Things in life are directional, relative. But you don’t have to take my word. Listen to Patanjali, the ancient exponent of yoga. In Yoga Sutras, he describes Ashtanga (8-limbed) Yoga as:
- Yama (don’ts)
- Niyama (do’s)
- Asana (posture)
- Pranayama (energy control)
- Pratyahara (interiorization of awareness)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (absorption, true meditation)
- Samadhi (union with all there is–the Infinite)
These eight aren’t really a sequence of steps. It’s not like it’s saying “first don’t do your don’ts, then do your do’s, then sit, then control your energy, then meditate, and so on!” We learn that actually these are a set of states that one has to work on fully achieving, all at the same time. Imagine that these are eight pies in a circle, all of which have to be filled at the same time in order for us to reach our final destination, our full potential.
Nonetheless, there is a directionality here. The list moves from outward to inward states. Yamas and Niyamas have to do with our relationship with the outside world. As we move down the list, the states get deeper and deeper inward.
In fact the fourth limb, Pratyahara, is the interiorization of awareness, and involves withdrawing from the five senses. Being in the middle of the list, it bridges the more outward things on top with more inward states on the bottom. Also itself represents the whole inward direction of the eight limbs.
“Asana” is an interesting limb. It also appears somewhere in the middle of the list and represents a kind of a bridge. Asana as referred by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras simply means “relaxed but firm (seated) position, in order to meditate.” Unlike the common perception, it doesn’t refer to “asanas”, the yoga postures (commonly known as Hatha yoga), which are ever so popular everywhere now.
So what are the “asanas” then? What are they for?
You see, most of us aren’t capable of easily getting into “asana.” We have highly active, charged, busy daily lives. Our body and mind are often too restless during the day. For some of us it is not even a matter of time of the day. Some stay in an agitated state of body and mind 24/7. That’s where the yoga postures (asanas) come in.
I heard someone say “walking my dog is my daily meditation.” And he is right to say that! Given our normal agitated state of mind, walking the dog is a nice calming activity. It does take us inward. A yogi friend of mine once referred to her yoga practice as her “moving meditation.” It’s a beautiful way to say it. She is right too! Again, given our normal energetic outward state of body and mind, yoga postures do take us inward.
But, again because of this directionality and relativity in life, each practice has its limits. I can walk my dog for 10 minutes and feel calmer and more present. But if I walk the dog for 30 minutes will I become 3X calmer? Likely not, maybe just more tired!
After a walk with the dog, I can come home and practice yoga for half an hour. It is likely to make me calmer, go deeper inside, become even more present. But even this will reach its limit.
We use yoga postures to achieve a state of relaxed body and calm state of mind. But, no matter how meditative we practice our yoga postures and flow, that little energy that goes into awareness of the body, movement, challenging and stretching the muscles, etc. will prevent us from reaching true states of meditation (the last three limbs of the eight: Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi). Only in full stillness such states are possible. We need to fully withdraw from body awareness, and focus and redirect every last drop of our energy towards the brain, specifically the prefrontal lobe, just behind the point in between the eyebrows.
Yoga postures are wonderful. Let’s be realistic, pretty much none of us is exactly dwelling in the states of Dharana, Dhyana, or Samadhi just yet! So we can safely say practicing yoga will always take us deeper and help us become more in touch with our inner peace and joy. Yet, develop a habit of going into still meditation after your yoga practice. Concentration and focus too are muscles we need to strengthen in our journey towards our fullest potential, Self-realization. With persistent practice you may even find yourself getting glimpses of Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi!
It’s common knowledge now that yoga postures have many physical, mental, and spiritual benefits.
Yoga asanas raise our awareness level. They allow us to come out of the head, the mind, the past, future, worries, thinking, all identifications, anxiety, bringing us to the present time, which makes us remember and connect to our true Self. The time now is the only time joy, love, and God can be tasted. Yoga brings the attention to the body and breath, which always operate in the present time and also are only within us not outside of us. Thus yoga helps our mind to clear up and embrace the present. Yoga allows us to use the body to transcend the body!
Yoga “asanas” enable us to achieve “asana.” They do so by letting us become aware of our body, its various parts, places of tension. Different postures bring in our focus to specific areas or even mental attitudes. They help our physical as well as energetic body to be aligned, become more open and flexible, and fully relaxed.