27 Jul Putting a lid on things: The finishing sequence
Have you ever made a Risotto? This beautifully simple dish from Italy, made with a short grain rice which gives it a creamy consistency, is something of a legend amongst cooks all over the world. It has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to “get right.” In fact, it’s not hard to make a risotto, but it does require attention from start to finish. Curiously, it is the finishing bit that lots of people unwittingly skip…or rush. I’ve even read recipes that don’t mention it, so sometimes it’s not even the cook who is at fault!
In a risotto, stock and seasoning are stirred into the rice as it cooks, and it is mostly due to stirring that the rice ‘loses’ some of its outer layer of starch. This dissolves into the stock, hence the creamy taste. Once the rice is fully cooked and taken off the heat there is one, final, crucial stage. A small amount of butter (or oil) and – in some cases – a handful of cheese, is briefly stirred in. Then, still off the heat, the lid is popped on and the risotto sits, untouched, for several minutes.
This phase is so crucial that in Italian it has a name. ‘Mantecatura’. The direct translation refers to butter but – in an age where lots of people enjoy risotto without dairy – a more helpful way to describe it might be ‘finishing’. You can’t rush la mantecatura and although your risotto won’t be inedible without it, something will definitely be missing.
If you’re now wondering, “have I stumbled into one of Tom’s cookery articles by mistake?”, don’t worry! We are here to talk about yoga. It just so happens that our practice has a ‘finishing’ that should never be rushed and certainly never skipped.
What exactly is the finishing sequence ?
We tend to think of the ‘finishing’ or ‘closing’ sequence as one entity but in reality it is made up of three sections: inverted forward bends, inverted backbends and seated postures. If you are new to the practice you may be wondering what I’m on about. This is because the finishing series is pretty much learned backwards! From our very first time on the mat we learn the last three postures of the finishing series, and do them after Surya Namaskara. There is a logic behind this that is not immediately obvious to western minds. In yoga studies it is not uncommon to learn the beginning and the end of a text at the same time to ensure that it is always ‘complete’. If you are studying something like The Yoga Sutras or The Bhagavad Gita, the teacher might begin the session with the first verse and close it with the last regardless of which verses you are focusing on that day. This practice symbolises respect for the text as a whole.
This is not the only reason we learn the last three finishing poses first. They also happen to be the simplest. Mysore style asana practice starts ‘short and simple’. Months or years later, when we are plugging away at our practice we tend to forget that we can always return to this simplicity.
You may remember that in another article I talked about the meaning of the word ‘vinyasa’. To recap, vinyasa is as much about the sequencing of asanas as the transitions between them. In Desikachar’s biography of Krishnamacharia there is a great passage which illustrates the importance of how we finish our vinyasa practice.
“In Vinyasa the ending of a progression takes on great meaning. The last asana must be close to what we do next. If `I am moving towards pranayama I want to be in a seated position. If I am planning to sleep my final posture must not be something that keeps me awake. Vinyasa is a form of self-study that draws our attention to the consequences of our actions. When we devote our concentration, energy and time to a project we must know how to bring it to a close and resume the normal rhythms of work and family life”.
The great thing about the finishing sequence is that it coaxes us towards a state where it is easier to return from the mat to the outside world.
To understand how, it helps to know what the asanas of the finishing sequence are meant to do for us.
You may recall another article in which I talked about the Bandhas and their action on the flow of energies (or vayus) around the body. Inversions do something similar. Ancient yoga texts refer to another kind of life force, described in the Shastras as a ‘nectar’. Its name is Amrita Bindu. This ‘nectar’ originates at the crown of the head, pervading all the blood vessels and vital organs. Because it tends to travel downwards, inverting the body is one way of diversifying its flow. Rejuvenation is the direct result of this.
This is why the longer held inversions start with the posture we call ‘shoulder – stand’. In fact its Sanskrit name: Sarvangasana means “everything posture”: referring directly to the channeling of Amrita Bindu. Shoulder stand is not ideal for everyone. It is difficult if core strength has not developed and it is risky for those with issues in the vertebrae of the neck. The good news is that its rejuvenating effects can be enjoyed by lying on your back with the legs raised. For this reason I often teach inverted resting poses to people with neck or head injuries, or in some cases, those with long and irregular working hours.
Sarvangasana has four auxiliary postures: Halasana, Karna Pidasana, Urdvha Padmasana and Pindasana. These are inverted forward bends and their benefits are aimed largely at the ears, nose and throat. Halasana is meant to stimulate the larynx and help ease speech impediments. Karna Pidasana is prescribed for tinnitus and earache. The two inversions of Padmasana which follow continue this work and strengthen the spine. They also stimulate the liver, spleen and digestive organs. This is particularly handy for students who are not practicing the primary series on a daily basis for any number of reasons (including the exploration of another series).
By the time you learn postures such as Matseyasana and Uttana Padasana you will be more than familiar with the themes and counter – themes of the practice. Forward bends are usually complimented by backbends and these next two postures are inverted backbends. They ‘massage’ the back and shoulders to release any tension caused by ‘shoulder – standing’. They also tone and stimulate the throat and esophagus as well as strengthening the muscles of the neck.
Most people take a while to learn and understand the ultimate inversion of the finishing series.
Sirsasana or ‘head stand’ does not come naturally to all of us. Some people are surprised or even disappointed to find that this important pose is not taught early on in the practice. Holding off from Sirsasana allows core stability and upper – back strength to develop first. These two elements combined make it a much safer posture to explore. Without the requisite strength, the temptation to rely on momentum (and a wall) is hard to resist!
Once it can be practiced safely, the list of benefits attributed to Sirsasana is long and varied. In energetic terms it allows Amrita Bindu to travel up the central (sushumna) nadi, flooding the highest chakras. On a visceral level it sharpens all the senses and is supposed to be particularly good for our eyesight.
You may have noticed a progression upwards in the focus of each posture’s benefits: from the lower limbs and organs towards the head. This is deliberate. With its focus on honing all five senses Sirsasana is guiding us towards the final, seated postures of the practice. In fact this is where all the asanas have been leading us. The result is a body and mind ready for withdrawal and contemplation.
Sitting cross-legged, with the spine long, the breath controlled and the focus drawn inwards is recognizable to most of us as the ultimate symbol of meditation. There is still a lot of physical work going on in this last part of the asana practice and in a previous article I talked about this being a great opportunity to explore the development of Bandhas (mainly via working on the breath). This explains the inclusion of Utplutih (the seated lift right at the end of everything). Utplutih is not an asana but it is a valuable part of what we do and we should resist all urges to rush it! It seems out of place amongst the other, more static seated postures but it makes sense if you see the seated section not as an actual meditation but a preparation for more long and involved sitting practices. Unless you have lots of free time in the morning, tacking a seated practice directly onto the end of all the asanas might lead to clock – watching which would be counter productive.
The mention of time leads us neatly to the practicalities of the finishing sequence.
First things first (or is it last things first)?!
The three seated postures are the most important part of the finishing sequence so if time, injury or anything else is an issue, shorten the sequence to Yoga Mudra, Padmasana and Utplutih.
Then take rest. I’ll say a little more about the resting posture shortly.
If time is not an issue the length of your finishing sequence can be expanded and explored. If you regularly attend led or counted classes you might think that all the postures have a set count. In fact they don’t and the key poses (Sarvangasana, Sirsasana and Padmasana) can be held for quite a while, as long as they are not being forced.
The Count for finishing is often taught as 10 or 15 breaths in Sarvangasana and 8 breaths in everything else until you get to Sirsasana. This is held for 15 breaths with some auxiliary positions added once you get the hang of it.
If you’d like to explore lengthening the inverted sequence, start by holding Sarvangasana for longer. Extend it slowly and build up to 25 breaths if it feels good. This is especially beneficial if you are feeling tired towards the end of practice. The same can be done for Sirsasana. It’ll take longer to build it up so go easy. Learning to hold Sirsasana for longer is particularly beneficial as we get older and my teacher Hamish recommends training yourself towards holding it for about three minutes once you are over fifty!
Some traditions of Yoga asana have such a strong focus on Sirsasana that it is practiced for hours rather than minutes. This is not something I’ve tried (yet)!
The dristi for all the finishing postures is the nose. Remember that there are two ways of utilizing nose dristi. You can follow the direction of your nose, which, if you are inverted may mean looking towards your navel or even your feet. This is particularly helpful in Sarvangasana. In Sirsasana, if you find it hard to balance, try using the end of your mat as a ‘horizon’ to look at. It helps! In the last three seated postures, look directly at the tip of the nose. It encourages withdrawal and contemplation. If this makes you feel boss – eyed, you might be looking too intently. Soften your gaze and cast your eyes down via either cheek, rather than staring at the middle of the nose.
A little word about the breath. Try to mark the importance of the sequence by lengthening the breath. Make a mental note of roughly how many seconds you take to inhale and exhale when you are in the midst of practice. Make sure your breath is a little slower for finishing, especially once you get to the last three postures.
Last but certainly not least…taking rest. Remember in our tradition this is a freestyle rest and not Savasana (corpse pose). Savasana is a very intense form of meditation, which explores non-attachment to life via the mimicry of death. Enough said!
Lie or sit, have forty winks, take your time and leave Savasana to the tantrics! Remember that if you are practicing at home, you’re not restricted to lying on the mat. Grab a couch or even a bed and make yourself super – comfortable. Ensure that you don’t get cold. I’m often asked how long we should rest for and the answer is: you are probably the best judge of that. Most of us know deep down when we are rushing things. You definitely want the breath and the heart rate to have returned to a restful rhythm. Ideally you no longer feel hot and sweaty either (but haven’t got too cool). For the technically minded there is some research out there, being conducted by the New York teacher Eddie Stern. He has been looking in to the effects of the practice on our autonomic nervous systems (particularly the vagus nerve). After exercise, allowing the body to rest completely for at least seven minutes is thought to be extremely restorative. Give it a whirl!
The book quoted at the top of this article is
Health, healing and beyond: yoga and the living tradition of T Krishnamacaria
By TKV Desikachar and RH Cravens.
(North Point Press, 1998). You can buy a digital copy here.
If you want to explore Eddie Stern’s research on the relationship between yoga and the autonomic nervous syetsem you’ll find his website and a list of reading resources here.