Yoga - to yoke/union
Asana - a posture or 'seat' of yoga
Asana is not synonymous with yoga, but it is a vehicle for it. Just like waves are not the whole ocean, but just like asana they are the most visible part. Your experience of yoga hopefully doesn't end with the poses, but they are most likely where it begins. I am lucky because I was exposed to yoga at a relatively young age, when it hadn't quite reached the mainstream, so it was still very much taught as a whole, spiritual practice complete with Sanskrit, mantras etc. and because it wasn't yet appealing to that wide of an audience, no aspect was diluted to make it palatable.
I am not interested in any kind of hierarchy within the multitude of styles and approaches to modern yoga and valuing one over the other reduces the purpose of the practice. Rather, what is important is getting to that purpose: union. So how can we use our physical yoga poses to dive deeper into the subtler nature of this infinite system? Yoga has inspired and is inspired by ancient philosophies, and one of those is a Vedantic philosophy called 'The Koshas'. There are 5 in all and I truly believe that anyone can access at least 3 of them in one practice. Even if these don't land with you immediately, I promise that if you keep practicing with them in mind, they will reveal themselves.
The word 'kosha' is a Sanskrit word meaning 'sheath' or it is also sometimes described as a layer. There are 5 in total and the innermost layer covers the Self or the 'Atman', what contemporary psychology might call the soul. The outermost layer is called Annamaya Kosha and describes our physical body; 'anna' being food, 'maya' being illusion, so a direct translation would be 'food illusion layer', but I'm going to stick with the slightly more memorable description of physical body. This is the layer that our modern yoga penetrates first, through the practice of asana. Through asana we strengthen this outermost layer and also make it more flexible, not just for physically, but so that we can soften and refine the membrane between our inner and outer worlds. You may notice this process starting to happen when you encounter a pose that brings something up, whether that be a strong sensation in the body or a sudden difficult emotion. This is an example of your body giving that signal that your koshas are starting to talk to each other.
So once we've recognised this connection, where to next? The layer below Annamaya is called Pranamaya Kosha and this represents our pranic body; the layer of vitality, life force and subtle energy. The way to understand this layer is through the breath, since prana is carried in vayu (air/wind). Through this layer we begin to understand self-regulation through breath and how, upon harnessing it, we can affect significant change on our state of being. Dynamic forms of yoga such as vinyasa are a great way to access this layer through the synchronicity of breath with movement, thus intertwining Annamaya and Pranamaya seamlessly. As you deepen your relationship with and understanding of Pranamaya Kosha, you'll notice more consistent flow and balance. Over time, our prana (life force) gets stuck and blocked at various junctions of our body and this can show up in the physical body in ways such as an achey joint, or even a digestive issue. It can also show up as anxiety or depression, which brings us into the next layer.
Manomaya Kosha is the third layer, made up of the manas which is often described as 'mind stuff'. This layer comprises our lower mind and our 5 sensory organs. It is the layer that links to the modern psychology notion of 'Ego' and is where the self (with a small 's') begins to take shape. Though there are two more layers to go before we get to the Self with capital S, this is an integral point where the yoga becomes much bigger than the asana. This is where we find our identity and also where we choose how to shape and define it. If we choose to keep the sense of 'I' very small and limited, so our yoga (and life) will remain limited also. If we, however, allow the sense of 'I' to expand beyond limitation, we start to move into a state of deeper shared consciousness. This certainly won't happen overnight, nor is it meant to, as there is much to reckon with before you can, namely your Samskaras, which can be understood as deep grooves or scars that imprint over the course of your life in the lake bed of the mind. They can also be understood as neurological pathways that are forged after significant events in your life and development. These don't necessarily have to be something bad or even something to fear, but either way it is the releasing of these deep imprints that leads us closer to inner peace and freedom.
I would say that I only really started to connect with this layer through meditation as opposed to when I practice asana. Asana however is the ideal preparation for meditation, which can also be preceded by pranayama (breathing exercises). In fact, you can understand the first three koshas through the sequence of practice. For example:
Asana: Annamaya Kosha
Pranayama: Pranamaya Kosha
Meditation: Manomaya Kosha
There are still 2 more layers to go, however I will cover these next time as this alone is hopefully already enough to digest and put into practice. Yoga is a physical practice, a spiritual and philosophical practice and also a sophisticated science. It is also a lifetime practice, and different parts of it reveal themselves when you are ready. Patience and practice all the way.