If you have not been living in a cave for the past decade, you’re aware of the massive impact yoga has had around the world. Studios have popped up everywhere. In these studios, as students practicing the physical postures of yoga, we come to think of ourselves as yoga practitioners.
“I do yoga,” you may say.
And this is fantastic. Do your yoga. Do it everyday.
But please do not confuse doing asana with practicing yoga.
Yoga practice is more than doing yoga asana. Yoga is a path to freedom. It is training the mind to release its grasp, on anything. Yoga asana, the aspect of the path that focuses on the physical postures of yoga, is just one piece of the liberation pie.
If yoga practice is not about asana, then what is it about?
Ashtanga in Sanskrit means eight limbs, and asana — the practice of physical yoga posture — is just one of those limbs. This eight fold path as presented in the Yoga Sutras describes a process to attain freedom and happiness, by experiencing our mind free from conception. Yama and niyama, the first two limbs, deal with ethics and behavior. They basically offer guidance on how to be a decent and disciplined person. Asana, from the Yoga Sutra point of view, means the posture of meditation. Popularization of yoga in the West expanded this term to include all the physical poses found in yoga studios these days.
But essentially, yoga is about learning to meditate by preparing the system, and then guiding the mind to stillness. Pranayama, the fourth limb, treats the subject of breath, and how to harness it and put it to use in the service of meditation. Pratyahara translates as “withdrawing awareness of sensory objects.” It’s changing the allegiance from external reference points to internal ones. It could be considered a primary step in attaining a state of meditation. The last three limbs, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, sometimes called samyama together, are essentially more and more subtle stages of meditation. They culminate in a state of ultimate freedom from attachment to the conditioned world—the mukthi, or liberation all yogis seek.
So, how does asana fit in?
By aligning the body structurally, we facilitate the smooth flow of breath so that it can circulate freely. Prana, the life force, rides on the breath, so when the breath is fully expressed, then so is the life force. Then, when the breath flows unobstructed, the mind can settle deeply.
The point is to settle the mind in its natural state. This is a fancy-pants way of saying that the goal of yoga practice is to train the mind to be relaxed, alert and completely present.
If you want a fabulous book recommendation on the path of yoga, read White Lama, by Douglas Veenhof. It’s the amazing story of one of the world’s first Western yogis, who mysteriously disappeared while returning from Tibet in the 1930s, relegating this legendary figure to historical obscurity.
Over to you…
How has your yoga practice evolved since you started? Do you think of yoga as a mostly physical practice? What have you noticed about the evolution of your practice over time?