"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
The physical practice of Yoga asanas (postures) was developed by great spiritual seekers over many centuries who devoted most their time to contemplating the meaning of life, and shared their insights in an unbroken chain of Guru and disciple relations.
Historians tell us that meditators developed the posture practice out of necessity. Most of us naturally feel quite restless after just a few minutes of sitting cross-legged with eyes closed. An elaborate stretching and strengthening routine is the perfect antidote. Yogis attain a level of “ease and comfort” within posture, such that they are able to enter prolonged blissful states of awareness where the ego-sense dissolves, replaced by a pure experience of oneness. It is natural that one who has experienced Samadhi (bliss, which is the 8th limb of Ashtanga) will find ways to weave that consciousness into the physical practice. However, Asana practice is only 1 or 2 hours of the day, Yoga practice (in its full sense) is 24 hour a day practice.
Ashtanga and the ultimate goal of Yoga
tAlthough the path of Ashtanga offers 8 limbs (or steps), with the final goal being bliss, the state of bliss is not the ultimate goal of Yoga. Blissful experiences (Samadhi) help the yogi transcend attachment to the physical body, and may be useful in the attainment of a Yogi’s ultimate goal: to attain eternal liberation or enlightenment at the time of death. Rather than reincarnating back to the human realim of desire, life after life, the yogi transcends the suffering caused by attachment to the physical body and sense pleasures, to attain union, the deeper meaning of the word ‘Yoga’.
In many texts, such as Bhagavad Gita, it is pronounced that the thoughts in the mind at the time of death determine the result of our rebirth. So vigorous mind-training, contemplation and meditation is necessary while we are alive, to prepare for the final “exhale.”
Today as we know Yoga, it is possible for it to be nothing more than an elaborate stretching routine. Even if people take up Yoga for the superficial reasons like a stronger physique, better flexibility, and improved posture, they will inevitably enter the spiritual domain at some point. To deepen the practise, one must deepen the connection to the breathing. As we deepen the breath, slow it down, the constant turnings of the mind slow down with it. The Yoga may become a form of meditation in movement, albeit a limited form.
Where does asana fit in?
In Ashtanga Yoga’s 8 steps, asana is but the third. It is unfortunate that for many people in the West who consider themselves yogis, their practice is only ever limited to asana. The asanas expand the body’s ability to contain Prana, vital life force energy. They also condition the body to withstand intense Pranayama, advanced breathing techniques done in a seated position. Pranayama practised with humility preparaes the mind for meditation in as little as five minutes, and makes one-pointed concentration (Dhyana) much easier, helping the awareness become deelply absorbed in one subject so meditation (Dharana) can occur spontaneously.
Pranayama is taught immediately in some schools of Hatha Yoga, whereas in others, it is regarded as an advanced practice appropriate only to those who show proficiency in breathing while practising difficult asanas. Gregor Malle, a modern scholar of traditional Yoga, notes that there are “low-level” pranayama that can be safely taught to absolutely anyone for basic relaxation and mental focus.
More potent “high-level” pranayama are learned from a skilled teacher, and may involve breath retention for long periods of time (several minutes), with a single inhale or exhale that span several minutes. High-level pranayamas have very specific breath ratios, and can overload the nervous system if practiced over-ambitiously. These are considered dangerous for everyone but the skilled Yogi who has mastered the body through asana practice.
Asana for posture re-education, retraining mind & nervous system
The yoga posture experience is also a tool for observing your own mind. All of us have acquired some mental conditioning over the course of our lives. Our experiences, particularly the traumatic ones, leave a subconscious imprint in the mind, but also in the body. Often times, when some uncomfortable situation happens, we tense up, our muscles contract, the jaw tightens, maybe the shoulders hunch up by the ears.
Then there is also the pattern in the nervous system, and the so called “fight or flight” response that served us well as cavemen running from saber-tooth tigers. High-stress jobs can be taxing on all the body’s systems, as people run on high-alert throughout the day, and night in workaholic cultures. So in Yoga practice, this habitual muscle pattern of tensing can come up when we approach our “nemesis postures” — for many this manifests as fear or nervousness at the thought of practising backbends like the Wheel pose or Bow, or inversions like headstand, shoulderstand and handstand.
With consistent practice, the mind learns to overcome this fear response and comfortably hanging out with what was once perceived as an uncomfortable situation, one breath at a time. The mind and body can work together to release from the bonds of our conditioned existence. Then when stressful situations happen in everyday life, the nervous system has learned that it can overcome stress by being mindful of the present moment, or by bringing the breath under conscious control and observing things as they are, rather than reacting to the ingrained patterns held in the senses.
Life force energy and Chakra theory
Prana is a Sanskrit term that means “life force energy,” referring to both the breath and the energy that gives life to all things on Earth. Most Yoga practices are designed to liberate the movement of prana in the body, so it may freely rise up from the base of the spine, passing through the seven energy centers (Chakras) that are stacked along the spine. The prana eventually finds its way to the cerebral cortex of the brain, or third-eye. The effect on an individual can be a blissful experience of Samadhi. We may feel released from our identification with the ego, with our thoughts, concepts and judgments, so that we instead feel a sense of oneness, as our consciousness merges into the experience of the raw, present moment.
Sushumna Nadi and the experience of oneness
In yoga systems, in Ancient Chinese medicine, and a handful of other psycho-spiritual systems, an energy line is perceived to run through the central axis of the body, from the tailbone, through the heart, and in behind the eyes. This is known as the Sushumna Nadi, and when our Chakras are functioning optimally, it may be said that we have entered the Sushumna Nadi. This may be experienced simply as a moment of clarity, or in some not so rare circumstances, Sushumna is accompanied by a sensation of energy rising colorfully up the spine.
With a daily Yoga practice, it becomes easier and easier to unblock stagnant energy and feel more alive. At the level of our feelings, we may find this approach makes Yoga a tool to cope with anxiety, depression and obsessive thinking. For a believer in God or mystical forces, it is a pathway to merge with the divine. For an atheist, a tool to develop some compassion for others, and lessen our attachment to selfish motives.
A big part of the Yoga tradition, according to Richard Freeman, is that you are not required to “buy into anything”, you don’t have to believe everything you here. In Yoga philosophy you may hear a lot you don’t agree with, but may you hear a few points made that resonate with how you perceive the world, or how you’d like to.