People ask me regularly “How often should I do yoga?” What they’re hoping to know by asking is the number of times per week they should practice postures in order for the benefits of yoga to take effect. My response is “Ideally, we practice yoga all the time.” This is an annoying answer at face value, but I mean it whole-heartedly as it opens the possibility of bringing balance, fulfillment and high consciousness to every area of our lives.
The eight stages or limbs of yoga give us areas to work on and be aware of in relating to the world around us (yama), taking care of ourselves (niyama), exercising the body (asana), using the breath (pranayama), controlling the senses (pratyahara), concentrating (dharana), meditating (dhyana) and knowing ourselves as spiritual beings having a human experience (samadhi).
My task in answering the question “How I often should I do yoga?” is to explain how everything we do as humans is an invitation to practice the systematic liberation of the body, mind and soul from pointless suffering. Clearly, my response would be rather long-winded for an ordinary conversation, so I’m writing this down.
If you follow yoga philosophy, you may find that my interpretation of these limbs is different than some others’. B.K.S. Iyengar does a fine job of detailing these limbs and how they build upon each other in Light on Yoga, which is a text I used as reference for this piece. I have taken his words to heart and evolved in my own thinking over the years as I've developed my practice and my E-RYT 200 Yoga Teacher Training Program. I personally approach this philosophy in an open, non-prescriptive manner that gives me room to be a human finding balance in a complex world. As you master your own experience, please do what works for you.
It’s not shocking that non-violence (ahimsa), non-stealing (asteya), truthfulness (satya), moderation (brahmacharya) and non-hoarding (aparigraha) are the first stage of yoga (yama). We’ve heard the same universal commandments in belief systems worldwide. There are, however, positive behaviors that relate to these ethics, which we can practice in daily life. They stem from love rather than fear, and from the consciousness of abundance rather than that of lack. Being gentle and kind to the world, expressing your self, living simply, needing less and sharing more are all manners of practicing yoga.
The instrument of yoga is the embodied self: the body, mind and breath. Like learning to play an instrument, practice requires personal discipline, which is the second stage of yoga (niyama). The idea behind this stage is that we become masters of the embodied self we live in. Maintaining a clean body and tidying up our space (saucha), practicing gratitude and being content with life (santosa), fulfilling our duties with enthusiasm (tapas), studying our own human experience (svadhyaya) and trusting the process of cause and effect in our actions (isvara pranidhana) are all means of self-mastery, which empower our practice through self-discipline.
Most people I know began their journey into yoga through the body. We have this amazing system of postures (asana) that have innumerable benefits on our physical wellbeing. Upon getting up from my chair to take a break from writing this post, a little voice went off in my head that said, “I need bridge pose!” I stopped, dropped, and did five postures and a round of squats (try my practice video: Squats & Asana for Energy). It took about five minutes and now I’m back at my post with a little buzz in my body and more energy to write this. I practice asana, the third limb of yoga, for a thousand reasons pertaining to my overall health, but mostly because it makes me feel better and requires very little for me to get into. We can apply the muscle memory and skeletal alignment that we learn in our postures and carry them with us throughout the day. Engaging the core as you stand and move, lengthening the spine, relaxing the shoulders, remembering to not spend all day with your head tilted down is yoga. As practitioners, we learn to balance qualities of strength and firmness (sthira) with ease and sweetness (sukha). The effect is impressive, both on the mat and in how we carry ourselves through life. By being “alert without tension and relaxed without dullness,” we avoid the extremes of stress and lethargy, which programs balance into our way of being.
Mindful breathing (pranayama) is perhaps the most portable limb of yoga, as we can practice it anytime and anywhere. Aside from strengthening the lungs, eliminating toxins and causing the shape-changes in the body that release tension in our postures, breathing also tames the mind. In times of stress or frustration, I use my breath like a tether to bring me back to the present moment. This is especially helpful when fearful or negative thoughts try to steal the show. I think of Sandra Bullock’s character in the film Gravity, spinning head-over-heels into outer space, needing something to hold onto before she got lost in the void. This is an extreme comparison to the mind running wild, but anyone who has felt the grips of anxiety can likely relate.
My brother Ian Wolds, a PsyD of Clinical Psychology who specializes in integrative treatment modalities, taught me that catching ourselves at the top of an anxious feeling, rather than sliding down a slippery thought process, saves us from having to pull ourselves up from the bottom. By taking a moment to breathe, we “catch ourselves,” calm our nerves and put ourselves back in control of our mental state. Even the less extreme but incessant chatter in the mind that judges, devalues and distracts us from living in the moment can be brought under control by the breath. Making a habit of intentional breathing keeps our thoughts in check and thus begins a new mental pattern that’s more constructive and peaceful.
Living in a culture that teaches us to chase after possessions and extrinsic measures of worth makes us materially needy and impossible to satisfy. “On the other hand,” writes Iyengar, “if there is rhythmic control of breath, the senses instead of running after external objects of desire turn inwards, and man is set free from their tyranny.” Taking control of our senses (pratyahara) and turning within to find fulfillment rather than reaching for things outside of us, is yoga. Similarly, being disturbed or aggravated by outer circumstances that don’t please our senses, and are ultimately out of our control, is another form of attachment to external objects, which leaves us sadly dissatisfied with the world. Fortunately, yoga teaches us that what we wish to experience in the outer world is here to be discovered within ourselves, through practice, which frees us from the strain of grasping and aversion, of desire and fear.
Obviously, we need certain things to survive. And yes, we can go shopping, have nice things and still be yogis. Engaging in the material world without being consumed by it is yoga. Knowing that our self-worth is not dependent upon having or not having something is yoga. When you crave or resent some object for what it represents in your mind, taking a breath to remember that you are enough and you have enough is good practice.
By working through the first stages, we become masters of our life experience, using discipline to methodically free ourselves from the causes of our suffering in body and mind. At this stage in our practice, we’re not bogged down by the effects of unconscious lifestyle patterns. The mind then becomes a bigger container for consciousness, which can be thought of as the connection between that which is infinite, like the cosmos, and that which is finite, like the brain. The very term “yoga” refers to unified effort in the embodied self to experience oneness with the life force that pervades all things. Union, being the opposite of separation, is considered our “deliverance from contact with pain or sorrow.” The last three stages of yoga apply to the soul’s quest for union and freedom from suffering via the mind.
Controlling our mental state through concentrated discipline (dharana) is a mental hygienic practice that creates the conditions for an expanded consciousness. Focusing on the big, unified picture of infinite possibility, rather than dwelling on the fragmented mess of what’s not working, is yoga. Entertaining powerful thoughts that affirm union and dismissing limiting thoughts that affirm separation, is yoga. This is not an invitation to turn a blind eye on the world’s dysfunction or what causes us to suffer, but rather to adopt a manner of thinking that inspires right action in the direction of oneness and freedom, individually and collectively. As Ernest Holmes stated in The Science of Mind, “change your thinking, change your life.”
Continuing to practice the previous stages of yoga is important at this point. Aches in the body and clutter in our environment, among other things that are in our control to change, affect our mood and our thoughts. Tending to our practice over time is like gardening. We set the conditions for the seeds we’ve planted to grow and thrive. Taking care of our mental landscape, weeding out the thoughts that would otherwise take over and nurturing it with concentrated mental discipline is yoga.
The effect of our disciplined practice over time is like a fruitful bounty of robust plants. Things grow, flourish and return to the source in a perfect cycle of birth, life, and death that’s connected to the universal life force that unites all things. Immersing ourselves in this interconnected nature of life (dhyana) brings us a feeling of supreme bliss and transforms our consciousness into an enlightened state (samadhi), in which we are fully conscious, alert and at peace. At this stage, we discover that we are actually spiritual beings having a human experience on earth. We take the light of our conscious mind and use it to illuminate the world around us. To apply spiritual wisdom to our worldly connections is to practice yoga. To shine light where there is darkness is to teach yoga.
While it helps to understand that these stages of yoga exist and that they build upon each other, we may find that we practice multiple limbs of yoga at once. However your journey unfolds, and however you choose to apply this practice to your own life, know that its all yoga and that the practice never ends.