We all know yoga postures affect our body, but did you ever think about the way they affect your mind, feelings, and psyche?
I was thinking about this the other day as I attended a random vinyasa-style class. The teacher was making up the postures as she went, stringing postures together spontaneously as the class progressed. After the class I felt agitated. I felt exhausted. I felt irritable! Why?
When I was in a 28-day Sivananda Yoga Teacher’s Training Course in New York, we learned about the postures in a way I never thought about before. The postures aren’t mere stretches and strengtheners for our muscles. They affect a much larger part of us, and they affect our insides in a big way–body and mind.
Let me back up for a paragraph or two. Do you know about Swami Sivananda? He is a world-renowned guru, and the inspiration behind all the Sivananda Yoga centers and ashrams in the world. Before he became a swami (a monk in the Hindu tradition), he was a highly revered medical doctor for decades. He healed his patients of countless ailments.
The interesting thing is that he often prescribed his patients yoga postures, or ‘asanas’ to help them heal. This isn’t something we see in our world today, at least not in the West. Scientific studies have only begun to tap into the seemingly magical healing powers of the asanas, but it’s still not a mainstream form of healing.
Fast-forward to my teacher training course in New York. I learned that these postures have a lot up their sleeves, aside from the benefits for the musculoskeletal system. Here are four of my favorite postures that have “magical” benefits for both body and mind:
- Seated Forward Bend
- Cobra Pose
- Corpse Pose
Let’s delve into each one.
Sarvangasana actually translates to “all-members’ pose” because all parts of the body are engaged to perform this asana. You lift your trunk, hips, and legs up and support the back with your two hands. Press the chin against the chest. Concentrate on the thyroid gland, which is in the front lower part of the neck.
Shoulderstand Benefits: In this asana, the thyroid gland is stimulated. The thyroid is a prominent part in the metabolism, growth, and nutrition of the body, so it is said that when the thyroid is healthy, then healthy circulatory and respiratory systems will follow, along with a healthy nervous system. When the thyroid is healthy, other glands are affected because it operates in conjunction with other glands.
It’s said that this asana helps to create a healthy thyroid. It supplies a large quantity of blood to the spinal roots of the nerves and helps to keep the spine elastic as well.
You can tell that the shoulderstand really affects the elasticity of the spine, because when you try to do the shoulderstand in the morning vs. the evening, it can be much more challenging in the morning when the body is less flexible.
You can do this asana twice a day, in the morning and evening. It’s relaxing, so it’s the perfect way to start and end the day!
Seated Forward Bend, Paschimottanasana
This posture is performed seated on the ground, with the legs together and stretched in front of you. Bend the trunk forward and catch hold of the toes, or the legs, depending on your level of flexibility. Breathe. It’s as simple as that.
Seated Forward Bend Benefits: It’s hard to imagine such a simple posture having huge health benefits. But sometimes less is more. In the seated forward bend, it is the digestive system that gets the benefit. Swami Sivananda, in his book Yoga Asanas, writes that this posture rouses the gastric fire and reduces fat in the abdomen. He cites it as a great posture for obesity.
This posture also relieves constipation, and helps with stiff back since it stretches the entire back of the body.
You can practice this asana multiple times a day, but follow it up with a backbending pose so you aren’t imbalanced! Try the backbend mentioned in #3.
Cobra Pose, Bhujangasana
Lie flat, facing down. Place the palms of your hands below the shoulders. Using the strength of your lower back, lift the upper body from the floor, keeping the hips down. Don’t press too much into your hands. Breathe through the nose.
Cobra Benefits: This is another super simple posture, with major benefits. The first benefit of this asana is that it relieves hunchback, or other problems with the back that keep it bent excessively forward. It also relieves constipation because of the intra-abdominal pressure that you create when you perform the posture. It also increases body heat, so it is good to practice when you are cold!
You can practice cobra pose whenever you want throughout the day, but if you’ve had a really hot day, it may be a better idea to practice more cooling postures.
Corpse Pose, Savasana
This is the one that everybody knows and loves, so no picture necessary! You just lie on your back and relax all your muscles. So the benefits are pretty obvious, right? You just relax! But there’s a specific way to relax so you can get really deep benefits.
To relax in the most effective way, it’s best to relax one muscle, or muscle group, at a time. In the Sivananda tradition, we start from the feet and work our way up toward the head using autosuggestion, or silent repetition of a command to relax each muscle group three times. It goes something like this, “I am relaxing my feet. I am relaxing my feet. My feet are relaxed.” One by one, every muscle in the body, mind, and psyche is relaxed.
Corpse Pose Benefits: Swami Sivananda says that savasana combines pose and meditation. It’s not just for the body, but also for the mind and soul. It’s important for muscular exercises, so you can even practice this after a regular workout by relaxing all the muscles that have just been put under strain. But it’s also important by giving relief, comfort, and ease for the mind and soul.
In my experience with yoga, I experience the benefits for the musculoskeletal system when I practice any type of yoga. I always get a good stretch. But when it comes to internal benefits, I find that I receive the most benefit from a classical system of yoga, where all aspects of the posture are taken into account–the effects on the body, mind, psyche, and soul.
Most classical systems of yoga, like the Sivananda tradition, have a certain sequence established to perform the postures. This allows you to really go into the depth of each posture, which let me get to know my own body better.
When I helped found The Yoga Summit, an online yoga event which will launch this February, I was so stressed. I had so many guest speakers to organize, and I felt like I didn’t have time for anything else. To add to my stress, the Yoga Summit guest speakers are famous yoga leaders so I had to face my fears of not being “good enough” to do these interviews. I was really stressed, since this event is launching soon, and so many people would see. I knew I needed to calm myself–big time! So when I practiced yoga, I stuck with the tried and true basics–the standard Sivananda sequence, breathwork, and regular meditation. Without fail, I felt better every time. I never finished agitated. These no-frills postures brought me back to balance. Every time my work brought me back out of balance, these postures would help me find equilibrium again. (And I ended up enjoying the Yoga Summit interviews after all!)
If you’re looking for a yoga system that really serves the full you–not just your muscles–look for a classical system of yoga and dive deep. Experience each posture in its fullness, without rushing to the next one. Be where you are, and enjoy all the magical benefits along the way.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Nicole Vahlkamp, a Sivananda yoga teacher and one of the co-founders of The Yoga Summit, a free online event whose purpose is to spread the teachings of yoga to everyone, everywhere. Before she was swept up by the world of yoga, Nicole worked in corporate finance and strategy. She’s grateful that Swami Sivananda has helped her find a path that makes use of her skills and passion of bringing the health, happiness, and peacefulness of yoga to all.