Principles of asana: Advice for the beginner
Throughout my, admittedly modest, engagement with yoga, I’ve learnt a number of important lessons, most through failure, and others from the expert guidance of more experienced friends. Yoga, like freediving, does not follow the standard rules of engagement for physical training, and it is important to approach it with a mindset unlike that of the swimmer, climber or runner. You cannot just try harder. Rather you must try more ‘openly’.
Having given an account of my own changing perspectives towards yoga in the previous article, and before we get into more philosophical discussions, this article is focussed on practical advice for approaching the physical component of yoga: yoga asana. Not instructions per-se, but a number of pointers that might be of use in engaging the practise as a training means for other disciplines. I hope that, in my similarly amateur capacity I might be able to make more relatable some of the aspects that initially confused and deterred me.
And so here it is: from one novice to another—insights and advice for starting yoga asana, especially in the context of a training tool for other disciplines.
This is part of a series of articles:
Principles of Asana: Advice for the beginner
The Big Three | Consistency, quality, mindfulness
Lessons from a good friend, Yikai Zhang, this trifecta represents to me a guiding principle to underpin all training, regardless of the discipline. And it rings perhaps doubly true in asana.
CONSISTENCY is the key to all progress, and in the case of yoga asana, the nature of flexibility physiology as both a neural and muscular quality means that it is the only way. A muscle must be slowly and surely persuaded to allow new lengths, it cannot be forced with big pushes. Little and often is the name of the game.
In a discipline so neurological, QUALITY of practice is paramount. As with any neurological capacity—of which asana addresses many: flexibility, coordination, balance and coordinated strength—to practise badly is to go backwards, wiring the wrong pathways into your neurology. In asana one should seek to perform only in the correct way, stopping as soon as perfect form cannot be achieved. This is particularly the case for high-skill movements such as the handstand and other inverted balances.
Similarly, one should remain present, aware of the movement and anatomy: MINDFUL in the practice. By doing so we ensure quality and total engagement, the latter a central determinant of the capacity for neurological rewiring and adaptation. Imagine the muscles becoming longer and your breath as a shaper for their reformation; fix your focus on your anatomy and its operation, and let your conscience merge into it rather than viewing it from outside.
In asana, making the time for consistent, quality practice is the key to progression. Be present and savour the process—results will come of their own accord.
The discipline yields benefits long before you reach the impressive poses (photo by Natasha Fedorova of Lenica Reggie)
Six other pieces of advice
1) Don’t be put off by complexity, vastness or seeming intangibility
Yoga is a pretty frightening discipline when looking at the big picture. It basically encompasses all of human mechanical and psychological functionality, and that’s even before we make arguments to extend it to other aspects of physiological performance.
You don’t need this bigger picture to begin with, or even at all. The benefits still come at any level, providing it is approached with intent and commitment. In that sense it’s like anything, but perhaps even more so, as ‘yoga’ is really a cornucopia of many different disciplines. So identify how it serves you, and start where you’re comfortable—don’t stress about achieving full understanding or comprehensivity before you begin.
Many years ago, a mentor of mine in animal tracking taught me an important lesson. That through the tangible we may reach the intangible; that skills and physicality are a doorway to the psychological (and perhaps even spiritual). He showed me that through dedicated practise of what you can understand and fathom we begin naturally to step towards greater understanding and ability, ultimately entering the path to higher levels of performance and awareness. It’s all about starting somewhere with what you can understand and approach, and trusting that small, consistent progress will eventually lead to heights you can’t yet comprehend, both physically and mentally.
‘...take up the study of the yoga science as you would any other science of material nature and remember that there is no mystery nor danger in it.’
— Swami Vivekananda, 1896 —
2) Construct your own routine
Whilst you can of course follow lesson plans or the Ashtanga sequence, I would urge you to construct your own routine, suited to you—especially if your interest is in conditioning for other disciplines, rather than asana as a goal unto itself.
Consider first what it is you need and want—focus on your weaknesses and imbalances and consider whether you’re approaching with a desire to improve flexibility, strength, mobility or balance. These factors will have a major impact on the poses you choose and manner in which you approach them—statically or as flow, and for how long. A good place to start is by using the Ashtanga sequence as a catalogue of stretches, or checking out one of the many books that list many hundreds of poses—there are plenty of PDFs online.
Focus on the areas you want to work and develop a practice around that, for example (as a runner), flexibility of the hips and hamstrings, perhaps core strength. In my opinion development of body awareness is the greatest gift of asana, so consider that too.
Advice I have been given previously is to organise your poses from supine to prone to sitting to standing, or vice-versa, and while the yogis may say there is some energetic benefit in this, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just more convenient and makes sense. That said, I do like to throw a handstand between every few stretches for good measure—for me it’s a good way to get practise in for skill-focused techniques. But that’s the point, make it what’s useful and productive to you. Build on a few basics and fill it out as you learn and feel the need.
3) Focus on fascial lines rather than individual muscles and ranges of motion
Muscles are not isolated structures, and nor is their strength or flexibility. Rather they are inextricably entwined in a complex web of mechanics and connective tissue.
Far more success in yoga asana will come from viewing and working on the body from the perspective of fascial lines—that is, the connected lines of muscular and connective structure that pass throughout the body—rather than on individual muscles. Not only is this a far more realistic and fluid concept of the anatomy, but also more practically effective.
For example, after many years of stretching my hamstrings, it was after a period of focusing on lower back flexibility and releasing the plantar fascia on the bottom of my feet that I yielded the largest improvement. As might seem obvious in hindsight, the entire fascial back-line was the issue, not the hamstrings alone, and in fact the problem points for me were (and still are) elsewhere.
There’s no need to figure out exactly what affects what unless you want to, as it is an infinitely complex subject, but just be mindful to approach the practise with a more integrated perspective of your anatomy. On a similar note, there is benefit in realising that the transition between poses and movement itself is as central to the development of body control and awareness as are the static components of the practise.
Fascia lines in (on) the flesh
4) It’s okay (and maybe even better) to do short sessions
Less is better than never, as any overambitious scheduler like myself will tell you. It’s far better to do a little each day than never get around to bigger sessions. And, in fact, while strength training and aerobic disciplines require more intense stimuli (i.e. an overload, whether in intensity or length) alternated with recovery, with yoga, and in particular flexibility-focused asana, there is little rest required, and a little-and-often approach is actually more conducive to improvement. Repetition and consistency are the key to progression in flexibility.
5) Don’t overstretch
Another good reason to stretch little and often. Flexibility is typically not limited by the length of a muscle, but rather the nervous reflex to prevent overstretching. To increase flexibility we must persuade this reflex that the new length is safe, achieved through gradual exposure a little at a time.
Don’t push stretches. If you’re sore the next day then it means you overdid the stretch, caused the nervous system to instigate a pull back, meaning that the muscle itself was torn slightly in allowing the range of motion. This then leads to inflexible scar tissue and an even more cautious reflex, which combined can actually decrease flexibility. Learn where the stretch feels present, but not uncomfortable, and don’t push it—trust instead to the long-term accumulation of small consistent gains. soreness the following day is not productive, you want to be able to build on it every day.
This was something that took me (or rather is still taking me) a very long time to learn, and that I still struggle with at times. Yoga, like freediving, goes against the ‘try-harder’ progression mentality that is essential of many physical sports, and must be approached with a different perspective (see Misconception 4 in this article for a deeper discussion on this).
6) Use breath not time
Yogis would shudder at the very idea of timing a pose, but for those of us with backgrounds in sport, this is pretty typical. How many times has a coach counted thirty seconds as a team holds a stretch?
However, in using instead your breath—say holding each pose for ten slow in- and exhalations—we can focus more directly on the position and its effect on the body. For one thing, the breath acts as a psychological reference point, keeping the mind in the present and conscience in the stretch. And then second, since exhalation is directly linked to the sympathetic nervous system, each release of breath can be used as trigger of relaxation—a simultaneous pulse of release in the muscles.
Final Thoughts | Just start
The biggest piece of advice? Just start. Anything is better than nothing and you can learn the ropes as you go. At this stage it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, if you understand the science, or if you work via the more esoteric dogma spouted by the gurus. Rather what matters is putting in the work, committing to the process with consistent, high quality practise and mindfulness.
Yoga asana is a discipline of vast worth, both in itself and especially in the context of other sports and pursuits. It both fills in missing aspects of body conditioning and, just as importantly, teaches valuable new perspectives and insights that we can apply across the human performance spectrum, both physically, in the mind and in their integration.
And it doesn’t take more than a small step to begin.