Yoga or Asana
There is no shortage of reminders that asana is only one of seven limbs of a much broader practice called yoga.
Rather than join the choir singing an old ditty that has wearied all of our ears far too much, I would like to explore
why we don’t practice the other limbs as we do asanas, with an aim to see if there might be some justification in
neglecting the other limbs, and what steps we could take to do a better job at including them.
First, I would like to say that to my mind there are excellent reasons that the other limbs are not given the attention
asana receives in a modern yoga studio. It is easy to imagine a group of people practicing various postures but try
for a moment to envision a group of people practicing renunciation together, samadhi (absorbed abstraction,)
truthfulness, and so forth. These and other limbs are not as well suited to a studio environment as asanas are.
Let’s backtrack a moment and name all eight limbs of yoga:
1: Yama ( restraint): which has five aspects: brahmacharya (continence) restraint of the senses,
particularly sexual desire, Satya (truth) adherence to truth in word and deed, ahimsa or
(harmlessness), (asteya)non-stealing, and aparigraha (non-greed) particularly for wealth and material
2: Niyamas (observances): which include recitation and study of scriptures, prayer, chanting, mantra
recitation, contentment (not seeking more than one's needs), austerity (mental and physical.)
3: asanas (postures): poses we assume to align the body, mind, and spirit.
4: Pranayama (breath mastery), the regulation of air flowing through the body with the aim of
awakening to prana, the subtle inner breath not associated with air. Thus, through the perfection of
pranayama the practitioner can suspend breath for long periods of time, hours and even days.
5: Pratyahara is willing the mind away from sense objects. It differs from merely turning the senses
away from attractions (for example) or restraint, in that the mere act of inwardly turning the mind is
enough for the senses to follow suit.
6: Dharana is the focusing the mind on an internal or external object.
7: Dhyana is the continuous flow of similar mental moments achieved after dharana matures.
8: Samadhi is absorbed abstraction and arises after Dhyana has matured. This state is often
accompanied by breathlessness for long periods and is indicated by it.
(Quoted from my own website)
Although the third limb, asana, is undoubtedly most conducive to a studio environment, that does not mean the
other branches should be ignored. There are steps that yoga studios could take to make available to their students
a richer yoga experience. Incorporating classes throughout the week to explain what the other limbs are, what they
entail, and have group discussions on these topics, would prove invaluable. While many yoga students may be
aware of the other limbs, many may not be, and even those that are aware may not see the importance of
incorporating the other limbs.
During the years, I attended yoga classes I received excellent cautions and countless “spots” and adjustments to my
poses to prevent me from injury. But, while these practical measures are available for asanas, they are not for the
other four limbs where we can quickly go astray, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi, and Pranayama. While these limbs
may not be taught in a modern studio, the fact remains that some students may be investigating these limbs on their
own and need guidance. Currently, most yoga studios have no mechanism for addressing the needs of those
exploring these four limbs. There should be.
Yoga studios are businesses, and like any business, they need to make money to survive. That being said, many
businesses are more successful because they don’t forget the fact that reputations are not just about numbers. I
had a friend who owned the most successful bookstore in Asia who carried titles that would sit on a shelf for years. I
asked him about this, and he said, “For me, it is a thrill when I have a book a customer hasn’t been able to find.”
While it is fair that yoga studios make money, it is also a responsibility to represent yoga in the process and make
space and time available for classes that, while fantastic for yoga, may not generate much money. The studio and
teachers who make themselves available for teaching yoga’s philosophy, morality, ethics, and meditative forms,
would be doing a real service for the yoga community that would not go unnoticed.
The other limbs of yoga may not perk our attention like asana do, they are equally necessary for a complete yoga
practice. There are natural limitations how supple and pliant and aligned our body can become, but these limitations
do not exist for the mind. Yoga has its physical element and mental element, and while we do an excellent job
exploring the former, we don’t do so well exploring the latter. The studio that breaks this trend will be doing the yoga
community a significant service.
Asanas can create all the health and beauty we ever wished for, but without the grounding in the other limbs, we
place limits on our own success. Yoga, complete yoga, teaches us how to avoid the pitfalls of attaching to our own
self-image, to have humility and be humble, to restrain our desires and impulses, to be pleasant and even-minded,
caring, reflective, thoughtful, and develop deep insight into our human purpose.
People who gather to practice postures would undoubtedly gather to discuss ideas. But, if there is no venue, it won’t
happen. Yoga studios must take the lead. It is up to us, the yogis and yoginis, to encourage them. Patanjali wisely
gave us guidelines for creating a complete yoga experience, but unless we explore them, we will be only seeing part
of a much bigger picture.