The journey we go on with our Yoga practice (or Why we begin with Asana in the West)

Written by Michelle Macnamara. Originally published on

Life is busy! Too busy most days, almost like time is speeding up. We want things now. We want things yesterday.  We want things fast.

With the evolvement of mobile phones, internet and other modern tools, we are constantly being bombarded with outside stimulus. From television, radio, computers, video games, phonecalls, emails. And when we are not being bombarded, we miss it. Most of us actually start to look for something to occupy our minds, to keep our attention, to fill our time.

When we deprive our minds of outside stimuli, and try to find some quiet and stillness amongst the noise of life, the mind still keeps ticking. Sometimes we may even percieve there to be more thoughts present when we are quiet but they are just more obvious, more recognisable. It's very easy to allow our minds, our thoughts to take us away into tomorrow’s meeting, yesterday’s events or next week’s plans.

So, we look to the teaching and practice of Yoga. We use Asana or (Postures). And to help us along the way we use: Dristi or (Point of Focus) and Ujjyi Breathing or (Victorious Sounding Breath) But if there are Eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga then why do we, generally, begin the practice of Yoga with so much emphasis on the third limb, Asana and not so much on the other limbs?

The physical Asana practice is a great way to begin our yoga journey. Asanas (or Postures) are a tool. A challenging and wonderful tool for us to use to facilitate the process of keeping ourselves in the moment. We can relate to the Asanas easily, because we are dealing with our own physicality. Our own bodies. We only know the world through our bodies, taking in information with our eyes and skin and other senses. We have such a strong connection to the physical body, we get real-time responses and sometimes even see a difference in our physical appearance, after practicing for a short time. This helps our mind understand that things are changing.

It is though the body that we discover even the most subtle aspects of ourselves. Working the body to investigate the true nature of the body, and therefore investigating the true nature of the mind. When practicing Yoga Asana over a period of time, the changes not only happen in the physical body but they begin to happen in the subtle body too.  Then, we can truly begin to experience the fruits of our effort.

Through physical asana practice we are twisted, folded, squeezed and massaged. Our muscles, tendons and fascia start to stretch and lengthen, our bones start to come into correct alignment, we allow blood to flow in and around our organs to clean and purify them. The asanas allows us a chance to cleanse and detoxify the body, therefore we begin to bring the body back into balance.
The more we practice, the more oxygen we allow into our lungs, into our blood, into our brains. We are sending fresh oxygenated blood around the body. Our nerves are cleansed and begin to function better, firing off signals faster and easier. We begin to open up the channels for for Prana ( life-force energy ) to flow freely and easily.

Yoga is not defined by the particular practice you choose to do but by the intention and awareness behind the practice we choose to do.

This all in turn creates a clearer mind, a more relaxed demeanour. We can be less stressed, less angry (or have the tools to deal with stress or anger more readily when it arises). We smile more. We are more mindful and kinder to ourselves and to others.
The tool of Asana practice is essentially a multi-layered one. And can be used as a stepping stone towards the other limbs. As humans, we tend to be quite linear in our thinking and the way that we get somewhere is one foot in front of another.
So to bring ourselves into a state of Yoga ( or Union with the Divine ) by simply coming into Dhyana ( or Meditation ), can prove very difficult for the busy, western mind. So, we use Asana as a starting point and once we are established in our physical practice, as long as we are doing so without ego, without losing the balance, the other limbs will naturally begin to cultivate.

The first two limbs of Yoga are Yama ( or restraints ) and Niyama ( or observances ) They begin to bubble away under the surface.
We become more dedicated to our personal practice (our Sadhana) and start making choices based around it. We may find a heightened interest in the history and theory behind the type of Yoga we practice or Yoga in general. We may begin to change our habits. The foods we crave may change. We begin to rise early and sleep when it gets dark. We may even find that some of our friendships will naturally fall away and some will come to the forefront. Our attitude towards our relationships may change and we may even find that we have more compassion for others.

When the Yamas and Niyamas are not embraced, it is possible to become entrenched in only the physicality of the poses. Obsessed with whether we are getting given new postures by our teacher or whether we can do them better than the person next to us. This is not what we are looking for.

Yoga is not defined by the particular practice you choose to do but by the intention and awareness behind the practice we choose to do.
Do we think it makes us more yogic or more spiritual, if we can do a deeper back bend than the next person? I’m sure this is not the case. Unless I’m missing something. Standing on two hands in a handstand is no more advanced than standing on two feet in Tadasana, if the intention is the same.

Yoga resides in the character and behaviour of the practitioner and the choices that they make, both on and off the mat.
Yoga is about being present, so in a busy yoga room, with people moving and jumping around, we need to find our Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal) & Dhyana (Concentration). We do this by using our Drishti (Gaze) and by listening to sound of our own Ujjyi breath.
The more we practice these, the easier they become.  And in time, with a daily, committed practice they will be second nature and you will find it much easier to quieten the busy mind.

As we continue to do our Asana practice, we start to discover the beginnings of a mystery or something we don't quite understand yet. This is usually about the time that people start to pull away from their yoga practice or move onto a new type of yoga, thinking “this is too hard, there must be an easier way”. Sometimes it’s not even a conscious reaction or behaviour. The reason this happens is that when find ourselves in a posture we don’t like, in the ones that feel more intense, or that we aren’t very good at yet or even the ones that bring up an emotional response, our human reaction is to build a wall around it and run away. And where do we go?  We run towards something that is easy, where we feel safe. Where we know we won't have to confront that particular experience again. And it's here, at this point, if we are committed to and stay with our practice, where things start to shift within us.

There is an old story, which Richard Freeman tells in his book, The Matrix of Yoga and it goes a little something like this:

There was a man who wished to dig a well to water his fields.
So, one day, he took his shovel, went out into the field, and started to dig.
When he had dug down 6 feet and found no water.
The man crawled up from the hole he had dug, moved twenty feet over, and began to dig again.
But again, he found no water. So he crawled up out of his hole and began to dig again. And again. And again, until his entire field was full of shallow holes, but no water had been found.

Yoga asks us to begin digging a well, from wherever we are right now. But to experience the true freedom, that we are all inately searching for (whether we know it or not), we must continue digging. At some point, we have to face ourselves, even when it's confronting.

So when we are doing our Asana practice at home or we are in a class, let’s try to breathe through something that we would normally avoid and notice what happens. We will begin to recognise our patterns, the underlying patterns (or Samskaras) of the way that we are, in our lives.
And then, we come to realise that our personal Asana practice is a direct reflection of our habits, patterns and behaviours, both on and off the mat.

Over time, the recognition of these patterns, will allow us to shift our behaviour towards certain Asanas, while we are practicing. And will have a knock-on effect in our daily lives. We may begin to deal with situations differently as they arise, we may face things head on, that we once would tend to avoid and we may even find that these scenarios don’t come about as often as they once did.

So essentially, Asana is preparation for the body and therefore a preparation for the mind, so that we can delve deeper, past the physical body and into the more subtle pathways.We can't expect change to occur within ourselves through the practice of yoga, if we don't meet it halfway. If we only do the Asanas (or postures) that we like, or the ones that we are good at, we are not allowing the yoga to begin it's work.

And if we DO allow Yoga to begin it’s work within us…… we may, if we are very diligent and committed to a lifetime of practice, manage a glimpse of Samadhi (or Universal Consciousness) the Eighth limb of Ashtanga Yoga.

But always remember throughout your Yoga Asana practice and throughout your life that…
“It’s the journey that is important. Not the destination”.