Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara (CONDENSED)

[I'm going apologize ahead of time for any negative vibes you all may get from this particular blog. I'm a bit on the aggravated side and no amount of deep breathing has helped, but if I don't write down my thoughts on these three things I've read, it won't get done tonight and will probably suffer tomorrow.]

My happy place!

As I began reading this morning, (yes I am way behind on posting) I had intentionally only considered reading on asana and pranayama. However, this changed as my eyes clearly decided they wanted to read about pratyahara as well. Nevertheless, it was some good information.

The first one I went over was, obviously, asana. This is the third limb of yoga and it is also the most widely used limb to represent yoga in its totality. And truth be told, when I first came to yoga I had no clue there were any other parts that made up this fascinating and illuminating practice. To me, yoga was a way to rehab my knees and to create a limber, yet healthy, body. Oh, how far I have come in my realization that yoga is much more than the postures that one assumes each time they get on a mat to practice.

Asana, however, is the postures of yoga, but it is not about who can do which posture better than another person. Nor is it about how quick someone can master a pose or even how limber a person becomes. Yoga is much more profound than all of those "ideals". It's not about obtaining a fabulous body through the postures, nor is it about simply maintaining flexibility. The postures are a way to help us conquer our bodies, purify them so that they are a worthy temple of our soul, our spirit. The body we have is a vessel, a temporary home that we inhabit before we can move on to live with the Lord, our God. By purifying and perfecting this body we were given, we are not only honoring God, but also better preparing ourselves to do his will. With a strong mind and body we can complete the tasks that He has set forth for us.

Through asana, we are freeing ourselves "from physical disabilities and mental distractions." Some people may balk at the idea of overcoming physical disabilities, (and true there are some that my or may not be cured by yoga but then again I can't get into that deeply because I'm not knowledgeable on that level) but I've seen some older women who've needed the assistance of a cane, or a walker, put up those objects permanently because of their perseverance with yoga practice.

It is not through asana alone that one can conquer the body though. The fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is said to have such a powerful affect on the body that one could purge themselves of disease. Of course, that doesn't mean to go out and grab the first DVD on pranayama you find and try to get busy learning the techniques. While it is powerful enough to cure a person, it also has the adverse reactions if practiced improperly. Prana "means breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy or strength. It also connotes the soul as opposed to the body." This limb is quite hard to condense into a paragraph or two because of how extensive it is. (I'm actually reading a BOOK on pranayama along with Light on Yoga. The book, Pranayama: The Breath of Yoga is written by Gregor Maehle and can tell you SO much more than I can about pranayama.)

Pranayama, in itself, is complicated (at least to me). A student must have a teacher that is knowledgeable in this area to instruct him or her. Through improper practice, a student can harm his/herself. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika warns, "as lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one's capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner." Yowza! Kill the practitioner. See, not something to take lightly or to even mess around with, at least without proper instruction. A teacher or guide can help a student better understand their limitations since they are masters (or at least extremely knowledgable in the application of this limb) of the techniques being taught. It's a rather tedious thing for me to swallow, having a teacher that is, because I live no where near someone that is extremely adept at pranayama, but I do intend to start taking workshops or something in regards to pranayama so that I can prepare myself or at least dip my feet into this intricate pool of knowledge.

Alas, pratyahara! This is the limb where a yogi learns to control his senses. Through sense control, one can control the mind. If one gives into the senses, there is a loss of control and it leads down a path of destruction. "The path of Yoga is like the sharp edge of a razor, narrow and difficult to tread, and there are few who find it. The yogi knows that the paths of ruin or salvation lie within himself."And this pretty much applies to anyone, because it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out if an action is deemed inappropriate or not. Most just choose to overlook the inappropriate or outlandish behaviors.

This limb is still much in the area of the unknown to me. I know that it is "sense withdrawal" but the extent of what is pertained in its glory is yet oblivious to me. Iyengar speaks of the three gunas (qualities or attributes) that are predominant in every person: Sattva (illuminating, pure or good quality) that leads to clarity and mental serenity, Rajas (quality of mobility or activity) that makes a person active and energetic, tense and willful, and then Tamas (the dark and restraining quality) obstructs and counteracts the tendency of rajas to work and sattva to reveal. Yogis, who are affected by these three gunas,  is able to gain control through "constant and disciplined study (abhyasa) of himself and of the objects which his senses tend to pursue, he learns which thoughts, words and actions are prompted by tamas and which by rajas."

The last section I just went over on pratyahara, is probably the biggest jumbled mess of all. Mostly, it is because I don't have a full grasp or working knowledge of this limb yet. There needs to be a book, or at least extensive sections of books, dedicated to each of the limbs. I like things broken down barney style so that I can make sure I don't miss something. While I understood what I read, that Iyengar wrote, I still feel a void in the information.

This is the link for the book on Pranayama, for those that are interested. You can still catch up and read along with Claudia and me. She's documenting her "Aha!" moments as she re-reads the book here. So come on over and join us :).


  1. Hi Brianna, I really enjoy reading your reflections on yoga philosophy! You have some great insights & it's so refreshing to read your personal impressions.

    Pranayama is an interesting topic. Classical and tantric yogis tend to explore radical pranayamas involving breath retention to try and explore different states of consciousness. Krishnamacharya (Iyengar's teacher) was documented being able to stop his heart and breath to the point where physicians would pronounce him dead. This kind of pranayama DEFINITELY requires guidance! However, there are many simple breathinng techniques, especially those drawn from the Buddhist lineage (which never retain the breath) that you can try on your own without any fear of harm. For example 3-part breathing, sama vritti (breathing in and out for equal periods of time), nadi shodana (alternate nostril breathing) or buzzing bee breath. (google them!)

    I have often heard pratyahara translated as "withdrawal of the senses". For me, it basically a practice of meditation - sitting still with eyes closed and letting go of the outside world, withdrawing to the "inner space of the heart". I think the essential "gain" of pratyahara is that by going within, we learn to listen to our bodies and untangle our physical senses from our mental and emotional bodies. This allows us to know what is TRULY good for us, rather than what our senses might be telling us. For example, take emotional eating, the practice of eating (or not) when we are sad (which would be tamasic) or stressed (which would be rajasic). We might feel as if we want food, but the body is not actually hungry. Pratyahara teaches us to understand and control our senses instead of letting our impulses control us.

    1. I'm glad you enjoy my personal impressions :). I was skeptical about writing my own thoughts in regards to the texts due to this being public and not wanting to sound like an idiot haha, BUT I figured if I get something wrong then someone who knows can correct me.

      I'm thankful for your responses on pranayama and pratyahara. It helps to have outside insight other than my own interpretations. :) In regards to the pranayama techniques you mentioned... I'll be looking those up tomorrow! I am always game to learn new things, provided they're safe to perform haha.