Yoga is more than simply an exercise class. It is a way of life, an integrated philosophy developed over many centuries to assist us in the experience of wholeness and health. In order to gain most benefit from yoga, it is best to compliment physical (asana) practice with other essential components such as breath awareness, relaxation, good diet, positive thinking and meditation. Because when blended together, these elements form a yogic prescription for harmony and wellbeing that will serve us greatly on the journey towards self acceptance and spiritual awakening.
Step 1. Exercise
Yoga understands the body to be a vehicle for the soul's journey to enlightenment. For the journey to be smooth, the vehicle must be in good working order. Asana practice helps us to remain agile and in good shape by focusing on spinal flexibility, muscle tone, joint health, organ function and energy flow. Regular exercise also assists in the ability to sit still for long periods without becoming restless, so that we can engage in easeful meditation, which is one of yoga's most profound gifts.
Step 2. Breath
Control and manipulation of life force energy (or prana as it is known in Sanskrit) is one of the key tools of yoga. Generally considered to be mysterious and intangible, prana is most easily experienced in the body as breath, for without breath we do not live. In fact, yogis measure life not in terms of time, but in terms of breaths taken. So to breathe deeply and well is an important skill to learn, as it keeps our bodily 'vehicles' in good order and our minds calm. Given that breathing is an autonomic process (ie, we don't have to make it happen), we don't tend to give it much thought. But with practice we can increase lung capacity, strengthen the diaphragm and alter blood chemistry, depending on our needs.
Step 3. Relaxation
Finding an appropriate balance between rest and activity is essential if we are to operate at our best. To relax fully, body, mind and spirit need be attended to and yoga offers techniques to assist all three. Having exercised away superficial stress with asana and rejuvenated the system with breath work (pranayama), the mind can then be put to use releasing deeper levels of stress via auto-suggestion (yoga nidra). Once settled and with quiet, undistracted thoughts, we are better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life, taking all things in our stride.
Step 4. Diet
To yogis, 'you are what you eat'. To be vital, eat foods that are natural and full of nourishment. Foods that thrive on sunlight, such as fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts and grains, are not only packed with prana, but they are also easy to digest, thus it is sensible to eat a lot of them. Meat has little value to yogis as its prana quotient is low (the life force having left the animal when it was killed). Processed food, refined sugar and alcohol are not encouraged as they are devoid of life-giving energy. Even reheating food is not advisable, as excessive heat destroys prana. A top grade vehicle requires excellent fuel if it is to perform optimally, so for the human body to advance on the spiritual path with ease, it should be fed only the freshest, most wholesome food.
Step 5. Positive Thinking and Meditation
Much is written these days about how positive thinking is good for health. The ancient yogis understood this to be a deep truth and encouraged those on a yogic path to turn negatives into positives as spiritual practice. With with less dark thoughts to distract the mind and hinder the body, the process of meditation becomes easier and the goal of union (yoga) with all that is sacred more attainable. There are many different meditation techniques on offer in the contemporary spiritual market place. Some may be more challenging than others. Some may be more effective than others. But if we are to embrace the fullness of yoga, then some sort of meditation practice should be an integral part of the regular rhythm of our lives. When it is, we are given the opportunity to make peace with ourselves and the world around us and to taste what it means to be spiritually, compassionately awake.
Inspired by teachings from the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta school.
Penny Jane Fuller 2015