Each step in Raja Yoga’s Eight Limbs prepares and sets the stage for the next on our journey of awakening. The aspirant progressively opens and purifies the system so as to allow the deeper potentials of consciousness to fill and inform every aspect of our lives. In yama we cultivate a kind and positive life; in niyama we focus on life habits that support health and wellbeing; with asana, the third limb on our journey toward enlightenment, we move deeper into the self-development and self-mastery required to reach the summit of human development: union with the Divine.
Perhaps the most familiar limb in our mainstream culture’s understanding of yoga, asanas are the postures and stretches that unlock, release, and open the body and its many sub-systems to the free flow of vitality. Also known as Hatha Yoga, this limb brings awareness to the body, using breath to guide the flow of energy, or prana, thereby opening channels and releasing stagnant energies.
Now verified by countless medical studies, the practice of asana has been demonstrated to be one of the most effective ways to bring optimal health and wellbeing to body and mind. As an integral practice, the physical postures align with concentrated awareness and breath to support an intimate relationship with our physiology.
Not only does it strengthen muscles, stretch ligaments and tendons, align the skeletal system, and tone the nervous system, it also brings the entire endocrine and hormonal system into balance. By opening the various channels, and bringing fresh oxygen to the various organs, a deep asana practice has the potential to help heal many of the imbalances brought on by a stressed out and unhealthy life.
By merely living in our modern world, we accumulate a plethora of knots, tensions, and stresses that get stored in our nervous-muscular system. These knots begin to block the free flow of blood, hormones, and bioelectric nervous energy, eventually developing into the various ailments that haunt our human family.
The body keeps score of all life events, holding all memory and unconscious programming that create rigidity in the system. Low energy, fatigue, and depression on one end and restlessness, agitation, and anxiety on the other, asana seeks to bring the system into equilibrium.
At the root of our modern dis-eases is a deep disconnect between the psyche and the body. Humans today are completely disconnected from their physiology, so that if there is a symptom we quickly give ourselves over to the medical establishment so that the symptom may be relieved. This approach never gets to the root of our problems, for symptoms are merely the body’s way of communicating that something is blocked or out of balance. By merely relieving the symptom we lose the opportunity to engage with our anatomical system’s ancient dialogue.
Re-uniting Body and Mind
Asana practice re-unites the body and mind, as it works to quiet the restless mind so that one may listen to the deep indwelling wisdom of the body. Our body is designed to heal. By gently working with it through the prescribed poses and stretches one can begin to access a deep well of healing. One learns to turn off the fight-flight stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the rest-repair functions of the parasympathetic system. The practice flushes toxins, squeezes out stagnation, and strengthens the immune response as the entire mind-body system is brought into a state of harmony and coherence.
Since asana is a mind-body practice, what is cultivated in the body is experienced in the mind. Breath is key, as it is the vehicle that continually tunes and focuses the mind on the particular posture. The breath is the thread that unites the wandering mind with the stretching body, continually reinforcing the bond as we learn to listen deeply to the ancient wisdom of our cells.
* Balance: a crucial practice in life that is established directly on the mat. In order to find balance in a pose, our mind must be one-pointed and clear. This capacity to find balance in all aspects of our lives is a key feature in asana practice, as we learn to make micro adjustment by deeply tuning in.
* Stability: life’s ups and downs have the capacity to throw us off kilter, developing into unstable psycho-emotional states. Asana practice teaches us how to find and cultivate a stable ground, thereby creating a solid foundation that keeps us grounded during the inevitable turbulence of a life well lived.
* Flexibility: a rigid branch will easily break with a little wind. But one that is flexible will withstand most storms. Same with the body-mind system. A flexible body can avoid most injuries, as a flexible mind can move fluidly through the contours of life. Flexibility is an essential quality for optimal health.
*Strength: clearly an asset in all aspects of life, asana strengthens the body as well as the mind. A strong body-mind nurtures confidence and poise, attributes that will contribute to a radiant life.
*Openness: by releasing all blockages, tensions, and knots, the body-mind becomes open and sensitive. We become deeply receptive to others, feelings, and our environment, as the channels open and we begin to feel a sense of connectedness to all that is.
*Alignment: and finally, as we become open and receptive to all energy, we begin to learn how to align, harmonize, and tune to our environments. This allows our individual practice to extend toward the collective, healing the individual so that the whole may thrive.
As important as the practice of asana is for the health of the whole person, Patanjali was clear that it was only a preparatory practice. The clearing, cleansing, and healing was designed to cool out the body so that the aspirant could ultimately sit for long hours in meditation. With an unwavering inward gaze and a stable seat, the aspirant moves closer to Self-Realization.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here