot to engage the muscles and ligaments surrounding the kneecap in order to protect it.
- Begin to bend the standing leg a little more as you sink down through the hips, checking that the standing knee is still pointing directly forward.
- Bring the palms to the heart center and press them firmly together to keep the chest open and the shoulders back.
- Continue to sink down through the hips until the thigh is almost at a right angle with the floor.
- If you can, then practice lowering the elbows down on to the top leg.
- Stay here for
a very comfortable5-10 breaths, or longer if it feels right.
- To transition out, straighten the standing leg and bring the [left] foot back to the floor. Release the palms either side of you and shake out any tension that may have accumulated in the legs and ankles before practicing on the other side.
- Did you hold your breath?
- If you wobble in the posture, take your breath deeper and slower. Our fear of falling over and embarrassing ourselves in class is something that has a big effect on how difficult we find the posture. Take the pressure off of yourself by realising that not only is everyone else more concerned with their own practice, but if you did happen to fall, it’s more than likely the people around you are definitely not going to judge you – everyone in class is just there to feel good and to support each other (no matter how serious everyone’s faces might look when they’re concentrating on not falling over too)….
- To counterpose the effects of this posture, come down to the floor to take the pressure off the legs, and practice a forward fold such as upavistha konasana (wide angled seated forward fold) to lengthen both the hamstrings, and paschimottanasana to bring some grounding and equilibrium back to the hips and legs.
This asana is great preparation for:
Garudasana (eagle pose)
Eka pada galavasana (one leg flying pigeon pose)
Ardha Baddha padmotanasana (half bound lotus standing forward bent)
Padmasana (lotus pose)
Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose or ‘toe balance’)
Eka pada raj kapotasana (pigeon pose or king pigeon pose)
Notice if the pattern of holding your breath comes up in life off the mat too – could you help yourself to breathe through difficult situations?