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Yoga as Self-Care

At Life’sWork, we are on a mission to support intentional self-care through the practices of yoga, namely breathing, moving and resting. We believe this is the best way to honor the yoga tradition and our community of practitioners. What makes us different than your typical yoga studio? Two components:

  1. Intentional
  2. Self-care

It’s not that other studios aren’t intentional or that they don’t support self-care. However, these two concept are the foundation of everything we do, not a lucky accident of our efforts.

Our values of intention and self-care are demonstrated in numerous ways in our policies and services. For example, online registration closes two hours prior to class time. Not only does this encourage you as our practitioners to plan and commit to the practice, it also allows our staff time to prepare specifically for those planning to attend the practice. This level of intention is impossible in a drop-in environment where teachers are often forced to teach without a clear understanding of who will be participating.

Another example of our business mission is contained in the self-care premise. All we ask is that you breathe. Everything else is optional. Beyond breathing, we encourage you to ask questions and listen to your body to inform your personalization, adaptation, and customization. As Yoga Teachers, we serve as guides to support your needs. In other words, we can’t do the practice for you, but we can help you learn to wisely adapt the practice to your specific needs, objectives, and limitations.

Patanjali, considered the primary source for yoga, defines and describe the yoga practice in the Yoga Sutras. He gets right to the point. Let’s take a look at sutras 1.1-1.3.

1.1) Atha yoga anush-asanam. Now, the yoga begins.

1.2) Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.

1.3) Tada drashtu svarupe vasthanam. At that time the seer’s own form reposes. OR At that time, the seeker abides in the authentic self.

To answer the question, “What is yoga?”, Patanjali spells it out. Yoga is an adventure in the NOW, as we quiet the mind through practice (later delineated to include the body, breath and mind) in order to know ourselves more fully.

Metaphor of the Chariot

There is a metaphor I absolutely love that comes from the yoga tradition. It is the metaphor of the Self.

This metaphor defines the components that make up the Self. The physical body is represented by a chariot. The chariot has four wheels which allow the body to move through the world.  Additionally, I liken these four wheels to the four pillars of Wellness: nurturance, cleanliness, movement, and stillness.

Without wheels, the physical body cannot make its way through the world with any semblance of ease or skill. Without the wheels, the body simply remains still and stagnates. But the wheel simply make movement more comfortable. The real work of movement is directed by a driver and fueled by 5 beasts.

Inside the chariot resides the Atman, the authentic true self. The spark of the divine that uniquely resides within every body and reflects the union from which we are all connected. We could even think about the Atman as our Spirit or Soul, and the chariot is the means by which we do our dharma or life’s work in this world.

Now beyond the chariot, and the Atman, we also have a driver whose responsibility it for navigating our way through the world. The driver is our Buddhi, or our brain. It is our Buddhi’s responsibility to manage the outside world so that we can safely travel and do our life’s work, our dharma.

But the driver does not do the actual work of moving the chariot. The work of moving the chariot is provided by five horses harnessed together to collaboratively pull the weight of the chariot. The five horses represent our five external senses of sight, smell, taste, sound and touch. If left unharnessed these five senses, depicted as the horses, might wander in five different directions contributing to a feeling of being lost or an overwhelming amount of data that may or may not serve the driver navigating our path.

In addition to the harnesses that contain the horses into collaboration each horse also has blinders in order to maintain its focus in this linear direction of growth, progress, and movement. Connecting the horses to the driver are reins, and it’s this channel that allows sensory data to be directly and efficiently sent to the driver to inform the driver’s decisions and allow discernment.

Now I have added an additional character to this metaphor. In addition to the Atman, the Buddhi and the 5 senses/horses, I have added the character of a footman. I’ve added the footman because I believe this role is essential to communication between the driver and the Atman and connecting the Atman to the world. This is the work of the heart. Our heart enables compassion and connection. Literally, the footman offers a hand in disembarking the chariot and filtering who is allowed near, let alone in, the chariot.

Together, the chariot, the Atman within, the footman, driver and horse make-up what the yogis define as the Self (with a capital S). It is this Self that Yoga practice helps us to skillfully care.

Concept of the Self in Yoga

Through the committed practice of study, reflection, and meditation, yogis develop a deeper understanding of themselves and the world around them. Furthermore, the concept of the self and our responsibilities for caring for it are deeply interwoven and multi-faceted in the Yoga tradition, encompassing physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. Yoga philosophy offers THREE key concepts of the self and our responsibility for self-care:

1. Purusha and Prakriti: In the context of Samkhya philosophy, which heavily influences both Yoga and Ayurveda, the self is seen as Purusha (consciousness), which is distinct from Prakriti (matter or nature). Purusha is pure consciousness, while Prakriti includes everything else, such as the body, mind, and emotions.

“Everything Else”: the components of life. Maha Guna’s (the five great qualities) of Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether (space) make up everything in the universe. Each element affords its unique qualities and characteristics exulting in a unique combination for every living thing in the universe articulated as one’s Constitution.

2. Atman (True Self): Atman is considered the true self, the innermost essence of an individual. It is eternal, unchanging, and distinct from the physical body and mind. In many yogic traditions, realizing the Atman and its unity with Brahman (the universal consciousness) is the ultimate goal. This realization is known as self- realization or enlightenment.

3. Pancha Kosha Model (Five Sheaths): The aim of yoga is to harmonize and integrate the components of the self, leading to a balanced and holistic state of being. The kosha model describes the self as being composed of five layers or sheaths:

      1. Annamaya Kosha (physical body)
      2. Pranamaya Kosha (energy body)
      3. Manomaya Kosha (mental body)
      4. Vijnanamaya Kosha (wisdom body)
      5. Anandamaya Kosha (bliss body)

Responsibilities for Caring for the Self: 4 pillars

Self-care in the yogic tradition is viewed as a fundamental responsibility, integral to achieving and maintaining overall well-being and spiritual growth. As a yoga therapist, I teach 10 practices (see Yoga Living!) based on FOUR Pillars of Wellness: 1) Nurture (what comes in); 2) Cleansing (what goes out); 3) Movement, and 4) Stillness. The practices of breathing, asana and meditation are consistent with these four pillars.

Yoga emphasizes the importance of nurturing the body, mind, and spirit through a balanced lifestyle that includes regular practice of asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breath control), meditation, and adherence to ethical principles (yamas and niyamas). By prioritizing self-care, practitioners cultivate self-awareness, self-compassion, and inner peace, which are essential for overcoming life’s challenges and achieving a state of inner freedom or “moksha.”

Pancha-Koshas for Self-Care

This holistic approach not only enhances personal health and vitality but also prepares individuals to engage more fully and positively with the world around them, fulfilling their potential and contributing to the collective well-being. Let’s consider self-care from FIVE lenses of the perspective of the united, bliss body.

Self-care of the Physical (Anna) body includes movement and stillness.

The body is the physical aspect of our being, often referred to as the gross body (sthula sharira). It is the vehicle for practice and must be kept healthy and balanced through proper care, including asana (postures), diet, and lifestyle. The condition of the body directly impacts the breath and mind. A healthy, flexible body promotes ease in breathing and mental clarity.

Asanas (Postures) help maintain physical health, flexibility, strength, and balance. It prepares the body for meditation by reducing physical discomfort and restlessness. Likewise a balanced, sattvic diet is encouraged, which promotes purity, health, and calmness.

Self-care of the Energetic (Prana) bodyexplores flow and stagnation.

Prana is the vital life force or energy that flows through the body, often associated with the breath. Breath acts as a bridge between the body and the mind. It is both a physical process (involving the respiratory system) and an energetic process (moving prana through the nadis or energy channels). Pranayama (breath control techniques) is used to regulate and harmonize prana, thereby influencing both physical health and mental state.

Pranayama (Breath Control) regulates the life force (prana) within the body, enhancing vitality and calming the mind. Tapas, or management of energy as it flows through the nadis (energy channels) and chakras (energy centers) is the practice of wisely adapting to the moment.

Self-care for the Mental (Manas) and Emotional body explores intention and attention.

The mind encompasses thoughts, emotions, and consciousness. It is a subtle aspect of our being that interacts with both the body and breath. The mind’s state affects the breath and body. For example, stress and anxiety can lead to shallow or erratic breathing and physical tension. Conversely, a calm and focused mind can promote deep, regular breathing and physical relaxation.

Meditation and Mindfulness cultivate a peaceful, focused, and clear mind. Techniques like dhyana (meditation) and dharana (concentration) are central. Similarly, living in the present moment and observing thoughts without attachment helps reduce stress and emotional turmoil.

Self-care for Ethical and Moral (Vijnana) Communion body helps discern value.

Ultimately Yoga encourages us to practice self-care as our contribution to the greater union and oneness. Cultivating oneness or Union based on ahimsa, or the degree of helpfulness, neutrality or harm resulting from our actions or inactions. From Patanjali’s work, we learn of the Yamas and Niyamas, the ethical guidelines and observances that form the foundation of yoga practice. They include:

  1. Yamas: Non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence (brahmacharya), and non-greed (aparigraha).
  2. Niyamas: Purity (shaucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender to a higher power (Ishvara pranidhana).
Self-care for Spiritual (Ananda) body explores containment and expansion.

Self-Inquiry and reflection practices such as meditation, intrsopection, and study lead to a deeper understanding of one’s true nature beyond the ego and mind. Connection with the Divine, or developing a relationship with the divine (or the universal consciousness), is cultivated through practices like devotion (bhakti), service (karma yoga), and knowledge study (jnana yoga).

This journey of expansion involves deepening one’s self-awareness, connecting with the inner self, and recognizing the interconnectedness of all life. As our practice matures, we experience a shift from a fragmented sense of self to a more holistic and expansive awareness, encompassing greater empathy, compassion, and unity with the universe. This spiritual expansion is not just about personal growth but also about realizing one’s true nature and potential, ultimately leading to a more harmonious and enlightened existence. Spirituality as opposed to religiosity or dogma seeks to expand one’s world-view and perspective rather than limit or narrow it to a concept of black/white, right/wrong, or good/evil.

Integrative Approach to Yoga as Self-Care

Yoga promotes an integrative approach to self-care that harmonizes the body, mind, and spirit. It recognizes the interconnectedness of these aspects and encourages practices that foster overall well-being. By caring for the self in a holistic manner, one can achieve balance, inner peace, clarity and perhaps, ultimately, self-realization.

In Yoga, the relationship between the body, breath, and mind is seen as deeply interconnected and interdependent. This triad is fundamental to understanding and practicing Yoga, and it plays a crucial role in achieving overall well-being and spiritual growth.

In Yoga, the body, breath, and mind are viewed as a unified system. Proper care and regulation of each component lead to overall harmony and balance. The body is maintained through asanas, the breath is regulated through pranayama, and the mind is stilled through meditation. By understanding and nurturing this interconnected relationship, practitioners can achieve greater physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual growth.