Before 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.
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