Yoga vs. Yoga Asana
Many of us Westerners understand yoga to be a practice of bending and stretching into awkward positions, called yoga asana. We see people who hold these postures effortlessly, and consider that to be the highest “level” of yoga. Although it is one step towards self-realization, studying yoga goes much deeper than the physical form. Technically, hatha yoga follows the eight limbs of yoga: yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhaurana, dhyana, and samadhi. Rather than a hierarchal structure, each limb of yoga has its' own relevance on this path of self discovery.
Yoga Asana refers to the postures we learn in our western yoga classes. When performed correctly, our muscles stretch, strengthen, and we find equanimity throughout our bodies. Balance within the body is equivalent to balance within life. Our minds and bodies are connected, and our bodies reflect what our minds believe. This is how we have body language, however it goes much deeper than nodding and making eye contact. How we hold our bodies through habit tells the universe what we believe, and thus, what we continue to create in our lives. Ancient yogis understood this, and used the breath and body to find balance in order to go deeper. When we begin our yogic journeys, we first must find internal equanimity before we can dive deep into our intuition towards self realization. We all have many years of habits formed in our bodies and minds, from any sports we practice, which hand we write with, or, from mental and emotional patterns which are held in the body. Each yoga asana works to reestablish balance in these areas to prepare our bodies for self realization.
On the path of self realization, it is important that our muscles, organs, bones and tissues are strong enough to handle the energetic changes we will experience. Everyone has their own path, however everyone feels a difference after practicing yoga asana correctly. These experiences vary because we all start in a different place energetically. Yoga asana is practiced along with pranayama (mastering the breath) in order to massage our muscles and organs and strengthen our bodies and breath, making asana an important aspect of the path. The ultimate “goal” of yoga (arguably there is no goal, there is simply the path, however for the sake of this article, I will use “goal” here) is to provide stability, lightness and health. Flexibility and strength come as a by-product, but they are not the purpose of practicing yoga. As you practice, you will come to see your body and energy changing towards these three “goals.”
The practice of yoga asana was originally discovered because it allowed yogis’ to open their bodies to sit in meditation for longer periods of time. When our bodies are tight and stiff, it is uncomfortable to sit for hours on end and dive into our subconsciousness. This is one aspect of how the physical practice prepares our bodies for deeper practices. Finding a meditative flow during asana practice is another way yogis have incorporated the physical asana practice with the ultimate path of self realization. Dhyana is the practice of concentrated meditation. As we deepen our asana practices, our ability to live in "flow state" through concentrated meditation expands, giving essence to the 7th limb of yoga, Dhyana.
Following the yamas and niyamas are one of many ways to practice yoga beyond asana. These are the observances yogis take, such as ahimsa, the vow of non-violence. By practicing non violence with our thoughts, words, and actions, towards both ourselves and those around us, we are practicing yoga. This is a very powerful way to find union between ourselves and the universe, and can be done by anyone. There are several other observances, as well as other practices such as Bhakti yoga (yoga of love or devotion) and karma yoga (yoga of action, often as selfless service) that are part of the path towards self realization beyond yoga asana.
Yoga means “union,” which is a practice we can find in everything we do, by finding union within ourselves while we do it. Whether we are driving our car, washing the dishes, or communicating with our partner, when we find union in each action, we are practicing yoga at its’ truest form. Coming to a teacher training, many of us come for the asana practice and leave with an understanding of yoga that permeates through every action we take. By studying with teachers who have spent many years in ashrams and monasteries, we are able to take a slice of the yogic life and bring it into our modern lives.
Before attending a teacher training, most people only know the physical practice of yoga asana, which is absolutely welcomed. Due to globalization, these ancient practices are seeing a resurgence in a modern way, so it is to be expected that many people wouldn’t know about yoga beyond the mat. Participating in a teacher training gives you the basics of yogic philosophy, as well as a more developed asana, pranayama, and meditation practice. Asana practice is very important for strengthening, opening, and balancing our bodies and minds, in order to find stability, lightness, and health in ourselves. With this, our meditation practice can blossom into its’ fullest potential, and we start to see a glimpse of union within ourselves and how we interact with the world around us. As we commit to each aspect of the yogic path, we may dive deeper into the path towards self realization.