By: Juliana Cole – Living Yogi, Yoga Instructor, Studio Manager at Yoga Heights
Hello Yogis and welcome back to the exploration of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga! Moving on to limb three (asana) and limb four (pranayama), we are getting deeper into what we in the western world more commonly associate with the word Yoga.
Asana translates directly to seat and we have, over time, come to describe asana as seat, pose or posture. What we practice in the classroom are a sequence of asanas, or postures, and this is what we most commonly consider Yoga. There are as many texts on the asanas and the history of the asanas as there are asanas, and we in the yoga practicing and instructing world are constantly elaborating on and creating new asanas. The beauty of the Yoga asanas is something that is as old as the practice itself (remember, it’s dated to nearly 6,000 years old); that it is a practice that is never stagnant, always changing, and has everything to do with your ability to listen to and have a conversation with yourself, your body and your teacher.
Originally, the asana described a comfortable seat in which one could meditate with ease and without the distraction of suffering within the body. For centuries, the asana were a small list of seated postures used for meditation, and the teaching and passing on of the asanas was something very secretive and not documented. The body was believed to be both a vessel for the sacred/the Light/Brahma as well as a sack of meat and bones destined to suffer, fall ill, decay and die. Beautiful definitions, I agree! Well, as our species developed, so did the seat of meditation. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is said to be one of the first texts that described the Yoga asanas and in doing so, only describes about 15 poses in detail but gives light to 84 postures. According to scholars, this text came out in the fourteenth century. It wasn’t until about the eighteenth century that most of the asana that we practice today came into the practice repertoire, or at least the documented practice repertoire.
A great text to reference for the yoga asana is B.K.S Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, which goes into detail covering 200 asanas, or postures. I would argue that this is one of the most recommended texts during any yogi’s first inquiries into teaching yoga or wanting to deepen their practice. The yoga asana we practice today is in fact still in its infancy compared to the rich history of yoga. In my opinion, the beauty of this very important detail is that the asana is a living and evolving practice and as we are all students in practice, we are also teachers and informants to the development of the asana. We definitely put a lot of importance on the perfect alignment, inhale or exhale and aesthetic of each pose, and it is important to move the body with great awareness and attention to safety. We should keep in mind, however, that no body is made exactly the same and the only person who knows your own body best is you. The asana practice therefore does not stand alone as a limb of yoga; it is necessary to incorporate self-study, breathwork, concentration, and the ten ethical principles into our asana practice in order to best understand what movement works for our own body. Instead of focusing on accomplishing or mastering more challenging poses, which is so tempting, it is my belief that we should focus on finding the right poses for our body that allow us to feel good, reduce that which ails us and allow our bodies to rest. I do believe we should be challenging ourselves to break through certain perceived boundaries, and a good way to do that is through practicing challenging poses; but this can be done with the goal of better understanding how to deal with change and to prepare and nurture the body as it naturally ages.
Something that goes hand in hand with asana is Pranayama. Prana is defined as breath-energy or life force and ayama is defined at control or extension, so Pranayama describes breath control. This is the practice of controlling the breath and learning how to move this life force through our body. Pranayama has three main components: inhalation, exhalation and retention. As simple as this sounds, there are countless pranayama techniques used for various purposes and the history and depth of pranayama predates the asana that has been developed over the past few centuries. If you think about it, pranayama is the most essential part of the yoga practice as it is the one component necessary to stay alive…we have to breathe.
Breathing is the most fundamental and seemingly rudimentary thing we do, which does not help us in wrapping our minds around the importance and depth of study the yoga tradition puts on breath work. In a simple form, we hear teachers describe in class how we should focus on the breath to turn the mind inward and how we should connect our movement with the breath. This is scratching the surface of the world of pranayama. Many yogis, myself included, spend time just focusing on pranayama as a form of practice. Some days, it is the breath work that serves me and my practice more than the asana. Through concentrated breathing techniques, I often find that my head and body feel lighter, more relaxed and more capable of dealing with daily challenges. In a very direct way, pranayama is a pathway do deep concentration and meditation. When practicing a specific technique, such as Ujjayi breathing (which asks you to gently constrict the back of the throat and slowly sip air in and out of the lungs), our minds are drawn to focusing on the sensation and the rhythm of the breathing. Other breathing techniques incorporate breath retention, either after the inhale or exhale or after both, during which our concentration is slightly heightened and drawn towards the resulting sensations in the body.
Many breathing techniques ask us to engage various locks within our bodies including the bandhas and the mudras. Bandhas are internal locks in the body and are most commonly defined as the Mula Bandha (at the base of the spine), the Uddiyana Bandha (behind the belly button, engaging the abdomen) and the Jalandhara Bandha (at the throat). These internal locks are activated by our intentional engagement of these areas; quite specifically, a sensation of locking that area of the body. Engaging the bandhas during pranayama aids in moving the prana (life force or breath energy) throughout the body in specific ways. The Mudras are seals we make with our hands and fingers. These seals are also used in the movement of prana but are slightly different than the bandhas in that they aid in containing energy within the body or creating circuits through which the prana can flow.
All of these components work together symbiotically to aid in our ability to sit in stillness and study the mind!
It is safe to claim that the asana and pranayama have become the two main limbs on this eight limb path that we focus on for daily practice as they are the more tangible limbs of the practice of yoga. We can follow very specific asana sequences and practice very specific breathing techniques, which is a wonderful foundation from which we become more comfortable in the study and practice of yoga. If we do nothing else, the asana help us maintain a healthy and resilient body and pranayama gives us a means to focus the mind and gently slow the heart rate. These are hugely important aspects of the practice, however, as we deepen our study, these should be considered equal in importance to the other 6 limbs along the path of yoga. As we continue to explore the path and practice of yoga, it does seem overwhelming to add to our already full plates, but the more we explore and learn, the more these aspects become second nature. So, in case you are being hard on yourself or feeling overwhelmed, rest easy in knowing that this is all about the journey and your personal experiences throughout. Take moments to stop, and breathe!