What images come to mind when someone mentions yoga?
Let me guess – pretzel-like postures, luxury athleisure wear, sweaty studios foggy with incense smoke and abs. Lots and lots of abs.
Did I guess right?
For better or worse, yoga in the West has morphed into something unrecognisable from its roots – in many ways, it’s an entirely new practice.
It’s posture-driven, practised in led classes (as opposed to the traditional Mysore style) and hugely popular across all demographics.
This evolution isn’t necessarily bad – I’d say modern yoga is safer and more accessible than its slightly stuffy predecessor.
For example, thanks to science, we know more about the body than ever. We can measure the impact of specific postures and identify the roots of common yoga injuries.
Thankfully, other questionable yoga rituals have also fallen out of fashion.
All but the most
bat shit crazy devout of us have ditched Hatha Yoga Kriyas such as Sutra Neti, the act of cleaning the sinuses using wet string, and Vastra Dhauti, which involves eating a salty cloth and heaving it up again to “purify the stomach”. I mean, we have Vicks and Zantac now.
However, despite these advances (which I’m infinitely grateful for), this modernisation often overlooks some pretty awesome parts of yoga – parts that have nothing to do with our physical bodies and everything to do with our minds and how we live.
Eight-limbs of yoga
To start, let’s briefly look at the eight-limbs of yoga – these are the individual parts that make a complete practice.
- Yamas – attitudes toward our environment
- Niyamas – attitudes toward ourselves
- Asana – postures
- Pranayama – breath-control
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – complete integration, enlightenment, bliss
Modern yoga tends to focus on just one limb – asana or postures. Which, as you can see, is only a teeny tiny part of the delicious yoga pie.
If you’re lucky, you might have a teacher who’s familiar with pranayama and meditation. But, outside of studios, they’re few and far between (we need an Ofsted for yoga teachers, don’t fight me on this).
So, what’s happening to all the other limbs – the meaty stuff that makes the pie so filling? They’re being unceremoniously chucked.
To deepen your yoga practice, you must take it off the mat – this means reintroducing the eight-limbs and exploring activities beyond asana.
How to deepen your yoga practice
Read about the history of yoga
- Do you know the historical roots of yoga?
- Who are the key figures and influences?
- How and why has the discipline evolved?
To strengthen your practice (and to avoid being a culturally appropriating arsehole), you need to answer these questions and study yoga’s origins. This includes learning about its Hindu traditions and birth home, India (it’s worrying how many times I’ve heard people say yoga is Buddhist).
Don’t worry if this seems overwhelming – it is! Yoga is massive, magnificent and mind-blowing – there’s so much to grasp, perhaps more than we ever could in one lifetime. However, the very least we can do is try.
The below lists include essential reading and some of my favourite books – it’s a good place to start.
- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda
- The Bhagavad Gita (Easwaran’s Classics of Indian Spirituality) by Eknath Easwaran
- The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Muktibodhananda
- The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
- Asana, Pranayama, Mudra and Bandha by Saraswati Satyananda Swami
- Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics) by James Mallinson
My personal favourites:
- The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards by William J Broad
- Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Bikram Yoga by Benjamin Lorr
- Greed, Sex, Intention: Living like a yogi in the 21st Century by Marcus Veda and Hannah Whittingham
- Full: How one woman found yoga, eased her inner hunger, and started loving herself by Kimber Simpkins
- Sacred Fire – My Journey Into Ashtanga Yoga by Kino MacGregor
- Your Body, Your Yoga: Learn Alignment Cues That Are Skillful, Safe, and Best Suited To You by Bernie Clark
- Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton
- Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing by Timothy McCall
- Yoga For Depression by Amy Weintraub
- Living The Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom beyond the Mat by Kelly Dinardo and Amy Pearce-Hayden
Introduce pranayama and meditation
One of the easiest ways to deepen your personal practice is by introducing pranayama and meditation or, at the very least, making your breath a priority during asana practice.
Pranayama translates into breath-control – prana means life force or breath and ayama translates to extend or draw out.
Why do we practice pranayama? Well, the breath has incredibly healing and recuperative powers – it’s something yogis have known for centuries, and it’s now backed up by bundles of innovative scientific research.
By controlling the breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for conserving energy, slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal activity and relaxing muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. Unsurprisingly, it’s known as the “rest and digest” system.
When it’s operating, it calms us down and eases symptoms of anxiety, depression and disassociation.
It’s easy to start a pranayama practice – some people make it separate from their postures, and others complete it before or after. To learn more, read through this beginner’s guide on Yoga Journal.
Meditation helps us to connect with the Divine and cultivate a deeper sense of spirituality. Which is pretty much the point of yoga, right?
If that sounds a bit woo, there are plenty of practical benefits too.
It’s a tool which helps us to calm incessant brain-chatter, let go of bias and nurture self-awareness. By focusing on the breath and internal sphere, we’re immediately brought into the present moment, free from worries about the future and past.
Plus, meditation is cited as a critical part of any preventative or rehabilitative healthcare programme, improving the rates of recovery from illness and lessening the chance of recurrence.
To begin a meditation practice, read my blog “New to Meditation? These Tips Will Help You Start“.
As a teacher and forever student, I understand how difficult it is to breathe. We all forget from time to time, especially when we’re moving the body through advanced postures.
However, all my most-rewarding practices have been a result of tuning into my breath and marrying my movement with each slow inhale and exhale.
When we do this, we turn our attention inwards and establish a deeper awareness of the subtle energy and movements in our bodies – we also activate the trusty parasympathetic nervous system.
In ashtanga yoga, we breathe in a specific way – we use ujjayi pranayama, also known as “the victorious breath”. It involves gently contracting the muscles at the back of the throat and breathing with sound (think Darth Vader).
Study your attitudes and behaviours
Self-study is an essential part of yoga, especially when it comes to practising the yamas and niyamas, and freeing ourselves from damaging emotional patterns known as samskaras.
The yamas and niyamas
The yamas and niyamas are basically the Ten Commandments of yoga – they deal with our attitudes towards ourselves, other people and the world around us.
The five yamas ask us to avoid violence, lying, stealing, wasting energy, and greed.
The five niyamas encourage us to cultivate cleanliness, contentment and discipline, to study our habits and to surrender to a higher power (whatever that means to you).
To get to grips with these concepts, read “Greed, Sex, Intention: Living like a yogi in the 21st Century” by Marcus Veda and Hannah Whittingham and “Living The Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom beyond the Mat” by Kelly Dinardo and Amy Pearce-Hayden. As well as this, research each code in more detail, and think about how you can invoke them in your day-to-day life.
- Ahimsa – non-violence
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – conservation of energy
- Aparigraha – non-greed or hoarding
- Saucha – cleanliness
- Santosha – contentment
- Tapas – discipline
- Svadhyaya – self-study
- Isvara Pranidhana – surrendering to a higher power
Yoga philosophy says we’re born with a “karmic inheritance” of behavioural patterns known as samskaras. They are the emotional and mental tracks left by all the thoughts and actions we’ve ever experienced, throughout our many lives.
Samskaras can be positive, but they also manifest as knee-jerk reactions, impulses, irrational fears, low self-esteem, inexplicable anxiety and self-destructive tendencies.
If you’ve ever asked yourself “Why do I act like this when I don’t want to?”, you’re probably dealing with one of these psychological imprints.
We’re usually not conscious of our samkaras because they’re sneaky AF. However, through self-study and observance (which can take the form of journaling, therapy, meditation and asana practice), we’re more able to identify them.
Once we bring them into consciousness, we can break free from their grip. This is one of the primary goals of yoga.
Take a yoga teaching training
Yoga teacher training courses aren’t just for people who want to teach yoga – they’re also for people who want to deepen their understanding of the practice.
Even with the best intentions, a yoga teacher can’t cram centuries worth of information into an hour’s class. They also might teach in a setting that isn’t appropriate for discussing philosophy or the subtle body.
Don’t rely on anyone else to deepen your yoga practice for you – enhancing your knowledge is your personal responsibility. Make it a priority to seek out workshops or courses that’ll enrich your practice.
- If you want to deepen your yoga practice, you must take it off the mat, which includes learning about the eight-limbs.
- Study yoga’s historical roots and read, read, read.
- Introduce pranayama and meditation into your practice.
- Study your attitudes and behaviours.
- Think about how you can implement the yamas and niyamas into your everyday life.
- Observe your behaviours in order to break free from your negative samskaras.
- Take a yoga teacher training course or workshop.