Articles Tagged with: Asana
Seeking and avoiding sensation

I had a discussion with Luke Jordan last week after his visit about his overall approach to the practice and, more specifically, to teaching. Luke said that his main focus when teaching is towards keeping the students fully present, connected and engaged with the practice from one moment to the next. One way that he does this is by getting the students to focus on the sensations that they are feeling in the body. Pretty simple but very effective.

That set me thinking about our individual relationships to sensation in the body during yoga practice.

Like almost everything in life there is a balance to be found between seeking out sensation in the asanas and avoiding sensation altogether. We can end up in trouble if we favour either.

My experience of seeking out, and going further into, bodily sensations in the asanas is that there is potential for injury and for creating unhealthy patterns of movement, especially in the joints (notice I only say potential here). The idea that we should be feeling discomfort in the asanas is not quite right. Conversely, it is almost impossible to feel totally comfortable all the time, especially when we are learning a new asana (as Sharath always says, “You get a new asana, you get a new pain”!).

If, however, we avoid uncomfortable sensations in the body there is potential for us to get stuck into old physiological patterns that are not really useful or healthy. Most of us, when we are doing asanas, try to do them in a way that is most comfortable for our particular body (naturally). But the policy of sensation-avoidance can result in us never really experiencing the full benefits of each asana. That is, when we practise the same asana for many years without bringing our full awareness to where the restrictions are in the body, we can limit the transformative potential of each asana.

So, there’s a trade off here between seeking and avoiding ‘feelings’ in the body.

Where does that leave us? Confused, probably. It’s not an easy conundrum to solve.

I would suggest that becoming aware of our own patterns is the first step. Become aware of whether you are seeking out or avoiding sensation in the body in each asana that you practice. You’ll usually find that this varies from asana to asana because we all have different areas of physical tension and physical freedom. If you can become fully aware of these habits then they will automatically stop. There’s no need for you to actively try to go deeper into comfort or discomfort, it will happen once you shine the light of awareness on your tendencies.

I talk a lot about the more subtle aspects of yoga practice but we must not forget that we are using the physical asanas as the tool to gain the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of the practice. That means that, if we can bring the full power of our attention to what we are feeling and experiencing in the asanas in each moment, then the inner benefits of the practice will come to us automatically.

I’ll leave you with more words of wisdom from Luke:

“We spend so much of our lives up in our heads. We need to become aware of what is happening in the body”.

And don’t forget to breathe.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras II:46

Sthira sukham asanam

Asana should be steady/stable/firm and comfortable

 

 


A great question

Those of you who come to the shala regularly will know Joanne. She’s there a lot, and she’s very chatty!

Anyway I love the way Joanne thinks about the practice, and about life in general, and she asked this great question just before we went on our retreat last weekend:

“Whilst struggling with marichasana A Suzanne said to me, “this is preparation for putting your leg behind your head”. Since then I’ve been asking myself, why on earth does one need to be able to put their leg behind their head?”

Before you read on, I’d like you just to have a think about that. It’s easy to get so caught up in this ashtanga yoga practice that we stop questioning it at all. You might think to yourself, “well it’s so that you can do supta kurmasana when you get to it” or “it opens up your hips”.

But that doesn’t answer the question really. It just creates another question: “why do you want to open up your hips?” for example.

We could ask a similar question about every yoga posture really, and the range of answers from most people would be the same: So that you can do the next posture , or so that you can lengthen the hamstrings/open the hips/build more strength etc.

But doing the next posture isn’t really the point of yoga practice. Neither is lengthening the hamstrings or making your back more flexible. Not really anyway. Not really really.

Patanjali is very clear right at the beginning of the yoga sutras. In the second sutra he says:

“Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ”

Yoga is the stilling of the mind

So, in that context why would we want to get our leg behind our head?

Because it takes such a monumental effort of concentration (it’s not something one does absent-mindedly is it!) that we have the potential, in that moment, to come closer to stilling our minds than ever before.

The same applies to every other posture. And that is why, as one posture starts to become easy we are given the next challenge along the road. The postures are simply tools that we can use to still our minds. When this becomes our focus it all starts to make more sense.

So go forth and be still!

Thanks Joanne.


What does being ‘good at yoga’ even mean?

The winner of the prize for “most meaningless phrase used by yoga students” is:

“Good At Yoga”

I have heard people use this phrase so many times over the years. It’s always in reference to someone who finds the yoga asanas easy to do. In other words the person who uses the phrase “good at yoga” believes that it is important to be strong, flexible and (usually) lean. They see yoga as being equivalent to football, gymnastics or playing a musical instrument, and in order to be proficient in yoga one has to display talent and ability in achieving the asanas.

To be clear, I do believe that it’s important to cultivate flexibility, strength and to live a healthy lifestyle (that usually results in a lean body) but (as I have realised through my own yoga practice and through having a few hundred yoga students walk in our door over the last few years) many of us will never find the asanas to be easy.

The level of ease that we experience in the ashtanga yoga practice is dependant on many factors. Genetics, age, previous injuries and illnesses, and diet are all very big factors in determining whether we’ll find the asanas easy or difficult (or even impossible).

I’ll try to illustrate what I’m trying to get at by way of two hypothetical examples:

Patrick is a 63 year old man who has a history of lower back pain. He ate a diet of rich and refined foods for many years, causing him to gain a lot of excess weight, and he has had reconstructive surgery on both knees after a car accident. He has been practising ashtanga yoga for 2 years and has found that it has given him a new lease of life; greater energy, more mobility, better concentration, and a general feeling of being a bit more in control of his life.

Because of his physical limitations, age, and previous history Patrick is very limited in which asanas he can currently do. Some days, if he feels his energy is low, he does even less than he has been taught, but he does practise every day.

When Patrick is practising yoga he is very conscious of focusing on his breath, he maintains uddiyana and mula bandha as much as possible and his drishti never wavers. If you see him practising you can tell immediately that he is a very focused practitioner. 

Jenny is a 32 year old woman who has a background in dance. She has also been practising for two years. She was able to do all of the poses of the primary series within about two weeks of starting and now practises about half of the intermediate series too. She can drop back into a backbend and catch her ankles easily. She is flexible, strong and lean.

When Jenny is practising it is hard to tell whether or not she is breathing. She often looks around the room to see what the other students are doing and whenever someone walks into the shala she looks up to see who it is.

Which of these students is “good at yoga”?

In the context of the (quite obvious) thrust of this blog post it is easy to recognise that Patrick is really practising yoga in a more productive way, despite being dealt a set of cards which restrict him in lots of ways. However, if most of us were to witness these two practitioners side-by-side doing their practice then we might suggest that Jenny is “better at yoga”.

I have heard so many people over the years suggest that they would like to start to do yoga but they’re just so inflexible that they’d be “awful at it”. “I can’t even touch my toes”, they say, as if that fact alone somehow instantly disqualifies them from beginning a yoga practice. This would be the equivalent of saying “I can’t take piano lessons because I really can’t play the piano at all”. It’s nonsensical.

Yoga practice is purely a means to gaining health, calming the mental chatter of the mind, and ultimately (if we’re really on the right track) gaining some knowledge of ourselves. The asanas, breath, bandhas and drishti are tools to achieve that.

Let us please retire the phrase “good at yoga”.

“Yoga is a spiritual practice. The rest is just a circus”-Pattabhi Jois

 


Ashtanga Yoga as therapy

Ashtanga Yoga has a bit of a reputation amongst the uninitiated for being strict, rigid, uncompromising. It is not generally seen as a practice which anyone can do. It is said that one has to be fit, able-bodied and energetic. You might have had the experience of being asked “Oh Ashtanga, that’s the really hard one isn’t it?” (that’s usually the second question though, the first is “Is that the one in the hot room?” – after I say no to that one, most people lose interest; I don’t know why)

However, those of us who have been practising for a while (and have therefore had a chance not just to practise but also to reflect a little on its nature) realise that this is a fluid practice which changes on a daily basis for all practitioners. We also cannot help but notice that the way we practise (and even the way we learn the method of practice) is different for each individual, even for Surya Namaskara A. The practice is for anyone who wants to do it. And everyone practises it differently.

We also realise through practice that this primary series is a fantastic therapy. Before the “first, second, third series” etc. became the usual way to refer to the different sequences, the ‘primary’ series was known as Yoga Chikitsa (Yoga Therapy). The primary series is intended to heal the body. This is a practice which can be learned by anyone.

I have heard Sharath repeat this (or variations on it) many times:

“Young man can practise.

Old man, he can practise.

Very old man, he can practise.

Man who is sick, he can practise.

Man who does not have strength, he can practise.

Only lazy people can’t practise.”

Then he cracks up laughing.

Every time.

Before there were so many western yoga students travelling to Mysore, Guruji had many many therapy cases; very sick and even partly paralysed students would go to him and he would slowly help them to regain their health and mobility bit by bit, getting warm blood flowing in their bodies. Even in our limited experience of teaching this yoga we have seen the therapeutic power of the asanas both in a general sense and for aiding with specific injuries and illnesses.

The therapeutic effect is also there on a mental and emotional level. We have heard many times of students whose mental health has improved through the practice of asanas (such as help with depression or addiction) or of people who feel like they have gained enough clarity in their lives and in their minds to begin making healthier choices (like leaving destructive relationships, gaining control over their diet or starting a new career). There is something about practising Ashtanga every day that makes everything else seem more straightforward.

I am a very firm believer in the adage that if you can breathe you can practice. Spread the word.

Ekam, inhale. Dwe, exhale. Trini, inhale.

Just those first three vinyasas might be enough to change the course of somebody’s life. The rest of the asanas are just embellishments of that.

 

 


Tristhana

When a friend or family-member says, “Hey, you’re into yoga aren’t you; what’s the story with that?”, I bet you say “Yeah, it’s ASHTANGA yoga. It’s not like NORMAL yoga classes”. In other words, you don’t want them to think that you go to this class where it’s you and a load of grandmothers in leotards (especially if he or she is an attractive member of the opposite sex; or same sex if that’s how you roll). But what is Ashtanga Yoga?

The answer is: Tristhana.

Tristhana is what constitutes the Ashtanga Yoga practice but it’s possible you might never have heard the word.

There are three elements to Tristhana (as you might guess from the ‘tri’ part of the word):

Asana

We all know this one. It’s the postures. The most obvious/least subtle part of the practice. Asanas purify, strengthen and give flexibility to the body.

Breath

We know about this too because we can hear all of our fellow practitioners “breathing with sound”. The sound is very important for two reasons. First, the sound of our own breath draws our attention inwards and makes it easier to achieve pratyahara (the fifth of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga) or withdrawal of the senses. Second, when we can hear straining or unevenness in our breath it acts as a warning sign that we may be pushing too hard and could potentially be about to injure ourselves. The inhale and the exhale should be of equal length and should be as steady as possible.

Breath deeply and slowly, with attention to, and interest in, each breath and you will go deeper into yoga practice.

Correct breathing purifies the nervous system.

The kpjayi.org website says

For cleaning the body internally two factors are necessary, air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is four inches below the navel. This is the standing place of our life force. In order for fire to burn, air is necessary, hence the necessity of the breath. If you stoke a fire with a blower, evenness is required so that the flame is not smothered out, or blown out of control.

The same method stands for the breath. Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system as well. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous system.

An important component of the breathing system is mula and uddiyana bandha. These are the anal and lower abdominal locks which seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire. Without bandhas, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit. When mula bandha is perfect, mind control is automatic.
Note that bandhas are considered an extension of the breath, not as a separate technique in themselves. If you can try to mentally connect breath and bandhas you will find strength which you never knew you had.

Dristhi

Dristhi means ‘looking place’ and it is just as important as the asanas and the correct breathing method. To maintain consistent and correct dristhi through the entire practice is a huge challenge, and one which is really interesting to try. You may have heard people (including Suzanne and I) refering to the Ashtanga method as ‘like a moving meditation’. The mediatation part is very unlikely to happen without observance of dristhi.

There are nine dristhis: the tip of the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, tip of the thumb, tip of the middle finger, tip of the big toe, up, right side and left side.

From kpjayi.org:

Dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.

I have heard Sharath mention also that the practice of dristhi can greatly aid people suffering from depression.

So these three elements are equally important in the practice. It is easy to neglect dristhi and breath in favour of focusing all of our energy on the asanas but without all three elements in place the practice will have much less benefit.

So maybe, instead of saying that we are doing ‘yoga practice’ or even ‘asana practice’, we should say that we are doing ‘tristhana practice’.

 


Benefits of Primary Series Asanas

This week we’re including (almost word for word) the benefits of each asana of primary series as specified by Pattabhi Jois in his Yoga Mala.

The Surya Namaskara (sun-salutations) are essential in the practice of yoga as they help to gather the strength of the mind in one direction, control the breath and help mental focus.

The first 2 standing poses (thumbs to feet and hands to feet) Padangushtasana and Padahastasana: They dissolve the fat of the lower abdomen and purify the egg shaped nerve plexus in the anal region and rectum as well as purifying the kidneys.

Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle): Dissolves the bad fat around the waist and brings the body into shape. It also expands the narrow portion of the breathing channel and strengthens the spine.

Uthitta Parshvakonasana: Purifies the ribs and lower abdomen, dissolves the bad fat at the waist and softens the limbs so that the subsequent asanas can be practiced more easily.

Prasarita Padottanasana A to D (The 4 wide legged forward bends): These asanas cure constipation, purify the top part of the spinal column and the waist. The anal canal is purified and the bad fat in the lower abdomen is dissolved.

Parshvottanasana (Prayer position behind the back): Like the asana above.

Basically all the above asanas loosen the limbs of the body. For people who suffer from rheumatic or joint pain, the sun salutations and first six asanas are especially important. If they are practiced properly with the correct breathing method, the pain that occurs in the joints will be eliminated and the body will become light and healthy.

Utthita Hasta Padangushtasana (The leg balancing pose that you really realy don’t like): This asana loosens the hip joints, destroys defects of the testicles and male organs of generation, strengthens and purifies the vertebral column, waist, hips and lower abdomen. It also eliminates constipation.

Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (half bound lotus): This purifies the rectum and liver. It also prevents gas in the stomach and prevents diarrhea.

Utkatasana: Strengthens the waist and makes the body light.

Virabhadrasana (warrior): All the joints of the body, as well as the lower abdomen, spinal column and organ of generation are purified. Pain associated with the knees as well as the pain from standing or sitting all day while working, is eliminated.

Paschimattanasana (the first seated pose): this pose eliminates gas problems in the stomach, it strengthens the organs of the digestive systems.

Purvatanasana: Purifies and strengthens the heart, anus, spinal column and waist.

Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimattanasana (seated, half bound lotus): Alleviates the enlargement of the liver and spleen. Also cures abdominal distention due to bad food and actiities. Constipation is also cured.

Tiriangmukhaaikapada paschimattanasana (right, then left foot back): Cures a number of afflictions including: body fat, water retention, thighs swollen out of proportion to the size of the body (elephant leg!!), piles and sciatica. Also makes the body symmetrical.

Janu Shirshasana: This posture cures cystitis. There’s a lot more in the yoga mala about the benefits of this asana but too much to reproduce here.

Marichyasana A to D: The benefits of all four are different, though all cure diseases in accordance with one’s physical nature. They each cure gaseous movements in the stomach and intestines, as well as the rectum, such as diarrhoea, and restore digestive power. With that, flatulence, indigestion and constipation are eliminated. Abdominal pain during menstruation is removed. The womb becomes powerful and enables a woman to carry a child strongly. The vata pitta kosha (large intestine and gall bladder) are purified, as is the manicure chakra (the third chakra at the navel centre), and the body gains strength and power.

Navasana (boat pose): The anal channel, spinal column, ribs and lower abdomen are purified. The digestive fire is increased and the waist gains strength.

Bhujapidasana: Purifies the oesophagus. The body becomes light, and the shoulders and waist become strong.

Kurmasana: Purifies the nerve plexus in the anal region from which all 72,000 nadis grow. Also purifies the heart and lungs, and eliminates ailments caused by an imbalance of kapha. The chest becomes broad, bad fat is dissolved, and the spinal column becomes strong. Chest pain due to over-tiredness is cured, disorders from bad food remedied and the fat in the lower abdomen is dissolved, allowing the body to become healthy.

Garbha Pindasana: Dissolves fat of the lower abdomen, purifies the manipura (third) chakra, and wards off diseases of the liver and spleen.

Kukkutasana: The intestines are purified, the fat of the lower abdomen is dissolved, and diseases affecting the bowels and urinary tract, as well as excess phlegm, are cured.

Baddha Konasana: Constipation and piles will be destroyed and indigestion will no longer haunt an aspirant. There is a lot more information relating to Baddha Konasana in the Yoga Mala.

Upavishta Konasana: The grdhrasi nadi (sciatic nerve) will be strengthened, gaseous movements in the stomach will no longer occur and peristalsis will be resolved.

Supta Konasana: Same as Baddha Konasana and Upavishta Konasana

Supta Padangushtasana: Purifies and strengthens the waist region, knees, food and anal channels, and the sperm passageway (virya nala). It dissolves bad fat on the sides of the body and the waist, making the waist slender and strong, and the body light.

Ubhaya Padangushtasana: Purifies the anus, waist, stomach, genital organs and the granthi traya (three knots) which begin at the anal canal. It also eliminates the burning sensation that can occur during urination.

Urdhva Mukha Pascimattanasana: Purifies the lower back and oesophagus, and the swadishtana chakra (region between the anus and navel). When the swadishtana chakra is purified, bodily activities become light, all physical activities are free and easy, and impediments such as disease, do not torture one.

Setu Bandhasana: Purifies and strengthens the waist and neck, purifies the muladhara (root) chakra and increases the digestive fire. It also purifies the oesophagus, heart, and lungs, making them strong.

Next time: Finishing asanas.

Pattabhi Jois specifies (in the notes on the benefits of Baddha Konasana):

A point must be made to readers and aspirants that they should be careful to remember. When one follows the methods of asana and pranayama, there is no doubt that all diseases will be cured. But if an aspirant thinks that this will occur by his merely practising asanas while continuing to eat rajasic (stimulating) and tamasic (heavy) foods, then he is misguided. Such a course will actually lead to an increase in sickness.

If you’re interested in reading more about the practice you could pick up a copy of Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It’s the first book I ever read on Ashtanga yoga.

 

 

 


Primary Series Asana Names

I have been meaning to add this to the site for a while now. Below is a list of all of the postures of primary series in a transliteration of the original Sanskrit.

I have taken the spelling of the asanas directly from a hand-out that was given to us by Lakshmish at the KPJAYI in Mysore.

  • sūryanamaskāra
  • pādāṅguṣṭāsana
  • pāda hastāsana
  • utthita trikoṇāsana (A+B)
  • utthita pārśvakonāsana (A+B)
  • prasārita pādottānāsana (A,B,C,D)
  • pārśvottānāsana
  • utthita hasta pādāṅguṣṭāsana
  • ardha baddha padmottānāsana
  • utkatāsana
  • vīrabhadrāsana
  • paścimattānāsana
  • pūrvattanāsana
  • ardha baddha padma paścimattānāsana
  • tiryaṅgmukha ekapāda paścimattānāsana
  • jānuśīrṣāsana
  • marīcāsana
  • nāvāsana
  • bhujapīḍāsana
  • kūrmāsana
  • supta kūrmāsana
  • garbha piṇḍāsana
  • kukkuṭāsana
  • baddha konāsana
  • upaviṣṭha konāsana
  • supta konāsana
  • supta pādāṅguṣṭāsana
  • ubhaya pādāṅguṣṭāsana
  • ūrdhva mukha paścimattānāsana
  • setu bandhāsana

Finishing Postures

  • ūrdhva dhanurāsana
  • salaṁba sarvāṅgāsana
  • halāsana
  • karṇa pīḍāsana
  • ūrdhva padmāsana
  • piṇḍāsana
  • matsyāsana
  • uttāna pādāsana
  • cakrāsana
  • śīrṣāsana
  • baddha padmāsana
  • yoga mudrā
  • padmāsana
  • utpluthiḥ

Ashtanga Yoga: The no-frills approach

Sometimes I wonder what people think when I tell them that I practise Yoga. I think very few of them would have a clear picture in their heads of exactly what it is that I do while they are all still sleeping.

It is my guess that the predominant mental picture that people have, is that I do a few stretches and maybe some deep breathing, sniffing incense, sitting serenely, buddha-like, on my yoga mat and chanting Oooooooooommmmmmmmmmm.

The truth is that, actually, that is a small part of yoga practice but it paints a much-too-comfortable picture.

Ashtanga Yoga is hard work.

It’s not all lavender-scented eye-pillows and getting-in-touch-with-your-emotions.

It is not for pampering yourself. The purpose of Yoga is not relaxation. Some days I feel extremely relaxed after practice, some days I don’t.

People tell me that they’d like to try Yoga but they prefer things that are more physical, or that make them fit, or that make them sweat. Let me just say, for the record, that I have run, cycled, rowed, lifted weights and done thousands of sit-ups in my time. Nothing I have done has been more physical than Ashtanga Yoga. Nothing I have done has produced a more profuse sweat than Ashtanga Yoga has. And nothing I have done has matched the physical benefits I have received from this practice.

This yoga method is a method of hard work and discipline, which is designed to result in the purification of body and mind, through the practice of physical postures and breath control. Purification of body and breath in this way leads to the purification of the mind. The ultimate goal of yoga is to escape from the constant mental chatter, which is going on in all of our minds.

Ashtanga Yoga differs from new-agey spirituality because it is based on something that is very real (we could even say mundane); the body. There is nothing wishy-washy about this practice. You either do or don’t do (to paraphrase Yoda). It is not escapism. You are forced to face yourself every day and observe your own reactions. In this way you get to know yourself a little more all the time. When it becomes clear what your habitual thought-processes are then you can begin to see through them towards the true Self (note the capital ‘S’). This, ultimately, is called self-realisation or enlightenment.

Ashtanga Yoga has great physical benefits but that is not the ‘point’ of the practice. Pattabhi Jois said, “This yoga is not for exercise. Yoga is showing where to look for the soul – that is all”.

So the reason for the title of this blog is that I see that yoga is being marketed as the ultimate in relaxation and serenity, and yes that can sometimes be a pleasant by-product of the practice. But do not be completely fooled. In the Ashtanga practice we are encouraged to take the ‘no-frills’ approach.

You will not be told to ‘feel like you are floating like a cloud’ or to ‘feel like their is a rainbow coming out of your chest’ in a traditional Ashtanga class. But what you will receive is an extremely powerful method, which it is then up to you to practice. As Sharath is so fond of saying; “Anyone can practise”. Eddie Stern adds, “Not everyone wants to practise”.

I can only encourage you to get onto your mat every day and see what happens. If you feel like there’s a rainbow coming out of our chest then let me know. I know a good doctor!

John

No frills in Guruji’s old shala in Mysore


What does ‘Ashtanga’ mean

The word Ashtanga in the Sanskrit language means eight limbs (astau means eight and anga means limb).

These eight limbs are

  • Yama
  • Niyama
  • Asana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyahara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi

Ok, I know, they’re in Sanskrit too so that’s no help. Well, I’ll try to explain what each of these words mean without getting too technical.

Yama

There are five yama (or yamas, if we follow the incorrect custom of pluralising them using the English language ‘s’).

  • Ahimsa
  • Satya
  • Asteya
  • Brahmacharya
  • Aparigraha

Yes, Sanskrit again!

Translated into English they mean,

  • Non-violence
  • Truthfulness
  • Not stealing
  • Temperance
  • Not coveting

I won’t go into any further explanations of yama here but as you can see they form a basic guide to living harmoniously with the world outside our-selves.

Niyama

 Niyama is also five-fold

  • Saucha
  • Santosha
  • Tapas
  • Swadhyaya
  • Ishwarapranidhana

 That is,

  • Cleanliness/Purity
  • Contentment
  • Self-discipline
  • Study (self study and study of yogic texts)
  • Devotion to a power greater than our-selves

Again, a detailed commentary is not what I’m going for here, so it will suffice to point out that niyama form a basic guide to living harmoniously within our-selves

Asana

Asana is what most people think of when they think of Yoga. Asana  is the physical practice of yoga postures. Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) recommended that we start our yoga practice with this, the third limb, because the first two limbs are very difficult. If we try to take even one of the yama or niyama and practise it in its purest form we will see how right he was. Mahatma Gandhi is an shining example of somebody who practised absolute non-violence (ahimsa) and he changed the course of history.

It is more realistic and practical for most of us to start with asana.

First we must make our bodies healthy. Otherwise, how can we think of purifying our minds and gaining enlightenment? If illness is in the body we are pre-occupied with that and there is no space for spiritual practice. When asana becomes firmly grounded then yama and niyama happen automatically.

Pranayama

The practice of breath control taught in many yoga traditions is pranayama. In his Yoga Sutras (the cornerstone of yoga practice and philosophy) Patanjali states

Tasmin sati svasa prasvasayor gati vicchedah pranayamah

 That being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is pranayama.

(Sutra II:49)

The word ‘that’ refers to steadiness in the practice of asana.  So we should take it that pranayama is not to be practised until we have firmly established our asana practice. Guruji did not teach pranayama until the student had completed the second series of the ashtanga vinyasa method.

With reference to pranayama Patanjali also states

Tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam

As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed

(Sutra II:52)

Dharanasu ca yogyata manasah

And the mind becomes fit for concentration

(Sutra II:53)

Pratyahara

 Pratyahara is the bridge between the previous four, external, limbs and the following three, internal, limbs. It can be translated as the withdrawal of the senses. In other words our senses turn inwards and our minds are no longer distracted by the outside world. All of our focus is internal.

Tatah parama vasyatendriyanam

Then follows complete mastery over the senses

(Sutra II:55)

Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi

The last three limbs are inseparable and follow on from each other. Dharana is usually translated as ‘concentration’ and technically it is the state of consciousness in which the mind is aware of only one object or idea. Dhyana is translated as ‘meditation’ and it is the state of consciousness in which concentration (dharana) is continuous. Samadhi is the state of consciousness in which the mind and the object of meditation are as one. The student in the state of samadhi ‘forgets themselves’. This is sometimes translated as ‘bliss’ and is the highest form of Yoga practice.

Above is a very brief explanation of the eight limbs. There are thousands of books written on the subject of Yoga from both a philosophical and a practical point of view and it is a vast subject. However, theoretical knowledge is useless unless we have practical knowledge. Guruji was famous for saying that yoga is “99% practice and 1% theory”. We can practise asana and, following that, pranayama. According to Guruji, if we do this, then “all is coming”. He was telling us that all of the other limbs will spontaneously happen (provided we are conscious of yama and niyama) and we will experience that state of yoga called samadhi.

John

 To hear Guruji speak a little about this you can watch this video