Prowess in Poses:
The secrets that they do not tell you
1) The Feel Young Workshops
There are a number of workshops, like the back bending and the handstand workshops, these days, in the yoga and pilates world. They are often held in exotic locations and draw a lot of crowd. People pay a lot of money to attend these workshops to learn these techniques so that they can do challenging poses like backbends and handstands and earn the admiration of their friends on social media, lose weight and feel young.
What they teach in these workshops is a linear approach to get to a pose by gaining strength and flexibility in a set of muscles. For example if the goal is to get the foot behind the neck (Ekapada Shirashasana), teachers start off with hip opening exercises and the classic pose to for this purpose is the Baddha Konasana or the bound angle poses also called the Cobbler's pose.
2) The secret that is not known or not spoken of
Yet, almost always, teachers never talk about the secret to achieving prowess in a pose in a transcendant way. While the linear approach uses muscle strength and flexibility by strengthening exercises, the non-linear or transcendant approach uses a paradigm shift. This is done by creating the conditions for the Prana to flow smoothly in the system. This is what is expounded in the ancient yogic texts. Patanjali, in the yoga sutras, talks about transcendental knowledge that comes from yoga.
The reasons this underlying principle for prowess in poses is not discussed in workshops is that i) the workshop teachers themselves do not know about it (most likely cause), ii) the teachers know about it but do not want to discuss a topic that is in the realm of the spiritual, for fear of causing confusion among the participants, iii) the workshop organizers do not want to disrupt a source of income if this secret were broadcast to the audience.
What is Prana ? Prana is the life force that flows in all of us. The Yogic texts talk of 5 prana Vayus shown below, each performing a function:
According to Prashna Upanishad, "even though we speak are five Pranas, there is really only the Prana and its four other modalities"
"As a king employs officials to rule over different portions of his kingdom, so Prana associates with itself four other pranas, each a portion of itself and each assigned a separate function” (Prashna Upanishad 3:4).
4) How to make the Prana flow strongly in the body ?
The prana flows strongly in the body when the Agni, fire in the abdomen, is ignited. This is achieved in asanas using the Bandhas and the Ujjayi breath. The feeling one gets when this process happens are the following:
1) A sense of a fire in the stomach with mental sharpness, a drive to get things done and increased energy.
2) A feeling of lightness (due to Udhana)
3) A sense of joy, ease and relaxation in the mind with increased focus.
Though the Ujjayi breath and the Bandhas are important components to increase the flow of Prana, lifestyle is the most important to ensure that the prana flows without blockages. A poor lifestyle and diet cannot be compensated by the Ujjayi breath and the Bandhas.
A previous article on diet titled, "An empty stomach has one problem; A full stomach has a 100 problems" elaborates the importance of diet to maintain a strong and unblocked flow of prana in the body. Another article, "The yogi, the bogi and the rogi" talks about how the agni (fire) in the body is doused by excessive eating.
The Ujjayi (Victory) breath acts like a bellow and stimulates the Agni (fire) in our body which in turns makes the body malleable and enables the unrestricted flow of Prana.
5) The importance of rest to normalize the flow of prana
Pattabhi Jois, whose English proficiency was not as high as his proficiency in Kannada or Sanskrit, once said "Practice and all is coming". We do not know what he meant but what he said was (and still is) taken too seriously by some Ashtanga Yoga teachers and practitioners with a 6 day a week intense practice. A lot more often, proficiency in asanas is not achieved through more hardwork but through more rest and removing the obstacles to the smooth flow of prana.
6) The Ultimate revelation
When asanas are practiced in this way, the practitioner will stumble upon the ultimate revelation - she/he will care far less about achieving perfection in the pose for a social media shot than about basking in the joy that comes from the pose, due to the flow of prana. What more, one will get the malleability to do complex twists and bends that one thought otherwise because of her/his inflexibility of the body.