Why the 4 Pillars of Yoga?

The longer you practice and study yoga, the more you realize how huge, vast and unending the teachings and practices of yoga are. There are literally thousands of tools- from the poses, to breathing techniques, to cleansing exercises, philosophy, meditation, visualization, Ayurveda and more. It’s a science and philosophy that has evolved and branched off over thousands of years. For many students it’s confusing. What style of meditation should I practice? What breathing technique is best for me? What diet is best for my body? Do I need to be a vegetarian? Do I have to go off to a cave to seek spiritual insight? Why is pranayama important and how do I know if I am doing it right? The list goes on and on. You know there is more to yoga than the physical but where do you start? 

Over my many years of practice and study, I have discovered that to truly live your best life and reap all the benefits this ancient system has to offer, we need to do more than just asana. We need to do more than link the poses together for an hour or so each day.  So, I have condensed the many techniques of yoga and Ayurveda into 4 succinct categories: the 4 pillars of yoga. Body, Breath, Mind & Diet. This framework will make the path and the practices clear and accessible to you. 

I explain more under each of the four pillars.

Most of us come to yoga by way of asana, a physical practice. While not all of yoga is centered around physical practice, most of us in the west first encounter yoga as something we do for our bodies. This is the first of the four pillars and it’s an important one. Maintaining a healthy body and how we take care of it are an essential part of a modern yoga practice. Asana (the poses) provide us with many benefits. They make us stronger, more flexible, and maintain range of motion for the spine and limbs in all directions. But a physical yoga practice has a deeper purpose. It helps the body clear the energy pathways (nadis) for optimal energy (prana) flow. It also helps to stabilize us, create mental focus and connect to our breathing which will lead us towards the other pillars of yoga and more subtle practices. In addition to an asana practice, we can take care of the body with other forms of exercise. Asana isn’t necessarily all that your physical body needs. Walking, hiking, swimming or other forms of getting the heart going are very beneficial. So is building strength through weight training or other exercise systems. A healthy body lends itself to the deeper, spiritual work of yoga.

Pranayama is the Sanskrit word for breathing techniques. Your breath is the bridge between your body and energy flow. When you work with the breath, you work with your energy (prana). There are a multitude of breathing techniques, each with a different effect on the energy system, nervous system and mind. Beginning to regulate and control your breathing is an essential skill to develop in your yoga practice as it prepares you for more advanced practices and meditation. It also links to mind. It helps bridge us to meditation. Today, modern science is showing what the ancient practitioners knew, having control and regulation of our breath impacts the entire nervous system. It helps to restore balance when the human system is under stress and strain. Knowing which kind of pranayama is appropriate and why, will support homeostasis in the body and mind.

This is perhaps the most important of the 4 pillars, although they are all important. I often say that if your yoga practice doesn’t address the challenges of the mind, you can’t really call it yoga. We are all challenged when it comes to meditation, at least at first. The benefits of meditation are countless: stress reduction, eliciting deep relaxation and brain wave function, more clarity, mental focus, greater creativity & ease, better sleep, digestion etc. etc. 

Possibly the most important benefit of meditation is that we start to see the crazy workings of our own minds. The more you frequently get still and stop the constant doing, the more you see how your mind keeps on going. A lot of the mental busyness is a bunch of untruths we tell ourselves over and over again. Stories we believe that color our lives. But we can’t see that, unless we stop long enough to witness it. 

So, meditation helps us separate from the untruths of the mind and course correct towards truth. In separating out all of those mind traps (chitta vritti), we can reprogram or retrain how we think. Meditation is then in part a process of removing negative or unhelpful thinking.

The other benefit of separating from all the mind chatter is that we experience a part of ourselves that isn’t constantly changing and subject to the ups and downs of life. There are many words for this in yoga, Patanjali (author of the yoga sutras) calls it purusha, the seer. I like to say the soul or an internal reservoir of peace, ease, clarity and consistency. The more you experience THAT, the more you know who you are. That quiet calmness begins to color your life instead of all the crazy thoughts! Does that make sense? It’s really the very heart of what we want to experience and KNOW through the art and science of yoga.

You can do hours of asana practice, breathing and meditation, and those practices will make you feel pretty damn good. But, if you are eating a terrible diet, it will eventually catch up to you if not cancel out the benefits of your practice. Our bodies need the right prana (energy) filled foods to function at their best. If we overload our system with crap or hard to digest foods, or the wrong ways of eating, it will tax and stress the internal systems that process it. Following an Ayurvedic diet specific to your constitution, stage of life and where you live, will set you up to feel your best. There are so many fad diets and conflicting science on what really is the “best diet to follow”, it can be hard to know what really is the optimal way to eat. Following a few simple Ayurvedic guidelines and noticing what does or doesn’t work best for your body and your life will make you feel energized, nourished and vibrant.