Yoga Practice: The Wisdom of Krama
The Sanskrit word “krama” means to go step-by-step. This is true for life, as well as for our yoga practice.
In life, all great journeys are just a sequence of many small steps over time, until the destination finally is reached. Similarly, during our daily yoga practice, many small steps are taken on the way to the goal of the practice. If we move too fast and rush, push or strain, it can be counterproductive.
The ultimate goal of a daily yoga practice, as stated by Patanjali is in chaper 3, verse 9 of the Yoga Sutras, is to reach nirodhaha samskara. This is to experience that place deep inside, beyond the fluctuations of the mind, where one feels calm, alert, balanced and connected to Self. Nirodhaha samskara can be achieved by working at about 70% of maximum capacity. It is the result of practicing with attention, ease and with appropriate krama towards the goal of the practice.
The consequences of not using krama in one’s yoga practice results in what is called vyuthanna samskara, also defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, chapter 3 verse 9. Vyuthanna samskara describes a state when the body, breath, mind, personality or emotions are in a state of agitation. The prana is said to be disturbed and may even result in prana prakopa, or angry prana. Angry prana can be felt in the physical body, the breath, the mental state, personality and emotions. Angry prana can be a result of pushing the body, mind and spirit too quickly towards a goal without proper preparation and awareness.
The aim of the principle of krama, or step-by-step approach to practice is to prepare for a challenging peak pose without injury and without creating angry prana. For example, the peak pose for the day might be halasana (or Plow Pose). For this, the initial stages of the practice might include both preparatory poses and test poses. This will ensure that the neck, low back and spinal flexibility are ready for Plow Pose, which is an intense forward bend and inversion simultaneously.
Preparatory poses might include a Revolved Triangle Pose with eyes gazing towards the sky, as a way to prepare spinal and neck flexibility. Another preparatory pose could include Uttanasana, or Standing Forward Bend for preparation of the low back and hips.
Additionally, test poses will also be worked into the warm-up phase of the practice. Test poses might include shoulder stand and seated forward bend. If the student can master these two poses individually, then the student is ready to move towards Plow Pose, which is basically doing both poses simultaneously.
It follows that if all the ‘test poses’ can be easily performed, and the appropriate preparation poses are practiced during the warm-up phase, the student will be ready for the peak pose of the practice, Halasana. But more importantly, the student will experience the nirodhaha (balanced, calm, alert and connected to Self) state of mind and body during the practice.
The appropriate krama of the practice will allow for the nirodhaha response to happen naturally. There will be no prana prakopa, or angry prana, during or following the practice. The appropriate postures and breathing patterns of the cool-down or counterpose phase of the practice will also help to promote the nirodhaha response.
There are many other step-by-step practices in yoga, and this is just one example of how krama is used in asana practice. But the basic principle is to move step-by-step in any asana practice and create a gradual opening to prepare the body for growing levels of challenge, while never pushing further than the body is ready to
Similarly, a pranayama practice done with a focus on the principle of krama would start with a gentle breath ratio and move towards a more challenging goal ratio, and then move back towards the baseline ratio. In meditation the same phenomenon is experienced as the practitioner often begins in superficial states of mind during the opening rituals. At the peak of the meditation practice, the practitioner might experience a deep and refined state of mind. Then at the end of the practice he or she moves back to superficial mind and re-links to the outside world.
Amy Wheeler, Ph.D. is a Professor of Kinesiology at California State University, San Bernardino for 16 years. She teaches Yoga Therapy at the Loyola Marymount Yoga Rx Program. She is currently involved in several Yoga Therapy research projects pertaining to: Metabolic Syndrome, Kidney Dialysis, Colon and Rectal Cancer, and Ovarian and Uterine Cancer with researchers at Vanderbilt University. Amy is helping to set standards for Yoga Therapist in organizations such as NAMA (National Ayurvedic Medical Association). Amy is a Co-Founder and Co-Director of YATNA (Yoga as Therapy, North America). Amy recently joined the Board of Directors for the International Association of Yoga Therapist (IAYT).