It’s quite obvious that our society is becoming increasingly more sedentary. Many in Western society rely on jobs that require long hours of sitting at a desk, a chair, or even a plane. We experience higher levels of mental/emotional stress and less physical stress. People try to combat this by doing regular exercise, such as cardio or weight training; however, some studies suggest that exercise doesn’t necessarily nullify the effects of long hours of sitting. In fact, some even say that sitting is the new smoking!
Modern Yoga has a wonderful solution for all our sitting with it’s myriad of standing postures, lunges, stances, and squats. Simply categorized, anything on the feet we can call a standing pose. It’s interesting to note that the standing postures aren’t really documented in the classical texts. It’s suggested that they were really a Western development within the last 100 years or so. I like to think of the standing postures more as a Western prescription for our increasingly sedentary society. It’s also been suggested that the standing postures have been borrowed from the internal martial and dance arts of South India. Whatever their origin, these postures are instrumental in helping us reclaim our health and wellbeing.
As human beings on planet Earth, we have evolved to stand on our two feet. We have a very unique structure compared to any other creature on our planet. Our legs have the ability to move us through the world, bear weight, and assume many interesting shapes depending on the structural integrity of our lower limbs. In much of the world, squatting is still very much a part of daily life- whether waiting for the bus, cooking in the kitchen, or even answering to the calls of nature! Sitting on the ground is also very much normal activity. However, many of us have lost what my teacher often calls our birthright- our natural ability for the body to assume it’s many shapes whether sitting, squatting, or standing.
Sitting in a chair, especially slouched, for many hours is not your body’s natural state. However, the body is excellent at learning behavior, setting muscular patterns into our tissue, for the sake of efficiency. The problem with this is the tension that is built up in the tissue to help maintain that shape. The muscles are essentially pulling the bones out of alignment with the skeletal structure. So the real alignment of yoga is not of the posture, but with our own unique skeletal alignment. When we train the muscles of our body to follow the lines of our bones, this is a far more efficient posture for the body to assume. We can finally let go of unnecessary tension and gripping and the body can finally return back to it’s more natural state of being.
The alignment of our skeleton really starts from the ground up, starting at our feet. The feet really are the secret to opening the hips and eventually the spine. The feet, as they connect to the stability of the Earth, give you the traction necessary to leverage your hips while stabilizing your knees. If our foundation isn’t properly set, there is a high risk of damaging the knees while we try to open our hips. This is easiest to find in stance work and considerably more difficult from a seated position.
Standing positions are also important for improving blood flow and circulation. When the blood exits the heart, it must come full circle traversing the entire length of our body, before it enters back in. This means the blood must be pumped through the legs. The most effective way to increase blood flow through the legs is to use them! Too much of a sedentary lifestyle will cause a lack of circulation which can potentially tax the heart and other organs. It also warrants mention that blood grows in the marrow of our bones. The legs are home to the biggest bones in your body. By stressing the bones in your legs, particularly the thighs, this not only strengthens the bones but also the blood!
There is also an energetic benefit to waking up our legs. My teacher often likes to say that when our legs are strong, the breath will be strong. When we have a strong and stable base, our ability to pull our breath deep into our body is also strengthened. Think of long distance runners! Long deep breath has all kinds of benefits for the health of your organs and nervous system. But, what the yogis were primarily interested in was accessing the mind. Many of us know that when our breath is smooth and steady, our mind becomes steady as well. There is a correlation between the energetic layer of our breath and the quality of our attention.
Since the standing postures prepare the legs by increasing our strength and configurability, our ability to assume a stable and comfortable seat suitable for the more internal practices is enhanced. In addition to assuming a correct seat, when we feel grounded in our base and steady in our breath, our mind is more likely to become quiet. If you have ever tried to sit and meditate without a stable and comfortable base, it makes for a rather distracting experience. This is why the yogis knew it was crucial to set up a proper foundation.
The origins of the standing postures may be debatable; however, the goal of the practice is quite clear, to stabilize our consciousness and the removal of suffering. In our developing and quickly changing world, I believe the standing postures to be absolutely necessary in our journey of Yoga.
Wes Linch was introduced to Yoga and Eastern philosophy over 8 years ago in a desire to know more about himself. He quickly discovered the benefits of Yoga far exceed open hips. Wes is a Vinyasa Flow instructor, having received over 700 hours of training through Yogaworks and Yoga Sol. He completed a 6 month mentorship with Mynx Inatsugu and continued to assist her for a year. In 2011, Wes received Shaktipat by Shri Anandi Ma and began studying a traditional tantric lineage called Kundalini Maha Yoga.