After I wrote my original blog post on “Yoga in Des Moines” (which I’m so glad resonated with so many of you); I realized it wasn’t fully complete, and there were plenty of things I could elaborate on and creep a bit further down the rabbit hole with. I want to start with the basic question of “Why is yoga more than asana?” or “Why do you need more than asana to evolve and self-realize?”
Patanjali has given us the 8 limbs of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras (for those of you that don’t know what the Yoga Sutras are, think of it as a how-to for self-realization). Which then begs the question “What is self-realization?”
I think self-realization can have multiple meanings, but we cannot limit the expansiveness of what it actually is. Self-realization (to me) means to recognize not only that you HAVE limitless possibilities, but that you are actually on this earth to FULFILL them. That ideal ‘self’? That person you visualize - we all have it - it’s possible. You can BE the person you imagine, THAT person can become a reality. Self-realization is fully recognizing that you are limitless, and that you are infinity, expressing itself in the finite. Self-realization is knowing that you are boundless, and the only limits you experience are the ones the mind creates. Self-realization is moving BEYOND the mind, to the truest form of self, the soul. Self-realization is having an inner knowing that we are all connected.
Now that we have an idea of what self-realization is, let’s move back to the 8 limbs.
First of all, what are the 8 limbs and what purpose do they serve?
The 8 limbs of yoga are essentially a path to self-realization, and they are all considered the practice, state and experience of yoga. For example - they are techniques to practice, they are states to be in, and they are all experiences to yoga (which is also a practice, state and experience in itself). Make sense? You practice yoga, you reach a yogic state (feeling connected), and you experience yoga (union, or experiencing connectedness). The limbs are not separate from each other, and they should be approached in unison, meaning the limbs are not steps (building upon one another), they are techniques to practice simultaneously. Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
The yamas (ahimsa - nonviolence, satya - truth, asteya - non-stealing, brahmacharya - to radiate the value of totality, & aparigraha - non-neediness) and niyamas (saucha - to remove toxins/to purify; santosha - equanimity, tapah - self mastery, svadhyaya - self-study, & ishvara pranidhanani - surrender) are not moral code for yoga, but they are qualities that would be good to cultivate and would enrich the total experience of yoga. The yamas are directed towards behavior and self-regulation, while the niyamas are more practice oriented. I will go into detail on these in another post, but for now, what’s important for you to know is that the yamas and niyamas serve as guidance on proper response within (internal) and without (external).
Asana, or what everyone considers ‘yoga’ here in the western hemisphere, is working with the physical body. Stretching, postures, poses… asana is needed to help the body accept increasing flows of energy (see pranayama below). When we awaken an inner fire and our inner potential, energy can build in intensity, and we need asana to release emotions and blocks that can prevent the free flow of energy. Asana is also important as the body needs priming to sit for extended periods of time in meditation.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about pranayama without speaking to what “prana” actually means. You may have heard me use this term in my classes before, and it means life force energy, which begins and ends with the breath. The doorway to accessing prana is through the breath, and without using the breath as an access point, you cannot refine the nervous system (how we experience the world - through our senses). Breath control can allow us to access subtler dimensions of prana (energy) and with that, we can gain access to the experience of ‘no-mind.’ When you start to master the breath, you master your energy, and ultimately, your life. When we are breathing intentionally and consciously, we can truly start to re-shape our nervous system and our overall experience of our lives. This is absolutely, hands down, why I LOVE pranayama so much. I have seen profound change in myself and others who have committed to a regular practice that includes pranayama (and I mean MORE than just the typical ‘ujjayi’ breath we are instructed to utilize during a vinyasa flow). With the nervous system refined, we allow for a smooth flow of energy throughout the body, which translates to a flow-like state in our external world. Pranayama. It’s like...whoa.
Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are all related to meditation. Pratyahara refers to withdrawal of the senses (for example: closing the eyes, covering yourself with a shawl, bringing attention and focus at the 3rd eye). Dharana is defined as a focused awareness or concentration (not forced), or could be better described as the attention moving INWARD (if you’ve taken my classes, you’ve DEFINITELY heard me say this). Dhyana is the continuity of awareness - a deep state of silence, where you begin to merge with the experience, and samadhi of course is contact with the pure field of awareness. These 4 limbs are what our meditation practice should aim to be. And, in case you haven’t heard me enough on this, a meditation practice is absolutely integral to self-realization. You must have a consistent and committed practice of self-observation and reflection.
So, now that we know what the 8 limbs of yoga are, how does this answer the question of “Why is yoga more than asana? Why do we need more to evolve?”
The short answer is that we need to engage more than just our physical bodies if we want to see improvement and change in our lives, and that’s because our ‘self’ is comprised of so much more than just our meat suit (physical body). Our energetic body is made up of 5 layers, called koshas, and they interact with each other. Working on one, affects the others. We have a physical body layer (annamaya kosha), an energetic (pranamaya kosha) body layer, a mental body layer (manomaya kosha), a wisdom body (vigyanamaya kosha) and a bliss body (anandamaya kosha). Because the koshas are all interconnected and affect each other, when we work with one specific kosha, it will cause a shift in the other 4 koshas. In order to experience self-realization and the evolution of self, we must have an integrated practice (ie: we must engage and work with all of the koshas). The 8 limbs of yoga work on refining the koshas and keeping them in alignment, so we can move down a path of growth, change and evolution.
Soooooo…..back to asana. Asana really only works with our physical body - we can get into the emotional body at times through asana, and also the energy body, but it’s primarily working with our….meat suit. So, if we only work on refining our ‘matter,’ the other parts of our energy body don’t get engaged. For example - asana will not work on your vigyanamaya kosha (the wisdom body) - IE: it won’t work on correcting your perception and clearing up false information you may be carrying with you. And to give you a peak of the rabbit hole even more, quantum physics states that we are only a very small percentage of ‘something’ and mostly made up of ‘nothing’ (ie: Energy). Therefore, if we only work on the ‘something’ and don’t utilize techniques to engage the ‘nothing’....well….we’re ignoring what we’re primarily made of…. I digress!
My question to you, if you’re still with me here, is why AREN’T you including more than just asana into your life? Evolution and growth can move quite quickly when you start working head-on with the 8 limbs. I offer breathwork courses that include meditation, and kundalini classes that include breathwork AND meditation. If you can move beyond your traditional idea of what ‘yoga’ means and take a chance on a new practice, especially as one as integrative and holistic as the one I teach, I can all but guarantee a serious shift in your life. Come jump down the rabbit hole with me!!!!