How to deepen your subtle awareness.
By Sandra Anderson
In our effort to develop strength and flexibility through asana practice, we sometimes forget the power of asana to lead us toward the higher goals of yoga—mastery of the mind and a deeper connection to the inner self. When we strive for perfect poses, or when our practice becomes rote and routine, our attention is externalized and we lose sensitivity to the inner world. How can we practice in a way that creates a deeper sense of awareness?
In one of three terse aphorisms on the subject, the Yoga Sutras say, Sthira-sukham asanam—asana is steadiness and comfort. Steadiness and comfort describe an inner state of being as well as the experience of the physical body in an asana pose. It is a state of being “seated” in ourselves, of the body being comfortable with the mind, and the mind being comfortable with the body. In this way, the body can support the expansive state of a beautiful, clear, calm mind.
But all too often, we “unseat” our inner ease with a lack of bodily awareness and an untrained mind. This constricts our inner space and makes us small-minded. On the physical level, we experience this as an inability to breathe and to move freely. Tension settles in our shoulders, neck, pelvis, lower back, and deeper in the organs—and the mind recoils from the discomfort.
Asana can not only alleviate tension patterns and restore a normal, comfortable range of movement, it can also sharpen our senses, draw the mind back into the body, and anchor our awareness in the ever-calm, ever-clear inner witness. For this, simple movements practiced in coordination with the breath can be more effective than challenging postures, because they give us an opportunity to develop a deeper awareness, release emotions, and facilitate an opening of the body from within.
In the ’70s, Swami Rama taught the following sequence to Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, who still teaches it today. Why? Because it is simple enough to allow a deep release in the nervous system, while targeting the areas where tension commonly settles. And when practiced with one-pointed attention, it becomes a means for restoring the mind to its rightful throne in the inner kingdom of the body. This short sequence can be done almost anywhere, anytime. It can also set the stage for a longer practice of traditional asanas.
Lie face down, feet comfortably apart and toes turned out. Hold opposite elbows with your hands, and draw the arms in until most of the rib cage is off the floor, but the lower ribs and solar plexus rest on the floor. Rest the forehead on the forearms. If you are not comfortable, prop the upper chest with a blanket rolled into a tube. Close the eyes, relax the body, and follow the flow of breath in the body. Focus on the solar plexus and lower ribs. Be aware of the inner sensations of the body, and soften from the inside. Then move your awareness systematically through the body from the head to the toes, maintaining awareness of the flow of the breath.
Sit back on your heels, knees apart if that is more comfortable, forehead on the floor, and arms alongside the body or overhead on the floor. An alternative is to roll over onto your back and draw the knees to the chest. Breathe into the lower back and side ribs. Let the back lengthen and relax. Notice the containment of energy in the belly and the ease of the breath in the lower ribs. Then support the upper body with your hands on the floor, and shift the hips side to side to further lengthen and stretch the lower back. Come to your hands and knees to step a foot forward and roll up to standing.
3. Neck Rolls
Exhale your chin to your chest and hold for one to three breaths, relaxing the shoulders down. Then, inhale and roll the right ear over the right shoulder and circle the head back slightly. Don’t drop the head back or compress the back of the neck. Exhale as the left ear rolls over the left shoulder and returns the chin to your chest. Repeat twice more in this direction. Finish by rolling the head up to neutral on an inhale. Then repeat the exercise in the other direction, rolling the head over the left shoulder, one full breath per rotation, for three rotations. Breathe slowly and deeply and smoothly.
4. Shoulder Rolls With Hands on Shoulders
Inhale, circling the elbows forward, up, and back. Exhale, circle down, back, and forward. Repeat three times. Then reverse the direction of the roll, inhaling as the elbows move back and up, exhaling forward and down. Repeat three times, inhaling as the chest opens, exhaling as the arms move down and forward. Work the shoulder blades and make the movements as deep and complete as possible.
5. Side-to-Side Tilt with Hands on Shoulders
Inhale and stretch one elbow up, exhale and tilt from the waist, stretching the side of the waist and hip and the muscles between the ribs. Inhale back to neutral. Exhale and relax the shoulders. Repeat to the other side, alternating sides, three times per side.
6. Roll-Down Forward Bend
Stand with the feet parallel under the hips. Exhale and slowly drop the chin to the chest, stretching the back of the neck and the upper back. Inhale and hold. Then exhale and let the weight of the head begin to curve the upper spine. Soften or bend the knees to round the upper back and drop the head toward the floor as you roll down through the spine. Let the arms and head relax so their weight stretches the back. Keep the abdominal muscles engaged and the knees bent enough to keep the weight over the center of the feet, and to support the back.
You may take a couple of breaths to reach the full forward bend from the hip joints. Relax and breathe. If the hands don’t reach the floor, bend the knees. Then inhale and begin to lift from the lower abdomen, rolling up through the spine, keeping the head, shoulders, and arms soft and heavy, uncurling until finally you are standing upright. The head comes up last. Repeat twice more. Last time, roll down with one exhale, and up with one inhale.
7. One Arm Overhead Stretch
Inhale, stretch one arm up alongside the ear, and on the exhale, settle the head of the arm bone down into the shoulder joint, releasing the top of the shoulder. Then inhale deeply and reach the arm up even higher as you reach down with the opposite arm. Exhale, slowly lowering the arm to the side. Repeat, alternating sides for a total of three times per side.
8. Agni Sara
With the feet slightly more than hip-width apart, bend the knees and drop into a half squat, supporting the upper body with the hands on the thighs. Look down at the belly. Exhale and contract the abdomen strongly, paying particular attention to the lower belly. Inhale and relax the belly. Repeat, drawing the navel toward the spine with the exhale, and softening and relaxing on the inhale.
For even better results, contract the pelvic floor and sphincters as well as the lower belly on the exhale, relaxing slowly but completely on the inhale. Eventually you will be able to contract in a wave-like motion from the pelvic floor up through the belly to the diaphragm on the exhale, releasing from the diaphragm down through the belly into the pelvic floor on the inhale. Work for depth and control. Repeat at least 10 times, working up to 25 or more.
9. Corpse Pose
Finish by standing quietly and watching the flow of the breath in the body; then lie down in shavasana for a systematic relaxation.
Watch Sandra Anderson’s instructional agni sara video.
Listen to a guided relaxation practice for shavasana.
Yoga International senior editor Sandra Anderson is co-author of Yoga: Mastering the Basics and has taught yoga and meditation for over 25 years.
Photos by Kathryn LeSoine; Model: Crystal Ketterhagen.