3 Background to Yoga

Aims of Yoga and The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Patanjali, an Indian sage and scholar who lived in the 5th century BC formulated the eight disciplines of yoga as the spokes on a wheel, all contributing to the liberation of practitioners from suffering. His treatise, consisting of short statements (aphorisms, sutras) remains the fundamental text on the constitutive elements of Yoga.

He defined the aims of Yoga as being a calming of the mind, literally as the ‘cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’.

First, two sets of moral principles that purify the practice of physical yoga but that are also thought to be inevitably promoted by the practice of physical yoga.

1.Yama: How to be in the outer world (social conduct)

  • Ahimsa: Do no harm in thought, word and deed. Be helpful.
  • Satya: Be truthful in thought, word and deed.
  • Asteya: Don’t steal from others in thought, word or deed.
  • Bhramacharya: Moderation in all things, honour relationships with fidelity and commitment.
  • Aparigraha: Don’t covet other people’s possessions. Be in the world but not obsessed with its material nature. 

2.Niyama; How to be in the inner world 

  • Sauča: Cleanliness, purity, inner and outer.
  • Santosa: Contentment. The ability to accept and be in the moment, be here now.
  • Tapasya: Disciplined effort. The ability to focus undistracted and renounce unnecessary nonsense in the pursuit of a spiritual goal.
  • Svadhaya: Look within. Self study and reflection. Know thyself. Understand how much of the external world is a reflection of one’s own way of being.
  • Isvara: Bring a devoted vision of the divine into your life

3. Asana: Physical postures

4. Pranayama: Breath & energy control

The third and fourth spokes of Patanjali’s Wheel of Yoga are those that have received most importance in the Western adaptations of yoga in its worldwide expansion from India since the late 19th C. These spokes form the main base of the practices presented in this course but the more the following three spokes can be integrated in Well Woman Yoga, the more beneficial.

5. Pratyahara Sense withdrawal

6. Dharana Concentration, one pointed awareness

7. Dhyana Meditation

8. Samadhi Blissful union with the divine. All of the above awaken Ananda, joy, as our birthright, our natural state of being.

The Koshas

Kosha means “sheath” or “layer,” (‘Taittiriya Upanisad,’ Book 2). The Koshas can be likened to Russian dolls, the
sheaths that make up a person. All need to be working in harmony, free of energetic blocks.

  1. Annamaya kosha (anna means “food”)
    • physical body
    • the ‘food body’
    • the physical ‘vehicle’
  2. Pranayama kosha (prana means “life force”)
    • energy body
    • pervades and surrounds the physical body
    • includes energy within food body
    • includes ‘aura’
    • link between body & mind
  3. Manomaya kosha (mano means “mental or emotional”)
    • emotional body
    • thoughts and feelings
    • reactions and responses
    • individual responses
  4. Vignamaya kosha (vignaya means “higher wisdom”)
    • wisdom body
    • insight beyond judgement
    • clarity of vision through selflessness
    • understanding through empathy and compassion
  5. Anandamaya kosha (ananda means “bliss”)
    • the causal body
    • the seed body
    • the light illuminating all other bodies
    • the source

Prana means “life-force” or “energy”. Vayu means “wind, current or flow”. There are five major modifications of prana in the body (from “Prshno Upanishad” Book 2: verses 2, 3, 4).

  1. Prana Vayu
    • rib cage to thoat
    • upward moving
    • respiratory system
    • absorption
    • sun
    • in-breath
  2. Apana Vayu
    • navel to perineum
    • downward moving
    • excretory & reproductive organs
    • excretion & childbirth
    • moon
    • out-breath
  3. Samana Vayu (balance)
    • between navel & lowest ribs
    • sideways moving (pendulum)
    • digestive system
    • assimilation
    • space – ether
    • gap between in and out breaths
  4. Udana Vayu (heart to the brain)
    • extremities – head, arms and legs
    • spiralling circular movement
    • sensory organs and organs of action/sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems
    • expression
    • fire
    • upward moving breath, ascending breath
  5. Vyana Vayu
    • pervades whole body
    • distributes energy throughout body
    • holds body together
    • regulates co-ordinates

Ayurvedic approach to women’s health: Balancing the Doshas

Ayurveda involves understanding and working with our innate make up (prakriti) and the balance of doshas. The image of life in Ayurveda is one of flow, a river, an endless stream of processes which produce continuous change, yet enable the overall form to remain the same.

For the human organism Ayurveda identifies a state of perfect health when all three doshas are functioning in balance, ‘sama dosha’. A continuing imbalance of a dosha, resulting from a failure of regulation of metabolic processes, ultimately leads to pathologies. For Ayurveda no pathological condition even that resulting from an acute infection can develop without a sequence of identifiable states of imbalance. Ayurveda thus offers ways of charting ‘loss of health’ before actual pathological conditions manifest.      
Light, like air or a feather
Dry, rough, like plain popcorn
Cold, like a cold wind
Moving, always changing like the
Clear, nonsticky, like polished granite
Coarse, brittle, like dry hair
Quick, formless, swift, seen by its
action only
Energy production
Enzymatic action
Hot, warm, heat in any form
Sharp, biting or penetrating like
Pungent, scorching, like spices and
irritating chemicals
Sour, like citrus
Smelly, like body odor or the scent of
decaying substances
Liquid, like stomach acids
Slightly oily, slippery
Bodily substances
Strength & Cohesion
Bodily Structures
(cells, tissues, organs
muscles, bones, etc.)
Heavy, like stone, with gravity
Cold, like ice, snow, cold drinks
Slow, like an elephant
Sticky, viscous, like gum or glue
Soft, like baby’s skin
Oily, like fired foods or butter
Sweet, like sweet foods or words
Stable, steady, unchanging
Solid, dense, like stone or hard

The three doshas are regulatory factors governing the internal processes by which the body functions and is maintained, as well as external processes through which the body interacts with the outside world (15 subdoshas).

The key aspect is to pacify the doshas, to regard them as ways of being rather than completely deterministic and to encourage a belief that change and healing are possible. The dominance of doshas can change too during our lifecyles, with more tendency towards Kapha at birth and more Vata as we age, or may be influended by life events.

A steady practice of Well Woman yoga will inevitably lead women to make changes in their lifestyle that will be conducive to improve their health and wellbeing. Dietary changes and use of complementary therapies are outside the scope of this training, but it is clear that most women will benefit from a combination of Yoga with other positive lifestyle changes. An Ayurvedic approach to any imbalance requires looking at the whole structure and environment, not just the ailing parts. This insight can be very usefully applied to Well Woman Yoga, for example if there is pain or dysfunction in one part of the body to address not just that part but to consider wider factors, such as the functioning of surroundings areas, overall body alignment, emotions…to welcome and engage with the whole woman and not just someone defined by their dysfunction.    

Yoga Physiology: Shakti Prana

by Swamini Mayatitanda – Wise Earth organisation

Shakti Prana is the specific prana that circulates in the lower pelvis around the perineum and the sacrum. This prana circulates and protects the primordial feminine energy carried within the genitals, womb and belly. It give us tremendous power to move energy and to heal ourselves.

By manipulating women’s intrinsic rhythms, there is a risk of disturbing the equanimity of Shakti-Prana, the feminine energy.  Ancient seers (rishis) and Ayurvedic physicians (vaidyas) noted that women possess a delicate and fragile balance within the body due to their Shakti Prana and its extensive powers and that disturbing it could have long term effects on all aspects or life. They saw what we have forgotten to see: a woman’s splendour. They knew that the health of the entire Earch lies in honouring the female energy and its interconnection to nature’s rhythms.

A woman’s magic is irretrievably linked to the moon. The ancients called the dark days of the moon ‘woman’s moon’ or ‘resting moon’. The dark moon provides a cozy climate for a woman’s sadhana or rest, reprieve and replenishment. Mother Moon takes to recharging her Shakti during this time. A woman must also create the space to conserve her feminine powers and inculcate her creative potential during this time.

A woman’s menses greately affects her Shakti prana. Her monthly cycle is the primary means through which this prana is revitalised, cleansed and restored.

The Vedic culture honors the Shakti-prana. It recognises that a woman’s blood preserves her Shakti and that this blood carries the Divine Mother’s potential for bringing new life and rebirth. This phenomenon may be attributed to the workings of the red bindu, located within the root chakra.A symbol of a woman’s monthly blood, the bindu is the cosmic seed of Goddess Shakti, located in the root chakra where Kundalini lies.  When Shakti prana is strong, the bindu acts as magnetic lodestone, drawing the energy of the moon to revitalise the womb. For this reason, the blood vessels within a woman’s vulva carry the magnetic energies of the moon. A particular blood vessel in the vulva is called Chandra mauli, moon crested., and the vagina itself is known as Chandra-mukha, moon faced. The rhythm of the red bindu also causes a woman to discharge her uterine lining at the appropriate cyclical time during the new moon phase. As a result, her hormone levels are naturally reset. The process we call menses does not consider the far-reaching magic and miracle of a woman’s blood.

During menses women are required to go at a slower pace and to allow the body to cleanse itself and regulate Shakti prana before it is one more renewed, to pare down activities to the bare essentials so that the body experiences the least degree of intrusion.

Even if your cycles no longer coincide with the moon rhythms, you may use Uttara Vasti, healing the Womb, to restore your natural cycle. For those whose monthly cycle has ceased, continue to practice this sadhana for a few days during the moon cycle. This practice will help to maintain healthy levels of hormones in the body, recall the natural rhythms of your Shakti prana and the vitality of your womanly spirit.