What does long-term success in yoga look like?
While it’s up to each individual to define success in yoga on their own terms, the practice of Hatha Yoga offers a unique perspective on balancing three pillars of health: the relationship of steadiness of mind, posture and breathing.
So how do you define a good practice? It's obviously much more than just good posture. If yoga was merely about the poses, gymnasts would be the masters.
Integrating breath with large sets of alignment patterns is one unique characteristic of yoga. Hatha Yoga has a few definitions. “Sun and moon,” which correspond to duelling energy channels is one. “Forceful Yoga,” is another. Both definitions apply some internal tug of war between poles of opposites. The word yoga means “union” or “meditative absorption,” which tells us we have to make peace with the many contradictions that will arise in our own experience of something as externally oriented as perfecting posture.
“Every turn, every spiral, every extension has to be tempered by a counterturn, a counterspiral, or a flexion; sometimes strong, sometimes subtle.”
- Richard Freeman, The Mirror of Yoga
Here is a brief overview of how long-term success in Yoga practice can unfold. My hope is that you see your own ways of approaching practice somewhere in this tale, and get some insights into how to keep moving forward...
In the beginning, you walked into the yoga studio with your chest collapsed, shoulders and back slumping forward, and maybe you even had a strong superficial core (rectus abdominus) – the various elements that comprise this posture are coined the Apana pattern. When sitting on the floor, this tendency would be further exaggerated, then someone taught you to ‘lift your sitbones’ in downward dog, and finally, the stretch went into your hamstrings. You added bending your knees to the equation, and you were able to find your “neutral spine” and open your chest, instead of being in a slump.￼
You found this technique had portability to most other movements, and you learned to sit on the ground this way over the course of a few years. But you still find it difficult to sit-up straight, and your hip flexors are really sore, so you try to avoid that class where the instructor makes you do the boat posture (navasana) and other postures that demand you create a neutral spine while strongly flexing the hip. Sometimes those poses make your hip flexors even more sore, and you can’t figure out why they hurt your lower back.￼
You’ve been trying to squeeze your anus upwards when you practice yoga, even though it sounds a little weird. You’ve also learned by now that belly breathing is an incomplete technique, and so you keep your lower belly draw inwards about 2 inches below the belly button all the time—those boat poses aren’t so bad now.
A few months or years go by, you’re getting really good at touching your toes and breathing into your chest, ribcage and upper-belly simultaneously, but wondering why your upper hamstrings are sore, right where they insert near the bum – a common problem among yogis who take the Prana pattern of alignment actions to extremes for too long.
So you’ve started doing this thing in downward dog and lots of other forward folds where it feels like you might be “curling the tailbone”, and for some reason, the hamstring stretches feel way better. This is the beginning of merging the Prana and Apana patterns together.
A few more years pass, and you’ve realized that in downward dog and other hamstring stretches you can also engage your superficial core pieces like rectus abdominals, and contract your hamstrings and calves as they stretch (heavy hamstrings, rectus abs and exhaling the breath out are all part of Apana). When you do that, it feels like your hip flexors are relaxing for once in your life.
At the end of practice, you sit on the floor in that cross-legged position. You go through your usual motions to sit up tall: gently arching the back, shoulder blades down and back low belly in, pubic bone dropping so the sit-bones press down into the floor. You take a deep breath with sound and expand your chest, ribcage and upper belly, then with the exhale you contract 2-inches below the belly more firmly and then engage your rectus abdominus to squeeze out all the air. Then something happens… That area around the anus that you dogmatically contracted the last five years seems to engage on its own. At the same time, you feel the tailbone dropping in relationship to the pubic bone. The hip flexors are relaxed and the posture is stable and comfortable you could sit there for hours. You feel the root of the spine tone with the end of the exhale, then are able to meditate on the residue of that toning while inhaling.
A deep sense of calm overtakes the nervous system. The breath slows to epic proportions. There is a sense of energy rising from the root of the spine to the crown of the head. The alignment patterns of Prana and Apana have been fully balanced in the seated position. What once seemed like a bunch of overly-mechanical instructions on how to do everything from touching your toes to reaching your arms up reveals it’s brilliance as the art of yogic meditation on the entirety of hatha yoga: uniting the dualities of the inhale pattern (prana) and the exhale (apana), the left energy channel (ida) and the right energy channel (pingala), and experiencing their union through the central channel (Sushumna nadi).
After half-a-million chaturangas, it turns out that the keys to yoga we’re in understanding how to use your breathing and tilt the pelvis forward while dropping the tailbone, which didn’t make any sense until it finally happened, as the breathing technique triggered the “shadow side” of the alignment picture.
The breath continues to slow down, and without any extra effort, meditation on the infinite spontaneously occurs.
“Now is the time for yoga.”
- Sutra 1.1, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali