Traditional yoga is a practice that was developed in ancient India. It involves the relationship between the physical body, the breath and the mind, referred to as the mind-body connection.
According to Ron W. Rathbun, practitioner of yoga and founder of Kelee® meditation, “The origin of yoga poses began as a way to introduce a full range of motion to the body that does not occur from habitual ways of daily living.” Throughout our lives we can develop habits in the way we move our bodies. Daily work, as well as stress, can cause stiffness and lack of mobility in certain areas. Practicing traditional yoga opens up the body and improves well-being by bringing movement and awareness to areas that have become stiff or tight.
Traditional yoga poses, or asana, are different from other forms of exercise because they are performed slowly with a calm mind. Ron Rathbun explains that, when practicing traditional yoga, we bring calm to the physical body via a relaxed conscious awareness. He says, “In order to cultivate health in the body, you must first cultivate harmony of mind. If you relax the mind, the body will follow.”
Stilling the mind through meditation is at the heart of a traditional yoga practice. Ron says, “It is not the yoga poses that heal the body, it’s the consciousness of mind that heals the body. The poses allow one to open the mind to the body, and that of healing.”
A traditional yoga practice
The practice outlined below is a guide. Once you have practiced the poses a few times, you will begin to get a sense of which poses are best for you. You can do them all, or just one — what is most important is that you practice stilling your mind in meditation first and then bring this feeling of calm into each pose.
The poses in this practice are gentle because the simplest poses reap the greatest benefits. If you’re distracted by discomfort in the body, it’s difficult to get into a peaceful place in your mind. Yoga should be grounding and relaxing, and it should be enjoyable to do.
Finding the depth in simple poses, before you try advanced ones, will allow you to enjoy your practice and progress without injury.
Ron Rathbun says about a traditional practice, “The breath is the body’s chemical life force; consciousness is the mind’s life force. The purpose of yoga is to bring these two energies together in harmony.”
During your practice, the breath does not need to be forced or changed. Simply breathe smoothly and stay in each pose to the count of approximately five breaths.
Meditation is the heart of yoga. Learning to still the mind cultivates a sense of peace. It is from a calm mind that the nervous system of the body will begin to relax. An easy meditation practice, called Kelee meditation, can be done in five minutes and is a good starting point for your home practice.
Kelee meditation will teach you the difference between the brain, associated with thinking, and the mind, associated with feeling. Rather than thinking about how you should look in a pose and pushing your body to fit that mold, it is better to feel from within, with a relaxed mind. When you feel the body from the mind in a pose, you’ll naturally adjust to a position that feels right, from within.
(Note: It is not necessary to sit cross-legged to practice meditation. It can be done sitting up comfortably in a chair.)
Once you have completed your meditation practice, you can begin your asana practice:
Cobbler Pose (Baddha Konasana)
Sitting on the floor, bring the soles of the feet together and let the knees open to the side. Keeping the back as straight as is comfortable, wrap the hands around the feet. Take five breaths while you bring the relaxed feeling from your meditation practice into your body.
Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
While still sitting on the floor, straighten both legs out in front of you. With the legs together, hinge from the hips and gently bring the torso toward the legs resting your hands on your shins, ankles or around your feet.
The aim is not to see how far down you can go, it is to find a comfortable place where you feel a stretch that doesn’t disturb your calm mind. Feel into the pose with a relaxed mind — your mind will relax your body.
One-Leg Forward Bend (Janu Sirsasana)
This is similar to the previous pose, but is practiced one leg at a time. From Paschimottanasana, bend the left leg and bring the sole of the left foot to meet the inner right thigh. Fold forward again, resting both hands anywhere on the right leg (except the knee) or around the right foot. Breathe for a count of five and then switch legs to forward fold over the left leg.
Repeat Cobbler Pose to release the lower back.
Hero Pose (Virasana)
In a kneeling position with the sitting bones resting on the heels, place the palms of the hands on the tops of the thighs — alternatively you can face the palms up. This can be an uncomfortable pose for some people’s feet, or if you have tight hips or thighs. For sore feet, try placing a blanket under the feet. For tight hips and thighs, try placing a rolled blanket between the feet and the sitting bones.
If the pose is simply too uncomfortable, move on to the next. This is supposed to be enjoyable!
Child’s Pose (Balasana)
From Hero Pose, bring the hands forward and the forehead down to the floor with the chest resting on the thighs. As with all poses, this will vary depending on your body. Find a comfortable position, either with arms outstretched, hands on the floor, or with the arms resting at your sides.
Take five breaths and bring your relaxed conscious awareness into any stress points in the body, allowing them to soften.
Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
From Child’s Pose, come back to a kneeling position. Take a breath or two. Bring the hands forward onto the floor, so that you’re on hands and knees — feet and knees hip-width apart, hands shoulder-width apart. Turn the toes under, raise the hips up and back, and straighten the arms and legs to form an upside-down V shape. You may need to adjust the distance between your hands and feet.
Let the head hang between both arms. Depending on the tightness of your hamstrings, your legs can either bend slightly or can be straight (but not locked at the knees). This pose will change with practice — it can feel quite strenuous at first, but becomes more comfortable over time.
After five breaths, come back down to the knees into Hero Pose.
Simple Twist (Bharadvajasana I)
From Hero Pose, place the hands on the floor at your sides for support while you shift the sitting bones to the right and onto the floor. Your legs will stay bent and simply tucked at your left side. To twist, cup the left hand over the right knee, and place the right hand for support behind you — coming onto the fingertips if this is helpful. The torso will naturally twist in this position — there is no need to crank yourself farther around.
Simply breathe and relax in the pose. After five breaths, switch the legs to the right side and repeat.
Supine Simple Twist
Lie down on your back. Draw the knees into the chest, hugging them in momentarily to release the lower back. Keeping the knees bent, stretch your arms from the shoulders straight out on the floor, then release your tucked legs down to the left side. Feel the twist for five breaths and repeat on the right side. Come back to center and hug the knees in again.
Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)
Still lying on your back, keep the knees bent and place the feet flat on the floor at hips-width apart — the heels will be close to the sitting bones. Let the arms rest down on the floor at your sides. Making sure to keep the head straight, lift up the hips, so that a straight line forms from head to knees.
Take five breaths while quietly observing how you feel within your body. Lower the torso down and rest for a moment.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
Roll over onto your stomach, and lie face down with the legs together and the toes pointing back. Bring your palms to the floor a few inches in front of your shoulders, fingers facing forward. Begin the pose with the forehead resting on the floor, then slowly begin to lift up the head, shoulders and chest by pushing into the hands. The legs and hips remain on the floor. Come up as far as is comfortable, and adjust the position of your hands if necessary to find ease in the pose.
After five breaths, slowly come back down, release the arms, and rest for a moment. If desired, you can repeat Child’s Pose and/or Downward Facing Dog Pose.
Many modern yoga classes will begin with a series of standing poses. This can often be grueling and leave you feeling exhausted. The purpose of traditional yoga is to build inner strength. Practicing seated or supine poses first gives your body the chance to acclimate to the practice. Here are some standing poses to practice now that your body is relaxed:
Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Stand with the feet together, or a few inches apart for balance. Feel your feet on the ground. Relax your shoulders and enjoy standing straight and tall.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
With the knees slightly bent to protect your lower back, place hands on the hips and hinge forward. Come down as far as is comfortable for your hamstrings, placing the hands anywhere on the legs for support (except the knees). Allow the head to hang and relax the neck. If you have more flexibility, release the arms and take hold of opposite elbows. Take five breaths, then come up, uncurling the spine slowly.
Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)
Standing in Tadasana, move your legs about three to four feet apart. Turn the left foot so the toes are angled slightly towards the right, and turn the right foot out 90 degrees. (Adjust if necessary so the pose is comfortable for you.)
Once you’ve found a comfortable angle for your feet, lift the arms up to shoulder height, tilt the body sideways to the right, and then bring the right hand down to the right leg — any place other than the knee. A slight bend in both legs is fine. Bring the left arm up so you form a vertical line from right to left hand. You can look forward, down or up — whatever feels good. After five breaths, come up and switch sides. Then come back to center with the legs in a wide stance.
Keep in mind, your feeling of the pose is far more important than a preconceived idea of what a pose should look like.
Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)
Once again, beginning with a wide stance, turn the left toes in slightly and the right toes out to 90 degrees. Bring the arms up to shoulder height and bend the right leg. (The left leg remains straight — or nearly straight.) Keep the back upright and turn the head to gaze over the right fingertips. After five breaths, come up and switch sides.
If you notice any discomfort, make adjustments, and if you are feeling tired after this pose, bring the legs together and do Uttanasana.
Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I)
Standing with your legs about three to four feet apart, turn the left foot at more of an angle this time, and the right foot at a 90-degree angle. This will allow you to rotate your hips and face to the right. With your hands at your hips, bend the right knee. If the bend in your right knee extends past the right foot, take a wider stance — this will protect your knee joint. If you are comfortable here, you can raise the arms up close to the ears with the palms of the hands facing one another. Take five breaths and switch sides.
Feel into your body with a relaxed conscious awareness. Then repeat Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana).
The following are two poses to finish your practice:
Reclined Cobbler Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
Come down to the floor and lie on your back. Bend the knees and bring the soles of the feet together. Let the knees open to the side. Place the hands at the sides on the floor, or place them comfortably on the belly. Breathe and relax.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
To finish your practice, lie down on your back with your arms relaxed at your sides and your legs in a comfortable position that allows your back to rest. Observe any areas of resistance and tension, and consciously relax them.
Continuing a regular home practice
A suggestion would be to keep your practice to around 20 minutes. This will leave you feeling refreshed without being tired, which will in turn nurture a consistent and regular practice that you enjoy doing.
All these poses can be done individually, or as a sequence — you can make adjustments to suit your own preferences or individual needs. Practicing daily Kelee meditation will teach you how to still the mind, and together with this simple traditional yoga practice, you can begin to feel for yourself how a calm mind can heal the body.
©2015 with permission of the Kelee® Foundation
Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind, A.G. Mohan, Shambhala Publications (2002)