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The Proper Order of Yoga Practice

Posted by on Jan 20, 2010

I have had many students ask me how they should practice their pranayama and asanas when cultivating their own sadhana. According to Patanjali’s 8-limbed path of yoga (the true Ashtanga yoga) the sequence should be Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and finally Samadhi.  There is very sound reasoning behind this order, but I feel I must add a practicality to my classes and I know many people are living in a very westernized world where a full practice of this kind is not necessarily possible without the beautiful mouna (silence) and retreat offered at an ashram for an extended period.

I would preface this fact before elaborating, with the great concern I have that yoga is being bent to accomodate our westernized pace of life more than we are bending to practice yoga in its truest context, but just as the Dalai Lama has conceded that Buddhism must grow with the evolution of society, looking deeply into science for corresponding proofs, for example, and by leaving behind outdated ideas of patriarchal society amongst monks and pratitioners, so must we shape our yogic practice to accomodate a changing world.

Many students who come to my classes have no idea what yamas and niyamas are, and if I taught them based on Patanjali’s path, they would never come to a class based purely on a practice of his observances and ethical precepts as the first lesson. I do, however, try to embody the qualities expounded upon in Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas.  I slip them into conversations about asana and pranayama whenever I can, but I try not to alienate my audience completely by telling them they should stop lying, gossipping and stealing before they ever hit the yoga mat.  I realize this is just unrealistic.

The Yamas: Precepts of Social Discipline
Ahimsa — Non-violence. Not harming other people or other sentient beings. Not harming onesself. Not harming the environment. Tolerance even for that which we dislike. Not speaking that which, even though truthful, would injure others.
Satya — Truthfulness. Note that sometimes we may know our words are literally true, but do not convey what we know to be truthful. This is a child’s game. Satya means not intending to deceive others in our thoughts, as well as our words and actions.
Asteya — Non-stealing. Not taking that which is not given.
Brahmacarya — Sexual responsibility. Regarding others as human beings rather than as male and female bodies. The spirit of this precept is conservation of energy for the purpose of spiritual practice. This includes not only sexual restraint, but protecting our energy for instance by avoiding endless chattering with no clear purpose.
Aparigraha — Abstention from greed. Not coveting that which is not ours. Avoidance of unnecessary acquisition of objects not essential to maintaining life or spiritual study.
The Niyamas: Precepts of Invididual Discipline
Sauca — Cleanliness. Not only external cleanliness of the body, but attending to internal cleanliness such as avoiding the impurities of anger and egoism. Moderation in diet.
 Santosa — Contentment. Not spiritual complacency, but acceptance of the external situation we are allotted in this life.
Tapas — Austerity. Deep commitment to our yoga practice. “Blazing practice with religious fervor.”
Svadhyaya — Self-study. Spiritual self-education. Contemplation and application of the scriptures or sacred texts of our chosen path.
Isvara pranidhana — Surrender of the self to God. Acknowledgement that there is a higher principle in the universe than one’s own small self. Modesty. Humility.
I also realize that although practicing pranayama after asana is ideal, I sometimes start a class with pranayama to help students with pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). There is nothing like focusing on the breath to calm a busy mind. That being said, the nadis are definitely more open after a brisk asana session and can be benefited from taking prana throughout the opened nadis, but practicing yoga is like orchestrating a great symphony.  Though Beethoven wrote clear instructions for his masterpiece, several different conductors can give the piece a vastly varied, but equally beautiful color and performance. And as each individual has to develop a practice within the current constraints of his life, accomodating family, work, etc., with a presentation of all the aspects of yoga, one can learn to orchestrate his own elevating awareness with greater and greater agility.
Eventually these eight limbs can lead to Samyama (from Sanskrit संयम saṃ-yama—holding together, tying up, binding), which is the combined practice of  Dhāranā (concentration, intent), Dhyāna (contemplation) and Samadhi (unity).This is a practice even I am still aspiring too, but with a balance of practice in the other eight limbs, I know is a realizable goal.
(c) 2010 Christina Sarich

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