Want to integrate a profound sense of balance into your life? Try this
Moving your body on the mat each week is a great choice to make for your wellbeing. As well as the physical benefits, it also provides moments to connect into a deeper sense of self. With regular practice, the moments of exertion and struggle open up to flow. When you move deeper into postures, a certain sense of satisfaction is discovered.
The great Sufi poet Rumi observed the exquisite nature of movement. “Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.”
Balance is fundamental to living a fulfilled life. Each day, week, month and year, the whole system seeks to find balance. When you feel balanced, you move with harmony and grace. But was it more than balance of physical movement that Rumi was referring to? Perhaps your “deepest presence” is possible in much more than the just the movement of your limbs. Is each small physical contraction and expansion just a glimpse of something much deeper?
Consider the movement of breath within you, knowing when it is short and jagged or when it is long and easy. When you tune into your senses, what do you become aware of? What is that sound? Is it relevant and why does it impact me in such a way? When you focus your attention, you feel centred. There is a sense of balance from within. Beyond the coordination of the limbs, balance provides a powerful framework for approaching life.
Whole balance requires settling the whole system: the mind, emotions, body and energy. Yoga is a system of union that guides you towards this whole system balance.
So what is this balance? What do you notice when you feel balanced, as opposed to when you feel out of balance? Perhaps it is the observation of John Steinbeck, which hints at the value of looking a little further. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 suggested, “Many a trip continues long after movement in time and space have ceased.” His was not a specific commentary on yoga. Yet if you consider it in the context of yoga, there is an opportunity waiting for you. Whole balance requires settling the whole system: the mind, emotions, body and energy. Yoga is a system of union that guides you towards this whole system balance.
Yoga in the Raja (Royal) yoga tradition is a system of eight limbs. Asana, often referred to in Western commentary and studios as yoga, is but one of these limbs. Like most systems, the use of the complete system provides the greatest benefit. And often the most enjoyment.
In 200 AD, a yogi called Patanjali compiled a complete text on the science and philosophy of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras, according to many, is the most important text compiled on Raja yoga. There is not that much recorded on Patanjali. According to Sadhguru, an Indian mystic, Patanjali was not just a yogi. “He was a master of language and mathematics. His perception of astronomy was fantastic. He understood the truth of human nature.” Known as the Father of Modern Yoga, he did not create yoga. The system was already thousands of years old. The major role he played was to assimilate the knowledge from many sources into a single text.
The 196 Sutras explore the essential nature of yoga. Through concise but multi-layered statements, they set out a systematic approach that seeks to create balance. The balance is not just a physical one. It refers to a balance within your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being. And not just within the individual whole, but the bigger whole.
The eight limbs of yoga
Within the Sutras, Patanjali outlined eight limbs (ashtanga) for achieving balance and harmony.
- Yamas — ethical and social restraints. Ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (not stealing), brahmacharya (moderation) and aparigraha (not hoarding).
- Niyamas — personal observances (internal practices). Shaucha (purification), santosha (contentment), tapas (asceticism), svadhyaya (self-study) and ishvara pranidhana (devotion).
- Asana — yoga as it is often referred to. Specifically the practice of physical postures. Asana has a direct impact on restoring physical health and an indirect impact on cultivating a peaceful mind.
- Pranayama — this practice is about infusing your body with vital life force. The starting point for such is practised through control of the breath. These practices can strengthen and revitalise the internal organs in the body. They nourish the senses and nurture the mind.
- Pratyahara — to begin, this involves disentangling from unhealthy sensory attachment. These practices begin to turn your attention inwards, towards your deeper wisdom.
- Dharana — concentration beyond either internal or external distraction. This involves harnessing your focus to a single point (object).
- Dhyana — meditation. This is an advanced stage of concentration. Meditation develops a level of clarity of mind that is not ordinarily experienced.
- Samadhi — a more refined and expansive experience of concentrated meditation. There is an uninterrupted feeling of peace and complete balance.
Some commentators suggest that a step-by-step approach to the limbs is required. The limbs, however, were never described as steps. They are limbs and the choice of which limb to move through first is always yours. Sometimes it is useful to move the right leg first. In other situations, it is useful to move the left arm. At some point, to move in your preferred direction, it will be useful to engage and coordinate all the limbs.
Consider your current situation in life. It will provide insight as to where you might focus your attention. If your body is generally healthy, flexible and strong but your mind is busy or unsettled, you will likely feel out of balance. In this scenario, shifting your efforts towards settling the mind will be useful.
The Yoga Sutras explore the essential nature of yoga. Through concise but multi-layered statements, they set out a systematic approach that seeks to create balance. The balance is not just a physical one. It refers to a balance within your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being. And not just within the individual whole, but the bigger whole.
Sadhguru observes that conditioning the body in asana is part of the process. But that perhaps in modern times, it is more important to start with your mental aspects. If we go back a few hundred years, most people used their bodies a lot more than we do today. The body was the strongest, and considered the most important, aspect of a person. As such, it provided the biggest challenge to overcome. The focus was on making it stronger, more flexible and more durable. Over the past 200 years, we have started to use the mind much more. And in turn, matters of the mind have become more common. Perhaps it then makes sense to give a shared focus to the physical and mental.
Other commentators suggest that each limb provides equal support to the whole system. That practise of all the limbs leads to harmonious development of the self. At any point, you might emphasise one more than the other. Ultimately, working with all of the limbs is how you achieve whole balance.
Knowledge, however, does not change experience. Only through the application of that knowledge do you begin to see the benefits. Bruce Lee, perhaps the greatest martial artist in history, emphasised this point: “Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.”
If your journey with yoga so far is through asana, then you are already “doing” something. A further beneficial step is finding a small amount of time for the limbs that focus inwards.
The direct translation of pranayama means to extend the life force. You begin this by learning to control and direct your breath. This has an immediate impact on your body and mind. The benefits for your wellbeing are many. There are also many types of pranayama. They have subtle different impacts, but all will improve your breathing and energy. Choosing one or two to start with and focusing on these is the best approach.
Pratyahara is a brilliant tool for taking control of your life and opening up to your inner being. Perhaps one of the most useful practices relates to controlling your sense awareness.
Your senses are responsible for taking in most of the information you use to engage with the world. The challenge is that we take in so much information and we often feel overwhelmed and distracted.
By becoming more aware of what information you take in, you are better able to regulate your mind activity. You take control of your body by choosing what food you eat, the exercise you do and the quality of your sleep. In this way, you support your physical wellbeing. By learning to control what impressions you place in your mind, you support your mental wellbeing. Through deeper sense awareness, you learn to control the inputs to your mind. As a result, you are able to free yourself for calmer and clearer thinking.
A healthy body is necessary for cultivating and retaining a peaceful mind. But a healthy body will not alone create a peaceful and balanced mind. Yoga is a system of union. Union of body, mind and spirit
Concentration, or dharana, is gathering all the faculties and focus of the mind towards a single point. This skill is practical in all aspects of your life.
Choose an object to focus your attention on. This might be something within you or outside of you. It is useful to be consistent with what it is you focus on. It is equally important to choose an object that is uplifting for you. The breath or a mantra are both examples of objects for focus.
Meditation is best described as an advanced stage of concentration. It is, however, a more expansive experience. Concentration to a single point aids the mind to become steady, with fewer fluctuations. Meditation expands your awareness towards your true nature. You begin to connect with your voice of intuition; the wisdom that resides within. The more consistently you practise meditation, the louder this voice becomes.
By working with the whole system of yoga, you can begin to experience this union. A balance and equanimity in each day and in each action. As a result, you can navigate the challenges of life with ease and notice the opportunities it presents to you.
- Sit in a place where you can be free from distraction. Bring awareness to your breath without needing to change it. Simply observe it.
- Then bring awareness to your body. Notice any sensations within the body. Notice them without needing to engage in a mental conversation about what you notice.
- Bring awareness back to your breathing. As the breath naturally slows, see if you can maintain a continuous flow. Between the in breath and out breath, the breath will slow, but you do not want it to stop. Aim for the same length between the out breath and the in breath.
- Focus on establishing this continuous flow for a few minutes. Then let go of focusing on the breath at all. Thoughts may arise. Simply notice them and then let them pass by. Like clouds passing by in the breeze.
It is important not to force your practice. Notice what happens as a result of the practice. Check in with your teacher for insights and guidance. Keep it simple. Keep it short and accessible to begin with.
Looking after your body through the right nutrition, movement and sleep helps to create a foundation for physical wellbeing. If you stop at that point, then you look after part of the self. At different times, you will still have a sense of imbalance, like something is missing. A healthy body is necessary for cultivating and retaining a peaceful mind. But a healthy body will not alone create a peaceful and balanced mind. Yoga is a system of union. Union of body, mind and spirit. The union between the small whole (you) and the bigger whole (the whole of creation). By working with the whole system, you can begin to experience this union. A balance and equanimity in each day and in each action. As a result, you can navigate the challenges of life with ease and notice the opportunities it presents to you.
Tips to support balance from within
- Discuss your interests in working with the different limbs of yoga with a teacher. Ask them for guidance based on their experience.
- Arrive to your asana class 10 minutes early so you can sit and connect to your breathing. To begin, observe the breath for a few minutes. Don’t try to change it. Just focus on the in breath followed by the out breath. Notice the impact on your asana practice when you carve out this time.
- At the end of your asana practice in savasana, you can practise a technique known as belly breathing. It is part of the full yogic breath technique.
- Place one hand, palm down on your chest and the other hand palm down on your belly.
- Breathe in through your nose. As you do, guide the breath as if you’re moving it all the way down into the belly. You will feel the belly gently rising under your palm, like a balloon that inflates when you blow air into it.
- Breathe out through your nose. Feel the belly subside back towards the spine as it empties of air.
- You won’t need to take a deeper breath. The technique is one of directing the breath deeper within.
- Note: The goal of the hand on the chest is for it to remain inactive. When you learn to breathe into the belly, the chest becomes quite still. Don’t worry if this doesn’t feel natural to begin with. You will notice a change with practise.
- At lunchtime, take five minutes and sit outside. Before eating your lunch, sit and focus on the sky. If thoughts arise just notice them and bring your focus back to the sky. The uniform nature of the sky gives your mind a rest from the overload of information it is generally taking in. Try this for a minute to start. Extend to five minutes as you become more comfortable.
- Before you go to bed at night, sit and bring attention to your breath. Allow thoughts to arise. Notice them arise. Acknowledge each thought and then return your focus to the breath. Start slowly. As little as one minute of practice is beneficial to begin with.
Benefits of pranayama
- Learning to breathe effectively helps you connect to your parasympathetic nervous system. Also known as the relaxation response of the body, it helps to regulate your response in stressful situations.
- Improved breathing cleanses the lungs and improves their capacity. Over time if you do not breathe completely, the lungs accumulate toxins. This prevents them from working to their full capacity. Fuller breathing cleanses the lower areas of the lungs.
- Your immune response improves. Your lymphatic system relies on body movement to help clear toxins from the body. Asana twists and inversions support this function. So too does full diaphragmatic breathing that moves the organs.
- Pranayama creates a focused and steady mind that is ready to meditate.
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