Yoga is more than asana
When adopting the practice of yoga as a discipline to learn about ourselves, we need to consider layers beyond the physical body: the energetic and mental/emotional layers.
Asanas help to circulate the flow of vital energy (prana) through the body. In the West we tend to measure this vitality in quantity. In yoga we measure vitality by quality as well as quantity. Vitality can arise from the practice of any number of asanas, but its quality differs: from expansion to contraction, heating to cooling or neutralising. Each has a different outcome on our state of body, mind and emotions. Thus we can balance ourselves according to our requirements.
Yoga also teaches us how to direct and manage our vitality. An example from personal experience of frequent teaching overseas is cultivating the ability to switch down into an economy mode, a little like a television on standby. This ability helps to reduce the effects of jet lag.
Vitality is also generated in quantity and quality by the science of breathing known as pranayama, the fourth step in sage Patanjali’s “eight limbs of yoga”.
Traditionally, as suggested in the “eight limbs of yoga”, known as Ashtanga yoga, the mind was the initial point of contact. The principles of social discipline (yamas) and self-discipline (niyamas) are the first two steps of eight in yoga practice. They prepare the mind by cultivating certain qualities and values.
Once established, these principles become the fundamental guides for our approach to everything. The qualities and abilities of yama and niyama are a worthwhile pursuit and an advantage to anyone in any endeavour, be it work, pleasure or, more importantly, as a means of self-management and self-development.
The yamas and niyamas are also suggestive of the appropriate attitude to asana, the third step of Ashtanga yoga.
As we become more skilled (through asana) at movement or stillness of the body and its energy, the mind simultaneously undergoes a process of refinement. This process cultivates certain qualities and abilities. The mind learns to be focused, sharp, ordered and alert without being tense, which causes stress.
The capacity to be inwardly composed, whilst engaged in exerted effort (such as asana), cultivates mental stability, allowing clarity and sensitivity. We can more readily decipher what is and what is not, and respond and interact appropriately, whatever our circumstances. Mental stability opens and engages the portals of perception, the field of all possibilities, and allows breadth of experience in our practice and in our life.
Harmony of the physical, energetic and mental aspects alters our state of consciousness, and everything we experience becomes one, not three. When we manage ourselves in this manner, with regularity, over an extended period of time, we cultivate Constant Integrated Awareness.