Within Yoga, there are five internal "observances" or practices called Niyama.
- Shaucha - purification - meditation and asanas help to cleanse the mind and body
- Samtosha - contentment - being happy with what we have and not wishing for more
- Tapas - asceticism - intense self-discipline and willpower.
- Svadhyaya - self-study - learning from life lessons
- Ishvara Pranidhana - devotion - surrendering to a higher power - lose our self-identification
Even if you’ve just taken your first yoga class, you’re already familiar with the fourth Niyama: Svadhyaya. Taken from the Sanskrit words sva, which means “self,” and adhyaya, which means “education of,” this vital rule for living reminds you to look within. It’s a theme every yoga teacher emphasizes in every class because, without self-awareness, there is no yoga—no union of mind, body, and spirit—just some interesting calisthenics.
Yoga teaches you to get in touch with how your body feels as a first step toward learning about how “you” feel at every level. With every pose, your teacher invites you to discern what’s your edge and what’s a cliff. Each time you come to your mat, you decide how far to enter into a pose, which benefits you desire from your practice and how asanas, breathing, and meditation will enable you to know and nurture your true self. It’s not about narcissism; it’s about getting to know who you are so that you can experience life to your fullest potential. You have to know what your dreams are before you can really go after them.
You devote a lot of time to finding out about your friends and family. It’s time to invest that same amount of time into learning all of the factors that make you unique.
And what better place to start your quest for self-awareness than at your heart center? Here are some yoga poses to free your heart and open new channels of understanding, energy, and love.
Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose)
Lie face down with your legs straight out behind you. Place your hands on the floor, spreading your fingers, and hug your elbows to your ribs. Inhale and begin to straighten your arms. Stretch your heart forward and bring your torso up. Concentrate on firming your shoulder blades against your back and lifting your stern so that there’s no compression in the lower back. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Release by lowering one rib a time to the mat, tucking your chin as you release your head.
Ardha Bhekasana (Half Frog Pose)
Lie face down with your legs straight out behind you. Place your forearms on the floor. Lift your torso and head. Bend your right knee and lower your right heel close to your right buttock. Reach back and clasp the inside of your right foot with your right hand. Rotate your elbow toward the ceiling so that you can curl your fingers over your toes. Gently press your foot toward your buttock. If your flexibility permits, move your foot off to the side and push it toward the floor, being careful to keep your knee in line with your hip. Hold 30 seconds to two minutes. Then release, relax and reverse.
Purvottanasana (Upward Plank Pose)
Sit in Dandasana. Move your hands several inches behind your hips with your fingers pointing toward your feet. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor with your heels a minimum of a foot away from your buttocks. Lift your hips until you come into a reverse tabletop. Then, without lowering your hips, straighten one leg at a time. If possible, let your head gently drop back. Hold 30 seconds, tuck your chin and lower into Dandasana.
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Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Supported Bridge Pose)
Have a block, blankets or bolster near your mat. Lie on your back. Bend your knees, bringing them close enough to your buttocks so that you can touch them with your fingertips. With your arms along your sides and palms pressing into the mat, roll up one vertebra at a time. Position your support under your back. As a variation, try using a block first on the flat side. Roll down, and return to bridge supporting your back with the block at medium height. Roll down one vertebra at a time and, if you have no back problems, roll up into bridge a third time, using the block at its full height. Hold each pose for 30 seconds to one minute or more. Release one vertebra at a time to the mat and lie supine.
Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)
Lie on your back. Bend your knees and place your feet on the floor with your heels as close to your buttocks as possible. Bend and elbows and place your palms on the floor beside your head with your fingers pointing toward your shoulders. Press your hands and feet firmly into the floor, lift your torso and come onto the crown of your head. Continue lifting your body, allowing your head to come up off the floor. Hold five to 10 second. Lower to the crown of the head, tuck the chin and release one vertebra at a time to the mat.
These heart openers offer benefits on many levels. Recent studies have shown positive connections between yoga and improved heart health. Some of the plusses may include:
1. Reduction of high blood pressure
2. Improvement in treating symptoms of heart failure
3. Easing palpitations
4. Enhancing cardiac rehabilitation
5. Lowering cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, and stress hormones
6. Supporting regular heart rhythms
Attention to opening your heart also brings health to your mind and spirit. In the calm created by these poses, you have the opportunity to explore new aspects of yourself as you feel your breath creating more space throughout your chest and ribs. You begin to experience what it’s like to take a deep, rejuvenating inhale that brings vitality to your body and to your brain. It’s easier to want to take care of your heart, your health, your life. No textbook can do that. Your heart can.