8 Limbs of Yoga: Asana, Pranayama & Pratyaha

By Sydney and Kevin Light Patanjali’s 2300-year-old Yoga Sutra contains a progressive series of disciplines, which chart a roadmap to the highest possible state of human potential, God-Realization. This article is the second installment of a three part series discussing the Eight Limbs of Yoga (ashta-angayoga). It will present the third, fourth, and fifth angas; asana (physical postures), pranayama (breath control), and pratyahara (sense withdrawal). Asana Where does the body end and the mind begin? Where does the mind end and the Spirit begin? They cannot be divided as they are all interrelated and but different aspects of the same all-pervading Divine consciousness.” B.K.S. Iyengar In the practice of asana, the third limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path, awareness of body and breath are melded to bring the mind under control. Patanjali describes asana as the extension of the body through relaxation, resulting in the expansion of consciousness. Asana provides us with a training ground for meeting life’s challenges with composure. Practicing asana also has profound health benefits, but that is just a fortunate side effect of the spiritual journey. A skin cell in our big toe knows how to become a skin cell in our big toe. Our bodies have an instinctual intelligence, even at the cellular level. Consciousness sees no boundary between body, mind or spirit. Since they are just different levels on which we exist, we cannot affect one without affecting all. The practice of asana balances us both physically and energetically, promotes muscle and joint flexibility and massages toxins out of our internal organs. Each of the regions of our body where the seven major energy centers, chakras, are found has an associated endocrine gland. For example the ajna chakra corresponds with the pineal gland, which produces melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating our biorhythms. Asana regulates our endocrine (glandular) system by enhancing the flow of prana (life-force) throughout our body. The entire asana practice is built around our spine, keeping it flexible

a gateway into the Now. When we practice asana each movement is the furthest extension of our breath. sahasrara. is the link between our subtle (mind) and gross (body) levels of existence. By employing the natural expansive quality of our inhale breath we can extend our body deeper into a posture while minimizing the use of external muscular effort. When practicing asana we utilize the other limbs of yoga to listen more deeply to the body intelligence. By coming deeper into our body we come deeper into the present moment where our perception is not clouded by an attachment to the past or an anticipation of the future. integrating body. In the Tantric tradition the third limb is designed to burn away all impurities. perfecting the body into its adamantine (light body) form in preparation for the increased flow of shakti. By breathing and moving in synchronization with the utmost attentiveness. The same inward focused awareness can also be used to isolate places of resistance in our bodies and psyche where energy is ‘stuck’. and allow the contractions to melt away. looking inside and feeling the internal lines of energy in a pose. Pranayama is the main technique used by the hatha-yogin to draw the “serpent power” (kundalini-shakti) up the spine’s central energetic channel (sushumna-nadi) to the crown chakra. exhale through them. Pranayama Our breath. This quality makes the body an invaluable tool. Often it is simply the act of bringing our consciousness to bear on a line of energy that allows it to fortify and strengthen. which accompanies the state of enlightenment. The human mind with its tendency to get caught in illusion often races forward and backward in time. mind and spirit. or union with the Divine. we allow our consciousness to pervade uniformly into all aspects of our being. is a key element in all paths of yoga. the embodiment of spirit in the physical realm. With our mind in the present and our conscious breath and movement as one. and allowing things to take their natural course. Yoga. we have set the context for union. or yoga to occur. can only occur when our mind is brought into the present moment. Taking control of the breath is the first step to having conscious . Surrendering our idea of how we think it should be. Our bodies by their very nature can only exist in the present. so that we can surrender into them.and strong so the sacred energy housed within can flow unimpeded.

Conscious breathing allows our perception to surpass where our five senses can take us so that we may have direct contact with the most eternal part of ourselves. The yogi uses the breath as a vehicle. It is through the breath that the changes and healings. similar to the way the ocean’s waves continually break on the shore. Most of the stress we experience in our daily lives comes from an overload of mind-noise (chitta vrtts). They occur in a ‘rolling’ process. which occur during the yoga practice. ‘As the tortoise retracts its limbs into the middle of the body. but by how many breaths he or she takes. Goraksha-Paddhati. is the discipline of consciously extending and controlling each breath so that we may retain more of the prana it holds. the fifth ‘limb’ of the eightfold path. We retain very little of the life-force (prana) contained in our breath. “The temple of God is . is the action of withdrawing our senses from the outer world and focusing them inward. Yogis control the breath in order to have peace of mind (chitta-shanti). by slowing our breath we can slow the frequency with which our thoughts occur. Breath is the key to the transformation. effectively reducing the level of background mind-noise. which we can experience through the science of yoga.’ All of the spiritual masters who laid down footprints for us to follow directed us inward on our path to oneness. riding the breath with their awareness down inside the body to explore all the subtleties of the associated movements and sensations.control over our mental and physical states. so the yogin should withdraw the senses into one’s self. emotional and spiritual aspects. However. into our energetic. Pratyahara Pratyahara. The ancient hatha-yoga text. We cannot completely stop our thoughts from coming. uses the following analogy to describe pratyahara. Our thoughts are inseparably linked to our breath. Stress is a primary cause of aging and illness. The yogi’s life is not measured by how many years he or she lives. the fourth stage of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. physical being. Pranayama. our soul. In the normal course of our everyday existence breathing is an involuntary act. are able to penetrate beyond our most surface. By slowing our breath we also slow both our mind and the rate at which we grow old. This helps to draw our senses inward (pratyahara) while calming the nervous system and clearing the mind in preparation for meditation (dhyana).

The entire yoga practice is a discipline whereby we shift and endeavor to maintain our perspective so that we are witnessing the present moment from the clarity of the heart-mind as opposed to observing through the distortion of our thoughts and senses. When practicing pratyahara we use our imagination and intuition to look inside. can also be our greatest obstacle if not brought under control. It is in this space of pure potentiality between our thoughts where union is achieved. Sri Krishna explains to Arjuna how the mind can be brought under control through constant practice (abhyasa) and freedom from desire (vairagya). and it is from this space that all creativity flows.within you.” -Socrates.” -Jesus of Nazareth. To observe from here is to see from the perspective of what Buddhists call the ‘heart-mind. we are observing from the surface of the ocean. ‘To know oneself at the deepest level is to simultaneously know God.” -Rama Krishna. “Know Thyself.’ In the Bhagavad-Gita. and then waiting for our eyes to adjust to the lower level of light so that we may see. which exists in the space between our thoughts. or witness state. so that we may perceive at a more subtle level. From this serene depth we continue to see the waves as tiny ripples. “Know thyself and all else will be known. is essential to gaining the knowledge of which the great ones speak. the act of exclusively focusing our powers of perception inward. The process is not unlike stepping into a dark room out of a bright sunny day. . When we observe from the perspective of our mind. is based on the tenet. as expounded in the Gnostic Gospels. When practicing pratyahara we pull our point of view way down beneath the surface. but a lousy master. Our mind. “The mind makes a good servant. but from some distance away so that they have no power to sway us.” -Sri Ramana Maharshi. By searching the silence and the stillness we set up the context for meditation (dhyana) to occur. allowing our senses to adapt and focus. that magnificent tool which can lead us to liberation. There is freedom in this discipline. and listen inwardly to the silence. wrought with turbulence and waves caused by our senses and desires. This viewpoint is the second attention. Early Christianity. beyond where our eyes can see. Consider our physical embodiment as if it were an ocean. where we are surrounded by vast blue stillness (sama).’ Pratyahara. freedom from being run by the mind.

“The entire Universe is condensed in the body.com. those same senses should then be actively brought to bear on our inner world. The Eight Limbs.Sri Ramana Maharshi Sydney and Kevin Light are Santa Monica based yoga teachers and cofounders of BhaktiWare. and the entire body in the heart. The answer to our deepest questions and longings can be obtained through the art of listening at this most profound level. Reach them at CoaleLightYoga. when practiced together offer a system. a methodology by which each of us can gain direct experiential knowledge of God.Withdrawing our powers of perception allows us to disengage the external.com All Rights Reserved. however. tuning ourselves to be receptive to ever more subtle levels of existence beyond the physical.” . A precious gift has been preserved and passed down to us through the ages: the science of transformation we know as yoga. Thus the heart is the nucleus of the whole Universe. Copyright © 2002-2006 LA Yoga Ayurveda & Health Magazine .

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