The 3rd limb of yoga is easily the most well known. When you hear folks say “I practice yoga” or “I have yoga tonight” they’re usually talking about asana. It’s not surprising how popular asana is considering how disconnected we often are from our bodies in this culture. Asana, or the physical postures of yoga, are wonderful exercises that help keep our bodies strong, flexible and healthy. When practiced properly–with the breath and mental focus–they can also be tools that foster a deeper sense of mind/body integration. And when practiced within the larger context of yoga, the practice of asana can help us to find and maintain a sense of steady comfort both on and off the mat.
The actual translation of the word asana is “seat” and one goal of asana practice is to build the strength to maintain a comfortable seat for the deeper work of pranayama and meditation.
In yoga, we work to strengthen our bodies through asana and change our energy through pranayama. Pranayama is the exercise of the breath and it’s one of the most powerful tools the practice of yoga has given us. Just as there are many (some say thousands!) of different asanas or postures, there are many different techniques of pranayama. You may be familiar with some of them, including ujjayi and nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). Just as we move our bodies in intentional ways through asana practice, we direct the movement of prana in intentional ways through pranayama practice. We do this through the breath.
Prana is vital energy; it’s our life force. Without prana, there is no life. The practice of pranayama helps us to understand and influence our own energy. Have you ever experienced a crazy, hyper energy when trying to sleep? How about a groggy, wiped out energy when expected to give a presentation? We often try to change these energies with things like alcohol and caffeine. The practice of pranayama offers us a different way of dealing with and managing our energy. Have you ever been really upset or stressed out and stopped to take a few deep breaths? What happened? The breath changes things. It changes us!
Stop reading for a minute and close your eyes. Notice how you feel. Take a few deep breaths–really long, slow breaths. Let your exhale be a good 2 seconds or more longer than your inhale. Notice again how you feel. Did your energy shift? Through the breath, you have the power to shift your mood in less than a minute. The more you study and practice the science of pranayama, the more you are able to harness this power.
Asana and pranayama are practical. They are tangible and useable. They are practices from which we can immediately feel the benefit. And as many of you know, the more you practice them and deepen your knowledge and experience, the more benefit you receive.
Pratyahara is a bridge between the very practical tools of asana and pranayama and the more internal practice of meditation. Pratyahara has to do with our senses. The silly example I often give (many of you have probably heard it) is to imagine that you’re practicing asana, pranayama and meditation in your living room. Imagine that your partner is baking chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen and the smell is wafting down the hallway. The practice of pratyahara is the practice of staying connected to the focus of your practice, not the smell your nose is picking up, or the sounds your ears are picking up, or the sights your eyes are picking up, etc., etc. The senses are a wonderful part of what makes us human. The sensual reality we get to experience is a gift. But I’m sure you can all think of times when sensory experience caused distraction. The practice of pratyahara is the control of our senses. It is drawing our attention away from external things and focusing it deeply inward. The practice of pratyahara is an important preparation for meditation. It’s also important for focused asana and pranayama practice or focused work or running or reading or whatever else you do that requires focused attention.
I hope you’re beginning to see how the limbs of yoga practice work together–all in service of training the wandering mind. When taken together, asana, pranayama and pratyahara become amazing tools to help settle and prepare the mind for meditation, the practice of which, we will talk about next month.