This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published here with his kind permission:
Several years back I taught a class at a medical university in Chennai
for the medical students in which a few of the faculty members also
participated. This university I understand had a professional
arrangement with the Harvard Medical School. I thought the program went well and at the end of the program there was a valedictory function in which several of the participants demonstrated several asanas and other yoga procedures.
The dean of the University participated in the entire program, running for about three hours. He himself was a reputed orthopaedic surgeon and after seeing the several asanas and vinyasas he suggested that I might consider a detailed study of yoga asanas especially vinyasas and how they affect the various joints, their health, their mobility. There are a few very well illustrated books showing the anatomy of muscles in various yoga postures. It may be good to have some work done in which one can see the joints and bones or purely skeletal illustrations of asanas.
For me at that time Yoga was a hobby, a serious hobby though; but I
had to work to maintain a family so could not pursue any serious work that would involve substantial time and effort. The hathayoga pradeepika mentions the twin benefits of asanas as arogya and anga
laghava or general health and suppleness or dexterity. One of the
problems, similar to the internal organs, is the loss of space within
the joint if the intra-articular space gets reduced due to several
reasons the joints become less efficient and could become
dysfunctional as happens in arthritis. Yoga, especially vinyasakrama
yoga, tends to work with almost all the articulation of all the joints
especially the ankles, knees, hips, the spine and arms.
Take the asymmetric sequence, in which one leg is kept in one position and the other leg kept in several positions, and in each subroutine several movements are done. Take for instance Marichyasana, the hip joint is kept in one position in which the inferior bone of the joint, the femur, is kept in the fixed position of Marichyasana and all the vinyasas are done by which the superior bone structure viz. the pelvis is moved around and manipulated. In other words, the ball in the socket is kept stationary and the socket is moved around. When you move on to the next subroutine, mahamudra/janusirsasana, the femur head within the socket takes a different stationary position and in the vinyasas the pelvis is moved around.
In the third subroutine, the half lotus, the femur head position is again altered, but keeping it stationary a number of movements are done in the subroutines — akarnadhanurasana, kraunchasana, ekapadasirsasana, vajrasana, matsyendrasana, bharadvajasana and any others– in which the pelvis is moved around. In fact in the series of vinyasas within those asanas, all the possible movements of the marvelously engineered hip joint are done in a short time giving a complete treatment for the hip joint. The tendons and connecting tissues are stretched, sufficient blood circulates (rakta sanchara) and exchange of oxygen also is facilitated (prana sanchara).
The important joints are the ankles, the knees, the hips, the spine, and the shoulders, elbows and wrists. The spine and the lower extremities can be effectively taken care of by some of the inversions like sarvangasana and especially sirsasana. One of the problems of these joints is that, due to disuse and postural limitations, gravity, reduction of tone etc., the intra articular space in these joints gets reduced and this leads to congestion and pain. These are particularly severe with the knees and the spine, especially the lumbar and the cervical regions. By these inversions and doing considerable number of movements slowly and steadily and with good breathing one can stretch these joints effectively—the gravity helps now- maintaining the intra articular space.
This will help to reduce the incidence of arthritis in the knees and hip joints. And with respect to the spine this will help to maintain the inter vertebral space and thus reduce the incidence of such debilitating conditions as low back pain. And cervical spondylosis can be helped by several of the arm movements (hasta vinyasas) and good deep inhalation stretching the upper thoracic spine. All these vinyasas help to exercise and maintain the strength, tone and stability of the supporting musculature.
The knee joint has two main movements , flexion and extension. Poses like Dandasana and Paschimatanasana help to stretch the supporting tissues like the hamstrings and also the connecting tissues inside the joint. The effect can be enhanced by staying in inversions and allowing some time to for gravity to act. Thereafter one can stretch the joint gently and help to maintain circulation and also maintain the intra capsular space. The flexion also can be effectively and comfortably done in Akunchanasana in both headstand and shoulder stand.
I feel that the inversions give maximum benefits to the major joints: ankles, knees, hips and the spine. They help to increase the intra capsular space, reduce congestion, tone the connecting tissues. All these will help one to stay in Vajrasana which requires a good flexion of the knee joint. The knee joint also has some lateral movements which can be done effectively in asanas like Vajrasana (outward movement of the joint), Simhasana (inward) and also Padmasana. Thus it is possible to maintain the health of the joints by a judicious combination of asanas and vinyasas.
My Guru Sri Krishnamacharya used to refer to Yoga as Sarvangasadhana as a practice for the whole system . He would, also include two other disciplines as sarvanga sadhanas, viz., archery and wrestling. Wrestlers have to be very fit and supple. They should be strong to pin down a burly opponent but also should be supple to be able to wriggle out of a stranglehold of the opponent. The archers have to be strong to shoot the arrow to go long distances, but also accurate and should be able to shoot from very awkward positions to aim at moving targets.
The Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic, contains two characters Bhima and Arjuna. Bhima was a great wrestler and his kid brother Arjuna, the Bhagavatgita fame was an outstanding archer. There are stories about their exploits in Mahabharata. There is one incident that is interesting. There is a story (my version) about Arjuna. Once there was a competition for archers. A totally transparent rotating yantra (device) was set up at a great height which contained some water and a small fish swimming in it. Below that was a pond full of water. The archer was supposed to look at the reflection of the yantra in the pond water and shoot at the small fish which itself would be moving randomly in a rotating device. One has to assume a suitable body position and shoot the arrow. Arjuna was the only one to succeed in this test.
Archers have to assume difficult different positions in actual battlefield and have to be extremely supple to adapt to
different situations and need to concentrate well. Hence these two martial arts were considered sarvanga sadhanas. But these two are used for combat and hence Rajasic whereas Yoga is for self discipline and hence is satwic.
Vinyasakrama is a unique Asana ‘Joint’
(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami. www.vinyasakrama.com