We all know that we feel better after stretching during an asana class. Asanas have the wonderful ability to sooth tensions, release trapped energy, and improve our sense of well-being. Proper asana practice can be used for more than health and fitness, however; it can become the basis of psychological and spiritual growth. As teachers, once we have taught the basics of asana, we can instruct our students to use the energy and well-being generated by their practice to power their self-development.
We use breath and mental muscle to lift asana to a higher level. We use the breath to enhance prana and vitality. We engage the mind to prevent distraction and to cultivate a positive creative process. We create the context for this by encouraging an attitude of self-acceptance. The student should accept where he or she is, in life and in yoga practice. Authentic and meaningful progress cannot be made without self-acceptance.
We know that the breath is both a major body pump and a doorway for vitality to enter our being. The breath is also the most easily accessed and manipulated form of prana. By manipulating the breath, we act on all of the internal organs and systems of the body, as well as on our subtle vital energy. Yoga literature states that the quality of one's breath and prana determines the quality of one's mind. A calm breath creates a calm mind, and vice versa.
To lift asana practice to a higher level, instruct your students to direct their awareness to the breath. Give instructions that challenge students to focus on their level of self-awareness, such as, "What do you feel? Use your breath to relax more, to tune into your inner strength, to create positive change." Encourage them to recognize the positive and powerful inner changes they can create through this practice. This will keep their minds as well as their bodies engaged.
Engage the Mind
One of the great definitions of yoga is union of body and mind. To be successful in yoga, the body and mind must be engaged, aligned, and connected. However, it is not uncommon for people to try to perfect a form of an asana while their mind is distracted. We tend to mentally drift, or to become caught up in such self-defeating states as competitiveness, trying too hard, lack of self-confidence, emotional turmoil, worry, or conflicting desires. Students need to be reminded that if their minds are distracted, then they are not really practicing asana. They are simply stretching muscles and ligaments, and missing important spiritual and psychological benefits.
It is not physical tension and general body stiffness that block success so much as it is the mental state and the attitude of the student. Therefore, when you teach asana, engage your students' minds in the present moment with something positive and uplifting. There are a number of instructions we can give to guide the student into this positive yoga experience.
The First Step: Reflection
The first step is to use the time prior to teaching asana to prepare your students' minds. For example, tell them to sit quietly and reflect inwardly for a moment. Encourage them to contemplate their strengths and weaknesses and to identify their needs. Then encourage them to contemplate how they could modify or rectify their weakness or problem. Can they use existing strengths, or do they need to cultivate new ones? For example, if someone lacks confidence, they may need to cultivate courage. If someone struggles with anger, then they may need to cultivate self-control and a cooler mind.
Once they have a clear idea of what they need and what they might do about it, they are to hold that thought in their minds during asana practice. At the same time, they are to tune into the power generated by their asana and use these positive feelings to attain their goal. This gives the practice of asana a higher and broader purpose.
The Second Step: Awareness
The second step is to instruct the student to remain present and aware while they practice. Remind them to fight the tendency to wander off into a distracted, distant state—the state in which accidents often happen. Remind them to keep using their breath as a way of remaining relaxed and focused. By remaining present, their practice becomes the basis of a simple but powerful meditative process. They will add another level to their asana practice that will consciously create positive mental states.
The normal distracted, undisciplined mind, the so-called "monkey-mind," wastes energy in negative thinking and emotional turmoil. Therefore, rather than allowing the mind to wander enmeshed in this state, aim to consciously use the energy that was trapped in the negative to power positive mental states.
The Third Step: Focus
The third step, once your students have assumed their asana pose, is to remind them of what they contemplated before commencing the practice: what they want to achieve in their lives right now. Instruct them to ask themselves, "What am I feeling at this moment?" At the same time, encourage them to focus on identifying any positive feelings they have.
A well-performed asana is not one that fits an idealized image. Rather, a well-performed asana generates feelings of being grounded, balanced, self-nourished, energized, in control. While the students are creating these positive states of being, ask them to focus on their weakness or difficulty. They need to sense the deep inner strength and confidence they can cultivate through asana practice and observe how it affects their sense of their weakness or problem.
This process is a powerful way to help students elevate and deepen their asana practice. Both teacher and students must have patience; students will not learn to reflect, become aware, and maintain focus in one class. But over time, this practice develops a number of skills: the student becomes more grounded in a practice that is appropriate to them at that time; their minds become more focused; and they learn to consciously create positive inner states, such as courage and wisdom. All of this develops a more powerful and creative mind, and a yoga practice that is consciously linked with life outside the yoga classroom.
Dr. Swami Shankardev is a yogacharya, medical doctor, psychotherapist, author, and lecturer. He lived and studied with his guru, Swami Satyananda, for more than 10 years in India (1974-1985). He lectures all over the world. To read more of his work or to contact him, go to www.bigshakti.com.