Let us briefly look at a yoga class In terms of hatha and raja yoga. The central aim of yoga is mastery and understanding of the mind. The state of the mind and breath are linked. Therefore learning to be aware of the state of mind and breath, and subsequently controlling the breath are very important. Although we all arrive at yoga for various reasons, at some point the main goal of yoga needs to be understood. It is to transcend the mind, by calming it. Like a still lake where water looks like a mirror because it is still, we intend to stop the movement of thoughts so the mind is still.
According to Patanjali (Yoga Sutra) I.34 where he explains the breath and mind are linked. He says it is easier to control the mind through the breath, something we can prove for ourselves. Take control of the breath and the mind follows. To attempt direct control of the mind is immensely more difficult. Therefore the breath plays an important role in calming the mind. This is why I.34, part of raja yoga, places a big emphasis on pranayama (breathing practice).
Hatha yoga aims to balance the Ha and the Tha (Ha-Tha) sun and moon, or ida/pingala. In conventional medical terms sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. This is in order to bring balance, or probably better put homeostasis (constant change to maintain balance). Hatha yoga also aims to bring a practitioner to the right state for Raja yoga. Both in terms of bringing a student to the right place in their journey practice to start raja yoga, and in terms of a raja practice where a student may start with hatha yoga and progress into raja yoga practice. As I have said before Hatha yoga supports raja yoga.
Therefore a yoga class that teaches the physical postures (asana) then breathing (pranayama) and maybe meditation before relaxation is fulfilling both hatha and raja yoga. The layers in the class move from asana (hatha) to pranayama (hatha and raja) to meditation/relaxation (raja). As we can see breathing is a key component of both hatha and raja. Where meditation is a key aspect of raja yoga. Each yoga class shows a student experientially and practically hatha and raja yoga, whilst at the same time developing and sharing tools to help with both. A successful yoga class should therefore not just deal with strength and flexibility and showing new postures, it should also demonstrate to the student the effect of a calm mind through careful guidance of an experienced teacher. This shows the student the path towards a calm mind. In time a student becomes more adept in class, of surrendering to the calm mind and relaxed state. At some point the student may then want to start their own practice, and it is in one’s own practice that significant progress is made in yoga.
Initially I didn’t even like the relaxation part of a yoga class, and found sitting difficult. Through perseverance, questioning and some wonderful teachers and some hard work I now am able to relax. I understand from experience why relaxation is important, and how to sit so I can benefit from pranayama and meditation.
In addition a yoga class helps develop the ability, awareness and understanding to see the full depth and width that yoga has to offer. Therefore the 10 minutes or so devoted to breathing in a yoga class might seem like a small insignificant detail except for the feeling it gives, although in reality this is an essential part of yoga. The asana part of class leads to more effective state of being to start the breathing practices. The breathing forming a bridge to mediation and or relaxation.
Looking more deeply into yoga shows us that balance of mind and breath relies on balance of ida/pingala which criss cross in circular fashion along the sushumni (spine at physical level) forming the chakra locations (also where key glands are placed). One of the key breathing practices I come back to in class is nadhi shodana (alternate nostril breathing) because it’s designed to balance ida/pingala. Other practices such as prana-apana from hatha yoga (similar to ana-pana sati from the Budhist tradition) also achieve this balance. The balance for ida/pingala are on a physical level similar to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. One deals with action and the other relaxation. In fact Yoga Nidra helps develop the ability to be at balance with these two.
Should you wish to explore related sutras to I.34 you can look at sutras II46,47,48 and 49. These show what I explained earlier, how asana is a foundation for pranayama etc.
Posted in About Yoga, Developing a Personal Practice, Hatha Yoga, Raja Yoga (Yoga Sutras)