Challenges & Benefits
By Grace Welch, M.Y.

In my years of teaching yoga, I have found that most students seek a class because of either physical pain or stress in their lives which results in physical and/or psychological trauma, or "dis-ease". The body is rebelling against its inability to cope, control and manage the events of daily living. Because we are bombarded with messages on television, radio and print to "take this pill and all the pain will go away", it is common to take the "easy" way out of our discomfort.

One of the values of regular yoga practice is that it gets the student in touch with their body. When the body starts to tense up, a yoga practitioner will realize what's going on -- for instance, white knuckles gripping the steering wheel while driving; clenched fists while walking; holding the breath; pursing the lips; grinding the teeth; tightening the jaw -- and take corrective action to untense, de-stress, and modify the situation for a healthy outcome.

The very first position, or asana a student learns, (the term asana, pronounced ah-sa-na, is used to describe a yoga posture, which means "steady pose") is the relaxation or corpse position; in Sanskrit this is called Savasana. At first one thinks this is a simple, easy posture, not at all "pretzel-like". It is simple, but it is also profound. Try this and see if you agree:

In a private, quiet space, where you will have no interruptions, lie on a mat or towel on the floor. Legs three feet apart, arms away from the body about eight inches, palms up. Neck is long on the floor, chin is gently tucked toward the chest. Press the small of the back into the floor. Eyes are closed. Tongue is lying softly on the bottom of your mouth, and the teeth are not touching. If your knees are not straight against the floor, it probably means that your hamstrings are very tight, and you would be more comfortable with a pillow under your knees, until your hamstrings get stretched out. Runners usually have very tight hamstrings.

All the breathing is done through the nostrils, inhaling and exhaling, using abdominal breath; that is, the abdominal muscles rise on the inhale, and contract toward the spine on the exhale. Breathe in this manner to a slow count of three in, and slow count of three out. Clear your mind of all worldly thoughts, and think only of your breath, following it with your mind's eye, as it enters your body, and as it leaves. If your mind wanders during this practice, gently bring it back to the breath. As you inhale, visualize a white ribbon of light entering your nostrils, going down the windpipe into your lungs, bringing with it oxygen, prana the life force, mixing there with your bloodstream, which carries it to every cell in your body; and as you exhale, visualize that you are getting rid of stress, tension and fatigue.

After a few minutes, when your body has surrendered to gravity and settled into the floor, increase your exhalations to twice that of your inhalations. Your ability to relax is directly related to the exhale. The breathing should be slow, deep and steady conscious breathing. This is the asana, or posture, we return to after each practice, in order to restore and replenish our body, before we proceed to increasingly challenging postures.

Bringing your legs together, stretching your arms overhead along the floor, stretch your arms and legs by pointing the fingers and the toes, raising the heels an inch off the floor, and release. Bring your knees to your chest and hug them lightly, and roll over onto your right side and lie in fetal position for a few breaths. Using your hands, gently push yourself up to a cross-legged, seated position, with a straight spine. If this is uncomfortable for you, and your knees are higher than your hips, use a cushion to sit on, bringing your knees closer to the floor. If this is still uncomfortable, sit in a chair.

What has happened during this brief practice? The blood pressure has lowered, the breath has become quiet and steady, and the mind has become focussed. I always start my classes with a chant. The value of a chant is to harmonize the vibrations in the room; since each student has come from a different environment, chanting brings us into unison. It's a simple OM three times, which is the universal sound, Shanti three times (which in Sanscrit means Peace), and Peace, in English three times. Chanting has been used in all cultures to lift one's spirit to a higher elevation. You are now ready to begin the class.