Are you sitting comfortably? You don’t need to be able to sit in full lotus to focus the mind for meditation.
Meditation and pranayama are powerful tools for reducing stress, improving mental clarity, and increasing overall well-being. But you don’t need to be able to access advanced postures to reap the benefits!
During the recent history of yoga workshop I delivered, I shared that there are 84 yoga Asana (postures) identifed in the Hatha Yoga Pradapika. In a series of workshops, Yoga Master Marcel Andres Hopegen stated that, of these, 4 were considered the most significant:
Siddhasana – Accomplished pose
Padmasana – Lotus pose
Bhadrasana – Gracious / Butterfly / Auspicious
Simhasana – Lion’s breath
Of these, he deemed Siddhasana as THE most important (this pose dates back to the 10th century).
Yoga is as much as an energetic practice as a physical one. Whereby the physical practice is ultimately designed to purify and cleanse the body, offload excess thoughts, emotions and tensions to be able to sit and meditate without bodily distraction. So it makes sense to me why these 4 asanas had so much importance in the historical texts.
All of these postures require a long, free, open and supple spine, allowing functional breathing and easeful communication between the nervous system, endocrine system, fascia and subtle energy for raising prana; thus balancing the bodies systems and energy channels and calming the mind.
In Siddhasana, the heel of the foot connects with the perineum, the root of the pelvis, said to help the energy flow (kundalini) rise from root to crown – bringing your focus to this at the same time as activating your bandhas (pelvic floor and abdominals) can help stimulate movement of the cerebrospinal fluid, and Dr Joe Dispenza suggests that if you also place your awareness at the space behind your forehead to stimulate your pineal gland, it will enhance this practice further, bringing you into the present moment and if done correctly may lead to, in his own words ‘a head orgasm’! This is the ultimate result of kapalabathi breathing, also known as ‘skull shining breath’.
Whilst not a reality for the majority of us in today’s modern life, traditionally, lotus is hailed as being the favoured posture for meditation hence being recorded as the 2nd most important posture. Physically, it opens the hips and allows for an elongated spine, and on an energetic level, it is very ‘energy efficient’ – it helps to both conserve and accumulate energy, as well as concentrate it in the central energy channel.
Thankfully, we don’t need to be able to sit in full lotus to maximise the benefit – we can still reap the rewards of stillness and focus by sitting in any comfortable position that allows the spine to be long, free and spacious, including sitting upright in a chair, against a wall or over a bolster.
It is well documented that we subconsciously store emotions in our hips. During my yoga journey I have had numerous emotional releases during hip openers, as well as flash backs of past life experiences. It would follow then, that this releasing of stored emotions and memories as well as reducing physical tension – all important aspects of the purification process and increasing the ability of bodily fluids to travel around your body in the fascial continuum where all communication between your 70 trillion cells takes place; is a reason why butterfly pose is considered one of the most important 4 and why 3 of the 4 poses are deep hip openers.
And finally, Simhasana – Lion’s breath. One of my students queried why Simhasana is considered as a cleansing breath. When I explained that you are expelling more air out of the lungs, due to the forceful exhalation, he couldn’t understand why. ‘But you only ever breath in and out of the lungs’ he quite correctly pondered. Whilst this is true, we don’t inhale and exhale to our full capacity when we breathe – whilst we can increase our Inspiratory and Expiratory reserve volume (the amount inhaled and exhaled past tidal volume), we will always have a ‘residual volume’. In fact, at maximum exercise intensity, we only use 70% of our possible lung capacity. It is also true that the lungs don’t have muscles to pump air in and out – the diaphragm and rib cage essentially pump the lungs. This is why it’s important to maintain elasticity around the ribs as we age. So when we perform breath practices such as Lion’s breath, we are increasing the strength of our diaphragm and abdominals, we are creating a pumping action expelling more air than we ordinarily would, which may include stale or unused air, helping to cleanse the lungs, as if we were exercising.
Whatsmore, this lengthened exhalation may then give way for a longer inhalation which stimulates the system and allows fresh oxygen and vitality into the network. Whilst this is a stimulating breath, lengthening the exhalation may also help to tone the vagus nerve, and being able to bounce between the parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system helps to increase heart rate variability – a marker for tolerance to stress.
In addition, scrunching up the face and stretching the neck can release excess tension and increase blood flow which in turn, helps to cleanse the throat area both physically and energetically. Lions breath is said to be great for cleansing and balancing the energy centre of the throat and the associated thyroid gland. As always in yoga, there are both physical and energetic benefits. A simple practice with SO many benefit – and no need to spend hours at the gym!
Posture for meditation and breathwork
The history of yoga teaches us that being able to sit comfortably with a long spine, focus our minds and place our awareness to particular parts of the body (Nyasa) is not only beneficial for connection to our deeper self, but also for lung function, posture, functional breathing patterns, nervous system, heart rate, blood pressure, hormonal balance and releasing stored emotions, thoughts and habits that are holding us back. How you sit is less important as long as you are upright, open and focused.
Some breathing techniques help to balance the nervous system and bodily systems, others uplift (sympathetic nervous system) and others calm (parasympathetic). Understanding which you are teaching and why is of paramount importance, as is the time of day you are teaching specific techniques and at which part of a class.
It is also crucial that students are able to breathe functionally and find a comfortable seat before practicing specific pranayama techniques. Mindfulness and relaxation practices are, from my experience, an excellent pre-curser to more prescriptive pranayama as they help with functional breathing and instigating the relaxation response.
Ancient meets modern: pranayama & meditation / breathwork & mindfulness
Traditional Pranayama practices are a fantastic way to lead into a concentration or meditation practice, however, there are a whole host of newly researched highly accessible breath practices coming to the forefront now that neuroscience is proving a wide array of health benefits associated with these ancient practices of yoga that have been around for some 3,500 years!
This has instigated a sharp rise in a broader use of mindfulness, relaxation, concentration, breath practices and meditation to help with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, hormonal balance, blood chemistry, PH levels, heart rate variability and heart – brain coherence. There are also specific breath techniques to support those with long covid and asthma.
Courses for yoga & Pilates teachers
If you would like to learn more about these techniques, both traditional and modern, and understand the anatomy, physiology and neuroscience behind them, then our 4-day Yoga Alliance accredited CPD Meditation and Pranayama Course in May, with breath expert Louise Windsor, is for you.
This will be a highly practical course, whereby you will be explained a technique, experience the practice with Louise teaching you, and then pair up and practice teaching it – so you leave confident incorporating the practices into your offerings straight away.
Joseph Pilates, a yoga practitioner himself, was a huge advocate of functional breathing, and believed that 90% of disease was cause by ‘improper posture’ as it effects the lungs, microbiome, viscera and digestion.
We have had numerous Pilates teachers who have taken part in this course and found it a highly beneficial add on. We are also running a Meditation & Mindfulness Workshop for Pilates teachers in September. Learn how to incorporate meditation, mindfulness and relaxation into your Pilates classes – all practices that will help to increase functional breathing patterns.
These events would also be suitable for occupational health therapists, physiotherapists, personal trainers, movement teachers and therapists who are looking to add accessible breathing and concentration practices into their offerings. They can also be taken for self-development.
Article by: Clare Francis