Ask the Expert Yoga Journal, Oct 2006


Is it OK to do Sun Salutations in the evenings?

The sun salutations are beautiful vinyasa sequences. They can be fulfilling when done all by themselves or as complements to a larger practice. Aside from the fact that there a number of different salutations, some having more of a strength emphasis, some with flexibility as their key feature, they can be varied greatly in the way they are practiced. Even though they are often used to energize and warm the body, they may also be executed with a focus on grace, fluidity, and the feeling of floating upon the breath. The pacing of the salutations can be such that they relax and recharge rather than raise energy.

People often enjoy the inward focus of a night time practice to slow down and punctuate that natural transition in their day. Unwinding and releasing the musculature through asanas can relieve the accrual of tension and the compression that gravity brings. Likewise the discs of the spine are re-hydrated through the intentional stretching and twisting of various asanas. An evening practice (in general) could consist of anything from a pranayama practice, to a restorative practice, to a very quiet, intuitive posture flow – where the breath guides and inspires one to move according to the “body’s speaking”. For example, letting the breath help you define the feeling of a tight shoulder and then just as in a spontaneous morning stretch lying in bed, you explore various movements that feel good and effect the shoulder area, eventually releasing the stiffness. These moves can be classical asanas or simply innate movements you expand upon.

Suryanamaskar C, the 12 position sun salute, is a nice, graceful evening flow sequence. The willowy sway of the opening standing back arch, the waterfall feeling of riding your breath into uttanasana (the standing forward fold), the long, slow, elegant stretch into the lunges and the snaking move of ashtanga pranam (knees,chest and chin position) into the cobra. These poses can all be enjoyed in a languorous motion. The C series salutations coupled with some long forward folding, gentle twists and a half or full shoulder stand can be a wonderful end of the day or pre-bedtime repertoire.

So my answer is yes, it is fine to practice sun salutations in the evening. The outcome of our practice is predicated on how it is approached and the beauty of Yoga is in its ability to be malleable.

I feel like I don’t always push hard enough in yoga class, but how hard is too hard? Even if you relax and breathe into a position, should there be discomfort for awhile?

Getting a handle on where we truly are in our yoga practice is sometimes like answering the Sphinx’s riddle to gain passage into the inner sanctum. Our practices contain many simultaneous sensations, details, and distractions that are indeed a challenge, but ultimately become the sophistication of the practice. Discomfort is subjective, but I would encourage practitioners to explore the ranges of movement where their breath flows deeply and evenly and where they feel like they are not so tightly wedged into a pose or wound up that they are in muscular contraction rather than having their nerve energy flow. In our teaching at White Lotus we often talk about the dance of control and surrender. This interplay presents itself in every posture and is an important dynamic to understand and bring into your practice. They are two ends of a spectrum, like pushing and relaxing, that bring a deeper balance to your work. This dance is a defining principal in assessing the nature of extension, finding ones lines of energy and tapping into the alignment of the posture using polarity (the natural existence of upward and downward moving energy) versus pushing or over efforting your way through poses. We sometimes will ourselves to be somewhere in our poses we actually are not, overriding the feedback our body is giving us at the time. We are imposing our will to achieve the pose rather than responding to the living posture. I find that the yoga postures are beautiful metaphors for seeing the way we relate to life. Are we pushy, demanding and unnecessarily judgmental of ourselves? Do we move forward without ever integrating or digesting life’s offerings or lessons? Are we lackluster? And on and on. How we practice often seems to reflect our inner nature and can be quite enlightening and even humorous at times.

The subject of pain and discomfort in our Yoga is a huge topic and in some ways is a very sophisticated part of practice. In brief, the feelings that define the boundaries of movement and the different springs and tensions our muscles set to hold our skeleton together and do the work we demand of it are the systems we want to become familiar with in practice. A sharp pain or deep discomfort seems to tell us that we are in over our head and out of the range of what is good for our bodies. That feeling tends to speak pretty clearly. There is always a way of working or exploring our bodies where we can find comfort and also a place to work where some tension can be beneficial. Exploration of these cusps is an important part of refining our practice. I would not seek discomfort in asana, but I would seek to decode it. Developing awareness, insight and enjoyment would be three of my guiding principles.

I have always thought of myself as a tight person. But yesterday during a restorative class, the teacher suggested that I am not necessarily tight, but that my “tightness” might be more mental than physical--perhaps more a fear of letting go or relaxing. Is this common—and what can I do about it?

Question authority! The old sixties adage could apply here. You could explore the teacher’s insights but make sure they ring true for you. And yes, your "tightness" could be psychological rather than physical as we often make things harder than they need be or resist that which could ultimately enrich our lives. It is not an uncommon experience for the body to speak thru tightness, as the body and the mind are deeply connected and people do have physical and psychological traumas stored in their bodies. Letting go can be a great relief but we also have to trust the timing when the letting go is not ready to occur.

Your challenge may also truly be tightness. You may be holding back or having a tendency to over-effort at poses. I often find that people unconsciously fight themselves in postures; not really understanding how to make gravity their friend and let it do the work for them. Tightness can appear in the body as physical resistance from the body trying to protect itself (maybe unnecessarily) from the thought of an old injury, or tightness can be some unexamined fear or real scar tissue from a previous injury. There can also be tightness in the body from working too hard to attain some aspect of the asana, unconsciously overusing the muscles instead of softening and giving way to the breath allowing it to permeate the posture and letting gravity work its magic on the pose thus giving a release we did not even imagine was possible.

The first place to begin gaining insight and understanding, in the body-mind continuum that is Yoga, is through paying attention to the guidance of your breath, the primary yoga teacher in the room. Is the breath tight? Is it weak? Is it nonexistent? Is it staccato? Does the pose call for a refined stream of air or a full force breath? Are you using your full lung capacity? Is your mind linked to your breath?

Yoga is holistic, it’s neither just mind nor just body. It is about self-inquiry, mining the tools that invigorate life force, and appreciating and respecting the consciousness that permeates everything. How beautiful that form can express the formless.