Creating Yoga Balance
Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani responds to this question about yoga balance.
“I’ve been teaching yoga for a number of years, always leading students in standing yoga asanas with the left foot or left side. I have always done this because that was what I was taught. Could you please tell me the reasoning behind this? Does it extend to all asanas, standing or not?”
I felt that I have to try and address some of these core issues for non-Indian yoga practitioners, as we often have our Western students ask these same questions about creating the proper yoga balance.
The major problem facing yoga in the West is the fact that yoga has been cleaved from Indian culture. Without an understanding of the Indian culture and way of life from which yoga originated, it can be difficult to find answers to such questions.
The concept of polarity, or balancing the opposites, is vital to both yoga and Indian traditional life. The right side of the body is related to the solar/positive/masculine flows of energy that are manifest by the surya nadi, which is correlated to the termination of the pingala nadi (a major prana nadi which flows along the right side of the spine.)
Similarly, the left side is related to the lunar/negative/feminine flows of energy that are manifest by the chandra nadi, which may be said to be the termination of the ida nadi (along the left side of the spine).
Indian customs demonstrate that all daily activities are started on the right side, because the right side is considered to be auspicious. If an Indian were given an offering by the left hand, he or she would consider it an insult and refuse it! Similarly, receiving anything with the left hand is totally out of the question!
Also, when we enter the premises of a newly constructed building, for instance, we always use the right leg first, just as in the saying “put your best foot forward”.
All of this points to the answer to your question, which is to start on the right and then make sure you follow it with the left for proper yoga balance.
In spinal twists, the turn is always clockwise first, as the concept of pradakshina or circumbulation around Hindu temples is always clockwise. It is interesting to note that the Hindu swastika turns clockwise, whereas Hitler’s swastika turns counter-clockwise. Speak of opposite energies bringing about opposite effects!
Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri also always taught us that the energy in the chakras moves in a clockwise direction. If you take ten traditional Indians and ask them to turn around, they will likely all turn in the clockwise direction. For proper yoga balance, twists are thus done first to the right, then to the left.
Regarding the forward and back bending asanas, when we bend forward we stimulate the solar plexus, and so this is termed the loma, or positive action. When we bend backward, we relax the solar plexus, and this is termed the viloma, or negative action. In practice it is therefore better to do forward bends before back bends if we want to follow this polarity yoga balance concept.
Some interesting research in at Svyasa in Bangalore, South India, showed that relaxation practices done following strenuous activity provided greater benefit than the pure relaxation practices done alone. Viewed from the standpoint of right and left, if we do the right, or active, side first, then we may benefit more from the practice by ending with the left. This will lead to a state of yoga balance (of steadiness, relaxation).
On the contrary, if we do the left, or passive, side first, then we may end up stimulated (hyper-energetic, imbalanced). As yoga is the science of balance, performance on the right side before the left side may help us to maintain homeostasis (samatvam).
We must also remember that even the term Hatha Yoga, which means “sun and moon,” has the right side placed before the left in its esoteric association of ha with the sun and tha with the moon (Hatha).
With regard to the common question of how to tell whether one is doing the left side or the right side in standing poses, I would say that the side that bears the maximum weight of the body in the pose is the side one is doing. For instance, many students get confused when they first stand in natarajasana on the right leg with the left arm and foot raised behind the back, thinking that they are doing the left side because both the left arm and leg are being used, whereas they are actually doing the right.
Of course, all of the above discussion applies to normal, balanced individuals, of whom very few seem to practice modern yoga. In cases where stimulation is required, as in patients with depression, excessive sleepiness or drowsiness, and so on, then right after left may be preferable.
This excellent answer to a common yoga question demonstrates the depth within this great science of yoga.
Yoga is not only about the “hows”, but also the “whys.” As the yoga teacher who asked this questioned stated, “I have always done this because that was what I was taught,” yet she did not know why.
As yoga teachers we have a great responsibility to properly learn and really understand what it is that we are teaching, so that we can go forward and properly teach it to others without spreading more confusion, vagueness, or even misunderstandings.
About the Author:
Yogacharya Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani heads the Rishiculture Ashtanga Yoga lineage of his guru-father, Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri, Gurumaharaj. He is a licensed physician and an international speaker and teacher of yoga.
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