We’re gradually working our way through the eight limbs of Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path, and just as yama and niyama fit snugly together as a unit, so do the four limbs we’ll cover this week. Ultimately, of course, all eight limbs are meant to function together, with each facet of the practice lending strength and integrity to the others.
We’re all familiar with asana, so I won’t spend much time on it here. Asana is the physical practice. It’s the primary focus of most yoga classes, composed of various postures, but the relationship of asana to pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana can easily be overlooked (or simply ignored, which is every practitioner’s right). So how exactly does asana relate to these other three limbs?
Intimately. There are those who say that without pranayama, or control of the breath, the physical practice is not really yoga. Rather, it’s just calisthenics – still good for you, but lacking enough spiritual oomph to really classify as yoga. I’m tempted to agree with this viewpoint, but I also believe that an individual’s yoga practice is such a personal thing that my piddly attempt at subjectively assigning a definition to what another person is doing could very well be misguided. So I won’t go there.
Suffice it to say that when I am involved with my own practice, I always include pranayama, primarily the ujjayi breath which is employed during Ashtanga practice. In a soft form or basic hatha class, pranayama can consist of simply focusing on the breath as it comes into and out of the body, as well as practicing other specific breathing exercises, such as robin’s breath or tension release breath. In either case -- maintaining the ujjayi breath throughout an entire practice, or simply maintaining focus on a full yogic breath – consistent pranayama coupled with asana both requires and enforces concentration, or dharana.
Through concentration and control of the breath during asana practice, the ability to disappear into the breath, to separate one’s self from the body, becomes more and more possible. These are the tools we use to hang out in any of the Warrior postures for an extended length of time, to sit in Chair indefinitely, to perform the umpteenth Sun Salutation. This is how we practice pratyahara, or separation of the self from the senses. Without focus, and without breath, I believe separation from sensory input would be virtually impossible.
The argument can be made that it’s possible to practice pratyahara simply through sitting in meditation, or even during Corpse posture. I certainly agree that if one is going to sit in meditation, then pratyahara is going to inevitably be involved, but the argument can also be made that the practice of asana, pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana are together intended to prepare a yogi or yogini to sit in meditation, which is dhyana, the seventh limb.
So, like most philosophical tenets, The Yoga Sutras present us with countless opportunities for interpretation. Some yogis believe that the “moving meditation” of a fully developed asana practice satisfies Patanjali’s prescription for meditation, or dhyana. On the other hand, like I said earlier, some believe that the first six limbs merely prepare the practitioner to sit in meditation, and to ultimately become enlightened. If you’ve ever tried to sit cross-legged in meditation, then you no doubt understand how physically challenging it can be. A weak, inflexible body is not adequately prepared for this task, as it requires a strong back, a strong core, and open hips, knees, and ankles. Of course, a chair or other suitable prop can be used, but the classic meditation posture is cross-legged or some version of lotus, on the floor. Regardless of your stance on the meditation issue, it does seem to form the bridge from the physical to the metaphysical, so we’ll save further discussion of dhyana for next week.
Mind over matter. Calmness and serenity in the face of difficulty. Moving meditation. These are the skills that eventually translate to our everyday lives, skills that allow us to drive happily in traffic jams, handle screaming toddlers with a sense of humor, and smoothly navigate the often murky waters of daily life. And days when we do lose it, when our tempers snap or we balk at the enormity of the realities with which we’re faced, we have our mat to bring us back to center, to remind us that life – like yoga, like meditation, like the perpetual cycle of one sunrise after another – is so often a process of starting over again. Yoga not only gives us permission to start over again when we need to, it gives us a place to start and a roadmap. One step leading to the next, with every step dependent on the others, every breath, every posture, every moment a new beginning.
May your practice be all of this for you. Namaste.