I woke up on Saturday morning, pained, frustrated and highly irritable. It was 5.30am and throughout the night I was reminded of how I sprained my ankle leaving work on Friday. Like a lightning bolt in my mind, my eyes opened wide in the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to do my asana practice. Oh no! I panicked. What would become of me? How can this be!?
My first reaction was FEAR. I feared my practice wouldn’t look or feel like it “should”. I feared that skipping a day of asana would hold me back somehow, that I wouldn’t be truly practising yoga without asana. Initial panic over, I found comfort (after giving myself a few moments to actually wake up) in knowing that yoga is more than asana. And I remembered that my practice is exactly this – my practice.
So, confidently with my carefully bandaged ankle, I asked myself: “What will be my practice today?”.
Yoga Beyond Asana
It’s understandable if you mistake yoga for just a physical exercise. But what you must know is that yoga is so much more. I encourage everyone to enjoy the physical practice and at least have an idea that yoga happens off the mat and outside of the studio just as much, if not more.
Maybe you have heard of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. If not, then you might not know that the physical practice is just one part of the eight limbs. A very important part of the practice, but not the sole purpose of the practice.
Yamas & Niyamas
In the eight limbs, we have what are called Yamas and Niyamas. What I understand to be the way we conduct ourselves, how we treat ourselves and others, our self-discipline, our surrender and our devotion to the practice, to something more than ourselves.
Yamas guide us to the non-harming of others and self, to truthfulness, to not feeling a lack of abundance in our lives that we take it from elsewhere, to preserving our energies and self and to stay true to our own path and to not desire to be on another’s path.
Niyamas are much more focused on developing and devoting ourselves to the spiritual practice. They include guidance on cleansing the body and mind, introspection and self-study, finding peace and contentment in the non-material aspects of life, studying ancient scripts and ultimately surrendering to the divine.
Breathing comes naturally. It’s the first thing we do when we are born. It gives us life and keeps us living. To stop breathing is to stop living. The breath in yoga is as important as the breath in life. As a bare minimum, your physical practice will include some basic breath work, but it’s just as valuable to practice isolated breath control.
When we first begin to meditate, we might close our eyes and begin to try to quieten the mind. We start to withdraw our focus away from external stimuli. I like to think of the pratyahara practice as a practice of being in the body. This is something you can practice in asana, but it is essential to the start of your meditation practice.
Once we have become present in our body, we can focus our attention internally and might use a mantra to help our focus. The practice of Dharana is concentration. After you have moved away from external distraction, you can then move away from the internal distraction of the mind. We have progressed on the path towards meditation.
This limb of yoga is the state of meditation. After progressing through pratyahara and dharana, we come to dhyana as the height of awareness without distraction or a single focus.
The final limb, the height of our practice, what all of the breathing, moving, cleansing, meditating and studying culminates in, is a complete transcendence of self and connection to the pure source of consciousness, the Divine.
Your Practice is Just That
Remembering that I was limited in my usual asana practice, I felt reassured that I had many other ways that I could practice yoga. We don’t just ‘do’ yoga, we feel it, we breathe it, we give and share and experience it. What I hope to have shared here is that the practice of yoga is so much more than just asana, but it also doesn’t have to look the same for everyone.