If we consider the position of the whole body, the poses can be divided into four different categories. Our body can be in a standing, reclining, seated or upside-down position. In each of these positions, the spine can be straight, bending backward, forward, sideways, or twisting. This is why we speak of 'Standing Back-bends', 'Sitting Forward-bends', 'Reclining Twists', etc. In this article, we shall have a look at the standing poses.
After having practised in northern India for several months, I attended some classes in big cities. I first went to New York and then to Hong Kong, before practising in Singapore and Taipei. What struck me the most was that in India, there were very few standing poses - whereas classes elsewhere consisted mainly of standing poses. In fact, there were very few standing asanas before the 20th century. If we look at the two main traditional books of hatha yoga - the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita - we realise that none are mentioned in the first book and that only Vrikshasana (the tree pose) and Utkatasana (the chair pose) are mentioned in the second. How can we explain such a phenomenon?
Before the 20th century, there were no cars, no public transportation system per se, and very few machines. As a result, people had to walk long distances and stand or run most of the time - either in a field if they were farmers or in a forest if they were hunters. The legs of these people, our ancestors, were very strong. They didn't need to be worked out. What they did need was to be stretched and to rest. This is why a traditional asana sequence has very few standing asanas. For example, in the 'Sivananda sequence' there are only two standing postures. And because they are the last two, it is not unusual to skip them. This kind of hatha yoga, which has been practised in India since the beginning of Indian civilisation and which includes only a few standing poses, can be described as 'traditional yoga'.
On the flip side, modern people who live in big cities do not walk much since they usually drive or have access to different mass transportation systems such as trains and buses. Even farmers do not stand or walk anymore, they sit in their tractors and inspect their fields or cattle from a comfortable vehicle. And most modern people work in offices where they are seated form morning to night. A direct consequence is weak legs and poor circulation. For them, a new kind of hatha yoga has emerged: a yoga that includes a vast array of standing poses practised one after the other, and vinyasas. This kind of yoga is called 'modern yoga'.
The first type of modern yoga was developed in India at the beginning of the 20th century by a sage named Krishnamacharya. His disciple Pattabhi Jois called it 'ashtanga yoga' and dedicated his life to the teaching of this new form of hatha yoga. Since India was at that time a rural and poor country where most of the people had to use their legs, ashtanga yoga was not very successful in its motherland. However, when foreigners found out that such a yoga existed, they started to practise and they quickly outnumbered the Indian practitioners.
Ashtanga yoga has several fixed sequences called 'series'. Even the series for beginners is difficult. It includes Kurmasana, a position with two legs behind the head, several deep twists, and advanced poses with legs in lotus position such as Kukkutasana and Baddhapadmasana. The first practitioners who began teaching this style abroad took two different paths. Some decided to keep the series exactly as they were, giving easier options if necessary for beginners - Chuck Miller, Richard Freeman and David Swenson for example. Others decided to modify the series or sequences. Out of that second group emerged a new form of yoga - 'power yoga'.
Since power yoga has been designed for modern practitioners who do not stand, walk or run much, it consists mainly of standing asanas. And since there are very few standing asanas in traditional yoga, the new schools of yoga had to create new poses. I speak of 'new schools' because as soon as power yoga was born, it gave birth to several offspring. Some teachers simply call their practice 'power yoga', like Beryl Bender Birch or Baron Baptiste, but others have chosen a totally different name like 'jivamukti yoga' from Sharon Gannon and David Life, or 'anusara yoga' from John Friend. In big studios, we can also hear the words 'flow' and 'vinyasa flow' for similar practices.
'Light on Yoga' by Iyengar is probably the first book of modern yoga. Iyengar, who was also a student of Krishnamacharya, first introduces the reader to standing poses. In his teacher training, teachers-to-be must first master the main standing poses before learning and practising anything else. These poses are well-known asanas without arm variations, such as Trikonasana, Parshvakonasana, Parivrittatrikonasana, Parivrittaparshvakonasana, Uttanasana, Prasaritapadottanasana, Padmottanasana, Utkatasana, Garudasana, Virabhadrasana, Anjaneyasana, Ardhachandrasana, Durvasasana, Ruchikasana, Vrikshasana, Chakrasana (called 'Urdhvadhanurasana'), Trivikramasana, Shankarasana (called 'Utthitapadangushtasana'), Adhomukhashvanasana and Natarajasana.
The new schools readily drew inspiration from this book and started to create their own asanas. It is easy to create a new asana by 'twisting' the existing version. 'Twisted' is 'parivritta' in Sanskrit. They first started to twist every existing standing pose: Parivritta-utkatasana, Parivrittanjaneyasana, etc. The second thing that can be done is to bind the pose. 'Bound' is 'baddha' is Sanskrit. They took: Baddhatrikonasana, Baddhaparshvakonasana, Baddhaparivrittaparshvakonasana, etc. Binding is actually an arm position. There are at least seven other arm positions. It is possible to join the palms in prayer position in front of the chest, to do the same behind the back, to interlace one's fingers behind one's back (baddhahasta), to interlace one's arms in eagle position (garudabhuja), to catch one's fingers behind the back in the cow face fashion (gomukhabhuja) and to separate one's arms from each other (muktahasta). For people who cannot bind a pose completely, it is also possible to 'half-bind' - i.e. to bind only with one hand (ardhabaddha).
Some groundbreaking teachers like Andrey Lappa created standing poses that are neither an arm variation nor a twisted version of the classical asana. 'Stupasana', which is like Prasaritapadottanasana with two knees bent and feet to forty-five degrees; Adhomukhatrivikramasana, which is like Trivikramasana (standing split) but downward-facing; and Ramasana, are good examples. Yoga teachers from all over the world have also developed easier versions of the existing asanas. 'Easy' or 'half' is 'ardha' in Sanskrit. In this way, lots of new poses were created. Among them: Ardhasamakonasana, Ardhahanumanasana, Ardhaparshvakonasana, Ardhanatarajasana and Ardhapashasana.
In total, there are more than 400 of them. Only 100 years ago, standing poses comprised a minority of asanas. Today, there are almost as many standing poses as sitting, reclining and inverted poses combined together! And new standing poses are created every month, which is not true of the other three groups, even though new asanas do emerge from time to time.
The first standing asana mentioned in the scriptures is Vrikshasana, the tree pose. Sages are found here and there in the Mahabharata and in the Pura nas standing on one foot to purify their mind or to get some benefit from a god. Brahma the creator, asked Yama the first man, to become the king of death. Since Yama didn't want to do such a job, he decided to do penance, 'tapas', for 1,000 years. He stood on one leg! In light of such determination, Brahma had to look for someone else.
The southernmost town of India is called 'Kanyakumari'. 'Kanya' means 'girl' or 'maiden', and 'kumari' stands for 'consort of Shiva'. A long time ago, a girl fell in love with Shiva. When her parents wanted to marry her off, as is the custom in India, she said she was already married to the lord Shiva. They laughed at her and started to look for a husband for her. On seeing their reaction, the girl decided to stand on one leg on a rock overlooking the ocean, so that Shiva would come and pick her up. At first everybody mocked her, for they thought she would only last a couple of hours. But when they witnessed how she persevered, they began to worship her as a goddess. According to local legend, it took 10 years for Shiva to be moved by the maiden, finally recognising that she was courageous enough to become his consort. He came in person to bring her to his heavenly abode. She disappeared and no one heard of her since. The maiden was instantly declared a saint, and the town's name was changed to 'Kanyakumari' to commemorate this incredible act performed by a mortal for Shiva, the god of yoga. The rock where she stood for so long is still worshipped today by throngs of Indians who come from all over the country.
It became a common practice for advanced yogis to stand in the jungle among the trees like a tree. Some very advanced practitioners even vowed to stand on one foot until birds start nesting on their matted hair! For modern practitioners, such a feat may be unattainable. However, they can still benefit tremendously from these poses that strengthen their legs and help them find their roots. Standing asanas are rooting. And in today's increasingly virtual world, the benefits of such a practice are invaluable.
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