Yoga is a versatile practice. We can vary and apply the teachings of yoga in lots of different ways; we can work energetically, strongly, meditatively or therapeutically depending on what we need from a practice at any given time. However, whilst there are many possibilities to explore through yoga practice, it's important not to lose sight of some of the fundamental components of yoga practice: stability, support and structure. These qualities only really manifest through regular practise and when we stay with the same practice for a length of time we gradually develop our experience and understanding every time we step on the mat.
Building on strong foundations
Yoga is a discipline in which we work progressively, to deepen and refine our experiences through repetition. Like anything which has long-lasting benefits the fruits of our practice are normally revealed over time. When we practise regularly yoga acts as a mirror; our yoga practice becomes a reference point by which we can assess how we are in ourselves from day to day, or week to week. This progressive approach is called Vinyasa Krama – which in sanskrit means the special placing of steps – the idea that if we approach yoga methodically and introduce new ideas logically in small steps, we can maintain steady progress, building on strong foundations and maintaining clarity throughout the process.
Through yoga we aim to cultivate physical stability in order to stay healthy and strong, to feel comfortable in our body and prevent injury or illness. However at the same time we also aim to find peace of mind; an internal sense of stability and support. So when we practise yoga we are working with an integrated approach to the body and the mind. Whilst we work with postures, we aim to keep the mind steady and focussed so that we are totally present; stable in body and in the moment.
The tool which facilitates these aims and transforms the physical practice of yoga from being merely physical exercise into an experience which also stills the mind, is the special use of the breath. Linking breathing and movement supports us to develop physical stability but also holds our attention, involvement and awareness.
We can think of the breath in three ways:
- Breathing as shape change. Working with the movement of the breath in the body and the natural way that the body changes shape supports good posture, good movement and also opens up parts of the body which may be tense, stiff or blocked.
- Breathing as a thread which ties together all aspects of the practice. Framing movement with the breath holds our attention and provides a focus point which stops the mind from wandering, enabling us to stay present in the practice and preparing the mind for stillness or meditation.
- Breathing as quality-control meter. Listening to and working with the breath as a guide reveals how we are in ourselves and something about the quality of our practice. When we feel in control and steady in our practice the breath is long, smooth, subtle and fine.
The breathing technique, which in my view transforms the practice of yoga postures, is called Ujjayi. Through the use of this technique we learn to lengthen and refine our pattern of breathing so that we can really explore the nature of stability in yoga, by coming back to the breath. Everything else flows steadily from this point.