A Few Tips for Yoga Practitioners

Originally published on LiveJournal, 12.13.07

I’ve definitely “advanced a level” in yoga recently, in that I can do most poses deeper, stronger and better aligned then before. Not that it gets easier: deeper poses require significantly more strength, and I find myself working just as hard as I’ve always been. That’s part of the beauty of the yoga practice: it has a lot to give to both beginners and advanced practitioners. I thought to summarize some of my “wisdom,” as sign posts for myself, and as advice points for those interested:

1. Do not underestimate twisting. It’s usually given cursory attention by beginners, as they struggle to get more flexible and stronger. But, the thing is, practically every pose incorporates twisting, and is, in fact, about twisting. Take triangle pose, for example: the whole pose is there to allow you to twist your chest open strongly, by pushing your arm against your leg/floor, while also forcing your hips to be squared. The more deeply you can twist, the more you will feel this pose. You’ll be able to turn your chest all the way up and look at the ceiling. And twisting is absolutely necessary for the advanced form of the pose, reverse triangle. Warrior II (which I think is one of the “fullest” poses in yoga), also involves twisting, of the chest, torso and even the groin as you open your hips wide. In warrior II, try to work on twisting open, rather than going as low as possible with your pelvis. I believe that it’s because I worked so hard on twisting that I became better at all poses.

2. Set your goal to breathe a steady ujjayi breath from beginning to end of practice. This is much easier said than done, of course, if you’re struggling to catch your breath with very difficult poses, or if your ribcage is twisted as to make breathing difficult. My advice might sound contrary: loosen the pose, rest a bit, do anything you can to make steady breathing possible, at the cost of everything else. Generally, don’t do any pose that prohibits your steady breath. Once you find a way to increase your ability to breathe, you will be able to take those poses for a long time, and the fresh oxygen flowing to your muscles will allow them to strengthen. Breathing is related to my first point, twisting: the better you are at twisting your torso, the better your ability to maintain a steady breath when your torso is cramped. Also, I find that a steady breath works as a remarkable psychic stabilizer, keeping your mind off the struggles of the practice, and into a routine very much focused on the moment. Rather than counting seconds until you get out of a hard pose, you will find yourself working to slow your breath down and prolong each second. Breathing is yoga power! Of course, you can also improve your breathing by practicing pranayama. I’m especially fond of thoracic breathing. It’s hard (and even scary at first, when you feel that you can’t fully exhale), but I find it has really strengthened my ribcage muscles, and has even helped me lengthen my spine and improve posture. I often practice it while waiting for the train. It makes me feel very noble.

3. Internal/external rotation, a.k.a. “organic” force. When you’re in downward-facing dog, struggling to stay stable, keep your legs straight, push with your hands, etc., the last think you want to hear from your instructor is that you should work to rotate your triceps out. This is especially true if you don’t even know what good it does... Well, I think I finally got it. Stand in front of a mirror and just send your arms straight in front of you, palms parallel to the floor. Now, drop your shoulders low in their sockets: you will already feel them rotating outward a bit. And now’s the tricky part: keep your front arms and hands exactly where they are, and work to rotate your shoulders out more. What you will feel immediately is that you are, at the same time, exerting force to keep your front arms where they are, and even to keep your arms parallel to the floor. It’s a very weird feeling if you’ve never done yoga before. As your front arms work to rotate inward and your back arms work to rotate outward, you are stretching your muscles around your bones, not exactly an everyday occurrence, and something you have to train very specifically. What good is it? Do it again, and look at your arms: they are as strong as tree trunks. The wrapping motion of the muscles holds the bones together like a rubber band. These arms can withstand your whole body weight, in anything from downward-facing dog, to plank, half plank, and a full hand stand. So, in downward-facing dog, it’s not just your shoulders you want to open: you also want to push the insides of your palms down: it’s exactly what you were doing in front of the mirror, wrapping your muscles around your bones and pulling. The next trick is to get this working on your legs, too, though it’s the opposite direction: thighs rotate outward (like opening your butt cheeks) while your ankles press inward. Master this, and you’ll find yourself exceptionally stable in all the warrior poses. Downward-facing dog, of course, includes both arms and legs in full “organic” force, which is part of why yogis often say that it summarizes all yoga poses.