The Principles of Practice

“What style of yoga do you teach?” is a question I sometimes get asked. Most people don’t ask before attending class, it has to be said, but some do. We all have some preconceived idea about how yoga is done. I’ve listened to and heard about many stories that, in one form or other, beg questions about purpose, style and direction of yoga.

I was in an office of a financial services business some time ago and got talking to two men there about yoga. Both didn’t see any point in taking up the practice of yoga. One, in his mid-thirties, said he was so inflexible that there was no point attending a yoga class; he couldn’t even touch his toes. To prove the point he was a hopeless case, he attempted a standing forward bend. And he was right, with legs straight he could only manage to get his hands as far as his kneecaps. The case of the other, in his mid-fifties, was strikingly different to his younger colleague. Dressed in a pin-striped suit he made his point clear when he sat on a desk and proceeded to fold himself, shoes and all, effortlessly into the best padmāsana (lotus posture) I had ever seen. “I’m more than flexible enough” he told me. I tried to explain that the ability to touch one’s toes or fold one’s legs up really wasn’t the point of yoga, but they had already made up their minds, and that was the end of the conversation.

On another occasion, I heard about a lady who loved her yoga class a great deal. She regularly attended class, skipping very few of them, but always gave the quiet final phase of the class a miss. She developed a cat-like skill for padding out of class without making a sound. Sitting or lying still for 15 or so minutes was something she could not do. If she was doing ‘nothing’ her mind started to race uncontrollably. Looking after the mind was not her thing, at least not during a yoga class.

And, I have been in classes where yoga aficionados of many years’ experience, strong and flexible in their bodies, were not able to breath well whilst practising. Again, looking after the body is conceptually easy. But the breath? Who has heard of the idea of developing the breath and mind through yoga practice? Well it turns out, not as many as you would have thought.

Like it or not, yoga goes far beyond the physical exercise system that develops the well being, health, flexibility and strength of popular imagination. In fact, we should note well that one can successfully practise yoga without ever taking a single posture. That’s a hard idea to get across, but it is true: there are many ways of practising yoga. Notwithstanding this significant point, most of us find yogāsana (the practising of yoga poses) very enjoyable and indispensable. TKV Desikachar held the view that no matter how “beautifully we carry out an āsana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga” [1].

So how do we go about this integration of body, breath and mind in the yoga tradition of TKV Desikachar and his father, T Krishnamacharya? How is their yoga different from other yoga traditions?

Here are my choice of eight principles of yogāsana practice that seem to mark out their approach from other methods of yoga, which system of yoga is sometimes referred to as viniyoga. The word viniyoga means something like the proper application of yoga based on the situation and the person. That proper application is governed by many principles of practice. There is no way that I can list them all (partly because the list is long and because I actually don’t know them all), but here are my (current) top eight:

1. Nāma Rūpa Lakṣana:

Āsana is a big deal in the Western yoga world. It’s a fascinating area of study in its own right. Paul Harvey, a student of TKV Desikachar’s, suggests that if we want to understand āsana more deeply we might do well to explore the significance of a pose’s name (nāma), its form (rūpa) and its characteristics (lakṣana) [2].

It is true that different yoga lineages give different names to different poses and that new poses are being developed requiring new names. Postures can be named after animals, famous yogi-s, their shapes and so forth. For me, the way a pose’s name ends also tells us something important about it. Most end in the word āsana (posture), but others end with pīṭham, mudrā or karaṇī, and these indicate connections to how the pose interacts with prāṇa (‘life force’ goes some way to describing what prāṇa can mean).

Each āsana has an essential or ideal form (rūpa), which we try to get to know through practice. These days this is not so easy for various reasons, but it gives us a starting point from which to work.

Then there is the qualities (lakṣana) of each āsana and how they interact (positively or negatively) with each other, which influence how we feel at the end of a practice. For instance, strong back bends and twists should generally not follow one another in a regular practice, because they can cause injury [3]. So knowing something about these three aspects will help deepen our appreciation and experience of āsana and avoid hurting ourselves.

2. Vikṛti:

The rūpa (form) of an āsana should be adapted or modified to take account of the age, lifestyle and interests of the practitioner as well as the place and time of practice. How to adapt or modify āsana-s for the situation and the person performing them is an important principle of āsana practice. Over the years, I have heard many tales of yoga instructors encouraging their students to achieve the classical form of an āsana. I, myself, recall being a freshman in a yoga class (a long time ago now) when a newly qualified yoga instructor (whom I had only just met, and therefore didn’t know what I was capable of doing) put his hands on me and gently pushed me deeper into a pose. I wasn’t expecting this and neither was my body, which was already at the limits of a safe stretch.

Āsana-s have both a classical form and a functional one. If we obsess about achieving the classical form we overlook the way āsana-s help to develop, maintain or improve the functional efficiency of the body. In fact, of the two, function is always superior to form. Adaptation and modification of an āsana to facilitate access to the functional value of an āsana for the individual is vikṛti.

The relationship between form and function brings to mind this quirky story about a tailor and his client:

A man tries on a made-to-order suit in a shop just off Saville Row

Man: “I need this sleeve taken in, please, it’s two inches too long!”

Tailor: “I believe Sir will find that if he just bends his elbow like this, the sleeve pulls up nicely”

Man: “Oh yes, so it does. But now look at the collar. When I bend my elbow, the collar goes halfway up the back of my head!”

Tailor: “I would suggest Sir lifts his head up and back. Perfect!”

Man: “But now the left should is lower than the right one!”

Tailor: “No problem, Sir. Bend at the waist and lean over to the left. Now the shoulders are level!”

The man leaves the shop wearing the suit. He walks leaning to his left, with his right elbow crooked and sticking out, and his head held up and back. The only way he can walk is with quick, sharp, sudden movements; his gait very spasmodic and jerky. Just then two ladies notice him.

First lady: “Look at that poor crippled chap. I really feel for the poor guy!”

Second lady: “Yes, but his tailor must be a genius; that suit fits him perfectly!” [5]

We should not shoehorn the person to the āsana. We should always find ways to select and adapt yoga to the individual using a principles based approach rather than a prescriptive one.

3. Vinyāsa Krama:

Like ingredients in a well thought out meal, the components of a yoga practice must be carefully selected and arranged. There must be adequate preparatory and restorative phases to the design of a practice as well as a suitable goal, central idea or core of a practice. The phrase vinyāsa krama means something like ‘to place (-nyāsa) in special (vi-) steps (krama)’. ‘Any thing goes’ is definitely not the way in this yoga tradition. We should not approach yoga practice in a random way. That would be a form of madness like adding pickled herrings to chocolate cake and serving it as a starter in a three-course meal.

There should be a harmony to the way any practice comes together. It should be efficient in delivering the desired effects. We really don’t have all day to indulge our passion for yoga. So, for example, we need not faff about in order to practise paścimatānāsana (seated forward bend). An intelligent and efficient step-by-step plan of action need take just a few āsana-s to prepare for paścimatānāsana (of course, we are not limited to mastery of āsana as our goal) and then one or two to recover from it. For instance, we could start with uttanāsana, and follow that with adhomukha-śvānāsana, ūrdhva-prasṛta-pādāsana, and jānuśīrṣāsana (preparatory phase). We might now be ready for working with paścimatānāsana (core phase). After that we could finish with dvipāda-pīṭham and śavāsana (restorative phase) [9].

4. Pratikriyāsana:

Any āsana or short series of āsana-s used to dissipate ‘stress’ that may have accumulated during our practice and to restore balance to the body-breath-mind nexus is referred to as pratikriyāsana (counter posture). In the above sequencing example for paścimatānāsana, there were two counter poses: dvipāda-pīṭham and śavāsana. Sometimes I imagine that well conceived counter poses are a little like doing the washing up and putting away at the end of a meal. Not doing the clearing up makes preparing the next meal harder and eventually becomes impossible. Any demanding āsana will need pratikriyāsana and we should end a practice with restorative poses. We have to come back to a state of body and mind from which we can “comfortably resume our everyday activities without experiencing any harmful effects from out practice” [4].

The etymology of the word is interesting. “Prati” means counter or against, “kṛ” means to act or to do and “āsana”, as we already know, means posture or pose. If you ask people why they practise yoga you sometimes hear them explain that yoga acts as an antidote to life, restoring them to their true ‘normal’. In other words, the whole practice of yoga can be a counter pose to the hurly-burly of modern life for some. Yoga gives many of us respite from the stressful pandemonium of every day living.

5. Gatiśīla Sthitiśīla:

Āsana can be done dynamically (i.e. going in and out of a pose, gatiśīla) or statically (i.e. staying in a posture for a certain period of time, sthitiśīla). There are some exceptions to this rule of thumb: many inverted and some seated poses are just done statically. Of course, śavāsana (like-a-corpse pose) can only be done by staying in it. Unless you are in a horror movie, corpses don’t lie down then get up only to lie down again with the next breath.

Done dynamically, āsana prepares the body. Flexibility and strength develop by repeatedly going into and out of an āsana. The body accepts an āsana much more willingly and effectively using this process. We learn more quickly which āsana improves functional efficiency of the body and which don’t. The dynamic use of āsana slowly transforms the body by releasing existing and unhelpful patterns of tightness as well as dysfunctional patterns of movement. Repetition helps with circulation, especially moving prāṇa, and prepares the body for static work [6].

When we stay in a posture we get the chance to refine it. Prāṇa can be directed to where it needs to be.

6. Prāṇāpāna Dhāraṇā:

The breath is what joins body and mind. The practice of yoga is much diminished without the involvement of the breath. Desikachar makes the important point that “the correct linking of breath and movement is the basis for the whole āsana practice” [7]. The breath has many characteristics and properties. Two of these relate to what happens when the chest expands on inhalation (prāṇa) and what happens in the abdominal area on exhalation (apāna). The inhale nourishes and the exhale cleanses or purifies us. In yoga we try to lengthen and soften the breath beyond its normal habits. Haṭha yoga (sometimes referred to as kuṇḍalinī yoga) has a particular interest in working with prāṇa and apāna, which we could think of here as types of energy. Haṭha yoga suggests we manipulate these two energies to bring about positive transformation of body, breath and mind [10].

By concentrating (dhāraṇā) on and controlling our breathing during āsana practice we can remain more alert to what we are doing in the present moment and observe ourselves more closely, thus opening the doorway to greater skill in what we are doing during our practice. The breath helps us to be intelligent in our practice [11]. Treating the breath as a teacher can be a good attitude to have. Listen to what the breath has to teach us about our bodies and minds.

7. Bṛṃhaṇa and Laṅghana Kriyā:

The ideas of bṛṃhaṇa and laṅghana come to us via haṭha yoga and Āyurveda (the Indian system for living well / medicine). ‘Kriyā’ means effort or action.

We can connect āsana and breathing in many different ways. For instance, they can be arranged to give a feeling of expansion and openness (bṛṃhaṇa) or to give a feeling of lightness (laṅghana), in both senses of the word. It is relatively easy to feel something of these principles. Many back bends exhibit bṛṃhaṇa kriyā. Think about the Warrior I pose (vīrabhadrāsana) and its tendency to open, lift and energise us, to make us feel more confident. Forward bends, on the other hand, have a laṅghana kriyā or cleansing effect. When we take a seated forward bend, like paścimatānāsana, we might find it easier to let go of stress and tension; we can feel cleaner and more grounded [8].

8. Āgamā:

The yoga tradition passed down to us through TKV Desikachar stays close to reliable sources of yoga theory and practice (āgamā) and uses them judiciously. Yoga teachings are in constant flux, adapting to each generation, place and time. Without āgamā (and a competent teacher), we can lose our way.

There is a story that’s been passed down that T Krishnamacharya used to say that if the yoga technique being taught or practised is mentioned in the Yoga Sūtra-s then it is safe to call it yoga. This might be an apocryphal story, but it rings true. Of course, the Yoga Sūtra-s do not cover every aspect of yoga, so whatever you think you are doing under the banner of Yoga can still be an authentic yoga practice even if not listed in the YS. However, anchoring what one teaches or practises to one or more classical works on yoga is probably a good idea.

When it comes to āsana practice, the YS (YS II.46 – 49) gives us a three-fold analysis of āsana. We are given a definition of āsana, a methodology and a description of the results of practising āsana. A posture must have the quality of firmness and softness. A posture should be done by relaxation through appropriate effort and by meditating on the infinite while the body remains still. As a result of practising āsana one becomes more resilient to the pushes and pulls of existence [12].

9. Closing words

A whole new world opens up as soon as you choose to see yoga as more than a system of exercise. It becomes a way of looking at and experiencing the world in a more skillful and happy way. One can say that Yoga is what happens when body, breath and mind come together to do one thing. Yoga is multifaceted, integrated and holistic in nature. It touches all aspects of our being, which is just as well since we are far more than a body. Yoga is also about transformation and the principles of āsana practice sketched out above represent some of the tools that can help change things and help to differentiate it from other activities like dance and gymnastics.

Notes and references

[1] TKV Desikachar, 1995, The Heart of Yoga, p.23

[2] Paul Harvey maintains a treasure trove of material for anyone studying yoga at The list of principles of practice set out here are based on a list published by Mr Harvey on his website.

[3] There is an interesting article by William J Broad (5 January 2012, How Yoga can Wreck Your Body, The New York Times Magazine), which appears to reveal

[4] TKV Desikachar, 1995, The Heart of Yoga, p. 27

[5] Adapted from a joke which appears in Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein’s 2007 book, Plato and a Platypus walk into a Bar, p.70

[6] Steve Brandon, 2013, The vinyasa krama yoga practice manual, p.5

[7] TKV Desikachar, 1995, The Heart of Yoga, p.19

[8] TKV Desikachar, 1995, The Heart of Yoga, p.38f

[9] This sequence has been adapted from one given by Gary Kraftsow in his excellent 1999 book, Yoga for Wellness, p.29

[10] Kausthub Desikachar, 2016, The Haṭhayogapradīpika, p.41

[11] TKV Desikachar, 1995, The Heart of Yoga, p.22

[12] Bernard Bouanchaud, translated from the French by Rosemary Desneux, 1997, The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, p. 131ff

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