General recommendations on practicing asanas

One of the objectives of practicing asanas is their therapeutic and psychotherapeutic effect. In this respect, there are a few rules to adhere, which will help your progress in Ashtanga Yoga in the most efficient and safe way
1
Yoga is about concentration of attention
Ashtanga is unique as it consists of three key elements: dristis (gaze focus points), bandhas (special muscle tonus), and ujjayi (sibilant breathing). None of these means of concentration are to be neglected.
dristis
Traditionally, there are just a few dristis. Regular practice will help memorize them quite quickly. During led classes teachers prompt dristis for each asana. If for some reason you cannot focus on a required point or you forgot which dristi goes with this exactly asana, concentrate on Nasagrai dristi (the tip of the nose). This will work for any asana. If in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog) you cannot focus on your navel, do not just choose a random point – focus on the tip of your nose. Traditionally, in all forward bends to one leg the dristi is the toe of the straight leg with the chin placed on its shin. In order to develop this ability regular practice is essential, but up until that time use Nasagrai dristi (focus on the tip of the nose). When transiting from one asana into another try not to let your gaze wander, use Nasagrai dristi in all vinyasas. Upon completion of a transition movement, turn your gaze to a dristi of the next asana.
bandhas
Bandhas, or energy locks, require a lot of practice before one can hold them automatically. If it is not clear to you how exactly muscles should be drawn in, ask your teacher. At first, holding locks continuously may be difficult. But this element will soon become natural to you provided continuous practice with ujjayi breath and dristis. Remember that disregard of bandhas as well as other elements of practice, can reduce the whole process of concentration and heating to zero and cause problems with blood pressure. For more on medical research of bandhas' effect on a body see on the website of Alexandr Smirkin www.vinyasa.ru.
ujjayi
Ujjayi, or "sibilant breathing", allows controlling the length of inhalations and exhalations. It contributes to intensive heating of a body and is a link, a binding thread, in the sequence of asanas. Without a deep ujjayi breathing practice becomes acrobatic and hazardous.
All the above means of concentration are applied together. In the beginning, of course, it is difficult to imagine how one can focus on something rather than a posture itself. Start practicing dristis, bandhas and ujjayi in Surya Namaskara and genuinely try to perfect them. In Ashtanga Yoga tradition it is the concentration of your attention which is important, rather than performance of asanas. Be patient when focusing your gaze, holding locks and breathing ujjayi and you will realize that in your head there is no room for thoughts about daily life, life outside the mat.
2
Ashtanga Yoga is not all about asanas
Even if you have no other purpose than keeping fit, do not try to master too many asanas. According to Sharath Jois, one must master poses before being given permission to attempt any others that follow. Sometimes a teacher, in order to motivate students, can offer them to do some new asanas even if the previous ones are not yet mastered. In this case the whole sequence should be done with a great care and with a focus on the traditional elements: dristis, bandhas and ujjayi.
3
Time of holding each asana
As a rule, at led classes teachers make their students hold nearly all asanas for five breath cycles with the exception of the finishing sequence where all asanas are held from eight to twenty-five breath cycles. It should be realized that not more than two led classes a week are given in Yoga Shala (where Shala means "home"). The rest of the week students practice in Mysore-class style. A led class is needed for mastering the speed of getting into asanas, aligning the rhythm of the breath, and reminding of traditional dristis and the order of vinyasas. The number of breaths at a led class is minimal. While practicing at a Mysore class you can hold asanas much longer than for five breath cycles if you want to increase their therapeutic effect.

In an attempt to increase the number of breaths many practitioners disregard the quality of breathing. On an average, one breath cycle should not take less than six seconds (three seconds for inhalation and exhalation each), in complicated asanas though some acceleration of breathing is acceptable. Be honest with yourself and try to understand the difference between the difficulty in performance and laziness.
«In order to get a beneficial effect of an asana it should be held as long as possible»
Lino Miele
«Ashtanga Yoga»
4
Logic of the sequence
There is a good reason for the logic of the sequence: Surya Namaskara, standing asanas, seated asanas, inverted asanas. Surya Namaskara warms the body up, sets the mind on the required concentration and helps it get into an observing condition.



The number of Surya Namaskaras when practiced daily is five times for A and three times for B. If you practice less than 5 or 6 times a week the number of Surya Namaskara B should be increased to five times.



Standing asanas lay the foundation for flexibility, strengthen the muscular core and warm the body up for the rest of the practice. Attend to alignment and deepening of the first six asanas till Parsvottanasana with great care.

The main sequence of Ashtanga Yoga asanas starts with Paschimattanasana and finishes with Setu Bandhasana. The teacher can recommend decreasing or increasing the number of asanas performed depending on the level of your practice. When the main sequence is performed with dristis, bandhas and ujjayi the heat of the body is the most intensive, it helps release toxins with the sweat even from the deeper layers of tissues. Blood circulates through the liver over and over again, gets purified of bile and becomes thinner. Dark thick and impure blood can damage cerebral vessels during inverted poses. Whilst thin and hot blood has a curative effect.

The inverted asanas are most important: first, they contribute to purification of a body; second, traditionally they help the flow of prana which is the body's energy. Intensive warming of the body during previous sequences makes inverted postures easier and more beneficial. The blood flow in the area of legs and pelvis becomes less intensive, but gets intensified in the area of the heart, thyroid and brain. The more intensive the flow of hot blood is in a certain area, the better purifying and rejuvenating effect it will have. That is why vertical inverted postures should be held the longest.

In your daily practice gradually try to hold your Sarvangasana and Shirshasana for up to five minutes. If you can remove tension from your neck and head with the help of your arms, it is possible to hold these asanas much longer.
«Shirshasana held for less than five minutes is pointless»
Shri K. Pattabhi Jois
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