What is Yoga?
Yoga is a system of practices that enable higher human development. The purpose of Yoga is to train us to understand our body and mind. And then to use this understanding to improve our lives. The goal of Yoga is to realise our highest evolutionary potential – which is higher consciousness. Yet very few modern yoga practices honour this goal.
The classical yoga system contained a variety of practices that enabled the development of human potential. The most famous sage of Yoga – Patanjali reviewed these various practices and systematised them into an eightfold path. He referred to these as the 8 limbs – Asthanga (asth– eight and anga– limbs). This asthanga is not to be confused with the modern Asthanga Yoga practice as promoted by Prathabi Jois and his advocates.
The eight limbs according to Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra’s are:
- yama (self-control),
- niyama (controlled or desired discipline),
- asana (postures),
- pranayama (breath control),
- pratyahara (control of senses),
- dharana (focus),
- dhyana (concentration), and
- samadhi (blissful awareness).
According to Patanjali – for one to be truly practicing Yoga, one needs to include all 8 limbs. Futhermore, one needs to practice both inner and outer Yoga.
Outer and Inner Stages of Yoga
Outer Yoga includes – correct lifestyle, correct care of the body and the refinement of your physiological system. The first four limbs of Yoga enables’ this.
Yama and niyama create a foundation for correct behaviour by cultivating values such as nonviolence, truthfulness, cleanliness/purity and contentment. Asana makes the body strong and flexible. Pranayama develops our vital energy and improves stamina, strength and endurance.
However, what seems to be forgotten in modern “yoga” practices – is that essential to Yoga is its inner dimension. Inner yoga involves the development of human consciousness. The last four limbs of yoga are focused on developing human consciousness.
Pratyahara encourages us to change our perception, dharana teaches focus, dhyana teaches concentration and samadhi enables blissful awareness. The last 3 limbs when practiced together enables a single process called samyama.
Sam– means complete and Yama is control – hence samyama translates as complete control. And samyama is meditation in its truest sense. This leads to higher consciousness.
The Great Divide
Unfortunately, in our modern world with its desire for ease and quick results – Yoga has become divided. We have a multitude of modern yoga practices that focus only on outer yoga – with asana as the central feature. Regrettably, this is not Yoga – but akin to aerobic exercise in the guise of something more. These practices may have an effect on the physical structure of the body – but it cannot be Yoga – because it does nothing for the development of human awareness and consciousness.
Then you have the multitude of spiritual schools, new age practices and secular mindfulness advocates – who teach a variety of forms of “meditation”. While many of these practices can be hugely beneficial in our modern stress-full world – as they enable deep relaxation – they are not really meditation. And as opposed to this – some schools claim to focus on the inner aspects of Yoga, the highest yoga – which are commonly called Raja Yoga, Shabd Yoga, Sahaja Yoga. And while Inner Yoga is the fastest way to developing human consciousness – it is only effective if you have already developed the intellectual and mental ability to truly practice it. For a Jnana yogi – a true intellectual – inner yoga is the ideal practice. But for others – it can lead to confusion, frustration and sometimes disillusion. Because to truly meditate you require the body, breath and mind to be under your control.
Why is Inner Yoga or Meditation so difficult?
It is not possible for most people to jump from the physical or external world to an internal focus. And in order to meditate you need complete internal focus.
Even for long term practitioners of the outer aspects of Yoga, it is not easy to move directly from asana to meditation. This requires changing your focus from the body to the mind, expecting to overcome the lifetime of conditioning, habits and neural pathways that lie between. Yet, this is the beauty of Patanjali’s eight limbs. Followed correctly they enable the practitioner to make this transition.
After training the body to be flexible and strong, the breath and senses, which link the body and mind, need to be brought under control and developed properly. This is where pranayama and pratyahara come in. With pranayama we control our biological energies and impulses, and with pratyahara we gain mastery over the unruly senses. Both pranayama and pratyahara are prerequisites to successful meditation.
Pratyahara – The Vital Limb of Yoga
Pratyahara, the fifth of the eight limbs, is the least understood in modern yoga. But it literally occupies the central and most vital place not only in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s but in any any real Yoga practice. In Yoga Philosophy, some include pratyahara as an outer stage while others consider it an inner stage. Both are correct, for pratyahara is the link between the outer and inner. Pratyahara enables us to move from the outer to the inner.
I believe that Pratyahara is overlooked by most modern yoga practitioners because it is poorly understood. However, reflecting on my research in interoception, I believe that pratyahara can be fully explained.
Interoception is defined as the sense of all that is going on inside your body. This sense can be both conscious and non-conscious. It includes the process of integrating signals relayed from every part of the body into specific regions of the brain. This allows you to experience the physiological state of your body. Interoception occurs unconsciously in every one of us all the time. It is the vital process that keeps us alive. It enables homeostasis – the essential internal environment that enables us to live. When Interoception becomes conscious it also enables self-awareness – the sense of what it feels like to be you.
To put it simply. Interoception helps you feel what’s going on inside your body. It is what enables you to know how fast your heart is beating or if you need to breathe more deeply. It enables you to tell if you need to use the bathroom, if you’re hungry, full, hot, cold, thirsty, nauseous, itchy or ticklish.It also enables you to know what underlies your irritable and sometimes irrational behaviour as opposed to making incorrect assumptions. Research shows that poor interoception is correlated with anxiety, body dysmorphic disorders, depression, eating disorders and sensory perception disorders. And improving interoceptive ability improves these conditions.
Pratyahara and interoception, both, require you to turn your focus inwards. From my understanding of yoga philosophy and the science of interoception – I believe that these two ideas – refer to the same physical pathways within the body. It is only be developing this inner awareness – whether we call it interoception or pratyahara that we are able to access deeper truths about ourselves and develop the ability to control our senses and mind. This process also underlies autonomic awareness and self-regulation. Based on extensive research and practice in both areas, I have developed I-Yoga– which stands for Interoceptive Yoga. Using the wisdom of the ancient Yogis’ and modern scientific research in interoception – the I-Yoga program uses a simple 4-Step Method that trains you to be more interoceptive and have greater inner awareness. On achieving this you may access the inner or higher functions of your body and mind. Interoception or pratyahara is the gateway to developing your higher consciousness – call it genius, liberation, moksha, nirvana or samadhi.
Dr Nitasha Buldeo is an Integrated Medical Practitioner, Entrepreneur, Scientist and Yogi. She created I-Yoga & Organic Apoteke and is Director of the Centre for Exceptional Human Performance. She researches human potential and delivers programs that encourage you to live exceptionally. Nitasha believes that every one of us is striving to be the best we can. Her passion is bringing you programs that enable you to unlock your personal genius.
Nitasha’s yoga training began in childhood and she has been trekking into the Himalayan peaks to meet her teachers and to teach for over 25 years. Her wisdom on traditional yoga and meditation practices is immense. Her personal practice is one of dedication, perseverance and humility.
She is a Senior Yoga Teacher with Yoga Alliance Professionals and leads Yoga training and retreats globally.