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Flexibility

by Swami Karunananda

The grasses bow before the gale and again raise their heads to the midday sun. The proud giants above remain stiff, not budging an inch, only to be rudely uprooted.
The humble servant prostrates to all and goes on serving till retired by old age while his unbending master is envied, deposed and disposed of in his prime.
"Truly a flexible back makes for a long life."

(Chinese Proverb)

Also for a spiritual aspirant mental flexibility is necessary. Great civilisations have come and gone, sometimes, as with Atlantis, leaving little or no trace for the curious historians, often due to rigidity of ideas-an inability to adapt to changing conditions-whereas Hindu culture, surely the world's oldest unbroken tradition, lives on and flourishes because it modifies itself and becomes richer with the changing pattern of history.

In the individual, mental and physical flexibility go together. Physical flexibility and discipline are necessary for successful concentration and development of mental power.
The great Rishis and Yogis of our timeless heritage gained their incomparable spiritual insight only after Tapasya or physical disciplines, which freed the body from the pangs of hunger and thirst, heat and cold. Complete freedom, resulting in remarkable agility of mind and body, comes only after a long, severe self-disciplining.

From time immemorial a part of the physical disciplining has been the regular and devoted practice of Yoga Asanas and Pranayama, performed reverently and selflessly even to the day of discarding one's earthly body. Such practice helps greatly in the act of dying also. How blessed is the man who leaves his body while meditating in the All-pervading One!

O Seeker! Make Asanas and Pranayama part of your daily devotional offering to God, doing them whole-heartedly and with the utmost perfection of which you are capable. Your aim should be to do them more perfectly from day to day, always knowing that real perfection moves on before you, ever leading you on but never to be captured.
To increase your mastery over Asanas start daily with flexibility exercises, mostly based on the largest possible circular movement at the main joints of the body, beginning with:

I. Neck (can be done seated or standing).

(1) With neck relaxed drop head back as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lift head. Let it drop forward till chin touches chest at hollow at the base of throat. Hold for a few seconds.

(2) With head upright and shoulders steady, turn head slowly to look as far as possible over left shoulder. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly turn head to look as far as possible over right shoulder. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly face front.

(3) With head facing front and neck relaxed, drop head towards left shoulder as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lift head. Let it drop towards right shoulder as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds then.

(4) Begin slowly to circle head on completely relaxed neck, three times in each direction.

II. Shoulder circling (can be done seated or standing).

(1) Circle as large as possible with left shoulder only, forward, down, back and up, three times. Repeat with right shoulder. Then moving both shoulders together.

(2) As (1) above but circle in reverse, back, down, forward and up.

(3) Raise left shoulder as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds, then drop. Repeat three times. Repeat with right shoulder. Repeat with both shoulders together. All the following exercises are done standing.

III. Arm circling with concentration on shoulder-joint. Arm straight but relaxed.

(1) Make a smooth circle as large as possible with left arm, three times-back and up breathing in, forward and down breathing out. Repeat with right arm.

(2) As (1) but forward and up breathing in, back and down and stretch three times. Reverse.

(3) Make a smooth circle as large as possible with both arms moving to the sides and crossing above the head, breathing in. Then continue circling of arms across body on the way down, breathing out. Repeat three times.

(4) As (3) but begin crossing arms in front of body on way up, breathing in deeply till arms part above head, then breathe out as arms come down to sides of body.

IV. Lower arm circling with concentration on elbow-joint and with upper arm steady. Being with arms stretched to sides, then bend at elbows, moving lower arms up, down and stretched three times. Reverse.

V. Hand circling with concentration on wrist, arms stretched to sides.

(1) Forward, down, back and up three times, then

(2) Reverse.

(3) Lift hand as far as possible, not moving the rest of arm. Let hand drop. Repeat three times.

VI. For flexibility of knuckles stretch arms fully to sides, then relax at knuckles, letting fingers drop. Stretch fingers and drop, three times.

VII. With arms stretched to sides clench fists tightly, then stretch fingers. Repeat three times.

VIII. Stretch arms to sides, then relax at elbow and wrist, letting arms bend. Stretch and relax three times. Finish by stretching arms to sides as far as possible. Hold for a few seconds, then let arms drop.

IX. To stretch and strenghthen muscles of arms, shoulders, chest and back, raise arms to side as you breathe in deeply, then clench hooked fingers in front of body with arms parallel to ground. Hold breath and pull hard as though to pull fingers apart. Hold for a few seconds then let arms drop and relax. Once only.

X. Hands pressed together as in Indian salutation but with arms stretched above the head. Breathe deeply and hold breath. Press hands hard then slowly bring arms down, keeping fingers pointing upwards, until at about waist level hands start to part. Flick them apart suddenly breathing out. Once only.

XI. Hands pressed together as in Indian salutation but with arms behind the back. Slowly work the hands as far as possible up the spine. Then press them together hard and pull them down the spine, keeping fingers pointing upwards, until at about waist level hands start to part. Flick them apart suddenly, breathing out. Once only.

XII. Bring left arm up the back as far as possible. At the same time bring right arm over right shoulder till you can clench fingers of both hands behind back. Breathe deeply, hold breath and pull. Hold for a few seconds, then relax. Once only. Repeat over left shoulder.

XIII. Nauli Kriya. For flexibility of stomach muscles and ideal for constipation. Can be divided into four stages.

(1) Uddiyana Bandha. Exhale fully, bend forward to expel air from lungs. Straighten body without breathing in, but lifting chest. Hold for a few seconds. This pulls abdomen back and up and massages digestive and excretory organs.

(2) As (1) then with knees slightly bent, press hands on thighs and try to bring forward the central muscles of the belly, rectus abdominus muscles, to stand out as a column. All but fat people can do (1) but (2), (3) and (4) need patient practice.

(3) As (2) but pressing with one hand only, so bringing one muscle forward at a time.

(4) Alternate the pressure on thighs thus creating circular movement with muscles. This is Nauli Kriya.
Exercises (2), (3) and (4) can be done three or four times each.

XIV. For flexibility of hips and lower spine.

(1) Stand erect, heels together. Relax by bending left leg and putting weight of body on straight leg. Keep heels flat on ground. Pelvis slopes down from right to left. Reverse position of legs. Pelvis slopes down from left to right. Repeat five or six times, gradually increasing speed. Concentrate on movement of pelvis.

(2) Stand erect, heels together. Bend slightly at knees. Keeping rest of body steady, tip pelvis backward and forward as far as possible. Due to stiffness of lower spine at first little or no movement may be possible.

(3) Bend slightly at knees as in (2). Make small, smooth circle of hips, connecting movements (1) and (2). Three times clockwise and anticlockwise.
(4) Stand erect, heels together. Push lower spine and pelvis over to left as far as possible, retaining balance with head directly above feet, i.e., body arched to left. Outside leg straight, inner leg bent. Bend both legs, pushing lower spine and pelvis across to right as far as possible. Repeat to left and right three times.

(5) Stand erect, heels together. Push belly forward as far as possible, i.e., whole of body arched to front with head remaining directly above feet. Bending legs, push lower spine and pelvis back as far as possible till legs are straight and upper body bent forward, with arms hanging vertically. Again bend legs and push lower spine and pelvis forward through the hanging arms till the body is again arched forward. Repeat three times.

(6) Make circle as large as possible connecting movements of (4) and (5) pushing hard in each direction. Three times clockwise and anticlockwise.

(7) Stand erect, heels together. Without moving legs, push trunk as far as possible to left, feeling stretch at right side of waist, contraction at left. Reverse. Repeat three times.

(8) Arching body forward bend back as far as possible, letting head drop back relaxed and arms hang to sides, legs bent. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly straighten up and bend forward with straight legs, trying to palce palms of hands on ground. Slowly straighten up. Repeat three times.

XV. Combination exercise for concentration and flexibility. Stand erect, heels together. Keep left arm hanging straight down at side of left leg, with fingers touching leg and sliding up and down leg during movements of rest of body. Start to make a large circle sideways, raising right arm and keeping eyes fixed on right hand. Breathe in as arm is raised. As arm reaches above head start to bend body to left. When body cannot move further to left side drop forward, breathing out, completing circle with right arm, hand touching ground in front of body. Immediately start lifting right arm and the body to right side, breathing in. Continue till body is straight, then, let arm continue upwards on second circle. Repeat three times, then reverse. Concentrate on breathing and movement at waist.

XVI. To twist spine, stretch muscles behind the legs and increase flexibility at waist.

(1) Feet well apart, legs straight, arms stretched out at sides for whole exercise. Breathe in. Keeping head and body erect, turn as far as possible to left at waist (till you can see behind you), then breathe out as you bend to left without changing arms, touching ground with right fingers behind left foot and with vertical line through arms. Breathing in, straighten till arms are again parallel with ground. Hold breath as you turn as far as possible to right at waist (till you can see behind you). Then repeat as above to right. Do three times to both sides, then return to front and lower arms.

(2) Feet well apart and legs straight for whole exercise. Breathe in. Keeping head and body erect, turn to left at waist till head is over left leg. Bend body over left leg, breathing out, keeping legs straight and sliding hands down left leg till they touch ground. Straighten up, breathing in and still facing over left leg. Hold breath and turn to right at waist till head is over right leg. Then repeat as above to right. Do three times to both sides.

XVII. To stretch muscles and tendons on inner side of thighs and behind legs and for flexibility of spine. Slide feet apart as far as possible to sides, with body upright. Legs straight throughout exercise. Bend forward to place palms of hands on ground in front of and close to body. Bend arms and put whole forearm on ground. Put top of head on ground. Hold for a few seconds. Lift head. Straighten arms, leaving palms of hands on ground. Gradually work feet closer till heels touch with legs straight, arms straight and hands on ground. Hold for a few seconds. Straighten. Breathing normal. Concentrate on back of legs and inner side of thighs. Once only.

XVIII. For balance and to increase flexibility at hip joints. Feet well apart and arms raised to sides for whole exercise. Straighten legs, then lunge to left bending left knee and raising heel from ground, right leg stretched to side, with body as upright as possible. Keeping body low and upright, move slowly over to right side, bending right knee and raising heel from ground, left leg stretched to side. Repeat three times to both sides, then return to first position. Breathing normal. Concentrate on hip joints.

XIX. Balance and flexibility at hips.

(1) Stand erect, heels together. Keeping rest of body still, swing left leg back and forward, completely relaxed and gradually getting higher. Height is not as important as stillness of rest of body. Four or five times each leg.

(2) As (1) but swing left leg out to left side and let it fall again. Repeat with right. Four or five times each leg.

XX. For maximum flexibility at hip-joint.

(1) Stand erect, feet together. Lift left leg to front, knee bent, till thigh is horizontal. Open leg out to left as far as possible, concentrating on hip-joint. Lower leg. Repeat three times. Then repeat with right leg.

(2) Reverse of (1). Begin by lifting left leg as far as possible to side till thigh is horizontal. Then close leg to front, concentrating on hip-joint. Lower leg to front. Repeat as (1).

XXI. Lower leg circling with concentration on knee, left leg stretched to the front upper leg kept still. Circling in, out and stretch, three times; then reverse. Repeat with right leg.

Exercises XXII, XXIII and XXIV to be completed first with left foot, then repeated three times with right foot.

XXII. Foot circling with concentration on the ankle, left leg stretched to front. Movement at ankle only. Circling in, out and stretch, three times; then reverse.

XXIII. Up and down movement of foot as far as possible, with concentration on the ankle, left leg stretched to front. Movement at ankle only, three times.

XXIV. Toe clenching and stretching, alternating with big toe on top, big toe underneath. Repeat three times.
Thus the joints have been loosened and the whole body put into a flexible condition for your Yogasana practice. When the sequence has been learned, all these exercises can be done sincerely within twenty to thirty minutes. Most can be done easily by the householder and will suffice with a little Pranayama, till such time as he can slowly add some extra Asanas.

May God bless you with health and contentment.


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