Yoga Philosophy 101 – Asana, Pranayama & Pratyahara

This post is the third in my Yoga Philosophy 101 series. Make sure you catch my first post on the Yamas and second on the Niyamas as well.

As I mentioned in my first post, yoga is so much more than the physical practice we do on our mats. In fact, it’s not until Patanjali’s third limb that we delve into Asana at all. We’ll also be talking about Pranayama and Pratyahara, the fourth and fifth limbs respectively, today.

When we practice asana, we want to embody the Sanskrit principle of Sthira Sukham Asanam. This translates to something like: “May my connection to the earth be steady and joyful”. I just love this philosophy!

 

How do we apply sthira (steadiness) and sukham (ease) to our asana practice?

The good news is, you probably already are! A good yoga teacher has a variety of yogic tools and practices which help us to practice with steadiness and ease:

 

The three-fold approach

Tristana was originally designed for Ashtanga yoga but is commonly practiced by great vinyasa yoga teachers. It includes using your breath and bandha whilst in a posture, together with focusing your attention to assist you in cultivating a steady yoga practice.

 

Breath: Pranayama

Pranayama is the fourth of Patanjali’s limbs of yoga. It is a common misconception that pranayama is breath work or breath retention. In fact, the two words (‘prana’ and ‘yama’) translate into ‘lifeforce’ and ‘control/restraint’ respectively. So it’s not our breath we are harnessing, but the lifeforce which rides the breath. In essence, we are directing and controlling our energy flow at will. It is the ability to either increase or decrease our energy in an instant. With the right use of our prana or energy, we can cultivate sthira or steadiness in our asana.

 

Posture: Asana + Bandha

How do we cultivate steadiness in our asana? It’s not complex, but it takes concentration and commitment! My tips:

  • Place yourself carefully the first time. Eg. When you step out into a pose, place your foot where you want it the first time, don’t wiggle or shift it into place. Obviously at some stages we need to adjust whilst in a pose, but try your best to get it right in the first instance.
  • Concentrate on engaging your bandhas (more on them below).
  • Stop fidgeting. Picture this: you’re rolling through your sun salutations and each time you come back to tadasana you pull down your top, sort out your hair and adjust your yoga tights. How steady does that sound? Instead, make sure you’re comfortable with your clothing and hair before practice and when you enter tadasana do so with intention and commitment.

Bandhas are energy locks within the body. While we refer to physical places in the body when describing them, bandhas actually exist on an energetic level. Briefly, our three bandhas are as follows:

  • Mula bandha (root lock) is located in the pelvic floor region. It is engaged by a lifting of the pelvic floor.
  • Uddiyana bandha (upward flying lock) is located about two inches below the navel. It is engaged by drawing the lower belly in and upwards towards the spine.
  • Jalandhara bandha (chin lock) is located in the throat. It is engaged by drawing the chin inwards toward the throat.

 

Gaze: Dristhi

In asana practice, dristhi refers to a focus point, a point where we will direct our gaze. For example to the tip of the nose in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog Pose) or the horizon in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). A steady gaze equals a steady body and mind.

 

Cultivating sukham

So we’re now steady, but how do we embody ease and joy in our sometimes challenging yoga asana practice?

My favourite way is to smile on the inside! Even when things are feeling tough, bring a smile to your heart. Relax your brow and unclench your teeth. Breathe.

I love the principle of sukham because it reminds us that this practice is just asana, we’re the ones that make it a positive or negative experience. And wouldn’t you rather bring a story of ease and joy into your next practice?

I also believe that we can take the principle of sukham off the yoga mat and into our lives. Start to think about ways you can bring more ease and lightness to your life. Even in difficult situations is there a way you can lighten your attitude?

 

Pratyahara

The fifth of Patanjali’s limbs, Pratyahara is the withdrawing of our senses, or at least the softening of our senses. We begin to pull away from the senses as in yoga (and Buddhism) it is taught that our suffering comes from our senses.

How to put this into practice though? We soften our preferences! For example, move from “Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-big-toe Pose) feels bad so I’m going to sit in this feeling of yuckiness” to “Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-big-toe Pose) is just a yoga pose, it neither good or bad – it just is – and this too shall pass.”

 

I’ve briefly touched in the third, fourth and fifth limbs of the eightfold path in today’s post, but I encourage you to continue your learning. Join me for the regular talks I do at Essence of Living and delve into the masses of yogic literature. There is so much to learn!

 

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