When one thinks about yoga, they may envision attending a class that involves movement through a series of yoga postures. This is a very important aspect of the yoga practice, but it is only one component of several that comprise the understanding of the yogic philosophy.
Yoga is not completely defined by the movement performed on the yoga mat. It is viewed as a science and art that creates a union among the body, mind, and spirit. It delivers a deeper understanding of the Self while understanding the intimate connection with all living things. This can certainly be done by just moving your body into postures in a yoga class, but there is so much more.
There are Eight Limbs of Yoga; these are the fundamental principles and practices that make up the intention and understanding of yoga. Like the limbs of a tree, there are specific branches of the yogic philosophy that are derived from the ancient sources and early teachers of the practice. Presumably composed by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, they form the structural and organized framework of the holistic practice of yoga. When studied individually or as a whole, these limbs provide guidance for the practitioner to develop a more inspired livelihood. They are designed to allow the yogi to find their unique connectivity to the Divine.
Asana, the physical postures associated with yoga, is actually the Third Limb of Yoga. This is probably the most familiar limb and what most people come to recognize as “yoga.” But yoga is more than just the poses performed on a yoga mat. The first two limbs are a list of social and personal moral practices that should be followed to lead an enlightened life. Two other important limbs on this philosophical tree are breathing and meditation.
Breath work, or Pranayama, is the Fourth Limb of Yoga. One can describe Pranayama as breathing exercises that bring greater awareness to the practicing yogi. To better understand Pranayama, break down the Sanskrit word into two parts: “Prana” meaning “life force” and “Yama” meaning “breath control” or the action one gives the breath. Just as there are many yoga poses, there are a wide variety of Pranayama practices, all with a significant intention.
Ujjayi Pranayama (oo-JAH-yee) is a very good example of a breathing technique often used in a Power Vinyasa Yoga class. This breath exercise means “Victorious Breath;” it produces energy and strength as you move through your practice. It is the oceanic sound produced in the back of your throat as you breathe dynamically. With mouth closed and air moving through the nostrils, the yogi is able to breathe deeply, filling up the lungs, and acquire the necessary energy and focus to move from pose to pose.
Breathing, of course, can also be used to calm the mind and body. Three-Part Breath or Dirga Pranayama is a grounding breathing exercise common to yogis who practice meditation. It helps one to focus their attention on the present moment and tune in to the subtle energies and sensations in the body. This method of breathing is effective for a deep mindful meditation practice and can also be used to steady the mind to have a good night’s sleep.
While sitting still in a comfortable chair or on a cushion on the floor, take a full inhale to fill the lowest portion of your belly. Once full, continue sipping in breath to fill the middle section of your torso. Complete the three-part inhale by filling up your lungs. Hold the breath for a few seconds then release the breath from the top moving downward: chest, mid-section, low belly. Perform several rounds of this exercise to experience the intended sense of calm.
A consistent practice like this cultivates into a deeper awareness and concentration. This is called Dharana in yoga which is the Sixth Limb of Yoga. It is in this realm of clarity that the practicing yogi can do very effective internal work. When the mind is clear, void of external distractions, you are able to see the truth about yourself. You may have more awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that serve you very well along your life path. You may also discover parts of self that you would like to remove or release; things that no longer serve you. With these discoveries, you have the power to make changes.
A widely practiced style of meditation is called Vipassana. The Sanskrit words means “seeing things as they really are.” It is an ancient meditative practice that is effective in clearing the mind of those mental distractions. The concept is simple, but takes a lot of practice to master. All you have to do is sit or lie down comfortably. Using gentle breathing as an anchor and focus, begin to notice the thoughts streaming through your head. The idea is to allow those thoughts to pass by without dwelling on them.
Imagine lying down in the sand at the beach and watching the clouds drift by with the breeze. Without following the clouds by moving your head, only allow the clouds to enter your line of vision then disappear. You do the same in a Vipassana Meditation practice. Instead of attaching yourself to the thought, let it drift by like a cloud. The goal is to feel liberated from the mental impurities that can plague your mind.
Continuing an asana practice is an effective way to rid the physical body of aches, pains, and other distractions so that Prana (the Life Force) can flow with ease throughout your entire body. Practicing mindful meditation (like Vipassana) and using Pranayama helps to open the mind to its fullest potential so that Truth and Knowledge are clearly seen. From this perspective self-transformation is possible.
These may seem like unattainable goals to the average person, but yoga is designed in a way that is fully approachable to reach these intentions. One does not need to think too hard about the Limbs of Yoga, nor the intricacies of Pranayama, nor the names of all the Asana poses. A great teacher of yoga once said “yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” He is suggesting that you do not need to fully understand every part of the yogic philosophy. All you need to do is practice. For you, that might mean simply grabbing your yoga mat and being led through some basic yoga poses. As you experience the benefits of feeling stronger, more limber, or more calm, the subconscious and unconscious mind is processing the new data. A deeper understanding of the complex practice and philosophy will come at a later time; the idea is to just practice.