Taking the Yoga Philosophy on the mat - How can we apply the Yamas in our asana practice...
The Yoga philosophy of Patanjali (Raja yoga) provides us with 8 clear steps towards enlightenment or freedom/Moksha. These 8 limbs of yoga (yamas, nyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) are the pillars of Raja yoga and can be practiced by anybody who follows this yoga path of self-discipline and will power. The first limb is the "Yamas" which are the social conducts and how to behave in the world. There are 5 Yamas mentioned by sage Patanjali which I will attempt to explain below in my understanding. Although they were created for external use in the social life, it is important to practice these everywhere, on and off the mat. When we understand the meaning and application of each one in practical sense in our yoga asana practice, this might help us do so in our social environment also. Below I will relate these to the asana practice and how we can apply the Yamas on the mat to the best of my knowledge and personal experience both as a student and as a teacher.
AHIMSA - NON-HARM
Ahimsa presents us the concept of no harm or non-violence in our thoughts, speech and actions. Often times, ego can get involved in our practice and we can start to compete with ourselves or others. This can impede our development on the mat, cause distraction and maybe even injury. We can apply the concept of ahimsa by inviting kind thoughts in our practice without any judgement of the body or the level of our asana practice. Should thoughts that are judgemental or negative come through, we can learn to pause and observe these, taking Balasana (child's pose) to regroup and as a reminder of the purpose of the asanas. We can apply ahimsa by not forcing ourselves into an asana or pushing our body to reach a posture when it is not ready. This is not a safe approach for the physical self and also for the mind. Instead, we can learn to appreciate the current state of the body and learn to accept this. The body is always changing, one day we can feel strong, and another, we can step on the mat feeling completely out of balance. Neither are wrong, weak or in need of judgement, they are just different. Practice with compassion, self-acceptance and non-harm.
SATYA - TRUTHFULLNESS
Satya is the second of the Yamas and it refers to being truthful. This is an important aspect of our yoga practice on and off the mat. We must always be truthful in our practice with no ulterior motives, without the need to be admired for our abilities or in denial of our current physical state. Practice in truth and remind yourself why you step on your mat when you do. Setting a Sankalpa (intention) at the beginning of the practice can help to keep the focus when these distractions occur. If an asana is not accessible for you in that moment, let it go. Do it to the best of your abilities and be truthful to where you are at currently. Most importantly, stay truthful to your practice and do it with integrity. The intention of our practice has more significance than how “advanced” we do each asana.
ASTEYA - NON-STEALING
I can relate the concept of asteya on the mat with looking around at other's mats and trying to copy what they are doing or trying to do it better than they do it. Our focus should always be on our own practice. Every physical body is different and every person has their own journey on the mat. Stay truthful to yours, focus on your own practice and try not to take other's practice and apply it as your own. Instead, apply the teachings from your yoga teacher to best support your asana journey and let it unfold naturally.
BRAHMACHARIA - CELLIBACY
Although Brahmacharia refers to celibacy, its meaning can also be also be associated with self-discipline and learning not to lust or be in constant desire. Exhausting our energy will also affect our asana practice. Learning the self-discipline of brahmacharia off the mat can help us to integrate the concept of will-power in our practice.
The last of the Yamas is Aparigraha, which can be known as non-possessiveness. The philosophy teaches us to be humble and steady, balanced and centred. When we attach ourselves to our practice this can lead to suffering. No form of attachment leads to a peaceful mind according to Yoga. So every time we step on the mat we can do so from a new perspective, without any possessiveness for the practice or labelling it. I also relate Aparigraha to not claim ownership even of a space of practice or a specific mat. Our asana practice can be done anywhere, so long as there is a clean, well aired and safe environment space.
In general I try to avoid labelling in any kind of yoga practice, especially in asana practice. However it is helpful for those who are just starting out to have guidance into some of the key postures to practice first. By no means these are easy, but they help to set a foundation for an asana practice.
Tadasana or Mountain pose is the foundation asana for the standing asanas but also in our daily life. Tadasana represents the correct body posture we should maintain in daily life. Tadasana teaches us the correct alignment for the body so that we can always learn to create balance in our practice on and off the mat.
Adho Mukha Svanasana
Adho Mukha Svanasana or downward facing dog is a key posture in any asana practice. It is used in all sun salutations sequences and it’s a great transitional asana. Adho Mukha Svanasana helps to stretch the spine, the hamstrings and calves. It also strengthens the quads, back and arm muscles and stretches the digestive organs.
Virabhadrasana II or Warrior II is definitely a key asana to learn. Just as its name suggests, it provides a combination of strength and flexibility which are also very warrior like qualities. It helps to set a strong foundation in the practice and in life, as this asana activates Muladhara, the root chakra, the energy centre for grounding and balance in life.
Anjaneyasana or low lunge pose targets the hips, shoulders and chest. Having the back knee on the mat provides support for the body to focus on the hip opening instead of trying to also find balance. This is a beautiful chest and shoulder opener and great for stretching the hip flexors.
Bhujangasana or cobra pose is a more accessible back bending asana but by no means it is easy. A variation that can be practiced is Salamba Bhujangasana which is done on the forearms. Bhujangasana strengthens the back muscles, improves flexibility of the spine and opens the shoulders and chest.
Vrksasana or tree pose is a standing asana which helps us to set a strong foundation in the body, mind and in our practice. Finding stability and balance takes time and Vrksasana can support us in doing so.
Trikonasana or triangle pose provides a deep opening to the intercostal muscles, the inner thighs, chest and shoulders. It also strengthens the legs and stimulates the digestive organs. Trikonasana can be practiced with a block to place the hand on until one can reach the mat (although this is not necessary). Always ensure the shoulders are in a straight line and the upper hip is externally rotated .
Lizard pose is a beautiful hip opening asana, which is very versatile and comes with many modifications to suit different levels and states the body is in. Although it is considered a deep hip opening asana, it is one of the more accessible ones due to the modifications it has.
Kumbhakasana or plank pose helps us to develop strength overall in the body, particularly in the core and back muscles. It is also a great asana to use in between the other yoga postures, as it brings the body in a straight line and helps create balance. A variation for this is to do it on your forearms, or place the knees on the mat with the feet up.
Savasana is the most important asana from any asana practice (in my opinion). I like to call it "The master asana" because it is during Savasana that the teaching of the practice are revealed. It teaches us to be still, relaxed, effortless in the body, breath and mind. No doing, just being. And this can be challenging, but one of the most rewarding parts of it.
One of the most beautiful aspects of yoga is that it is a complete life philosophy (in my opinion). Through continuous daily practice we can learn, understand and experience it. The practice is not limited to the mat, asana is just one of the “tools” we can use. Actually the true wisdom of yoga is to apply it in all our daily activities.
Life no doubt can feel challenging at times. Events come and sometimes we cannot understand their reason, other times we are grateful for them. Life is a rhythm; a fluctuation of constant movement and changing events, shifting rapidly. We can see this in the nature, its seasons and polarities of day and night. We too experience these shifts, from shadow to light and vice versa. Our moods change based on external events or internal shifts. People enter our life and then they leave. Places we once felt connected to, no longer seem familiar. Jobs that we dreamed of doing, can turn into a chore. Relationships that brought us happiness, sometimes end in disappointment. These are the rhythms of life, most of them which we cannot control. So how can we learn to flow with this rhythm and all it brings following the teachings of yoga?
BEING PRESENT, STAYING CENTRED
Life is constantly changing. Rarely we stay present with each experience; most of the time we are physically present but the mind is either in the past, future or in judgement. If we can learn to be in the experience in real time, as it comes, without the need to judge it but to simply live it, we can find our balance. This is what dharana (concentration) & dhyana (meditation) practices teach us. To be still, to be present. In life, there are times we need to be active and dynamic and times when we need to be passive and pause. If we can find the middle ground, then we can learn to go through each event of life with more ease, in a state of acceptance & balance.
BE FREE FROM SELFISH DESIRE
Setting goals is part of life and most of us are taught that life is about becoming something great and ticking things off our To Do list, that the more we achieve, the greater we are…The philosophy teaches us that whether we tick things off or not or achieve anything, we are still great. Because our true self is the greatest light there is in each one of us, coated in these layers of physical experience. Instead of focusing on how you can be greater, yoga teaches us to shift this onto the collective, “How can we better be of service, do great for others, the nature etc”…We should indeed strive to live a life of integrity and bringing good to the world. It is our duty as human beings to be of service in some way. When we are in a constant state of desire, suffering will come. Because if the desired outcome does not happen, then this will bring disappointment. And when the desire is fulfilled, another desire will follow and the cycle continues.
VAIRAGYA - DETACHMENT
This is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of the philosophy. Most of us love with attachment and condition. Many even attach to their spiritual practice. We cling onto things, places, careers etc to give us some sort of solid ground on who we think we are and how we live our life. Attachment in the philosophy is said to only bring dukkha, suffering. Everything is temporary, including our relationships. So no doubt suffering will be experienced if we attach to anything or anyone, because as it comes, at some point it will go. Practicing vairagya is difficult. It requires time, patience and faith. For some, unlearning the conditions they have learned throughout life. But when we start to feel joy and be grateful for every thing, every person, every aspect life gifts us with, without needing to be dependant on it or claim ownership for it, then we are free. And this internal state of freedom is one of the most powerful insights we can realise from the yoga philosophy.
KNOW YOURSELF BEYOND FORM
One of the key outcomes of a consistent and dedicated yoga practice (this goes beyond just asana practice) is the realisation that we are not just the body and the mind but that beneath these, the essence which reflects through these is our true nature. These are indeed the objects of manifestation in physical life of our essence. This is difficult to understand and it requires consistent practice and reaching the highest forms of spiritual practice, such as meditation and Samadhi/enlightenment; the awakening of what I am, the true meaning of self-realisation. All the physical aspects of the self are constantly changing & impermanent, but the essence remains. It is not bound, dependant or affected by any external factors. This is where the meaning of “union” of yoga comes in to join all the dots and reach the AHA moment. How are we all connected? Because we all are just one essence manifested in different form.
This delicious stewed spiced apples dish is an Ayurvedic recipe, usually taken at breakfast. Although it can also make a wonderful healthy dessert. I first had this delicious dish when I was studying to become an Ayurvedic practitioner, over a decade ago. It is still one of my favourites.
This vegan recipe is quick and easy to make, has only 4 ingredients and it takes less than 20 minutes. Apples are very well suited for the Pitta dosha predominant individuals especially those which are sweeter. Raw apples can increase Kapha and Vata, however this recipe is suited for both because the apples are well cooked, making them easier to digest and combined with the two spices which pacify all three doshas.
2 apples (diced)
2 tbsps of Cinnamon
1 tbsp of Cardamon
Coconut oil for the cooking
1.Dice the apples into small cubes.
2.In a pot or pan, add coconut oil and when it is hot, add the spices. Let these cook for about 1-2minutes.
3.Add the apples and stir well with the spices.
4.Add 2 cups of water and let it all simmer for about 10 minutes at low heat.
When the apples are soft, it is ready.
You can serve with Gluten-free toast and sultanas, or on their own.
Sciatica can be experienced by anybody and it can feel very uncomfortable, at times with quite intense and sharp pain. This painful sensation is caused when the sciatic nerve is irritated and is most commonly felt in the lower back, buttocks area or in the back of the thigh/leg as the nerve runs down the leg. It can also be felt during sitting for prolonged periods of time, bending forward, running or during long walks. The causes are not always known, but with gentle movement and care, we can help to relieve it.
It is important to consider that sciatica can be caused by different factors so always check with your GP or healthcare medical practitioner if you experience this to check the cause and determine the reason for the pain and the severity of it.
These Yin yoga style asanas provide a gentle stretch to some of the key areas where sciatica affects the body, and some can help to develop more strength in the back. These should be practiced gently, without forceful movement. The body can feel sensitive whilst experiencing sciatica pain and depending on the severity of it, so it is best to practice light and very gentle asanas. Use props as optional to aid with the postures.
If you are pregnant, have any injuries/past recent surgery, sciatica & other symptoms of body pain, it is best to check with your GP first before practicing these.
Supta Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
Supported Setu Bandha Sarvangasana
One of the most important aspects of a yogic lifestyle is discipline and creating a daily yoga routine that you will actually stick with requires commitment. Life is busy and we tend to fill our days with so many different activities, some useful, some not. But our wellbeing should always be a priority. If we feel good in the body and mind, then we can live with more ease and handle any of life’s events with a clear mind and composed state.
Here are some aspects to consider that can help you create a daily yoga routine:
In order to be successful at anything, we must learn to be consistent with it. In the Raja yoga path and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the de-codifier of yoga), he mentions Abhyasa, which can translate as keeping consistent to your practice. Patanjali says that the practice must be done everyday, at the same time in the same place. Focus on the quality not the quantity. Your practice doesn’t need to be of a specific length, but it should be effective for you. If you know that you will only stick to 10 minutes a day, when you get on your mat and stretch, or practice pranayama, or whatever your practice may be, then do that. But do it daily. Pressuring yourself to a specific duration will not work. After a while, you will most likely give up if it does not fit with your daily schedule. So instead of forcing yourself to a duration of time and causing stress in your life, choose the time that works for you.
Detach from a specific outcome
Creating goals in life can definitely help in many ways, but in yoga philosophy it works differently. The main reason of yoga as a lifestyle is to empty the mind, become strong and flexible in the body so that the mind can also be focused, clear and adaptable. If you fill your mind with goals, you create expectations and overwhelm yourself. And then you will attach to these. Desire in the philosophy is said to only bring suffering. For example, if your daily practice is asana and you have the desire to reach a specific yoga pose and after practicing for 2 months you still cannot do it, you will feel discouraged. At some point even frustrated and question yourself, your body’s abilities and if yoga actually works. This is what we want to avoid in our practice. These are ego related mental concepts, and practicing yoga is about less ego and more awareness. So just do your practice daily, without attachment to an outcome or any goal. Get on your mat, or whatever your practice is, just do it and let whatever comes to come. If you practice waiting for an outcome or a specific result, then you will always keep your mind active. And in any yogic practice, the mind should become more silent.
Get clear on what your yoga practice is
This brings up the next aspect. What is your yoga practice? Yoga itself is a philosophy and it goes beyond the physical aspect most people know it as. Which is your yoga path? To figure this out, you can just reflect on which practices help you calm your mind and create balance in your life. If you are more interested and benefit from daily asana practice, make that your primary sadhana (spiritual practice). If it’s Pranayama (yogic breathing techniques) then choose that. If you practice Japa meditation (repetitive chanting using mala beads), make that your daily yoga routine. If sitting in silence for 5 minutes every morning is what takes you closer to your true self (inwards) and brings clarity to your mind, commit to this. Of course all of these can be practiced together and in my opinion we should have a variety of practices we do. But to keep consistent, you must first do the practice you know helps you and you will stick to. As time goes on, and you get deeper in your yoga routine, these will naturally become part of your day.
Choose the same time everyday
Consistency requires repetitive action of the same behaviour. It is said that it takes 21 days to create a habit, and 42 days for it to become naturally part of your life. A helpful way to develop this consistency is to practice everyday at the same time. If you are not a morning person, then choose evening time, or during the day. If you love mornings, then make that your practice time. Whichever suits you, do it everyday at the same time. Pick a time when you know you will definitely be able to stick with it. For example, I love early mornings. I do not have to force myself out of bed at an early time, because my body and mind are now used to being up early. So my time of sadhana is always then, because I know 100% I can stick to this.
Your practice is a personal experience. It should be done with enthusiasm and willingness. If you dread doing it then it will never work. Find what time suits you best, which practice takes you further away from the external and more connected within and commit to this beautiful journey.
Our emotional states can fluctuate constantly and this can affects our overall wellbeing. The yoga philosophy teaches us that we must learn to control the modifications of our mind, therefore our emotions also. When our mind is at peace, we also experience emotional balance. Therefore we must always work on the mind to quieten the overactivity. There are many practices we can use to help us with this, the following are some which can be included as a daily routine.
GET OUTSIDE IN NATURE
Being in nature is one of the best ways to calm the senses, feel connected & inspired. When we are in the presence of others, we pick up their energy instantly and this can create a cognitive or emotional reaction, or in some cases affect our our energy (particularly for energy sensitive individuals). But when we are in nature, we are surrounded by pure energy and calm. Take a short walk outdoors, watch the sunset, go for a swim, gaze at the moon, take 5 minutes to sit in the sunshine with your eyes closed and breathe in the light and warmth etc. Whatever option suits you best, just let yourself be in the presence of nature & get some fresh air.
DO SOMETHING CREATIVE
Find a hobby that sparkles your creativity. This can be baking, cooking, drawing, painting, writing, sewing, building something, etc.... When we engage in actions that are creative, we feel joyous, connected with ourselves & focused. And learning to focus the mind on what we are doing in that moment means being present in the now. Being creative activates the sacral chakra (Swadisthana) which is the energy field of creativity and feminine energy. It also represents how we deal with emotions, especially towards ourselves.
Connect with the people you love. Whether you meet with a friend for lunch, or just have a phone call with a loved one, keep connected with people daily. This increases the energy in Anahata, the heart chakra & helps us to maintain healthy levels of trust, openness, acceptance & a sense of belonging.
DAILY PHYSICAL EXERCISE
Develop the discipline to exercise daily. On some days, it will be more gentle such as a yin yoga session or a slow walk. On other days, it will be more dynamic such as an intense cardio session, a strong Vinyasa flow or a weight lifting session. Whatever feels good for you on the day, get in the habit to move your body daily. Physical exercise plays an important part in our emotional well being. Be mindful not to push yourself & your body over the limit; exercise to respect yourself & to feel good, not to punish yourself.
Take 5 minute breaks throughout the day to focus on your breath. Set reminders on your phone so that you can commit to it. When we focus on our breath, we practice Pratyahara, sense withdrawal. This means we connect inward and become more focused on our internal world, away from the external distractions. Counting breathing technique can be very useful. Inhale and count to 5, exhale and count to 5.
The quality of our sleep greatly impacts our overall wellbeing. Just as the physical body is resting, the mind must also be at peace.
This also means letting go of any negative thoughts, emotions and cognitive patterns. We can do so by doing a short meditation before sleep or by journaling our thoughts and feelings. Going to sleep with a calm mind is very important.
Yin and restorative yoga are often confused as being the same style of practice. Both practices are created to channel in the yin energy, which is the more calm, receptive and passive. They both help to calm the nervous system and bring stillness to the body and mind, holding the asana for longer, releasing resistance and tension. Although they share similarities, there are definitely differences.
WHAT IS YIN YOGA?
Yin yoga focuses on stretching and releasing tensions from the fascial networks, ligaments and joints. This is different than a more dynamic asana practice, which often places pressure on these and develops strength of stretches actively the muscles. The main physical benefits of yin yoga are to increase flexibility & mobility by holding passive asanas for a longer duration. During a yin practice, props are often used but it is not necessary for all asanas, this applies only if the person needs extra support. This can sometimes be needed because in yin yoga, asanas are held between 1-5 minutes, depending on the posture. Although a gentle practice, it still requires effort of the physical body. The rule is to never go to that place where you feel too uncomfortable in the stretch. Come back a little bit, so that you can hold the asana for longer. If there is pressure put on the body during the asana, injury can happen. And often it can take a while before it does, but if pressure continues, with time injury will occur.
WHAT IS RESTORATIVE YOGA?
Restorative yoga focuses solely on restoration of the body and mind. During this style of practice, we also hold the asanas for a longer duration just as in yin. But restorative yoga always includes the use of props to minimise any effort of the physical body & the mind. This is the key idea behind the practice, no effort so there is a greater focus on relaxation. Therefore restorative practice does not require physical effort. It is a suitable practice for everybody, including those who have an injury, weakness in the body or experience high levels of stress and anxiety. It is always best however to check with your GP before practicing, if you have any injuries.
Here are some examples of asanas done in both practices. It’s important to remember that some restorative option can also be applied to the practice of yin yoga.
EKA PADA RAJAKAPOTASANA/