Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Five Levels of Yoga Practice

My yoga teacher often jokes about what he calls the “reductionism of yoga in America.”  Basically, he says that in India, yoga is a system of complete physical, mental and spiritual health.  When yoga was brought to America, however, practitioners latched on to asana, or the physical postures of yoga.  Then as time went on, they focused on the stretching aspects of asana, instead of the full energetic, stretching, balancing, and strengthening effects.  Then, he continues, with the common focus on form, it became about locking the knees and focusing on the hamstrings.  So, he jokes, yoga in America has been reduced to stretching your hamstrings.

Like most jokes, this is likely an oversimplification.  But he has a very valid point.  Look at any article on yoga and you will see people performing postures, as if those postures were the only component of yoga.  In reality, yoga is comprised of many tools, only one of which is asana.

The Pancamaya Model describes the full breadth of yoga practices and how they can impact every level of the human system.  The model progresses from the most gross, or tangible level, to the most subtle, or intangible one.  Work on one level may show up in another, but the tool associated with that level is the one most likely to have direct impact on that level.

Anamaya:  This level comprises the “food” body, or the muscles, bones, ligaments, etc. of our bodies.  Not surprisingly, the yoga tool we use to impact this level is asana.  So when I teach my yoga for healthy backs class, for example, we primarily focus on yoga movements that can help heal the students' structural issues.

Pranamaya:  This level comprises the “Energy” body.  It includes physiological systems, such as the respiratory system, as well as the energy of emotions.  The tool most targeted for this level is pranayama or breath work.  That’s why I use the breath practice “Tracy’s sleeping pill” personally and with my clients who have insomnia.  Although asana can help, breath is the more powerful and targeted tool for these issues.

Manomaya:  This level is the level of intellect.  This may be a stretch for some Westerners, but the tool used to increase intellect in the traditional teachings is sound, or chant.  In the West we tend to use reading and lecture. When these models were developed, there were no printing presses, so knowledge was passed down in orally from generation to generation.   In India, however, they still use chant to help improve cognitive function in many populations, including the aging and children with learning issues.

Vijnanamaya: This is the level of personality, or character.   The yoga tool we use to impact character is meditation. I personally believe all meditation techniques are valid, and I will share some simple techniques with you in later blog articles.  But in this lineage we also do self exploratory mediations that help us learn more about ourselves and how we react to the things that happen to and around us.  Meditation is a key part of my yoga classes for anxiety and depression.

Anandamaya:  This is the level of joy or spirit.  It is impacted via ritual.  I have a hard time describing ritual, except that it is a combination of other practices done in a symbolic way.  We use ritual in the West as well.  Think, for example, of weddings, graduations, etc.  At Whole Life I personally use ritual to mark the beginning and end of every class by ringing chimes and saying namaste.  I do this to help connect to my students in a symbolic way.

So, the next time someone asks you about yoga, remember that the postures that come to mind are really only the tip of the iceberg.   This wonderful tradition offers so much more!


Tracy Weber

Come visit Whole Life Yoga in Seattle, and check out my author page for information about the Downward Dog Mysteries series.  MURDER STRIKES A POSE is available for preorder now from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Whole Life Yoga, and other retailers!


Linda O. Johnston said...

Even simplified yoga sounds complicated, Tracy, but definitely fascinating!

Tracy Weber said...

The best practices are surprisingly uncomplicated. Subtle yes. Complicated--only if we make it so! ;-)