The Role of Asana & Pranayama in the Eight Limbs of Yoga

615-spring-cleansing-with-kriya-asana-and-pranayamaIn this week’s article at “The Living Yoga Blog” we continue our detailed exploration of the Eight Limbs with the third and fourth limbs, asana and pranayama.  Because we’ve already discussed both of these in previous articles, today’s brief installment will focus more specifically on how they relate to the other limbs and their role in the path of Yoga as Patanjali defines it.

 Asana — Preparation & Peace

 Because the physical practices are what bring most of us to Yoga, it can come as a surprise to see the relatively minor role asana plays within the Sutras.  In fact, of the 190 lines, Patanjali devotes a mere three to the subject of asana and just one more to breath work.  To understand this rather startling succinctness, it can be helpful to begin with a recap of the purpose of the Eight Limbs as a whole.

You’ll recall Patanjali begins by describing the goal of Yoga as returning to our inherent state of peace – a process which requires learning to diminish our tendency to agitate or disturb our minds.  He then describes the key practices for achieving this: meditation in which we learn to keep the mind focused and non-attachment through which we reduce the factors that disturb our peace of mind.  Again, for those of a “sufficiently developed” mental state, these guidelines alone would be enough to achieve the goal of Yoga.  But since most of us find meditation difficult, Patanjali then goes on to describe a series of eight supporting practices or stages we can use to help the process of meditation become more easeful.

He starts on the social level, with the yam as and niyamas, which help to address actions and thoughts that can create friction in our lives.  From here, he moves more directly to the body with asana and pranayama – again with an emphasis on how they can help us prepare for meditation.  Once more, Patanjali’s treatment of each is very brief, with just three lines on the physical poses.  In sutra 2.46, Patanjali writes: “The practice of asana makes one steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukkha).”  This is often translated: “Asana should be steady and comfortable,” but if you examine the context and form of related passages you’ll see the preceding is closer to Patanjali’s intent – that is, to convey the primary purpose of asana is to help our bodies become more steady so our minds can be more calm.

He then goes on in 2.47 to state: “Through mastery of asana, we lessen the natural tendency for restlessness and are increasingly able to meditate on the infinite,” making it clear the greater purpose of our physical practice is to facilitate mindfulness and focus.  Finally, in 2.48, Patanjali writes: “Thereafter, one is undisturbed by the dualities,” – in other words, through regular physical practice, we learn to maintain our peace and calm even amid the ups and downs of life.  This passage is particularly important on a couple levels: first, it again makes it clear the primary purpose of our practice is mental rather than physical; second and equally important, you’ll note that Patanjali does not state the dualities themselves cease, but rather that we learn to be unaffected by them.  In other words, the goal of Yoga is not to eliminate the vicissitudes and challenges that are a natural part of life, but rather to learn to ride those ups and downs with skill and ease.

Breath as Bridge Between Physical & Mental

From here, Patanjali turns his attention to pranayama or breath work – again a topic he treats with only slightly less brevity.  In 2.49, he writes: “That (i.e., steady posture) being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled.  That is pranayama.”  He then explains further: “The modifications of the life-breath are either external, internal, or stationary.  They are to be regulated by space, time and number and are either long or short.” (2.50)  You’ll note Patanjali does not describe specific practices, assuming the reader will be working directly with a teacher who will be guiding him or her in such matters.  Instead, Patanjali focuses on the more general value of pranayama, which is greater awareness of the link between breath, thought, and emotion.

This emphasis is made even more clear in 2.51, in which he states: “There is a fourth kind of pranayama that occurs during concentration on an internal or external object.”  In this sutra, Patanjali alludes to the natural stilling and even cessation of breath we’ve all experienced during periods of intense concentration.  By becoming more aware of this connection between breath and mind, we gain the ability to use the breath to calm our thoughts and improve concentration.  Further, the more aware we are of our breath, the greater skill we develop in using breath to note disturbances of the mind, allowing us to see and shift unhealthy thought patterns before they become entrenched.  Thus, as Patanjali says in sutras 2.52-53:  “(Through pranayama) the veil over the inner light is destroyed … And the mind becomes fit for concentration,” – in other words, through greater mindfulness and control of the breath, we reduce the distractions and disturbances that prevent us from experiencing our inherent joy and peace.

Asana, Pranayama & the Formal Practice of Meditation

Before continuing in our next article to the more “inward” portion of the Eight Limbs, it’s worth taking a moment to address the important topic of the way in which asana and pranayama can prepare us for meditation, including some practical tips on how we can best arrange our personal practice.  As discussed in our first article on the Eight Limbs, it’s important to remember the limbs are not meant to be taken as a “linear progression” – that is, it’s not essential to “master” one limb, in this case asana or pranayama, before beginning to practice meditation.  Indeed, many have achieved full mastery of meditation without ever having practiced the physical postures or formal breath work.  That much said, both can be beneficial tools for supporting meditation, especially if approached with that goal in mind.  Likewise, meditation can also be of great benefit in our physical practices – that is, if we are staying aware of cultivating mindfulness and peace, we can avoid many of the natural errors that can occur with both, such as excessive strain or thinking that “more” is always “better.”  In this way, the simultaneous practice of all three allows for greater progress with each.

Related to this topic is the question of order of daily practice.  Because of the flow of the Eight Limbs, it’s natural to assume we should practice asana and pranayama before our daily meditation, but classically this was usually reversed.  Traditionally, we would meditate first thing in the day when our minds are most tranquil.  We would then use breath work to gently bridge from mind to body and finish with our asana practice in order to fully prepare the body for the day ahead.  In this sense, rather than being meant as “direct preparation” for daily meditation, asana and breath work were seen as support in more of a “long-term” form.

In Our Next Article… 

Obviously, far more could be said about both asana and pranayama, but we hope this gives some food for thought in terms of how they relate to meditation and to the goal of true peace.  In our next article we’ll continue our detailed exploration of the Eight Limbs with an examination of the last four limbs which essentially describe the stages of meditation: guidance of the senses, concentration, meditation, and one-mindedness.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga…”

 


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