Basics for Beginners: Asanas, Pranayama & Meditation
by Jacob Johnson
I’d always thought of yoga as just another exercise: a less strenuous way to tone your body and burn some calories. Like many others, I envisioned a room filled with tantric music and people doing gentle stretches. It wasn’t until halfway through my first yoga class — when I was dripping with sweat and struggling to keep up with my instructor as she flowed gracefully between the asanas — that I realized I was mistaken.
Further recognition of my misconception came with the afterglow of my routine. Unlike other exercises like sports and weightlifting, yoga left me feeling renewed instead of depleted. I was also surprised at its impact on my mental state. After my yoga class, I felt calmer, more centered, and ready to face the day.
Wanting to know more about yoga’s transformative nature, I looked into its rich history and was entranced by what I found. What I believed to be a single practice was really a combination of multiple different disciplines, each with their own unique purpose. The Yoga Sutras, one of the oldest yogic texts, divides the practice into eight limbs, but asanas, pranayama, and meditation were my primary interests due to their prevalence in the West.
As I learned more about these pillars of yoga, I found myself reflecting on them as I went through my routine. Being aware of the purposes behind the different exercises helped me realize their benefits. My body awareness expanded as I performed the asanas, finding sources of stress and tension I wasn’t previously aware of. Pranayama helped me to relieve this tension as I visualized energy flowing to and from the coiled muscles in my back and shoulders with every breath. I felt alive — fully present in the moment. The many thoughts that race through my mind quieted as I repeatedly turned my attention inward. Instead of passively going through the motions, I was active in both body and mind, and I wanted to help others realize this experience.
When most people think of yoga, they imagine the asanas. However, despite their prevalence, yoga’s many different poses weren’t incorporated into its practice for years after its origin. To the first yogis, asanas were comfortable positions where one could sit for extended periods. Over time, they expanded to include the poses we’re familiar with today as yogis implemented exercises from other disciplines into their practice.
Scientists have studied yoga for centuries, and studies consistently show that asanas help build strength, balance, and flexibility while improving body awareness and control. They also reduce stress and anxiety and can help alleviate chronic back pain. In short, the asanas help us become more in tune with our bodies.
The benefits of asanas quickly become apparent as you go through your first routine. Unlike other exercises, asanas gently exert your muscles, rather than taxing them, filling you with revitalizing energy as you flow through the postures. They also help to quiet your mind. You’ll notice your thoughts melting away as you gradually turn your attention inward, almost like falling into a trance as you perform the asanas.
If the asanas help us tune into our bodies, pranayama helps us tune into our energy. Yogis see our breath as life energy, and the different breathing exercises known as pranayama are designed to open the passages through which this energy flows while clearing away any blockages.
I’ve found that pranayama often leads to a sense of renewal. If you focus, you can feel the pure, revitalizing energy filling your lungs with each breath. As you exhale, let go of your anxieties, frustrations, and other negative energies. Ultimately, monitored breathing can improve your emotional state, and you don’t need to be a yogi to see the proof in that. When you’re feeling angry or overwhelmed, what’s the first thing you tell yourself? Breathe.
If pranayama leads to a sense of renewal, meditation leads to a state of tranquility. The goal of the practice is to ground yourself in the present by continuously returning your attention to a fixed point (like your breath). It also helps us develop our inner awareness by creating space for us to feel and recognize our thoughts and emotions without getting carried away by them.
Some advocates describe the practice as “clearing your mind,” but this is both deceptive and detrimental. It’s natural for your mind to wander when you’re sitting quietly with your eyes closed, and new practitioners often grow frustrated at their inability to quiet their thoughts. Instead of trying to clear your mind, accept and examine whatever thoughts or emotions arise, then allow them to fade away. Embrace the calm that settles over you as you turn your attention inward and fully immerse yourself in your senses.
The problem with the idea of clearing your mind is that it implies that our thoughts and emotions are problematic when really, they’re integral to our experience. However, as you progress with your practice, you’ll notice a change in your thought processes. An ancient yogi named Patanjali suggested that meditation liberates us from our worldly desires. As we spend more time connecting with the Self, we become aware of what’s truly important.
It’s important to note that meditation is more than just a practice. It’s a state of being. By training ourselves to acknowledge our thoughts and emotions without being controlled by them, we learn how to operate from a higher perspective. Furthermore, by repeatedly returning our attention to a fixed point, we hone our focus and self-control.
It goes without saying that there’s far more to yoga than those qualities I listed above, but understanding the purpose behind asanas, pranayama, and meditation is a good place to start. Being aware of the purposes behind these exercises helped me both realize and appreciate their benefits, and I hope it’ll do the same for you.
Next time you find yourself performing the asanas, really listen to what your body is telling you. Find those tense muscles tightened by stress and will yourself to relax them. While breathing, try to feel the air — the energy — flowing through your entire body, and when you’re meditating, be patient with yourself. When you feel your mind drifting, bring it back peacefully. Don’t get frustrated. Remind yourself that it’s completely natural and return to your center.