These days social media posts are filled with photographs of yoga practitioners demonstrating their talents by posing various yoga asanas. Is yoga just about posing in front of a camera showing off your handstand, splits, or leg extension? With many practitioners coming from an artistic background like dance, gymnastics etc yoga asanas are easily accessible to most. However, in the ocean of Yoga, asanas are just the tip of an iceberg. Yoga is more than just Asanas.
The practice and lifestyle of yoga is not just about the perfect posture, it’s about creating a deeper connection and awareness of ourselves. As defined in the Yoga Sutras the steps required to reach the connection of self is an eight-limbed path. Asana is only the third. Through Asanas an appreciation of Self develops, that deeper awareness also becomes an outward expression: a strengthened appreciation, feelings of gratitude, and awareness of others.
The lovely photos we see on the internet capture one aspect of the yoga philosophy: asana – the physical body holding and moving through various postures. When someone decides to begin a yoga practice, they often are going because they want to gain more flexibility in their hamstrings or improve their balance. They have heard that yoga can help with that; and indeed it does. Some of the benefits of yoga reveal themselves physically: greater flexibility, strength, and balance, for example. Further, these are often measurable benefits. One notices when they are more flexible and strong. These are the types of images that we might see online, too. The photos depict that small fraction of what the whole yoga experience can fully deliver. But to reiterate, there is more to yoga than the physicality and the visual benefits of the practice.
Going beyond the physical entails something that some may call the “intangibles.” These are the benefits of yoga that are not as easily measured or seen with the naked eye. They are comprised of happiness, joy, appreciation, gratitude, mindfulness, well being, patience, and the list goes on. There are probably methods for measuring these benefits (like psychological testing), but these “intangible” outcomes of yoga emerge because someone took the time and effort to engage in the physical practice first.
We are very aware of our bodies; it’s a physical entity. We notice some bloating when we’ve eaten too much. We notice a fever when we have the flu. We notice the pain when we’ve sprained an ankle. Yoga works in the same way. As we introduce the body to these new physical postures, we become more aware of the body. The awareness is greater because these are body positions that we are not used to doing on a daily basis. We really don’t take notice of our bodies when we are simply sitting on the sofa enjoying a television program. But when we are actively engaged in an Asana in a yoga class…that brings a whole new set of insight to the body. Being “aware” is one of those “intangibles.”
Awareness is just another way to say that you’re paying very close attention to one thing. It is so easy to get distracted in our day-to-day living; there is so much going on around us. How can one relax and pay attention when we are drawn to so many things all at the same time? It really takes effort to stop what you’re doing to pay attention to one thing. Doing yoga is helping us practice do just that: to stop and pay attention. One of the things you are taught to pay attention to while practicing yoga is the breath. While sitting on the couch watching television, you’re obviously breathing, but you’re not really paying attention to it. Yoga is designed to have you pay closer attention to the breath – deep breaths. It takes your full attention to take a deep breath. Doing this draws your focus inward. Furthermore, slow deep breaths also have a physiological effect on the mind and body; slowing down the pace of the breath is attributed to slowing down your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure, and essentially calming you down.
As we progress in on the path of yoga our breath stabilizes and we move to the other limbs of yoga. Though it is not necessary for us to be practicing asanas to start pranayama, asanas help in stabilizing our breath and synchronizing our breath with our body eventually leading to a stable mind. The breath is connected to other limbs as it acts as an anchor to stabilize the mind.
The calm breath help us with the struggles we’re dealing with in life, the practice has given us tools to deal with those problems. The deep breath delivers a peace to the challenging yoga posture thereby making them approachable and easier to manage. The same lessons can be applied to our off-the-mat life experiences. When we are faced with the challenges of life, we can turn to the breath – we can turn inward to bring peace to our circumstances.
With a steady and consistent practice of asanas and pranayama, that sense of awareness increases and continues to spread to other factors in your life. You’ll become more connected to your own emotions and feelings. There will be a greater sense of gratitude for yourself and others around you. You’ll be more connected to your feelings for others when someone’s had a hard day. These are just a few things you can experience with your dedication and devotion to yoga. You’ll learn and experience that the breath is helping you become in-tune with your whole self to live a happier and healthier life.