Yoga is widely popular, and some people singularly consider it to be a form of exercise. However, yoga isn’t just a collection of downward dogs and deep breathing. It is a multifaceted ancient discipline that is meditative, restorative, and active. A daily practice that can be applied on and off the mat. We chit-chaatted with Pam Jones, a New York-based yoga teacher at the Dharma Yoga Center to discuss how to make the practice of yoga more meaningful and effective at the studio and in our daily lives.
Q & A with Pam Jones, Dharma Yoga Instructor
Can you talk a little about what you mean when you say a complete yoga practice?
A complete practice is one that includes asana, pranayama, and meditation. Sometimes we get so caught up in only the physical practice and that’s such a shame because yoga is much more than the physical. In the Yoga Sutras, Master Patanjali, lays out the steps of yoga, and there is great emphasis on the ethical rules; yama; ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (self-restraint), aparigraha (non-possessiveness). We start from the gross body with the physical postures towards the more subtle. We do the asana as a preparation for concentration and meditation. ‘Yogas chitta vittri nirodhah’ yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind. Eventually, we settle the mind into silence.
There are also many forms of yoga to fit the needs of different people, some people are naturally more devotional and love to sing so there is bhakti yoga. Some seekers are attracted to the knowledge, wisdom, introspection, and contemplation. In jana yoga, the mind and intellect are used to examine its own nature and contemplate questions like; who am I? What is the self? Do I die when the body dies? Then there is karma yoga, the practice of selfless service, doing an action without expectation of results. The beauty of this one is that we can do this at any time anywhere. You don’t need to be flexible or do any crazy poses. Anyone can practice. The goal of yoga though is self-realization; this is what my Guru Sri Dharma Mittra has always instilled in us.
How do asana’s prepare the mind for meditation or quiet the mind?
The key is to stay in the postures long enough and then the mind will start to get quiet. The asanas have been taught to us through teacher to student, dating back over 5000 years ago. Some poses are inspired by nature, animals, or names of sages. Each pose has already within them a special power, a special state of consciousness. For example, when you do a tree poses, it forces you to concentrate and be steady, when you do a warrior pose, you feel strong like a warrior. Some poses like sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and halasana (plough), kurmasana (tortoise) will encourage pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses.
If the student is receptive, they will be able to connect with the deeper essence of the pose rather than the aesthetics of the pose. By doing specific postures together with the breath; sun salutations, forward and back bending, balancing and inversions we are working on the inner winds and subtle energy channels in the body, the mind will eventually become quiet. Asana develops a strong and flexible body so that one can sit comfortably in meditation. Relaxation is also a very important part of the class. It’s the best part especially here in New York you see students are just so exhausted they really need to lie down to have that time to heal, recharge and rejuvenate.
Why is pranayama after asana?
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are the 8 limbs of yoga; yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. The control of breath follows asana because we are going from gross to subtle. We work the body, then the breath, which leads to withdrawal of the senses, preparing us for concentration and meditation. It is in the natural order of things.
How do we include yama and niyama on the mat and off the mat?
We can practice yama and niyama at any time; on the mat, off the mat, in the street, and at home. That’s the beauty of yoga, everyone can practice! There is always an opportunity to be kind and see ourselves in others. For example, maybe we have our favorite spot in class near the teacher, but maybe can we offer it up to a new student that also wants to be there?
And it doesn’t just stop after class! I see yama and niyama as a 24-7 practice. Often we do all these amazing things with our body on the mat and are so ‘zen’ in class, then class finished and somebody bumps into us on the subway and we’re fuming. The bliss goes out the window just like that. There seems to be a paradox!
You see it may be easy to be nice and kind to people at the yoga center because we’re all practicing but it’s not so easy outside. Carrying that peaceful feeling you had in class and extending it to the people you meet on the streets, practice patience and compassion at work, at home, when someone is criticizing you. I think that’s the real practice!
After a yoga class, some may feel too tired to practice meditating. How do we understand our energy level in relation to practicing a complete yoga practice?
Very good point! Yes, that comes up often. My answer is very simple, at home you have to modify your practice according to your condition; yoga is meant to energize and charge you, it shouldn’t wipe you out completely. Yes, there are times where we should exert more energy because we want to be strong. It’s good to build that discipline and inner fire but that’s why after every class there is a long relaxation or a Yoga Nidra to recharge and rejuvenate the system so that you’re ready for meditation. One time I went to a really challenging class with lots of handstands and other inversions and we were given a two-minute relaxation! I felt cheated. After all the hard work we had been through, we deserved a nice long relaxation!
Finding yoga classes that incorporate pranayama or meditation can be challenging. Do they need to be practiced in conjunction or in the traditional order?
Come to Dharma Yoga! That’s why so many people are drawn to Dharmaji’s way of teaching because it is a complete practice. There is a practice he offers once a month called Maha Sadhana (the great practice) and In his three-hour class he includes, asana, pranayama, Yoga Nidra (active meditation) bhakti (devotional singing).
In my personal experience, I have found that doing pranayama and meditation first thing in the morning very beneficial and then at around noon the body is naturally more open to the asanas, but I think everyone is different and has different needs. For example, if you work all day and come back late at night then maybe it’s better to wake up earlier and do your practice; asana, pranayama meditation before going to work. A little bit every day is better than doing it now and then. The key is consistency!
The world is very different now than the time when yoga first came to fruition. What does a complete yoga practice look like when you are balancing working, parenting, cooking, socializing, etc.. ?
Well, this is the biggest challenge of our time. Due to our family, friends, work and other commitments we are constantly striving for that balance. I think in our modern world with all the business and technology we are easily sucked into the grind, our senses are constantly drawing us outwards. We are often searching for happiness outside of ourselves through people, material possessions, status, the latest iPhone but my teacher always reminds us that those things always have a beginning and an end, they will have to go one day. Of course, we should enjoy them but don’t be attached to them. The Bhagavad Gita says that external pleasures are only sources of pain. No amount of money or possessions can ever give you that lasting inner peace and happiness. What we need to realize is that it’s not out there! It was always inside of us!
It’s difficult to define what a complete practice is. It is different for every person. My complete practice may include a 2-hour asana class followed by ½ hour pranayama and ½ hour meditation but for someone else who has children to take care of and other commitments a complete practice maybe 15 minutes pranayama with 30 minutes of asana in the morning which is realistic for him or her. I have a friend who works as an ER nurse and she is constantly on her feet, doing 14-hour shifts. At the moment she manages to fit in 30 mins of Yoga Nidra during her lunch break. We have to modify according to our needs and what we can make a realistic consistent daily practice. If you do a little every day, the body and mind will be in good shape for the rest of the day and hopefully a healthy long life.
Pam Jones is an 800-hr Dharma Yoga teacher who teaches daily at the Dharma Yoga Center in New York whilst serving as a mentor for the Life of Yogi Teacher training. She also leads international yoga and plant-based food workshops and believes yoga can be practiced by all. Pam hopes to inspire people to reach their fullest potential and spread kindness everywhere.