If you are used to doing Yoga asana in a group setting, it’s a common pitfall to compare your progress with the people around you. But there is no end goal in Yoga asana. No matter how long you have practiced, there are always new steps and levels to reach. If you are focused on trying to get your hips as open as the next person or do sun salutations with the most flair, you’re not honoring your personal journey. Progression in asana is something that comes over time and with dedication. Rushing into the full expression of a pose runs counter to the teachings of Yoga.
A regular home practice is the key to advancing naturally in the asanas, free from the traps of comparison. Beginning this requires a strong foundation of learning from a trusted teacher (we still have a few spaces left in our 200-hour Yoga teacher training). As you study, you should expand not only in your practice of the poses, but your understanding the essence of each asana. This is what allows you to avoid injury and find more meaning in how the poses engage prana and your body.
We include an outline that shares the essence of a pose in every Yoga asana tutorial we post. This is a simple way to understand the effects of the pose on your body and mind. Know this and you’ll be more equipped to choose one pose over another and avoid pushing the pose into a place of imbalance.
Take a pose such as upavistha konasana, wide-angle seated fold. Many people think of this pose as a “hip opener” or a way to stretch the hamstrings. And while the pose increases flexibility in the hips and hamstrings, this is not the only reason for doing it. As a forward fold, a central part of the essence of upavistha konasana is to calm the nervous system. Understanding this guides you to practice upavistha konasana in a way in a way that creates peace, not more tension. That means abandoning anything that feels like forcing -- whether that is in throwing your legs open too far or overstretching your hamstrings and back in order to bring your forehead to the ground. Instead, the pose becomes about gently turning your pelvis and extending your belly forward, allowing your breath to guide you and stopping two steps away from your edge.
Before you begin a pose, go within and connect to its essence. What is it meant to do for your body and mind? Then, allow your breath to guide you to feel what you need to do. Work from here and you will avoid injury, always be challenged and progress faster.
Here at Hale Pule, we talk about asana with three designations: essence, anchor and strength. This is a simple tool to remember the intention of the pose, where your body is grounded and the muscles you engage for proper alignment. These components will support optimal energy flow and a sustainable practice throughout your life.
Upavistha konasana from the ground up
1. Begin seated on your mat with your legs extended. Pull the fleshy part of your buttocks back and flex your feet (toes pointed straight up) to engage the muscles in your thighs. With your buttocks firmly grounded and your hands on the floor beside your hips, spread your legs apart 90 to 100 degrees. Keep your pelvis upright and your spine in its natural curves with your head directly above your shoulders.
2. Turn your pelvis and begin to move your belly forward, extending your spine as you go. Bring your hands to your thighs and slide them down the outside of your legs to a comfortable place. Hold here and use the strength of your arms to bring the pelvis forward.
3. Continue folding forward, allowing your pelvis and navel to lead the movement (you’ll know that you’ve gone too far if your upper spine begins to round or legs turn out or in). Eventually, your hands will reach your feet and your forehead will touch the ground, but allow that progression to come over time as the adductors and hamstrings let go. Hold 15 to 20 breaths.
If the ligaments around your pelvis or muscles in the backs of your legs are tight, you will not be able to tilt your pelvis forward comfortably. Sit in the pose with your hands on the floor behind you, leaning back as much as you need to fully extend the spine. Focus here on breathing into your pelvis to soften it and moving it upright and then forward.
Common trouble spots
Rounded back with very little turn in the pelvis. Don’t compromise your back in order to lean forward. The point is to turn the pelvis rather than get the head on the floor. When you focus on the pelvis turning, your head will eventually get there. Folding at your waist without turning the pelvis will overstretch and weaken the muscles along the lumbar spine.
Feet turned out. Keeping your toes pointing up protects the ligaments in your pelvis and avoids overstretching the inside of the hips and legs.
Feet not flexed. Flexing your feet engages the muscles along the front of your legs, giving the backs of your legs the appropriate support to let go and lengthen.
Legs wider than 100 degrees. Even if you have the flexibility to open your legs wider, keep them around 90 to 100 degrees. This brings the pose back to its calming essence and avoids injury to the hip joints.