You have probably heard the saying "Your body is a temple," for it is one of those concepts that is found in many religions, faiths and spiritualities across the globe. Nowadays, you hear it in reference to healthy living, eating well and exercising regularly. You may have even said it once or twice yourself, without really contemplating what it truly means.
Traditionally, a temple is a building or place reserved for spiritual rituals, religious worship and activities such as prayer. Shrines, stupas, tabernacles and churches all qualify, as can outdoor locations used for such activities. In general, it is a place devoted to a special purpose, held in reverence, usually with some sort of spiritual significance.
So, you can see how your body, the place your spirit resides, is literally your personal temple. If your body is not well taken care of and healthy, it is difficult for your spiritual practices to be profound and beneficial. The yogic lifestyle encompasses all aspects of health and wellness and we are here to help demystify the path.
Following the Eight Limbs of Yoga will help you find practices to live your best life. In our first blog in this series, we went over what the 8 Limbs of Yoga are, based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Our last blog focused on the Yogic lifestyle, known as the Yamas and Niyama, Limbs 1 and 2 of Yoga. Today, we will go over Limbs 3, 4 and 5, which are Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara.
So, what are Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara and what do they have to do with turning one's body into a temple? In this blog, we go over just that, as well what this process is like.
Surprise, surprise, like most things Yoga, Asana is Sanskrit word. It is commonly considered to mean "pose," and it has come to be used for any posture you might twist yourself into. You will notice it is part of the name of many poses, such as Savasana, which translates to Shiva-pose.
Even though the contemporary meaning of Asana is pose, it was not always so. In Sanskrit, its translation specifically means “seat.” Asana was traditionally defined as a seated posture, used for meditation.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, he refers to Asana as a comfortable seated position, that you can maintain for a prolonged period of time, while you partake in Pranayama and meditation. The objective of Asana was to be able to sit in stillness comfortably.
If the entirety of "Asana" originally meant a comfortable and stable seat, you might wonder, where did all of the Yoga poses you know and love come from? The answer is, they came from Hatha Yoga and the book called the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, which was written by Svātmārāma. In this book, he states that Hatha Yoga was created to help people prepare for Raja Yoga (the path that follows the Eight Limbs of Yoga), and he outlined the original 84 Yoga poses. At which time, Asana transformed to mean more than just a sitting posture. Much later, people like BKS Iyengar created many new poses, a process which continues today. For more on the history of Yoga and the development of poses, check out our blogs on Yoga's Origin and History, as well as on Hatha Yoga.
The word Pranayama is made up of two parts, -prana and -yama.
Prana is usually thought of as breath, but in Hindu and Yogic understanding, it is so much more than this. Prana is divine life force, described as a subtle energy.
Yama, in this case, is typically defined as retention, extension or control.
So, without getting too technical or esoteric, Prana is a divine life force that flows through us and can be manipulated via controlling the breath; which is the practice known as Pranayama.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, he describes the effects of Pranayama, but not the actual techniques themselves. There are many different kinds of Pranayama out there, but eight are described in the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā (We will go deeper into the different types of Pranayama in a future blog, as this is a big topic.).
Pranayama is sometimes seen as a practice and aid for meditation and sometimes also as a purification process. Over the ages, many new forms of breath techniques have been created, typically called "Breathwork." These practices are very impactful and many people describe the experience as transformative. If you would like to try Breathwork, but you don't know where to start, check out Rachel Constantino's links to free Breathwork videos on our Community page.
Many types of breathwork are being scientifically and medically studied today. They are researching all the ways breath practices can help regulate the nervous system and reduce stress (for more on this, check out our blog on how to use the breath to reduce stress and calm the nervous system). However, the most comprehensive breath techniques came from India and the Yogis. Most, if not all, of the newer techniques are offshoots or variations of these.
Pratyahara is defined as withdrawal of the senses and it is the systematic process of going inward. People often mistake this step for meditation itself, but in reality, it is a precursor of meditation. This is also why it is seen as the last of the outer limbs of Yoga (limbs 1-5), before embarking on the inner limbs, or the steps of Yogic meditation.
Pratyahara refers to sense-withdrawal. This is the process of catching your senses and bringing them near to your true self, so that you hear no sounds, taste no tastes, smell no smells, etc. You are so focused inwardly, that you have no perception of what is happening outwardly.
Putting It All Together
When you think of your body as a temple, you treat it like a shrine. You imbue it with sacredness. You live with respect towards your self and transform it into your connection with the divine.
A synonym sometimes used for Asana is "pitha," which means temple or shrine. By practicing Asana, you are physically preparing your body, your temple, to accept the life force energy of Prana through the practice of breathwork (Pranayama). Once that divine life force is in your temple, you are ready to withdraw the senses with Pratyahara, so that you can really get into meditation, the next three Limbs, which if achieved, you merge with the divine.
Your Body As A Temple In Hinduism
Many Hindu people believe that temples are divine and that they are a yogic representation of a human being. The Deity in the temple representing God, as indweller of all beings. As such, traditional temple architecture often took the shape of a human body.
In a temple, the feet represent Rajagopura (the gateway to enter).
The hands represent Praakaara (the fort walls or protection).
The abdomen represents Mandapa (a pavilion to gather for events).
The heart represents Antaraala (the inner sanctum of the temple).
The crown of the head represents the Garbha-griha (the innermost sanctuary).
These temples, often in southern India, are used as a reminder that our inner spiritual journey is to realize that the indweller is God. This analogy is shown through chakras in the body coinciding with various locations in the temple. Take a look at the graphic below, it shows a temple as a representation of a human body with Chakras:
The goal of all of the different kinds of Yoga is to achieve union. Yoking your mind and body, joining with the divine and liberating one's egoistic self; thus resulting in a new state of being. After Hatha Yoga, the Yamas and the Niyama; Limbs 3,4 and 5 of the Eight Limbs of Yoga are next on this this journey.
(Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara paraphrased from Swami Vivekananda's version of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras) Now you sit, finding a firm, yet comfortable position. You find your seat becomes strong and pleasant, so much so, that you stop feeling the body altogether as it falls away. You find no pleasure or pain in the body, you feel no sensation of heat or cold. By focusing on the unlimited, you conquer all dualities. Next, you control your breath, giving it three parts- inhale, exhale and retention. The breath dissolves the states known as Rajas (action, passion, motion) and Tamas (impurities, lethargy, ignorance), revealing unpolluted Sattva (truth, harmony, purity). Once Sattva is revealed, you are able to concentrate the mind. With concentration, you remove the focus of the senses on external things, for when you focus on external things with your senses, your mind (Chitta) becomes these things and you cannot meditate. Once you have truly and wholly removed yourself from the external world, you are ready to go inward, you are ready for Yogic meditation, which is exactly what our next blog in this series is all about. Stayed tuned for Limbs 6, 7 and 8. Thanks for reading.