Guest Author - Deborah Mauldin
Practicing yoga is a beautifully efficient means to achieving improved health and greater well being. It is a system of training that creates the connection between mind and body and allows the practitioner to develop an awareness of that connection. For many, the path of yoga begins by practicing asana, pranayama, and dharana.
Asana, pranayama, and dharana are three limbs of the Eight-Limb Path of Yoga. The other five limbs are the yamas, the niyamas, pratyahara, dhyana, and samadhi. Allowing these three limbs to work together creates a physical yoga practice that is at once safe and effective.
When thinking of yoga you might have a visual of someone doing a pose while standing on a yoga mat. The pose is an asana. In fact all of the poses, or postures, are called asanas and they each have a Sanskrit name which ends with asana. For example, Mountain Pose is where one stands up tall with the arms straight overhead. Mountain Pose is called Tadasana in Sanskrit.
Pranayama is breathing, however it is not the sort of breathing that the body does automatically. Pranayama is mindful breathing and it occurs by paying attention to the breathing in and the breathing out. Once your attention is on the breath, the breath becomes part of your practice.
Movement from one asana to the next is done on the inhale or on the exhale. Once inside of the asana, it is mindful breathing that helps to bring focus to actually being in the asana. It then enables you to go deeper or make adjustments to your posture without creating an injury.
Pranyama supports asana by way of dharana. Dharana is focus or concentration, and it enables you to actually move from one asana to the next mindfully and with the breath. Dharana is what enables you to balance in the asana, whether you're standing on one foot or on your head. Without dharana, pranayama cannot be maintained. Without dharana and pranayama, asana becomes perilous and possibly even impossible.
An asana practice can be a gentle means to build strength and flexibility but there are inherent risks involved in practicing yoga. Injuries can occur from being out of alignment or pressing too deeply into an asana. Those injuries can be immediate, such as a pulled hamstring, or they may be repetitive motion injuries that occur over time, such as tendonitis in the wrists. Pranayama and dharana both support a healthy and safe asana practice because they allow you to be fully aware of where you are and what your body is saying in the asana.
Knowing about and being mindful of these three limbs working together is what sets yoga apart from other fitness methods. Be mindful of the breath, for without the breath there is no yoga. One is simply working out. So be mindful and be safe. Breathe in, breathe out, and focus as you move from one asana to the next.