Beyond Asana: Other Yoga Therapy Tools
When many people in the West think of yoga, what first comes to mind are asanas, the physical postures such as Lotus (Padmasana) or Triangle Pose (Trikonasana). And indeed, the practice of asana can be a powerful therapeutic tool, improving strength, flexibility, and balance and helping to reduce stress levels. But for teachers and students open to a broader approach, yogic tools ranging from breathing techniques (pPranayama) to selfless service (karma yoga) can be useful, either to supplement the postures or—in cases where asana may not be appropriate due to injuries, weakness, or other problems—to provide an alternative.
Almost all styles of yoga in the West emphasize some degree of breath awareness in asana. In styles such as Ashtanga, students are taught to breathe using Ujjayi technique throughout their asana practice. Other styles, such as Iyengar, don't place as much emphasis on breathing during asana but do encourage dedicated students to develop a regular pranayama practice. In both these styles, students are encouraged to begin pranayama only after they have achieved some degree of facility with the postures, which may take a few years.
Other styles, such as Viniyoga, Kripalu, and Integral, may introduce simple breathing exercises in your very first class or private session. In my experience, it's safe to include pranayama from the beginning as long as the practices are kept simple, students are warned against pushing or doing techniques they aren't ready for, and there is no emphasis on fancy ratio breathing or long retentions of breath. Alternate-nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana, for example, is a practice that almost anyone can do and benefit from.
There is actually far more scientific evidence for the healing potential of meditation than there is for asana and other yogic tools, yet many dedicated yoga practitioners do not have a sitting practice. The ancient sages, however, viewed meditation as the most important tool for transformation, and it is clearly a powerful way to reduce stress, a contributor to so many health problems. Meditation appears to be particularly beneficial for chronic pain, in part by helping practitioners learn to differentiate the pain, which may be bad, from their thoughts, worries, and fears about it, which may be awful.
A simple way to begin a meditation practice is to add a minute or two of sitting immediately following Savasana (Corpse Pose) at the end of an asana session. Even better, do a couple of minutes of alternate-nostril breathing after asanas, and then meditate. The ancient yogis believed, and modern practitioners confirm, that it's natural to shift into meditation right after finishing Nadi Shodhana. Aim to slowly (over months) build up your time meditating to 20 minutes once or twice a day.
Not everyone can meditate. Some people only get agitated if they try. Others, however, give up too easily, believing it isn't working because when they sit they become aware of how busy their minds are and how much difficulty they have trying to stay focused. Seeing how busy your mind is, however, is a crucial step on the path to self-knowledge, and eventually to deeper and more satisfying meditation.