For 40 years, I’ve maintained a regular practice of yoga asanas. At times, I need to grab whatever opportunity I can to keep up my discipline. When vacationing with my family, for instance, I occasionally forgo some of my practice time to be with them. Sooner or later, though, I excuse myself and slip off for some pranayama or a few asanas. “Are you going to do your exercises?” they ask. And I say, “Yes.”
But actually, that’s not quite true. Exercise, in my mind at least, is movement primarily to improve physical fitness. Although I get substantial physical benefits from yoga, I don’t see my practice of yoga asanas as “exercise.” Of course, asanas can be practiced as exercise—if they’re done mechanically or unconsciously.
What elevates the practice of asanas from exercise to yoga, however, is intelligent action and the infusion of awareness throughout your entire body when practicing the poses. When you refine what might otherwise be pure mechanical movement with intelligent action, you transform your practice into a meditation in motion that invites the light of awareness into previously dark, unconscious areas of your mind and body.
In other words, intelligent action is more than just movement. In his insightful book Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar defined action, distinguishing it from movement. “Action is movement with intelligence,” he wrote. Intelligent action implies a heightened sensitivity and responsiveness in body and mind, an all-encompassing awareness.
That means practicing so that each movement you make and the corresponding position of each part of your body is observed with exquisite attention and then carefully refined to cultivate balance, stability, and freedom. You then continue to observe and adjust, integrating all the parts of your body harmoniously.
Adjusting your poses this way leads to better alignment and less strain on your joints, muscles, and organs. You’re more likely to avoid injury when you pay close attention to what you’re doing and respond appropriately to the signals your body sends you. And better alignment, heightened sensitivity, and less strain create clear channels of energy in your body that result in steadiness, greater freedom of movement, and less wasted effort. Moreover, when you learn to practice with intelligent action, you can bring that same quality of discernment to whatever life puts in your path.
Before You Begin
To warm up and prepare, set up in a space without carpeting and start with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), and Ustrasana (Camel Pose).
Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Balance)
In Pincha Mayurasana you’ll learn to develop the stability and mobility in your chest and shoulders that are so important in Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose).
Place a block at the wall, with the broad side facing down on your mat and the longest edge against the wall. Loop a strap around your forearms just above your elbows, shoulder-width apart. Kneel in front of the block, place your palms on the floor, and hold the corners of the block with the inner edges of your index fingers and thumbs. Lift your knees and hips up toward the ceiling.
Before you kick up, take a few moments to establish the intelligent actions of the pose that open and align your arms, shoulders, and chest. Press your palms and fingers down into the floor, and the edges of your index fingers and thumbs into the sides of the block to help you lift your inner shoulders away from your elbows. Draw your shoulder blades up your back toward your sacrum and press them powerfully into your back ribs.
The strong upward action in the shoulders and upper back stabilizes your shoulders so you can walk in toward the wall and align your trunk more closely over your elbows without jamming your shoulder joints. When you have walked in as far as you can, swing one leg up and jump with the other to take your feet to the wall. Recharge your lift from your base by pressing down through your hands, inner wrists, and forearms.
Gravity will pull your sacrum toward your lumbar spine in this pose, which can cause compression, pain, and injury. To avoid this, lift your tailbone toward your heels and move it away from the wall toward your pubis. At the same time, roll the backs of your upper thighs away from each other and press your inner thighs back toward the wall.
Combining the movements of your legs and pelvis creates a double action. Initiating this double action, observing the details of your body’s response, and then making appropriate adjustments is intelligent action.
Working this way is more effective than simply moving your pelvis away from the wall. The double action in your legs and pelvis creates a lift and a spreading of your sacrum that increase space and decrease compression between the posterior lumbar vertebrae. The subtlety of these actions draws the mind into a more one-pointed and refined level of sensitivity. The heightened state of concentration (dharana) that results is a primary element that distinguishes intelligent action from mechanical movements.
Stay in the pose for one to two minutes. Come down when you feel that the intelligent action in your legs and pelvis has reverted to mechanical movement. Lift back into the pose at least one more time to imprint the actions in your upper body, pelvis, and legs.
Chatush Padasana (Four-Footed Pose)
Chatush Padasana begins to open space in your front hip joints and groins, which in turn gives you freedom to find the pelvic actions that help you on your way toward Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana. If you move mechanically into Chatush Padasana and simply push your pelvis up, you risk jamming your low back, which could damage your intervertebral disks. But if you use intelligent action, you’ll create spaciousness in your low back that will allow you to open more deeply and safely into the pose.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Bring your feet hip-width apart, outer edges parallel to the edges of your mat, with your heels near your buttocks. Instead of just pushing your pelvis up, focus on the action of lengthening your tailbone toward your knees. Press the inner and outer edges of your feet evenly into the mat as you take your tailbone toward the ceiling to lift your pelvis. This lengthening and lifting action in your tailbone will begin to open your groins and give you space to create what feels like a circular action in your pelvis that lengthens your lumbar spine as you backbend. Maintain this circular action as you roll the backs of your upper thighs away from each other. This will release the tension in the gluteal and sacral muscles that often accompanies the tailbone action and will help prevent strain in your low back.
To get even more height in your pelvis and begin to open your chest, roll your upper arms outward, tuck your outer shoulders in toward your midline, and come up onto the top of your shoulders, just as you would for Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). Hold your ankles with your hands or, if you can’t reach your ankles, place a strap around the front of your ankles and hold the ends of the strap. If your heels lift off the floor or your low back or knees hurt when you hold your ankles, step your feet a little further away from your buttocks and use the strap.
Initiate a double action by pulling against your ankles (or the strap) with your hands and simultaneously pressing your outer shoulders into the floor. This double action will lift your side and back ribs and take your rib cage away from your low back toward your head. It’s important to learn to coordinate these actions in your chest and pelvis to avoid compressing the spine in any backbend, from the most basic to the most advanced. Hold the pose for 30 to 60 seconds. Then come down, rest for a couple of breaths, and repeat two more times.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose)
Urdhva Dhanurasana is a more difficult backbend and will give you the opportunity to develop and refine the opening in your pelvis and chest.
Lie on your back with your feet as they were for Chatush Padasana. Place your palms on the floor beside your head, with your fingertips just under your shoulders. Reach your tailbone and sacrum toward your knees and simultaneously lift your tailbone toward the ceiling to create the circular pelvic action you practiced in Chatush Padasana. Press your inner and outer feet down to lift your pelvis higher. Press your palms into the floor and lift your chest, shoulders, and head off the floor to come into Urdhva Dhanurasana. Stay for a minute and then release. Repeat this lift three times. On your third lift, stop on the crown of your head to establish and deepen the intelligent actions.
Don’t rest your weight completely on your head. Instead, press your palms down and draw your shoulder blades up your back, away from your neck, to take pressure off your neck and lift your side and back ribs. Keeping that lift, dig your shoulder blades into your back. The double action of lifting your shoulder blades and pressing them into your ribs should have the effect of creating lightness and space in your chest.
Now, recharge the tailbone action and turn your upper back thighs outward to soften and broaden across your sacrum. Then recharge the action in your shoulder blades to lift and make space in your shoulders. Now you can move with exquisite observation toward opening your chest more deeply and stacking your shoulders over your wrists more precisely. Stay for 30 seconds to a minute and then release. Repeat the pose this way 6 to 12 times. Just as you do when cooking pancakes for your family on vacation, you refine the process a little each time until everything is just right.
Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose), variation
Before you move on to the classical version of Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, practice it with the support of a blanket and chair. By using props for support, you’ll be able to stay in the pose longer and deepen and refine the intelligent actions you’ve been working on. Plus, you’ll learn some new actions that you’ll need to know for the classical pose.
Place a chair about a foot and a half from the wall with the chair seat facing away from the wall. (You’ll be pushing yourself away from the wall to get into position, which is why it’s best to be on an uncarpeted floor.) Sit on your chair facing the wall and then lean back over the edge of the chair seat. Slide your shoulder blades and upper back off the seat toward the floor; then place your hands on the floor as you would for Urdhva Dhanurasana. Your head should be lightly touching the floor. Now, place your feet on the wall, with your heels at the level of the chair seat and your knees slightly bent. Press the inner edges of your feet into the wall and slowly straighten your legs, letting the chair slide away from the wall. Make sure your heels maintain contact with the wall. Once your legs are straight, place your hands behind your head and interlock your fingers as you would for Sirsasana (Headstand). Position your elbows shoulder-width apart, and adjust your position so you’re on the crown of your head.
To relieve discomfort in your lower back, elevate your buttocks on a low block, blanket, or folded sticky mat. If your forearms don’t reach the floor, use a rolled sticky mat under your elbows. If your head doesn’t reach the floor, build up a platform with a sticky mat and enough blankets so your head and wrists make contact. (You may still need a rolled mat for your elbows.) Once you’re in position, press your forearms into the floor and lift your shoulders away from the floor.
As you press your forearms down into the floor, turn your triceps toward your face and lift your upper arms away from your forearms. This action will help you create space in your shoulder joints so you can dig your shoulder blades into your back ribs and open your chest toward the center of the room.
Press your inner feet into the wall, and again begin a circular action with your pelvis. As your sacrum lengthens away from your lumbar spine, roll your upper back thighs out to spread the sacral muscles. Sometimes you might think you’ve moved as much as you can, but one subtle movement of intelligent action can reveal a whole new level of opening.
As you lengthen your sacrum, add the action of moving your inner thighs up your legs from your knees toward your inner groins; it will be like turning on a light switch that illuminates your tailbone. Stay in the pose for one to three minutes; then reach up, catch the chair back, and pull yourself upright.
Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (Two-Legged Inverted Staff Pose)
Begin on your back as though you were coming into Urdhva Dhanurasana, with your head close to a wall. Initiate the circular actions in your pelvis and come to the crown of your head with your hands in Sirsasana position and your elbows against the wall. With practice, you’ll be able to take this pose in the middle of a room without slipping.
Turn your triceps in and press your forearms down to lift your upper arms away from your lower arms, making space for your shoulder joints. Press the bottom edge of your wrists down to get your shoulder blades to dig deeply into your back ribs, lifting your thoracic spine.
At this point, your knees are still bent. Recharge your tailbone action, lengthening your sacrum toward your knees. Broaden your sacrum by turning your upper back thighs outward. Now, get more height in your pelvis by moving your inner thighs from your knees back toward your inner groins. Maintain these actions in your pelvis as you walk your legs out. If you feel your actions deteriorating into mechanical movement, practice with your knees bent or continue with the supported variation until you develop the resilience to maintain intelligent action.
Take small steps to walk your legs out. If you immediately move your feet out to a distance that lets you straighten your legs easily, you will lose the height of your pelvis. After taking a small step, press your top inner knee toward the floor and draw your inner thighs back toward your inner groins. Maintain the actions in your arms and shoulder blades to keep the lift of your chest and shoulders. Keep taking small steps. Repeat the circular actions in your pelvis and the lifting actions in your legs to keep your chest open and your pelvis lifted.
When your legs are almost straight, ground your inner feet down and dig your top inner knees into the backs of your knees. Grip your top outer calves tightly against your outer shins and pull the outer calves up toward your knees and back toward your head. Slowly straighten your legs. If your feet slip, practice with your feet against the wall instead of your elbows. If you feel clear, alert, and energized and have no discomfort in your back, you can do as many as six repetitions of Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, holding the pose for 30 to 60 seconds each time to refine your actions and build stamina.
Ultimately, backbends are not about muscular or skeletal strength, but about the strength of your nervous system. The subtle actions you’ve been working on reduce friction in your nervous system by bringing intelligence to the structural support that you create in the pose and to precise alignment so that prana (life force) can flow with as little resistance as possible. Eventually, you can reduce the repetitions and increase the time you stay in the pose to three minutes or longer.
Practice Adho Mukha Svanasana to lengthen the muscles in your spine and the backs of your legs. Then take Ardha Uttanasana (Half Standing Forward Bend), with your hands on the floor or on blocks. As your back and leg muscles release, gradually lengthen and lower your body into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Finish in Savasana (Corpse Pose) for 10 minutes with your head slightly elevated on blankets to help quiet your brain and cool your nerves.
One of the big differences between a mechanical workout and a yoga practice is your state of mind when you’re finished. The result of using intelligent action in your practice brings the light of your awareness to a highly focused state that ultimately leaves you energized, feeling both alert and quiet. And isn’t that what yoga is all about?