Yoga: a means to an end

Category : Asanas (Postures), General advice, Philosophy 7th October 2021

Inside Yoga 319 (7/10/2021)

I haven’t written an article for my blog page since June. I could quite easily blame this inactivity on the pandemic and its ability to drain me of ideas. Or was it laziness? Perhaps blaming the pandemic is a credible excuse because after more than 19 months of living under restrictions of some form and the shadow of the pandemic it can be difficult to raise the energy levels above the minimum needed to get through each day! Sound familiar?

But that’s my excuses over, so after a long break, a return to basics: advice on how to approach yoga asana practice.

Asanas are the exercises we do on a yoga mat, the postures to be precise; and it is useful to remind ourselves that yoga asana practice is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is a methodology and tools of practice.

Yoga asanas is a practice, not an instant solution, because yoga’s philosophy understands that our state of being is always changing, day to day, week to week, month to month; we are in a constant state of flux, even if we do feel at times nothing changes and life is monotonous (lockdown did feel like Groundhog Day!). In other words, one day’s practice might solve all we face at that moment, but the next day might well be different; and require more practice to rebalance ourselves.

This is why there is such an emphasis on routine and regular yoga practice, because each practice session helps to restore our sense of balance and connection with ourselves (yoga translated from Sanskrit means union).

But then daily life does its best to unsettle us… so we practice yoga again… and again. We become so used to the routine, turning to our yoga practice to feel better becomes second nature, not something we have to set reminders for.

That is why yoga practice is a means to an end not an end in itself. In fact, dropping the idea of an end is recommended because seeing every day as part of a long journey and paying attention to the stage we are on at that precise moment is more important.

Picture all of our worries, concerns, and negativities packed in a backpack which we have to carry all the time. At times it will feel heavy; even, too heavy to carry on. So we use our yoga practice to empty this backpack of burden as much as we can, it might be a little each time, or a lot in one go; it all depends on the type of practice and its depth; and the how we are at that moment in time.

We persevere and carry on, maintaining a trust that this yoga practice is what we need.

A means to an end: we approach our yoga session without asking what we will get from it, or, questions about what will happen if we practice, but instead we focus on just practising. We immerse ourselves in practice for the sake of practising and pay attention to what we are doing in that very moment. Results will follow and they might well be just what we wanted, but grasping forward will not work.

This is the essence of yoga practice: training our body and mind to be present in the now, often called the present moment, to the exclusion of thoughts – whether past or future; important or trivial. And yes, it is not easy, but with practice we get better at refocusing the mind and returning to the point: yoga.

Yoga is mind training in action, as the second line of the yoga sutras states: yoga is the controlling (or cessation) of fluctuations of the mind. This is why during yoga practice we devote our efforts to focussing on stillness in the body and mind, using our breathing as an anchor.

Keeping our chattering mind is not easy, and at times, it is a challenge, but this is the practice. We train to watch out for thoughts and to get back to the breath and body awareness, by being alert for the expanding narrative of thoughts, whether it be replaying memories or planning the future. After all, we spend most of our waking hours doing this anyway, so why not stop it while practising yoga?

The body is important, not only because its health is critical to well-being but because it gives us something to focus on as part of yoga’s meditational approach. We pay attention to every part of the posture, from toes to top of head as a way of keeping our focus; so, if we catch our mind wandering off, we reel it back in. If we concentrate on the exercises there will be no space for thoughts.

Holding this together is our breathing: by watching our breath we keep focus; and more than that, we regulate our breathing to ensure each breath is slow and full. This takes practice, because some breaths might be too shallow or rushed, but we keep correcting this and returning to slow and full breathing.

I see yoga asanas as breathing with physical exercises; not exercises with the breath as an after-thought.

The ancient yogis believed that we are born with a fixed number of breaths per life. It is a breath account which will only go down, so why breathe in a shallow, short way and waste a precious resource, because this would shorten our life? Instead cultivate slow and full breathing, making every breath count, and then we will live a longer life. This might sound fanciful superstition from thousands of years ago, but science has shown that stress, disease and other ailments can cause shallow and erratic breathing; and with this a shorter lifespan.

Make every breath count

With time, patience and practice we get better at controlling our mind and with this our breathing and body; not just during practice but this will extend into our daily lives.
Cultivating self-awareness moment to moment is yoga.

Yoga practice is simple in its approach which is a welcome antidote to the complexity of life. This is why we routinely and regularly turn to our yoga practice to redress any loss of balance, focus and general well-being that life may cause.

Yoga is our refuge and sanctuary to heal ourselves and prepare ourselves for whatever lies for us outside of practice.

Yoga is a preparation and a practice for life.

Simply remember: body, breathing and mind.

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