Yoga protocol: why does it matter?

ytcardp001Before a pranayama class at RIMYI in Pune last August, we students were sprawled on our mats. Some sitting, some chatting; others, like me, lying down leg stretches. When the teacher, Rajlaxmi, entered the room and settled herself on a bolster, I swung up, sit-up style. “Lie back down!” she yelled.

What? In a flash, we lowered ourselves to the floor.

“Now, roll to the right,” she directed. “Look down. Push yourself up. That’s how we sit up in yoga.”

Rajlaxmi is practical, focused primarily on alignment and technique. But that day she reminded me of yoga protocol–the rules and rituals we follow as yoga practitioners.

Function and tradition

To me, there are two types of protocols: First, there are functional protocols, which are relevant to methodology and safety. For example, Iyengar yogis always do Sirsasana before Sarvangasana, if doing both inversions. In prone backbends, we habitually start by inwardly rotating each leg (front thigh in, back thigh out), whether or not instructed to do so. In any straight-legged pose, the feet are actively spread, with heels and forefeet stretching away from the leg. (In Iyengar yoga teacher Carrie Owerko’s Marichyasana I/Bakasana video, study the woman in the background doing Upavistha Konasana. Here she’s just an onlooker doing her own thing, but she never loses the “yoga foot.”)

Functional protocols can also relate to simple studio/class control: remove shoes before entering studio, fold and stack blankets uniformly, watch quietly while teacher is demonstrating.

Second, there are traditional protocols, with less palpable reasons. For example, using Sanskrit names of poses, chanting the Patanjali invocation, ending the class with “Namaste,” avoiding stepping on blankets (a no-no at RIMYI), and rolling to the right when rising from the floor.

The traditional protocols are more likely abandoned as yoga spreads and diversifies. People seem either to embrace them or to reject them. Before I took my first yoga class, I asked the person instigating me to try it, “It’s not too New Age-y, is it?” I still prefer spiritual teachings to be straightforward, offered in plain language and as much by example as by words. But I’ve grown to like the yoga rules and rituals. They remind me that asana should go beyond physical exercise. Maybe behaving differently in yoga class is symbolic: we behave differently because we are trying to become different, better, somehow, someway.

ytcardp002Why roll only to the right?

One protocol that I follow most, but not all, of the time is rolling to the right, which I’ve touched on before in “Exiting Savasana.” Hypothetically, there are physiological (or functional) reasons to roll to the right:

  • Lying on the right puts less pressure on the heart, which sits on the left side.
  • According to beliefs in traditional Chinese medicine and in traditional yoga anatomy, the left nostril is the cooling, passive side (Yin/ida). Therefore, rolling to the right keeps the left nostril more open, balancing the body after a heating, active asana practice (Yang/pingala).
  • The sympathetic (action response) nervous system runs along the right side of the body, while the parasympathetic (relaxation response) nervous system runs along the left. Turning right activates the sympathetic side, which triggers wakefulness.

But I’m not 100% convinced, especially if the rolling and rising to sitting are done quickly. The asymmetry of rolling only to the right (millions of times in a lifetime of practice) produces imbalance, in my opinion. So, if my students rise from supine poses during a sequence, I sometimes instruct them to roll to the left to sit up.

That said, I stick to tradition and exit Savasana by rolling to the right. Namaste.

Images: YogaTeds by Beryl McCartney

 

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13 thoughts on “Yoga protocol: why does it matter?

  1. I like the rituals and order of Iyengar yoga. I agree with you on the roll to the right. In my early Iyengar classes we often rolled to the left then right or just a mix, as long as everyone went the same way there were no crashes. I feel just going to the right feels imbalanced. I was also taught not to step on another person’s mat.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kylie and Jim.

      Regarding the illustrations, Jim, I am actually seeking a graphic-design assistant for my blog. Please send me your portfolio and then we can discuss;-) Seriously, I was on deadline and had to use my last-resort images due to sheer lack of time. The bears are cute, however; admit it.

  2. Luci
    I asked Shirley Daventry French about rolling to the right – and she said BKS told her it’s auspicious. Period. Your further points explain why it’s also easier on the nervous system. Thank you.

  3. I’ve read/learned/been instructed, that one can roll to the left or right depending on the intent at the end of class. If say, an Astanga class ends at 7p, then roll to the left to trigger the calming aspect. If say, a noon vinyasa class where people are heading back to work, then roll to the right to trigger wakefulness to help them move through the rest of their afternoon.

    Either way, coming out of deep relaxation should be done gradually and with mindfulness. Not ‘popcorn-ing’ to a seated position.

    1. Thanks Kelly, Sarah, Susan, and Kristin, for commenting. Much appreciated!

      Yes, Kristin, the point of this point is less about left versus right–and more about not “popcorn-ing” up in such a non-yoga way. Our seemingly minor actions can set the tone in yoga practice.

  4. There is definite value in following protocols – they were set in place for us to learn,grow and establish a foundation of practice on. Thank you for describing why we roll to the right and not to the left! I really enjoy reading your posts. It is refreshing to read a yoga blog that is truly honest.

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