A friend recently asked me whether I was able to get into an advanced yoga pose she had seen on Instagram, despite being a Yoga Teacher; the answer was a definite ‘no’. The question was asked out of curiosity, never the less, I still felt a twinge of inadequacy and (until I came to my senses) considered making the pose the focus of my practice for the next few months. In a society that is so focused on achievement, it can be all too easy to view yoga within the same parameters. I have even had students approach me at the end of a class and give me reasons and, on occasion, apologies for not going deeply into a posture. Of course, I reassure them, that the practice is theirs and it is important that they listen to their body and breath, that there is no goal to obtain.
Yoga is a mind-body activity, it is a moving meditation. Dancers can impressively slide into the splits (Hanumanasana / Monkey Pose) and gymnasts can kick their leg in to an arabesque (Natarajasana / Dancers Pose) with grace and beauty, but neither is practicing yoga. Each asana (pose) gives us the opportunity to explore our body, breath and mind; in relation to our environment, it is a tool of yoga; it is not yoga itself.
Asana is actually the third of eight limbs of yoga. Here in the West; classes, books and social media are almost all exclusively focused on the physical practice. That is not to say, that the mind benefits of yoga are not practiced, or realised by Western Yogi’s, it is just not often our starting point. We sometimes have to battle through self-criticism, minor injuries and an outcome-driven approach, in order to self-learn the importance of the first limb of yoga, the Yamas.
The Yamas are described as a guide for social conduct; they are five characteristics that we can aspire to being. So what happens when we consciously practice the Yamas as part of our physical practice? Does this model of ethical behaviour and the questions it prompts us to ask, change the shape of our asana?
Satya (truth) Do you have an honest awareness of your body, its shape, alignment and strength? How does your body (as it is today), impact on your ability to open into a posture? Can you bring more truthfulness to your practice, knowing when and where to extend and, when to ease back or stop?
Ahimsa (non-violence) How can you take care of your body and mind as you move? Are you avoiding injury, unnecessary pressure and self-critisism? Can you practice compassion towards yourself for the entirety of your time on the mat?
Asteya (Non-stealing) Are you able to give yourself fully to each moment? Can you keep the mind focused on where you are now, rather than the full pose or the next part of the practice?
Brahmacharya (Honouring life energy) Are you moving from your whole body, not draining the strength in one part? Are you activating your bandhas to draw in and control the energy within your body? (More on the Bandhas and how to activate them in a future post)
Aparigraha (non-grasping) Are you able to accept your limits? Is your awareness turned inwards? Can you settle into, and fully embody your own version of the posture?
I recently taught a five week course on the Yamas, focusing on one Yama for an entire class. Not only did the participants have better body awareness and looked more at ease, they also made advancements in the more challenging poses. It makes perfect sense, that inner focus should result in a greater outward expression. The body-mind link in yoga is not a simple breath in, breath out connection; it is an intricately woven dance between the psyche and the physical, with one action having the ability to create a ripple effect through our entire being.
Yoga is a ‘practice’ for daily living; it helps us to understand ourselves and to take our place in the world. The Yamas (social behaviour) are part of an eight limb system, the other elements include: Niyamas (self-discipline), Asana (Postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sensory awareness), Dharana (focused concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (realisation). Seven of these areas can be individually studied but they are in no way separate, they are sequenced to prepare the practitioner for the next stage, (with the final stage of Samadhi happening organically). However, the clever yogi’s created a system that is both instant and prolonged, and so if we arrive at the mat willing to explore and hone all parts of ourselves: mind, body and heart, then one posture can give us everything that yoga has to teach.
Bringing the Yama’s, into our physical practice may well help us to perfect the ‘Instagram pose of the day’, but equally they may guide us to modify and simplify our asana, taking it back to beginner basics, as Pattabhi Jois said “yoga is an internal practice, the rest is just a circus”