Important Points from Desikachar’s “The Heart of Yoga”
The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar
T.K.V. Desikachar on Asana Practice
Chapter 3 of The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar describes some important aspects of āsana practice – beginning where we are at a particular time; linking breath and movement; consciously making our breath full and deep; and feeling the breath during practice as a form of meditation and paying attention. Understanding each of these fundamental parts of āsana practice is essential to the practice of yoga. Though people tend to see the physical aspect of practice as yoga, Desikachar explains that “much more important than these outer manifestations is the way we feel the postures and the breath” (p. 17).
To ensure āsanas have both sthira (steadiness and alertness) and sukha (comfort), we must begin at the appropriate place. If we feel tense or uneasy in a posture, this indicates we are not yet ready for it. We must begin with an easier posture and work progressively toward deeper postures, gradually attaining sthira and sukha. In order to achieve this “foundation for our whole yoga practice,” Desikachar says, “we have to accept ourselves just as we are” (p. 18). We must pay full attention and be aware of physical limitations, such as stiffness in a particular area of the body. We must also focus on our breath and ensure it is full and deep, rather than shallow. Finally, our full attention should be on our body and breath – not wandering elsewhere. These things help us to recognize our starting point and act accordingly.
Once our starting point is established, we begin to join the breath with movement. “Yoga is as much a practice involving breath as it is involving the body” (p. 18); “the correct linking of breath and movement is the basis for the whole āsana practice” (p. 19). Moving between two āsanas on an inhale and exhale is a simple way of linking breath with movement. For example, we can raise the arms in tadasana (mountain pose) on an inhale and then exhale into uttānāsana (standing forward bend). Inhaling into bitilasana (cow pose) and exhaling into cakravākāsana (cat pose) is another good introductory way of doing this. Rather than automatically breathing without thought as we usually do, in āsana practice we become very conscious of the movements and quality of our breath. Linking the breath with movement makes the exercise “easier and more effective,” and allows us “to become fully involved with our actions” – a basic principle of yoga (p. 20).
As we link our breath and movement in yoga, we also consciously deepen and lengthen both inhale and exhale. Desikachar includes a figure illustrating the movement of the diaphragm and rib cage through the breath cycle (p. 21). He explains that during normal breathing, many people hardly use the chest or diaphragm at all, restricting the breath to primarily the abdomen or upper chest. Yogic breathing involves “consciously expanding the chest and abdomen on inhalation and consciously contracting the abdomen on exhalation” (p. 22). Desikachar outlines methods of consciously deepening the breath.
Once we’ve learned how to be aware of our breath and body, to link the two together through movement, and to consciously deepen the breath, we must really feel the breath during āsana practice. We do this by focusing attention on the movement of the breath – where it is in the body at a particular time. This is a “form of meditation in which we try to become completely one with the movement” (p. 22). Desikachar describes ūjjayī breathing as a way to focus on the breath. It allows us to remain alert during practice and, when we are unable to maintain a “gentle, even, quiet sound,” it can indicate that we’ve “gone beyond the limits of our practice” (p. 23). “The quality of the breath is therefore the clearest indication of the quality of our āsana practice” (p. 23).
Understanding the foregoing yogic principles is essential when we undertake an āsana practice. As Desikachar explains, no matter how “beautifully we carry out an āsana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga” (p. 23). Yoga is an internal, personal process in which we are simultaneously both the observer and the observed. We must pay close attention to ourselves in order to practice yoga. Through understanding our current state and abilities, letting our consciously full breath lead each movement, and truly feeling and observing our breath and our body, we begin to understand the true meaning of āsana practice.