Patanjali described Yoga as a practice of 8 limbs. Three of the most common limbs in modern Yoga are Asana (movement), Pranayama (breath and energy awareness and containment) and Dhyana (meditation). In Yoga, these 3 actions form part of an integrated system of tools that bring us back into the present moment and creates a greater sense of self-awareness.
Asana is the action of movement, where the practitioner works through sequences of postures. Yoga Asana can be dynamic, flowing from one to another on inhalation and exhalation. It can also be static, holding for a count of breaths, or over an extended period of time.
Many people today lead more sedentary lives due to working environments. Such as offices or vehicles where we can sit for long periods of time without moving. Similarly, when we are at home in the evening, many of us sit on the couch watching television. This sedentary way of living compromises our posture. It puts pressure on our spine, tightens our muscles and creates tension in the body.
Tension in the body causes the release of stress hormones. This in turn creates a cycle of pain and inflammation. When combined with other unhealthy or self-sabotaging lifestyle habits, a perfect environment for chronic stress and disease is created. The practice of Asana stretches and lengthens the muscles which relieve tension in the body. It also strengthens muscles and improves circulation.
However, Asana is something much more than simply a set of stretching exercises. Donna Fahri wrote in her book titled “Yoga Mind Body & Spirit”, that “what distinguishes Asana from a stretch or calisthenic exercise is that in Asana practice we focus our mind’s attention completely in the body so that we can move as a unified whole and so we can perceive what the body has to tell us. We don’t do something to the body, we become the body”.
Donna continues with “the goal of Asana practice is to live in your body and to learn to perceive clearly through it”. This is especially relevant when you consider the issues relating to modern life that leads to chronic stress. When stress, tension, anger and aggression overcomes us, those feelings can spill over into acts of violence, aggression or self-harm. We cease to live within our bodies. Donna continues to say “when we are not in our bodies, we are dissociated from our instincts, intuitions, feelings and insights”.
Writing in the book Yoga Body Breath & Mind, AG Mohan describes the practice of Pranayama as “the conscious regulation of breath”. He says that “when you practice it, you deliberately change your normal pattern of breathing which, in turn, changes your state of mind. As a result, you become clearer and your understanding is enhanced. The ultimate aim of Pranayama, then, is to focus the mind”. B.K.S. Iyengar was also famously quoted for saying “the mind controls the body, but the breath controls the mind”.
These quotes emphasise the importance of working with the breath. If you can master the breath, you can begin to master your mind. The goal of Yoga is to bring about clarity and peace to the mind (Sattva). Consciously working with the breath through Pranayama is considered one of the greatest cleansing methods to remove impurities (Kleshas) from the mind. Removing impurities from the mind leads to greater inner peace and stillness. When the mind is at peace, the body can begin to unwind. The assists in releasing the effects of stress.
Rolf Sovik, writing in his book “Moving Inward”, describes meditation as “a deliberate and well-considered change in the way we use the body and mind”. That “meditation is more than a simple technique. It is an inward journey. Along the way, seemingly unrelated yogic practices work in accord with one another to establish a stable and enduring centre of health and awareness”.
In the 8 limbs of Yoga, Patanjali describes the resting of the senses as Pratyahara. This prepares us for meditation and leads to greater and longer moments of concentration. Patanajali describes this concentration as Dharana. In meditation or Dhyana, the ability to focus comes with much greater ease and requires little effort to maintain. Samadhi is the highest meditative state where the Yogi is completely absorbed in the practice.
Through Asana and Pranayama practise, we prepare the mind and body for meditation. Asana builds strength in the body and aids posture. It also helps to relax and relieve tension and soothe the nervous system. Pranayama brings awareness and control to the breath and the mind. This in turn harnesses the life force energy within, while at the same time calming the senses.