Yoga is composed of eight limbs:
- Yama : A system of morality or how we should treat others
- Niyama : Personal observances or how we should treat ourselves
- Asanas : Body postures, the physical acts that most people associate with the word yoga
- Pranayama : Breathing exercises; the control of prana
- Pratyahara : Control of the senses; withdrawing from the world of perception
- Dharana : Concentration; being able to create a single pointed focus
- Dhyana : Meditation
- Samadhi : Union with the divine
But, while this is the case, how often do most people who “do yoga” attend to the limbs other than asana? This is pretty understandable given that the pose part of it is a lot easier to advertise (hot women doing lunges is more sexy than middle aged ladies meditating), and that many people come to yoga through gyms or other “exercise” venues. But, even experienced yogis can be overly focused on the asana, to the exclusion of the other limbs. All acts have a multiplicity of consequences. What are the possible consequences of letting go of all the other limbs to focus on asana?
If all that one wants out of yoga is a workout, then perhaps the exclusive focus on asana means that one gets a much better workout. So, that might be a positive consequence. But, I can say from experience that, if you are open to the other facets of yoga, a beginning with focus on the exercise aspect can lead to something different. So, perhaps only focusing on asana can mean missing an opportunity for growth in other ways.
If an individual is drawn to yoga not only for exercise, but because he/she has heard that it is good for settling the mind and creating more peace in the self, then a devotion only to asana may have different consequences. Thinking only about the physical (which can be very challenging, even disconcertingly so) might still the mind some during the class or session, but if the goal is only to “get into” complicated poses or have “the best” workout, then the vrtti that come up between classes (“I suck at yoga,” “Maybe if I work harder, I could get into that pose like Bob does,” “What is wrong with my body that my knees won’t bend that way?”) could become even more agitating, rather than less.
For those who are really wanting to achieve yoga – or union – all the limbs are important. To ignore some (or most) for the sake of few (or one) seems counterproductive to me, but it’s easy enough to fall into. As a teacher trainee, I’m spending a pretty good amount of time thinking/talking/reading/enacting the other limbs of yoga. But, even so, I catch myself emphasizing asana to the exclusion of others at times. This week, I sustained a mild concussion on Monday. It caused nasty head pain that made asana impossible. All week, I fussed (internally and externally) about missing yoga. Missing yoga? My brain pain wasn’t preventing attention to the yamas, or the niyamas. It might have been making meditation more challenging and screwing with my ability to withdraw the senses, but those could still be approached. I could certainly have spent more time on pranayama. Yet, for a few days, I cut of my conscious attention to the totality (some of the yamas/niyamas are such habits that they happen regardless of my degree of focus) because of an inability to really do asana. Yep, I completely ignored what was available to me by focusing only on what was not. Not cool.
Rarely do we ever create a greater whole by damaging or ignoring some parts. We can’t make a better community by hurting some members. We can’t create a better world by ruining some areas. We can’t make a better life by abusing our bodies. We can’t have a better yoga by ignoring 7/8ths of what it is. All is. ALL is.