Yoga for spiritual balance
We’ve all heard about the spiritual balance yoga offers but what exactly does this entail? It doesn’t necessarily mean donning a saffron robe and giving up all worldly possessions. Instead, the spiritual balance we can achieve with yoga can help us look within and reach a deeper understanding of ourselves and our true natures.
Yoga can help us achieve spiritual balance in different ways. It might be through the study of yogic philosophy or practising asanas and meditation as a way to achieve greater awareness of the body, mind and soul. Don’t expect to feel a profound sense of spiritual balance if you’re only attending a class every so often. Progression down the spiritual path, both on and off the mat, can only really be achieved through regular and sustained practice. Slowly but surely, our yogic journeys can help us reach a better understanding of the essence of our beings. In the process, we can learn how to connect on a deeper level and cultivate the inner qualities of the poses in ourselves.
Balancing the eight limbs
Yoga’s foundational text, the Yoga Sutras, was compiled by the sage Patanjali more than 2000 years ago. The Sutras outline the eight limbs of yoga. They consist of yama (social discipline), niyama (self discipline), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union with God). Integrating each of these limbs into daily life is the recipe for enlightenment. However, let’s bring our focus to the third limb, asana, and its role in striking that spiritual balance.
The purpose of asana
As we can see, asanas, make up just one of the eight aspects of yoga. However, as one of the more popular limbs, asanas are a good place to start. They also bridge the physical and mental spheres and act as the springboard to explore other yogic concepts.
According to Patanjali, the purpose of asanas is to prepare the body and mind for meditation. The Sutras state that one has mastered an asana when the pose can be comfortably held for three hours. Don’t worry, we won’t be going that far. However, this does allow us to see the process at play. Asana practice begins at the physical level. We then learn to cultivate the mind by stilling the thoughts and fluctuations, withdrawing the senses from the external environment and looking deeper within to the centre of our beings, the soul. This way, we achieve the total benefits of a pose: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
The rhythmic and repetitive movements and non-competitive and largely non-verbal nature of asana practice add to the meditative and spiritual experience. Connecting with the practice and focusing the mind in the present moment can also help bring out the inner qualities of the postures, such as confidence, stamina, clarity, concentration and willpower, and allow these to be cultivated in ourselves. These can work on a deeper level, at the spiritual centre, for the purpose of transformation and development. We can also draw on these qualities in our day-to-day lives to help us find balance and understand our true natures.
Moving toward spiritual balance on the mat
So how can this actually be achieved through asana practice? As we travel along the yogic path of spiritual transformation, we progress through various stages and also start to integrate and harmonise our kosas, the body’s five sheaths of existence. Advancing in our personal practice and balancing these layers offers great potential for spiritual growth. The first of these stages is known as arambhavastha. This is generally a beginner’s stage in which yoga is practised at an anatomical level. Here, we work with the physical body, the annamaya kosa, and our focus primarily lies in understanding the posture and its movements. It is essential to grapple with the basics and get the correct foundations to attain the comfort and stability that will allow a deepening of practice.
In the intermediate level, ghatavastha, the mind begins to unite with the body. It is in this stage that we start to delve into the more mental and spiritual benefits of yoga as practice begins to encompass a reflective and meditative focus. This greater sense of focus means cultivating awareness when it comes to the breath, muscles, alignment of the body and so on. Here, we can travel further to our energetic body, the pranamaya kosha, and pay greater attention to the breath and actively cultivate pranic energy in the pose. The manomaya kosha, the mental body, also comes into play when we attempt to still and silence the mind. As we begin to focus ourselves in the pose and synchronise movement with the breath, these kosas interact and harmonise.
In the third stage, parichayavastha, the vijnanamaya kosha, the intelligence or wisdom and the body become one. Our intelligence body helps cultivate deeper insight into our consciousness and greater self-knowledge. Before we reach the innermost layer, we must eliminate the impurities and trappings of the intelligence, such as the ego. We also have the opportunity to connect with the deeper qualities the poses embody.
Nishpattyavastha is the final stage, which introduces atma, the soul. This is the stage of liberation where the mind, body and soul become one. At this point, asanas become meditative, spiritual and effortless. Once we have travelled through the various sheaths and established harmonisation, the anandamaya kosha, the bliss or divine body awakens, creating wholeness and allowing the spiritual self to radiate throughout all layers of our beings.
Progression through these various stages and sheaths can come almost naturally, albeit gradually, with committed and sustained practice. This means, if you are attending a class once a week, you should also dedicate time and effort to practise at home to ensure the quality of your progress.
Spiritual balance off the mat
When we awaken our spiritual potential on the mat, it can in turn flow into the course of our daily lives. We often associate spirituality with higher ideals or qualities such as compassion, love and generosity, to name a few. Our sense of spiritual connection is unique to each of us and can manifest in many ways, such as an enhanced feeling of empathy toward others, a sense of purpose, fulfilment and bliss, or a natural rapport or awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.
Asanas, in general, are known for their calming effects. Along with this, certain poses help foster qualities such as compassion, stamina, concentration, patience and endurance. Practising with greater awareness can allow us to achieve these deeper benefits that contribute to our sense or experience of greater spiritual connection off the mat. The qualities nurtured in asana practice are beneficial when it comes to understanding ourselves and our world, and offer an opportunity for spiritual growth, guidance and balance in daily life.
Creating the mindset
At the start of practice, try making a sankalpa, a short, positive resolution. Ideally, the sankalpa will be an affirmation that will help further your journey down the spiritual path. For example, your sankalpa might be “I will awaken my spiritual potential.” However, you may prefer a more general resolution, such as “I will achieve optimal health.” Repeat the sankalpa to yourself mentally to set the tone and purpose of your practice and to awaken deeper spiritual awareness.
A balanced practice
Essentially, a yoga routine that encompasses regular asana, pranayama and meditation practice can be beneficial in paving the way toward greater spiritual balance and awareness, on and off the mat. Our focus will be on asanas that help ensure a balanced practice, including twists, forward bends, inversions and back bends. These selected asanas also embody and instil certain qualities and virtues that help us look deeper to our spiritual centres and achieve growth and greater insight into our natures.
In these poses, try to go beyond the physical element and focus on the deeper benefits and qualities. The key is also to maintain regular practice. Try integrating these at home with other postures and form a consistent routine.
Adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog
This pose really gives the yogi a chance to look within. Place the palms and soles of the feet on the floor so the body creates an inverted letter V. Push up from the palms, lengthen from the sides and lift up the pelvis. Feel the stretch running down the calves as you attempt to bring the heels onto the mat. Slightly rotate the shoulder blades inward to avoid completely collapsing into this pose. Close the eyes and direct the gaze to the navel or the anja chakra, located at the eyebrow centre. Feel the strength and stability coming from your foundations. The focus and concentration required make this a beneficial pose for cultivating willpower.
Virabhadrasana II, warrior two
The warrior poses are a dynamic series known to increase inner strength and confidence. Step the feet apart so there is significant distance between the legs. Bring the hands to the sternum and then extend the arms outwards. This will help get your alignment correct. Rotate the right foot out and slightly turn in the left foot. Inhale and bend the right knee so it is aligned directly above the ankle. Keep the back leg straight and set your gaze on the right palm. Feel the energy radiating up from the feet, engage the core and stretch out from the fingertips. Feel the courage and determination of the warrior.
Balancing poses — vrksasana, tree pose
Begin in a standing position and bend the right knee, bringing the sole of the foot on the inside of the upper left thigh. Keep the right foot from slipping by grounding it against the thigh. Hold onto the ankle and, once you have your balance, place the hands in prayer at the chest and then slowly raise the arms above the head. As you raise the arms and lengthen the body, feel your confidence soar. Balancing postures require a great deal of concentration and determination as it’s easy to lose your footing and give up altogether. These poses helps foster trust and confidence in yourself to help you conquer on a deeper level anything that might be throwing you off-balance in life.
Forward bend — uttanasana, intense forward stretch
Stand upright, feet together. Raise the hands up and maintain the stretch going toward the fingertips. Bend from the waist, stretching the trunk and arms forward as you bring the hands down. First, lengthen the spine away from the body and then exhale, bringing the head close to the legs. Observe the consciousness and intelligence of the pose as you lengthen from the back and then from the sides as you go deeper into the forward bend. Forward bends also soothe and relax the body, so become aware of the flow of energy in this pose. As you bring the head closer to the legs, withdraw your senses from the external environment and internalise your awareness.
Meditative — sukhasana, twist — parivrtta sukhasana, easy pose
Sukhasana is known as the cross-legged pose. Gently roll the pelvis forward, rest on the sitting bones and lengthen the spine. Touch the index finger to the thumb and rest both hands on the knees. Close the eyes and focus attentively on each breath. This pose aligns the spine, allowing prana to flow evenly throughout the body. Allow the mind to relish the present moment. This single-pointedness helps cultivate feelings of serenity, acceptance and positivity when it comes to life and everything around us. To go into the twist, bring the right hand just outside the left knee. Place the left hand behind either the left hip or the spinal column for a deeper stretch. Lift from the base and elongate the spine. Initiate the twist from the abdomen and rotate the head to look over the left shoulder. As you twist deeper, allow the energy to rise and feel yourself discovering new horizons. By twisting on both sides, we allow equilibrium to return to the body.
Backbend — setu bandha sarvangasana, bridge pose
Backbends are often given to patients suffering from depression as they have long-reaching effects, including the ability to create uplift and clarity — beneficial qualities for spiritual transformation. Lie on your back and bend the knees. Place the soles of the feet on the floor at roughly hip distance apart. Bring the arms resting beside you or grab hold of the ankles with each hand. Inhale and lift the hips up. Gently walk the shoulders in. As the chest lifts and expands, feel the breath naturally deepen and the enhanced sense of vitality and contentment.
Inversion — sarvangasana, shoulder stand
Lie on your back with your hands by your side. Lift both legs up. Use your arm strength to lift the lower back off the mat. Support the hips or, if possible, the upper back with the hands. Straighten the legs and bring the chin closer to the chest. Focus your gaze on your toes. Feel the body lengthening and blood flowing throughout. Inversions can be daunting for many people but they offer great benefits. If we can overcome the fear of performing an inversion, we have the strength and stamina to tackle life’s obstacles.
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