Building a Personal Yoga Practice: The Integral Yoga Hatha Sequence

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What Is Integral Yoga?

We all know the physical postures of yoga are just one part of a tradition that addresses not only the body, but also the mind, our social self, and our sense of spirit.  In India, the term for this inclusive approach is “Raja” or “Royal Yoga.”  When the Raja Yogi Swami Satchidananda came to the US in the sixties, he chose the term “Integral Yoga” to describe this approach, first of all because it “integrates” the various parts of our being, and second, because yoga is ultimately about witnessing the Divine Self that is integral to all of us.

For over 30 years, Swami Satchidananda shared these teachings, encouraging his students to use them to become more “Peaceful, Easeful, and Useful.”  As part of this, he expounded the primary practices of yoga, including study, meditation, service, and of course the physical postures, or asana.  An accomplished practitioner himself, Swami Satchidananda taught his followers that a simple practice is all we need to keep the body healthy and the mind clear.  He encouraged his students to approach asana with gentleness and to remember that the form of each pose is far less important than our primary purpose, which is to become more aware of the link between our physical state and the state of our thoughts and emotions.

The Integral Yoga Practice

In the basic Integral Yoga sequence, the body is taken through its full range of motion, including the seven primary types of movement: standing, balancing, backward bends, forward bends, inversion, arm balances, and twists.  We emphasize simplicity and consistency, in order to build familiarity so we can go deeper into the poses, while at the same time allowing variety so we can find the form of each movement that fits our bodies and temperaments.

The following is a basic practice that can be tailored to our bodies and circumstances.  Throughout, our emphasis is on mind-body connection, asking how each pose can help us experience greater peace of mind and ease of body so we can be more useful to those around us.  For each category of movement, we’ll start with an overview of the basic benefits & principles and then look briefly at the primary options.  Once we have a regular practice, we can then tailor the routine to fit our bodies, our temperaments, and our goals….

Basic Principles

Because first and foremost our practice is about building the connection between body and mind and making both more peaceful and calm, our practice should always be mindful and gentle.  Obviously most poses take a certain amount of effort, but all should be entered and held with relative ease — that is, there should be effort but no strain, and we should lean toward the side of honoring our bodies rather than “pushing” them.  The breath can be a great indicator of this, as we naturally restrict the breath when straining.  If you notice your breathing is becoming restricted, see if you can lengthen it and make it more easeful; if you cannot, even with mindful effort, that’s a sign you either need to lighten your effort in the pose or come out of the pose entirely.  Remember: asana is about building our connection with the body, and the first stage of communication is always listening….

Time & Frequency

As with many things in life, when it comes to asana, consistency is far more important than volume — a short daily practice has much greater impact than a lengthy one we can only fit in once or twice a week.  In my experience, as little as 10-15 minutes can have substantial benefits.  I encourage clients to build a basic routine that they can consistently find time for, and then to expand if and when there is time and desire….

The Basic Routine

The basic Integral Yoga Hatha practice revolves around approximately a dozen basic poses that again cover the seven primary forms of movement, customized over time to fit our bodies and goals.  Ideally, we should have a little variety each time in order to avoid stagnation and make sure we are covering all basic forms of motion, but also enough consistency so we can deepen our practice without getting overly caught up in the “myth of progress.”  Again, our routine should involve gentle effort, but we also want to stay in touch with the idea of presence and contentment in the current moment.

(n.b. — If you’re unfamiliar with any of the following, a website such as http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/finder/browse_categories  can show you the basics….)

Warm-Up/Sun Salutations

We start our practice with “Surya Namaskaram” or “Sun Salutation.”  The Sun Salutation is a series of interconnected postures that serve as a warm-up for the entire body.  We normally begin with a slow round, easing into each posture, and then if desired gradually increase the speed for another round or two to prepare for our practice.  Variations can also be added to each position in order to deepen the benefits of the practice or tailor it to our bodies….

Standing Poses

After our Sun Salutations, we normally continue with one or two standing poses.  Standing poses build strength in the legs and core and also help to open the hips and hamstrings.  In general, they can be said to fall into two major groups: poses like Warrior II and I which build leg strength, and poses like Triangle or Wide Stance Forward Bend that put a little more emphasis on opening the hamstrings.  Ideally, we should rotate through the poses we practice so that over the course of a week we are sure to include poses from both categories.

(Select one or two from:)

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Warrior I (Virabhadrasana)

Triangle (Trikonasana)

Rotated Forward Bend (Parsvottanasana)

Revolved Triangle (Parivrrta Trikonasana)

Extended Angle Poses (Utthita Parsvakonasana)

Wide Stance Forward Bend (Prasarita Padotanasana)

Balancing Poses

Balancing poses help build proprioception — body-awareness & mind-body connection.  They are also great for building the strength of the smaller, supporting muscles of the body which are essential for functional capacity.  As with standing poses, we would normally choose one or two, rotating through the primary poses over the course of a week….

(Select one or two from:)

Tree (Vriksasana)

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III)

Lord of The Dance (Natarajasana)

Eagle (Garudasana)

Half-Moon (Ardha Chandrasana)

Backbends

Backbends help to open up the torso, improving respiratory capacity and supporting healthy posture.  Prone backbends are also excellent for building strength in the back, while also supporting the healthy function of the organs of digestion and elimination.  Generally, we begin our backbends with one or two rounds of Cobra for the upper back and then Half-Locust or Locust for the lower back before going on to a compound backbend such as Bow or Camel or Raised Bow, rotating through those from session to session.

(Start with:)

Cobra (Bhujangasana)

Locust (Salabhasana)

(And then select one from:)

Camel (Ustrasana)

Bow (Dhanurasana)

Raised Bow (Urdvha Dhanurasana)

Forward Bends

Forward bends help to open up the hamstrings and gluteal muscles, both of which are essential for healthy activity.  Forward bends have also been clinically shown to be calming for the nervous system, assisting in turning off our “fight or flight” response and shifting from sympathetic nervous system dominance to parasympathetic.  This means that they help to support better digestion and elimination, better immune function, and improved circulation.  Generally we start with single-leg stretches,  either seated or lying, and then go on to a two-leg version.  Once we are comfortable with the basics, we can rotate through variations which add greater opening to the hips and knees.

(Select one from the single-leg versions:)

Single-Leg Forward Bend (Janusirsasana)

Crane Pose (Kraunchasana)

Revolved Single-Leg Forward Bend (Parivrrta Janusirsasana)

Lying Hamstring Stretch (Supta Pada Hasthasana)

(And then select one from the double-leg versions:)

Full Forward Bend (Pascimottanasana)

Seated Wide Leg Forward Bend (Upavista Konasana)

Inversions

Inversions are excellent for supporting immune function and enhancing circulation, while shoulderstand is particularly beneficial for the health of the neck and upper back.  We would normally start with a round or two of Bridge and, if desired, Wheel Pose in order to help open the shoulders and upper back, then continue with our inversion.  If desired, we can again rotate through the core inversions — shoulderstand, headstand, handstand, etc — of course always honoring what works best for our bodies.

(Start with:)

Bridge (Setu Bandhasana)

(and, if desired:)

Wheel (Chakrasana)

(Then select from:)

Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana)

Headstand (Sirshasana)

Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)

(….adding variations (such as Plow, Knee to Ear Pose, etc.) as desired)

(We then always follow with Fish Pose to  re-balance the body:)

Fish Pose (Matsyasana)

Arm Balances

Like the standing balancing poses, arm balances build mind-body communication while also enhancing upper-body strength and core stability.  We start with the foundation poses such as Plank in order to build basic strength, then gradually deepen our practice.  As with the other categories, you will eventually want to rotate through the various poses over the course of a week.

Plank (Caturanga Dandasana)

Side Plank (Vasisthasana)

Single Arm Pressure Pose (Eka Bhuja Pidasana)

Double Arm Pressure Pose (Dvi Bhuja Pidasana)

Pendant (Lolasana)

Crow (Bakhasana)

Peacock (Mayurasana)

Twists

Twists serve to open the shoulders and chest — again, essential for full respiratory function — while also supporting healthy digestion and peristalsis.  Again, we can rotate through various poses throughout the week or simply select the twist that works best for our bodies….

Lying Book Twist (Prasarita Jatara Parivartanasana)

Lying Twist (Jatara Parivartanasana)

Straight Leg Seated Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana A)

Bent-Leg Seated Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana B)

Pinwheel Twist (Bharad Vajasana)

Supporting Poses

Of course, throughout our practice, we can also insert additional poses in order to further open or strengthen various parts of our body, such as Gate Pose to stretch the sides, or Gomukhasana for the shoulders.  These would be added where they facilitate a pose that follows (e.g., shoulder stretching before a twist) or where they are least disruptive to the flow of the routine.  Again, the important thing is to first build familiarity and comfort with a basic routine and then to add auxiliary poses if and when time allows….

Deep Relaxation

We always finish our practice with at least a few minutes in Savasana, or Corpse Pose, in order to fully absorb the benefits of our routine.  Ideally, if time allows, it is highly beneficial to take 5-10 minutes to systematically move through the body, starting by physically tensing and relaxing each part, then mentally relaxing the entire body, then witnessing the relaxation of breath and then the mind, and finally observing our inherent inner peace.

Further Resources

There are of course countless excellent resources out there for deepening your practice, including numerous DVDs and websites.  As far as books are concerned, here are three I generally recommend.

Integral Yoga Hatha, by Swami Satchidananda, is the first and foremost reference.  That much said, it is a somewhat older work and, with all respect and admiration, some of the pictures represent rather human versions of the poses rather than the ideal toward which we might strive.  Further, while it definitely covers all the basics, it is also somewhat light in details.  For this reason, two other books are also very much worth exploring: The Sivananda Companion to Yoga, and the classic Light on Yoga, by B. K. S. Iyengar.  While I personally do not endorse Iyengar’s approach to asana as a whole, the book is unquestionably a valuable compendium for any experienced practitioner looking to expand his or her awareness of the variations available.

In Conclusion…

We hope this gives you some concrete ideas for what might be involved in building a regular practice of your own so that you can enjoy the benefits of these valuable teachings.  As always, if you have any questions, we’d be most delighted to hear from you, either in a comment below or via email.  Until our next article, very much wishing you the best in “Living Yoga….”


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