This is a shortened version of a section from the Introduction to my Pranayama book. This is really important for your overall understanding of yoga.
Why neither postures nor meditation nor both combined are enough
Although yoga has eight limbs (Yoga Sutra II.29) we can discern three main layers of practice of which the others are subdivisions or ancillary techniques. These three layers are posture (asana), breath work (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana). Two of them, posture and meditation, are today very widely practised, but they are usually not linked. Schools that teach yogic postures either do not teach meditation or, if they do, they often teach meditation techniques that are historically not linked to posture practice, such as Buddhist meditation and Vipassana. Those schools that do specialize in meditation usually forsake asana practice altogether or mistake it for the simplistic keeping in one line of trunk, neck and head. There are currently only a handful of teachers in the world who offer yoga in the way it was designed, which is combining a sophisticated posture practice with technically refined pranayama and, additionally, yoga’s elaborate and powerful Kundalini-rousing meditation techniques.
Why would we bother to practise three completely independent layers of technique? The reason for such a rather complex approach lies in the fact that already the ancient Upanishads explained that the human being is made up not of a single layer but of five layers (Taittiriya Upanishad II.2–II.5).
For the purpose of this shortened article we can ignore the two highest layers which relate to the practice of objective and objective samadhis, the highest limb of yoga. The majority of the work of the yogi takes place in the three lower sheaths, simply because it is where the obstacles are located. These three lower sheaths, all of which need development, are body, breath and mind.
Obstacles to yoga are diseases and imbalances of the body, neurotic breathing patterns, subconscious imprints, mental conditioning, karma, beliefs and past forms of suffering that we hold on to. Since the layers that contain the obstacles – body, breath and mind – are so different from each other, there is no technique that can remove all obstacles from all three of these sheaths. It is absolutely paramount to understand this.
For example, in today’s world if your body is sick you go to the medical doctor, if you have mental issues you go to a psychologist and if your car breaks down you go to a workshop. You don’t expect one and the same intervention to fix all of your problems.
According to yoga, to remove physical obstacles asanas (postures) need to be practised. To remove obstacles from the pranic sheath and the breathing pattern, pranayama is advised. To remove obstacles from the mind yogic meditation is engaged in. For swift success, these three methods need to be combined (and accompanied by ancillary techniques such as kriya, bandha, mudra, mantra, chakra).
The important information to be understood here is that asana alone can prepare only the body and not the mind. Meditation itself can develop only the mind and not the body. You may see an asana practitioner with a fully developed body but a mind that lags behind. You may also see a meditator with great mental capacity but a body that is still in the Stone Age. More benefit is obtained if both are practised together, but even then the benefit is not linked, because what links body and mind is the breath, the pranic sheath.
Neither posture practice nor meditation practice can harness the breath, the prana, the life force. And it is exactly this that pranayama is designed to do. Without prana the body is dead and without prana the mind is utterly inert. It is prana that moves both. For this reason pranayama was always considered the axial yogic limb. Pranayama is the axis around which the wheel of eight-limbed yoga revolves. Pranayama brings success in all other yogic limbs and it is also the axis that connects asana and meditation. The purpose of this book is to contribute to a renaissance of pranayama and weld together again these three powerful yogic techniques, which are much more potent when practised in sequence and combined.
© Gregor Maehle 2011