Yoga: More than just asana

I have felt the need to write this post for some time. I think within the social media, photographic driven modern world we now exist in, it is so easy to lose sight of all that yoga encompasses. For myself, yoga has always been about self love and acceptance. The dialogue I constantly had in my head was: I was not good enough, I was not thin enough, I didn’t speak well enough, I was not graceful enough; the bottom line being: I was not enough. How cruel I was and have been to myself.

When I found yoga, my mat became my sanctuary, my sacred place. If I had a hard day, if the dialogue in my head was driving me to consider self harm, I rolled out my mat and practiced. I have cried on my mat, laughed, danced, cursed and shouted, screamed into a pillow on it many times. At the end of my practice, I always found peace. My mat wasn't a space where I pushed down my emotions, locking them deep within, compartmentalising them so I could stand steadfast, head held high, not allowing the tears to fall in public. I still struggle with crying in public and in front of people. I see a therapist every week and there have been times when I have talked about my assault that I could feel the tears well up. And yet, from years of holding it all in, I never allow them to fall. I literally tell myself, “Lock it up, Marina, lock it up!” Then I breathe through the tears that did not fall; using long, slow, deep breaths, which I had learned from my yoga practice.

Why state all of the above when the title of the blog states this is about more than just asana? It is because it is all relevant. As humans, we are complex organisms. Made even more complex with the vast mysteries still yet to be uncovered and discovered within the brain. I do not suggest that anyone lock up their emotions, that is not healthy. That is my daily struggle to be softer with myself. Of the truths I uncovered from my sexual assault, and with the help of my therapist, is the validity and importance of expressing and experiencing your emotions. If you are not harming anyone, then I see that there is no harm in feeling the pain, the joy, the wonder; the full spectrum of emotions.

The style of yoga that I practice is Vinyasa Flow. Vinyasa Flow is said to have been created by bored Ashtanga teachers. Ashtanga is an eight limbed path that was developed by Patanjali over 2,000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras (1). I personally experienced an Ashtanga class with Karen Kirkness, at Meadowlark Yoga Studio in Edinburgh, whilst completing her advanced Yoga Anatomy course last year. I absolutely loved it. When I want to not think and to just practice, I practice Ashtanga. It is disciplined and straightforward. As I stated previously, Ashtanga is made up of 8 limbs:

  1. Yamas - ethical restraints

  2. Niyamas - observances

  3. Asana - postures

  4. Pranayama - extension of life force energy

  5. Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses; focused inwardly

  6. Dharana - concentration

  7. Dhyana - meditation

  8. Samadhi - enlightenment; union with the Universal spirit (2)

As you can see above, asana - the physical postures/poses that we practice, is only one limb. Yoga as a whole is made up of so much more than achieving that advanced/challenging posture. In addition, there is no rush. From my understanding of yoga, it is about harmony of the whole being (you). If we are racing with ourselves, placing pressure on ourselves to go further, reach that advanced pose, then we fall into the pool of ego. Ego is not bad, but when it is unbalanced and super-inflated, it can take away our joy and lead us down a path of relying on outside sources to try and find our own inner peace. I’ve been there, done that, still struggle with it all the time. That is a main reason I do yoga and meditate every day. There is nothing wrong with wanting to challenge yourself or achieve something that looks really cool, but I would suggest not at the expense of your overall joy. Competition is great when it is joyful and fun, however, when it is not and you begin an unhealthy dialogue with yourself, then what is the point of that? You then would not be in harmony with yourself and would be in conflict. Again, there is nothing wrong with healthy conflict, physics, art and biology prove to us the beauty that can occur with conflict. It is when it becomes unbalanced that problems can arise.

I have been practicing yoga for seventeen years. In that time I have challenged myself and aimed to be able to do as many poses/asanas as possible. Unfortunately, due to hyper mobility in some limbs, I injured myself. I lost sight of what yoga was by trying to show off all that I could do and accomplish. More than that, I was part of the unbalanced ego problem we see in the yoga world. Hey, we’re all human. However, I was also putting some people off of beginning the practice of yoga. Some were encouraged to want to do what I could, whereas others were discouraged. Again, all part of the human experience and the ebb and flow of life. I am fortunate that I obtained some of the best training in the yoga world. Yes, that is my opinion, however, I thoroughly researched into my training programme and found one that suited me best. Everyone is different. As a FLY (Frog Lotus Yoga) teacher, we are taught to incorporate more than just one limb within our yoga classes. I was also taught to chant and teach in Sanskrit in every class. Sadly, not everyone can appreciate that, as it is very different and the pressure to conform is intense; so, I have adapted my classes slightly. When people get to know me more and become more comfortable, then I will offer things such as chanting and OM-ing. Every class I teach involves meditation and breath work, in addition to the physical postures. When we learn to move with our breath, or to stop and notice our breath, it can help in stressful or tense situations. I have personal, lived experiences with this (that’s another blog post to come). This is another main reason why the physical postures are not the end all and be all with yoga.

Within the first 2 limbs of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas, they each have five branches:

  • The 5 Yamas or restraints:

    • ahimsa - non-violence, non-harming

    • satya - truth or truthfulness

    • asteya - non-stealing

    • brahmacharya - integrity in relationship to sexuality/chastity

    • aparigraha - freedom from desire and greed

  • The 5 Niyamas or observances:

    • saucha - purity or cleanliness

    • santosa - contentment

    • tapas - self discipline; spiritual passion, practice

    • svadhyaya - mindfulness; self-study

    • Ishvara-Pranidhana - surrender to God or the Absolute (3)

To be honest, I spend more time practicing the Yamas and Niyamas on a daily basis then I do on the physical asana practice. Throughout the day I practice all of the above. I am lucky and grateful that I grew up in a household where all of the listed above were instilled in me as a child. With that, I am able to practice them more easily than others. The struggle is still there, but probably not as intense for me as it would be for someone whom did not grow up in such a household.

In closing, my goal of this post was to inform and educate that there is more to yoga than just the physical practice: asana. So if you have not mastered that advanced pose yet, or are giving yourself a hard time for not keeping your hips squared in Natarajasana -Dancer’s Pose-, remember: asana is only one limb in the eight limbed path. Yoga is so much more than a physical practice. It is moving meditation, emotional balance, taking care of your overall well-being and mental health.

Namaste,

Marina

1-3: Excerpts from my Frog Lotus Yoga Teachers’ Training Manual. Intellectual Property of FLY International, not allowed for reprint.