Brad's Iyengar Yoga Notebook
General principles for all asanas
"Yoga has a beginning, but no end."   -- Geeta Iyengar
Yoga is not an exercise; it is an exploration.   The yogasanas are not static poses, but a changing dialogue with your body that is different every day.   Yoga is not so much a means to achieve some outcome like flexibility or health as it is a lifelong path of deepening the "intelligence" of your body, to use Mr. Iyengar's parlance.
In each asana, one goal we are working toward is achieving some amount of "effortlessness within effort."   This comes about in part from proper alignment allowing your body to support itself more and more on its skeletal structure than with muscular effort, and also through a type of somatic memory gained through repetition.   It is always good to ask yourself when you are holding an asana what muscular effort you can dispense with and still hold the posture intact.   Eliminate unnecessary physical effort.   Do not be static in any asana -- feel where you are and do something.   Constantly be feeling where your "edges" are and trying to push them back softly.   In each pose, keep searching for a better, more effortless place.
Every person's body is different.   Some individuals will always be less flexible than others.   Having less flexibility does not preclude a person from becoming an advanced yoga practitioner.   The most important flexibility is mental and emotional flexibility.   Physically, the question is, can you perform the necessary actions and alignments for you to be able to breathe deeply in the asana, and perform it with increasingly less effort?
We all live in a little box called our "body."   How tight our hamstrings or calves are is just one of the edges of our box.   Yoga practice allows us to push back all the edges of our box so that we get to live a little more freely, with more of a feeling of ease, like living in a bigger box everyday.   The asanas are designed to have both a physical and mental effect and their effect does not depend in the slightest on how deeply you can bend your torso forward in Pascimottanasana or whether you can touch your toes in Uttanasana.   When you practice yoga, somewhere along the way you touch your toes, but that's just one arbitrary point in a whole lifetime of pushing back the edges of your box and it doesn't stand out there as a real "goal" to achieve or anything all that significant.   The important aspect of yoga practice is receiving the benefits of the asanas in small daily doses over years.
Mere contortionism is not yoga if it is done without extending intelligence to every body part and surface, or if it is devoid of a spiritual aspect.   What makes something yoga is not so much what is done, but how it is done and what the effect of doing it is.
The subtle details of asana alignments can be so numerous as to make concentrating on many of them at once nearly impossible.   Fortunately that is neither necessary nor advisable.   It is perfectly reasonable to take certain alignments to focus on during a given session while giving less conscious attention to others.   Through repetition and maturity of practice, as our cellular learning deepens and our awareness expands throughout the body, many of the alignments occur more or less spontaneously or habitually without conscious thought.
Never rush into your deepest pose all at once.   Move slowly and gradually to your deepest position.   As you begin to move into an asana, feel for the first place of tension or "edge" that you come to.   Pause at that place, and relax into that edge.   Clarify your posture, and wait for the sensations of stretch, pain, or tension to fall away somewhat.   Then move into the pose deeper until you find a new "edge."   Pause again, breathe.   Repeat this process over and over until you reach the final edge for that pose for that particular day, when the sensations of tension no longer release with sufficient waiting.
After you have made all the adjustments and actions you know how to make in a given asana, then the practice of that asana begins.   You need to remain in the pose for a length of time before coming out, allowing each edge to soften.   Resist the temptation to come right out of the asana when you have finished making all the adjustments you know to make.   Hold the position and wait for the inner cue to know it is time to come out of the asana.   There is no final edge or final posture.   New edges always appear.
It is somewhat superfluous to try to recommend certain lengths of time to stay in each posture.   The amount of time you should spend in an asana will vary based on your experience, level of practice, level of energy on a given day, difficulty of the particular asana, and personal constitution.   While 30 seconds in Adho Mukha Svanasana may be all one individual can do, another will find 5 minutes suits their disposition on a given day.   While you should aim for an overall lengthening of the amount of time you spend in each asana, trying to recommend a number of seconds or minutes that will fit everyone is impossible.   Stay in each pose as long as it feels integrated, solid, maybe sublime, and then move on to another pose when that quality fades.   That is to say, stay in a pose until you lose equanimity or peacefulness in the pose.   This does not mean that you give up early because an asana is difficult or uncomfortable for you, only that you do not carry on unnecessarily long in a posture in which you have lost somatic attention or are no longer able to extend your intelligence to each body part evenly and clearly.
The importance of the standing poses is often neglected.   The standing poses develop leg and hip strength and flexibility, increasing pelvic mobility.   The standing poses are not a hazing ritual for beginners, but rather the safest and best method for increasing leg (especially hamstring) flexibility required by the seated forward bends and other poses.   If your hamstrings are tight, their pull keeps your pelvis from rotating forward over toward your thighs freely which will inhibit all forward bends.   Attempting to do Padmasana with tight hips which do not externally rotate fully is asking for knee injury.   You should not attempt Padmasana until you have adequate hip flexibility as measured, for example, by your knees being close to the floor in Sukhasana and Baddhakonasana.   This hamstring and hip flexibility is cultivated mainly by the practice of the standing asanas (although there are also other asanas that are helpful).
Classically we begin each asana on the right side.   Do your "bad" or less flexible side of a pose longer than your good side to even your body out from side to side.   As your somatic intelligence increases, you will almost always feel that one side of your body is better in a given asana than the other side.   Seek to equalize your two sides.   As Mr. Iyengar has said, when one side of the body is doing better than the other side, the first side has to become the "guru" of the other side.   If some body part is sore from yesterday's practice, it is good to work that area with the same pose again today, starting light.   You will have to bear a little discomfort in order to learn yoga, as nothing can be learned with complete comfort.   However the object of yoga practice is not to cause pain, but to relieve it and more importantly prevent it.
Incorporating good postural habits into your daily routine will pay dividends in your yoga practice and vice versa.   When sitting in a chair, whenever possible fold your legs up and sit in Sukhasana or Ardha Padmasana.   Sitting cross-legged in a chair, or cross-legged on the floor as much as possible will help to keep your hip flexors supple to aid in hip flexibility.   Make sure you are sitting on the front edges of your sitting bones, not the rear sides or even worse, back on your gluteal muscles and flesh.   Sitting back onto your tailbone (sacrum) causes your pelvis to tuck under, your low back to round, and your chest to collapse.   Lengthen the front of your torso when sitting.   Raise your sternum toward the ceiling.   If your feet are on the floor, sit on the front part of the chair, keeping the normal concave lumbar curve (lordosis).   Allow your shoulders to fall naturally down away from your ears.   It is fine to use the back of the chair for support if you use it properly, with your buttocks at the back of the chair and an arch, the normal lumbar lordosis, rather than a rounding in your lower back.   Many chairs force us to sit with our thighs level, or even worse, with our knees higher than our hips.   For most people, this causes the pelvis to tilt backward and the lower back to lose its natural concavity.   Sit on a towel or pillow to elevate your pelvis if this is happening to you.
Backbends massage the adrenal glands and energize us with a surge of catecholamines.   They are emotionally uplifting.   Forward bends are calming.   They are poses of surrender.   Even the deepest forward bend should be cooling.   Backbends are poses of extroversion.   Forward bends are poses of introspection.
Once you have the gross movements of an asana achieved, you should begin to work on the more subtle actions.   Sometimes, an asana may be too challenging as a whole unit to allow working on the small actions of individual body parts.   In this case, you may need to use props or modify the pose to remove some of the challenges and allow you to work on individual small actions.   One of the great gifts of Mr. Iyengar to yoga is his detailed use of props and asana modifications.   Once you integrate these small individual actions, you can restore the pose to its complete form without props to practice the inherent challenges of the pose as a whole.
Jumping your feet apart and together is the classical method for entering and coming out of the standing poses.   If you choose to do it, you must do it lightly and with poise.   Jumping helps to open and resolve the standing poses symmetrically in a way that must be experienced to be understood.   When you are jumping your legs apart, make the action occur from the back of your body, arms, and legs, not the front side.
Extend your spine in every pose.   Do not compress the front of your body, especially in the forward bends.   This inhibits deep breathing.   As you lengthen the front of your torso, also lengthen the back of your neck.   Do not shorten the back of your neck in any asana, even in the deepest backbend.
In any asana, whatever body part is on the floor, press it into the floor; merge it with the floor.   This includes, for example, your shins in Ustrasana and your hands and feet in Adho Mukha Svanasana.
Your breath should be natural in most asanas (although some asanas like Karnapidasana will inevitably cause some restriction in breathing).   There is always a tendency to hold the breath when trying to get into a challenging position.   Remind yourself in each asana to breathe.   Inhalation is the time to lengthen your spine, exhalation is the time to make further progress in the pose.   In general, when coming out of an asana, you should inhale as you come out.
Keep your digestive system as empty as possible before an asana session.   It is really impossible to specify a certain number of hours you need to wait after eating before practicing since that will vary widely with the size of the meal and your own digestive speed.
A deep sense of humility will help you learn yoga.   It is important to remember that no one path or school has a monopoly on the truth.   There are excellent and poor practitioners in all schools of yoga.   Gaining maturity in yoga practice involves learning to respect the paths that other people are on and acknowledging their merits, maybe even acknowledging that your own path is lacking in some area where another one excels.