The yoga journey is a beautiful, transformative experience with ever-expanding and unfolding gifts for those who decide to embark on this path. No one individual can change another. It is the individual’s choice of when, and if, he or she decides to change a habit, behavior, thought pattern, paradigm, and consequently, life’s experiences and outcomes.
However, when one does start the journey and gets swept away by the awareness of the life-giving and enhancing gifts, what a surprise that is! The five pillars of yoga enable us to maximize our opportunity for receiving the blessings of the yoga journey.
My personal journey began in a hot yoga class. As an athlete and former soccer player, I quickly realized the sweaty and challenging class was the perfect high-intensity exercise for me. Little did I know, however, that yoga would continuously enhance every aspect of my life, way beyond the physical.
Every day it taught me about life, and who am I at the deepest level. Yoga filled me with a desire to be continuously and deeply connected to myself through my practice, and its absence even made me feel at a loss.
So how does one bring out the best in one’s self? How do we help ourselves get there? Through continuous practice. We are not born knowing all. We must be humble enough to practice, day in and day out. Stay on the path. But what can we do to pursue a smoother and enjoyable journey?
My inspired path took me to the Himalayas in India, where I immersed myself in the teachings of Sivananda Yoga, a Hatha yoga form that follows the lineage of Swami Sivananda (1887-1963). From teachers who had studied under the masters, I learned ways to enhance the benefits of my yoga journey through the five main pillars of yogic balance.
Proper Exercise – Asana
The first guideline encourages a regular practice of asanas, or poses, that are beneficial to our our health. When practiced in succession, asanas help our bodies lubricate the joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons through increased circulation and oxygenation of our cells.
Many believe that flexibility is the goal in yoga, but increased flexibility is only a fraction of the benefits of yoga asanas. One will continuously discover a physical, mental, and emotional freedom far greater than imagined. This is a discovery that yoga asanas promise to offer.
Proper Breathing – Pranayama
The control of prana, or subtle energy, leads to the control of the mind. Pranayama—the extension of that energy—begins with the control of the lungs, which is the ultimate manifestation of prana in the body. When one is able to do this, all other manifestations of prana within the body are under control. Even diseases can be controlled by regulating prana.
With ordinary breathing, one extracts very little prana. But when the breath is drawn through the nose, lungs expanded, the exhale regulated with diaphragm engaged, the breath turns yogic and powerful.
Most people use only a fraction of their innate breathing potential. In nature, animals that breathe the slowest live the longest. When one takes deep conscious breaths, one can better respond—rather than react—to life’s circumstances.
By breathing slowly and consciously, one is more apt to balance the limbic, or emotional, region of the brain with the prefrontal, analytical, side.
Proper Relaxation – Savasana
Our bodies’ natural efficiency diminishes from being in constant alert mode. Endless demands on our attention through work, lifestyle, entertainment, and exposure to digital media make it difficult for many of us to relax. The experience of deep relaxation is an undeniable freedom that yogis have the privilege of enjoying.
At the end of class—and in between certain poses—we have a chance to train our physical bodies to be still, and by doing so, we allow our minds to relax.
By unraveling the mind and the body, we may even get to experience spiritual relaxation. Tension and worries seem to dissolve when we reach this state of surrender.
By making space and time in our lives to practice complete relaxation, we can begin to experience the natural release of emotions such as worry, sorrow, fear and anger. Deep relaxation through savasana is one of the most valuable moments you can give yourself in your daily life.
The sun is the source of energy for all life on our planet. It nourishes the plants (top of the food chain) which are eaten by animals (herbivores or vegetarian), which are then eaten by other animals (carnivores). The top of the food chain, being directly nourished by the sun, has the greatest life-promoting properties. The ideal yogic diet is a lacto-vegetarian diet, consisting of pure, natural foods grown in fertile soil and not genetically modified. The food value of animal flesh is considered a “second-hand” source of nutrition, and is inferior in nature.
Our nutritional requirements fall into five categories: protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, fats and fiber. Fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and grains have essential nutrients necessary for our bodies to thrive. But if becoming vegetarian is not feasible at the moment, minimize processed foods, choose your foods wisely, and avoid overcooking in order to retain nutritional value.
Daily, conscious decisions about the foods we eat—chosen with love and nonviolence for ourselves and our environment—perpetuate life and positive intentions.
Positive Thinking and Meditation
In a typical yoga class, we use the body to control the mind. As we move, rest and relax the body, we give our minds an opportunity to observe and transcend the repetitive patterns of the mind. Slowly we become aware of the “monkey mind,” and realize we are not always aware of our thoughts. The mind is often hostage to thoughts of the past and future, rarely fully present in the “now.”
It is through conscious practice of focusing on the present, that we can choose to release negative thought patterns and emotions. It is our choice to decide what we think, how we feel, and what we experience in life.
Yoga helps us achieve this realization, and gives us the tools to free the body, mind and attachment to ego. Through conscious breathing, stillness of the body, awareness and non-attachment to thought patterns, we begin to focus inward.
We begin to realize we are not our bodies, nor just the mind; we are the Self, the consciousness beyond time and space.
The experience of inner consciousness is indescribable. During meditation, thoughts will rise and fall like waves in the ocean. But in between those waves, time and space exist. That is where we find our true Self.
By Michele Santos
Founder & CEO of Sun Yoga Hawaii. Living & loving Hawaii since 1998, yoga since 2002. Daughter, wife, mother, friend in a mission to help
the world through the practice of yoga & living aloha.