If you only paid attention to mainstream media depictions of yoga classes, it would be easy to believe that yoga is all about contorting into camera-ready aesthetically pleasing shapes. But the physical poses are only one small aspect of a full spectrum spiritual practice.
What Is Yoga?
The word yoga means “to yoke, to bring together into union.” The yoga practice itself consists of a blending of opposites, a uniting of the body and mind through the combination of effort and surrender. In The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, one of the seminal texts of modern yoga, it is stated that “yoga is restraining the fluctuations of the mind.” Through a blend of persevering practice and non-attachment, yoga practitioners learn to quiet their minds and open their bodies so that they may experience internal transformation and connection.
That is a far cry from fashion models in complicated handstands, or the many other contemporary expressions of the practice used in advertisements. Luckily, yoga is older and smarter than all of us, and it will probably outlast its current popularity and continue to offer the wisdom that has supported people for thousands of years.
And within that wisdom lays a particularly potent secret – that breath is the key in yoga practice. In the eight limbs of yoga, a philosophical understanding of the structure of yoga practice, the poses are just one part. Called asana in Sanskrit, those poses represent only one fraction of the whole. Some of the other limbs include ethical observances like non-violence (ahimsa) and non-lying (satya), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and breath awareness (pranayama).
Why We Practice Asana
Asana practice is a means to an end, not the end itself. We move the body in every possible direction with a combination of fluid, static, spiraling, and stretching actions to connect with and open the energy channels. Called nadis, the openness of these energy channels determines the overall health and wellbeing of every cell, organ, and system of the body.
And beyond that, opening the energy channels increases the amount of prana, vital life force energy that flows through our bodies. It is this flow of prana that is the most important part of physical practice, not the poses themselves. And it is deep, intentional breathing that removes energetic blockages, purifies the body, and increases the flow of prana.
If you were paying attention you might have seen that the limb of yoga pranayama contains that root – prana. Prana means life force, energy, and a type of breath. Specifically the type of breathing that increases the life force energy, the prana. Not all breathing increases the presence of life force in the body. Shallow, short, chest-only breath actually triggers stress responses in the body and depletes energy. But deep, full body breathing where the belly rises and falls with the breath does tap into that flow.
Asana and Pranayama – Body and Breath
So now back to the poses. For most of us in the modern world, just breathing deeply is not enough to open and balance the energy channels. In general we are too stiff and fixed, physically and mentally. We need the physical movement of the asanas to break up stagnation and allow the energy to flow through the entire body. But through all the asana we are served by remembering that the physical movement is intended to support the energy movement.
In physical yoga practice, the most important part is the breath. We can be in positions so acrobatic that Cirque du Soleil would be proud, but if we are not breathing deeply it doesn’t matter. No energy will move, and we might even hurt ourselves. Breathing deeply opens us to our feelings, allowing us to be more sensitive to the sensations in the body. One of the ways to avoid injury in your practice is to always breathe deeply.
Breathing deeply also taps us into the more subtle dimensions of the practice. Yoga offers the potential for internal alchemy, purifying the body and mind so that our true essence shines forth. And the churning repetition of the breath is how we stimulate that transformation. Physically, deep breathing cleanses and regenerates the organs, increases circulation, cultivates hormonal balance, and pacifies the nervous system. And energetically deep breathing renews the body and restores energy flow and balance.
You can move through the motions in yoga, just practicing the physical poses. This can offer a good workout, as long as you do not injure yourself. But yoga is intended to be so much more than a workout. Breathing deeply taps us into the transformative power of the yoga practice. It opens us to the potential that yoga has to rejuvenate our bodies and refine our minds. And it helps us find the way towards unity, bringing the breath, body, mind, and spirit closer together.