The ancient sage Patanjali defined yoga as a state of mind in which all our conscious and unconscious patterns of belief quieten down. It’s the process of letting go of all the things you think (or subconsciously believe) about the world so that you can see things as they truly are.
That’s not something most of us can do at the drop of a hat, which is why Patanjali gives us an 8-step program for moving towards that state of absolute clarity – the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
The first two steps, Yama and Niyama, are guidelines for living a good life with clean living and healthy relationships at the top of the agenda. Next, Patanjali tells us to practice the aspects of yoga that are most familiar to Western students– asana (poses) and pranayama (breathing techniques). We're then asked to switch off from external distractions and move through the three stages of meditation, ending in Samadhi – the state of blissful awareness that we experience when all the mental noise and habits stop.
The first seven steps are all preparation for that final state of transcendent bliss, but we often don’t approach our yoga practice in that way. Asana becomes a form of exercise, novelty or distraction rather than preparation for a practice that promises to deliver the peace and clarity that we’re craving. So how do we approach asana in a way that makes it an effective part of our journey towards Samadhi? By putting the breath at the very heart of every practice.