If the aim of yoga is meditation and self-awareness, then why do we need to practice asanas and pranayamas? Why not practice meditation directly?
Unfortunately, very few people understand the real purpose behind the practice of asanas and pranayamas. They are used for health, physical beauty, body building etc. and even as a sideshow in circuses and fairs. People often have no knowledge whatsoever off what asanas and pranayamas are intended to do. It seems that the prophecy of Isaiah is coming true, when he said, "Hear and hear, but never understand; see and see, but never perceive" (Isaiah 6:9)
The purpose of asanas and pranayamas is to prepare the body and mind for meditation. In meditation we build energy, physically, mentally and psychically. But if the body and mind are not prepared and the energies are not balanced, there is conflict. The mind suffers because it is unable to concentrate. The body suffers because it is not accustomed to holding one posture for an extended period of time. All the faculties of the body and mind are stimulated, but without control. The nervous system is unable to cope with the rush of energy end thus more tension is created. The practitioner complains of pain in the limbs, difficulty in breathing inability to achieve one-pointedness. Muscle and body spasm occurs. Is this the way to meditate? Our master, Satyananda Paramahansa says, "Meditation eventually leads to an elimination of duality." But how can we expect to arrive at that stage when we face so many problems within ourselves during meditation?
A powerhouse produces electricity, but before the power can be used one needs poles, wires, fuses and switches to direct it to where it is needed. The same thing happens in the body. Power is produced during meditation. The heart is the generator; the lungs act as transformers; the nervous system provides the wires; the mind is the main switch, and the glands are local switches. All the organs in the body play an important role in meditation.
Asanas prepare the body for meditation. They stimulate the glands; purify the liver, lungs and heart; supply blood to organs; loosen the muscles and joints, and give flexibility to the body. Pranayamas provide more prana (vital energy), and purify and vitalize the nervous system. The purpose of asanas and pranayama is to balance the different nerve impulses; provided to the brain and mind by the senses, and to concentrate the pranic force within the body.
When the breath is under control, the heart beat rhythmical, the glands functioning properly, and the nervous system coordinated, a meditation posture can be maintained properly. When there is sufficient prana distributed throughout the body, the mind automatically becomes calm and one-pointed. One is able to concentrate; the energies are balanced; the channels for the energy flow are open, and one is really ready to start meditation.
When one reaches this state of readiness, the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of the autonomic nervous system have both been stimulated. This means that a greatly increased blood supply reaches all parts of the body, particularly the brain. This stimulates the brain beyond normal, and results in greatly heightened awareness. At the same time the heart rate falls, the breathing rate falls, and the digestive system slows down (which is why meditation should not be practiced on a full stomach). All the automatic bodily functions come to a low ebb and the body is In a state of complete relaxation. But the mind becomes more aware. When the mind becomes calm, aware, one-pointed and able to concentrate without distraction, this is meditation.
Very few people can meditate. What most people experience when they sit for meditation are the activities of the subconscious end unconscious mind. The mind works on four levels: conscious, subconscious, unconscious and super conscious. Meditation occurs when one makes contact with the super conscious. But to do this, one has to get through the subconscious and unconscious.
The subconscious mind acts as a censor for the untold millions of pieces of information which are fed to the brain by the senses every second. Very often the subconscious suppresses information which would cause the conscious mind stress or strain. These suppressed impressions are buried in the unconscious mind where they can, and often do, create many psychological blocks. A young child, for example, sees a nasty accident, and the subconscious mind buries the nastiness in his unconscious. But from then on the child has a horror of blood, without remembering why. In this way many psychological problems are created.
To reach the meditative state one has to find the way through these deeply hidden road blocks to the super conscious. This is why some people have unpleasant experiences during deep relaxation and premeditative practices. When the conscious and subconscious minds are relaxed, the unconscious is not suppressed, and all the buried unpleasantness comes up to the conscious level. Very often this takes the form of horrible visions, monsters, strange auditory effects, or other disturbances. These should be welcomed, not feared. Remember that they come from within, and can do no harm. On the other hand, many people have pleasant experiences during this process.
Meditation occurs when the barriers of the conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds have been passed, and the super-conscious mind is reached. Asanas and pranayamas are therefore as important as meditation itself. They are the keys by which the doors of the energy store are opened, and thus they are named the conductors of prana. "If thou shaft seek, thou shalt find." (Deuteronomy 4:29)