Postures deal with the mind, body and spirit. The easiest of these is to understand how they work on the body.
Stretching and elongating is the very first quality of postures.
Every day tensions build up and cause hardness of the muscles. This, in turn, blocks circulation. All yoga postures work on circulation in two ways: by stretching and by blocking it in one part and increasing it in another part. Blood is life: it carries oxygen, glucose, and takes waste matter away. When a muscle works, it uses nutrition and releases uric acid. Therefore, blood is the provider and the purifier.
The circulatory system is connected to the lungs, to the respiratory system, which help clean the blood.
Moreover, the digestive system has to work in order to provide the nutrients e.g. liver which stores the nutrients.
All in all, in order for health to be, all the organs, including the brain, have to work and be in the state of balance, homeostasis.
How do the postures influence all these systems? Let’s take a look at different asana categories and see how they work on the organs.
Hanging Sirsasana and Handstand influence the brain which is part of the nervous system. Tense places don’t receive nerve inputs e.g. tension in the neck may be responsible for the partial loss of feeling in your hand. Hanging upside down stimulates the brain, enhances circulation in the brain, and encourages the cells of the brain to rejuvenate themselves. In the normal Headstand, when you work hard, the pressure of your blood rises, your heart beats hard and several other problems arise – in the ears, eyes, sinuses. Headstand in between the chairs is much more beneficial – it gives you a massage of the shoulders, neck tensions get released due to the elongation of the neck, and the brain is as if flooded with blood (the flow of blood to the brain is increased full speed).
Sit in Virasana after eating, if you have indigestion. It stops circulation in the legs so it feeds the stomach area. Why did the yogi recommended us to sit cross-legged instead of a chair? Because when you meditate, you do not need blood in your legs.
Standing poses improve the structure of the body, which is bones. A structure has to be straight and were it not for the muscles, the bones would be straight. It is because of tension arising in the muscles, that the bones start to change their normal structure.
Tension is tightness of the muscle and it is caused by psychological problems such as stress or fear.
A few words about fear. Patanjali says that fear is the root cause of ignorance. The Buddhist also say the same thing. According to the Buddhists there are three causes of suffering: ignorance, hate and greed. Ignorance is not knowing the truth. Fear is the root cause.
Tensions in the muscles influence the joints, which is how structural problems arise. If the structure is wrong, all the organs are squashed and they do not have the freedom to function. They become slave of gravity. This goes on and on till they give up and then you have a disease. Wrong structure causes pain. But even before pain arises, tensions are there.
Yoga postures are not meant to work on the legs. They are meant to work on the back. But since the back is connected to the legs, we align it by working with the feet.
Twists release tensions by stretching the muscles connected to the spine. At the same time all the organs are massaged and cleansed. When we do the twist, we give them blood by creating positive pressure on one side of the body and negative on the other. The twists are a wringing action, they squeeze out the toxins. When you fast, do the twists, but don’t do standing poses. They make the fire rise and when the fire rises you need food.
Forward bends cause elongation, compression and negative pressure. They work on the front, while backbends on the back. The bending forward is to be done all the way up starting from the pubic bone, as the normal anatomical structure has to be maintained in all poses.
In general, postures re-condition, re-align what has been undone by the mental process. By reprogramming the body becomes free from the mental process. But it is not possible with wrong poses that are not anatomically correct. A pose is correct when the anatomical structure is maintained. In the forward bend you influence all the organs in the front by giving them space. So by elongating the front you make it soft. When you do backbends, the front gets stretched and the back gets soft.
The yogis found that the spine is a representation of the universe; it is the microcosm. They came upon different areas that are related to the different energies found in the universe. The elements act the same in the body as in the universe. From this observation they developed Hatha Yoga.
The sun energy is the intellect. The brain is the sun in our body – it gives clarity, regulates communication, works through the nerves. We work with the sun energy in Hanging Sirsasana.
The moon energy in the body is brought about by the hormonal system, the endocrinal system, which we influence by doing Shoulderstand. A clear example of the endocrinal system is menstruation. There is full moon (ovulation) and there is no moon (menstruation). Every month it regenerates and fades. The moon influences the oceans, tides, and also the water within you. Around 65 percent of our bodies is water. The lowest part that is influenced by Shoulderstand is the thalamus that works together with the hypothalamus. Reflectivity is the quality of the moon – it reflects the light coming from the sun. In Shoulderstand we are looking inwards – isn’t that reflecting on the Self?
If you understand Hanging Headstand and Shoulderstand, you will start to understand the energy and the microcosm that is in us. In Hanging Headstand the balance of nervous system is brought about. In Shoulderstand, balance in the endocrinal system is brought about.
Doing backbends will bring about a quick healing to women who don’t have their period. For a long-term solution, they should do Shoulderstand. Pregnant woman should avoid doing hard backbends or they will lose the foetus. This is how powerful backbends can be.
Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre
Yoga master teacher Sharat Arora
Article derived from the Intensive Yoga Course at the
Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre in Arambol, North Goa, 2000