The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 sutras or teachings on the theory and practice of yoga written at least 1,700 years ago and can be understood as guidelines for how to live a meaningful life of purpose. According to these teachings there are Eight Limbs (or often called the Eightfold Path ‘Ashtanga Yoga System’, ‘ashta meaning ‘eight’ & ‘anga’ meaning ‘limb’) which ultimately can lead to bliss or enlightenment. The word Yoga (‘Yug’ in Sankrit) means to Unite or to Yoke and represents the connection between body and mind that we bring together through our practise.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

  1. YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows.
  2. NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances.
  3. ASANA – Posture.
  4. PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques.
  5. PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal.
  6. DHARANA – Focused concentration.
  7. DHYANA – Meditative absorption.
  8. SAMADHI – Bliss or enlightenment.

Here we will be exploring the 3rd of the 8 Limbs of Yoga – Asana – meaning ‘Physical Posture’, derived from the root word ‘as’ in Sanskrit, which literally means seat. Asana is practiced to prepare the body and mind for meditation. Asana is often misunderstood as Yoga itself but we can understand from the 8 limbs of Yoga that it is so much more than just the physical practice and the shapes we can make with our bodies. There is an ancient yogic tradition of also taking a seat next to one’s teacher and seeing this as both an honor and opportunity for learning, suggesting that an attitude of openness to learning is required to benefit fully from this teaching. I often remind my students that the physical practice of Yoga is exactly that – practice, not perfection – and when we leave our egos at the door and focus our full attention on what we are doing, becoming present in our practice, we calm the fluctuations of the mind and we can begin to prepare ourselves for meditation.

I like to think of my physical practice as a moving meditation that prepares me for taking a seat and sitting in stillness. Meditation can feel overwhelming and sometimes impossible, we live in a time of intense busyness and over-stimulation and it’s challenging to find a space of calm within ourselves but the physical practice of yoga – Asana – can help to quiet the mind, relax the body and calm the nervous system. You wouldn’t run a marathon without training for months in advance and Asana is the preparation for coming to a higher state of consciousness. The next time you come to a yoga class take a mental note of how you are feeling before and how you feel afterwards, become the observer of how Asana affects you, I am yet to hear a student say they feel worse after their yoga practice…

“Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union – the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.” BKS Iyengar

To take this back into a modern context it’s important to find a style of physical Yoga that suits you. This may change over time as we grow and develop – I began learning Ashtanga then practiced Vinyasa before studying Hatha and Restorative Yoga and now I can’t get enough Yin! The different traditions of yoga, and indeed the new styles that are being developed in the West can be relevant and useful throughout the different stages of our lives and what we are coming to our mats for. I often have students asking me which style is best for them and I always say the same things – try as many styles of Yoga as you need to until you find one that fits what your spirit needs at that time. Asana can be like a date with your soul and an opportunity to connect back to yourself and what really matters.

It’s important to remember that the word Yoga means Union and as humans we are exactly that – a union of body, mind and spirit. Patanjali taught that in order to come to a place of self-realization and enlightenment we must come to a place of union within ourselves, below are 5 suggestions to try during your Asana practice to help deepen your experience of the physical practice of yoga.

Uniting Body, Mind & Spirit during your Asana practice:  

  1. INTENTION – Set an intention before you start your practice to help keep your mind relaxed and focused, if you notice your awareness wandering, guide it back to your intention. This could be something you wish you bring into your practice – such as to be more present, to be more patient or to simply feel more into the physical practice and quiet your mind. You could turn this intention into a personal mantra such as ‘I AM patient’, ‘I AM present in my asana practise’.

  2. BREATH – Pranayama is a Sanskrit word translated as the extension of the ‘prāṇa’, meaning breath or life force and either ‘ayama’; meaning to restrain or control, or the negative form ‘ayāma’, meaning to extend or draw out. The benefits of controlled breathwork during Asana practice can help you achieve a more meditative state. It improves the flow of oxygen to the body, reduces stress and anxiety, increases your energy levels and helps to relax you physically and mentally. Breath is our life force and Pranamaya is the force that can drive your Asana practice forwards and prepare you for meditation.  

  3. PRESENCE – Becoming more present in your practice, the most important part of the physical expression of yoga, is the connection you create through aligning the physical with the mental,  the holistic self – body, mind and spirit. Through this connection we can learn that alignment is not just about your physical body, but how you experience yourself whilst you are in the poses and what Asana practice in turn can do for your inner alignment and the way you feel holistically.

  4. AWARENESS – Becoming aware of how you feel is the first step, the next time you practice try to really tune into your feelings, physically and mentally. Begin to notice which areas of your body feel tight or tense. Begin to connect with the feelings externally, starting with the physical body and then turn your attention to the internal sensations and emotions that may come up. We tend to store emotions and trauma in different areas of the body and Asana can help to release emotional and physical blockages. Becoming more aware of these feeling and sensations throughout our practice can help us to stay present and to refine the union and connection to our true selves that Asana nurtures.  

  5. COMPASSION – Years ago I was referred for Post-Traumatic Stress therapy and my therapist explained the technique of CFT, Compassionate Mind Training and the concept of using a Compassionate Voice. I still use this approach to this very day and when I notice that I am judging myself or speaking to myself in a harsh way I imagine how my Grandmother would speak to me and what she would say. I find this technique is helpful during Asana practice – if you are being hard on yourself for not quite getting into a posture or berating yourself for not being as good as the person on the next mat, stop, and imagine how someone who loves you would speak to you and what they would say. How can you begin to speak more compassionately to yourself to help you to enjoy the practice more and in turn become more connected with your whole self – your holistic self – body, mind and spirit.

“Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union – the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.” BKS Iyengar

 

About Liz Joy Oakley

Liz Joy Oakley is Head of Vibes at MoreYoga and teaches Yoga & Meditation specializing in Yoga for Anxiety. Liz came to Yoga after being diagnosed with Malignant Hypertension and Generalized Anxiety and left the Fashion Industry to work in Wellness and help others to lead healthier lives holistically.

Liz is passionate about helping people achieve a healthier, happier lifestyle and aims to cultivate joy through her work. She now works in London facilitating workshops and events based around yoga, meditation, improving mental health, happiness, nutrition and wellbeing.