The 7 Vital Principles make up the how of yoga asana practice. They set a foundation for accessing embodiment, or perfect pose. Perfect pose in yoga is not about how flexible or strong one is, rather, it is about finding ease within the pose. In this way we emphasize arriving into the posture, and bringing vitality and aliveness to the posture even as we ‘hold’ it.
The 7 vital principles were created by Orit Sen-Gupta and Dona Holleman. These two wonderful teachers are also the ones who founded Vijnana Yoga, which stems from their teachings from BKS Iyengar in the Iyengar lineage. These teachings were passed to me through my apprenticeship with Cathy Valentine. I am deeply grateful to Cathy for the incredible opportunity to learn from her, as she embodies yoga both in practice and in life.
As Orit stated in the Vijnana yoga manual, yoga is yoga. There is no real separation between all these variations in practice or ‘style’, but different teachers find different ways to better access liberation in the practice. The 7 vital principles are this - the practice of the principles helps the practitioner embrace Yoga in its totality, emphasizing the how over the what, the quality over product.
Relaxing the body
Relaxing the body is the first step to calming our inner selves. When we relax our bodies, we have the ability to access where our tensions are truly held. Relaxing the body is meant to be a conscious act, as opposed to one of laziness or sloth. When we consciously relax the body, we create a clean slate. It’s rarely, if ever, perfect. But it is a starting point from which we can begin to layer on the other principles in practice.
Quieting the mind
Each principle acts like a key that opens the door to the next. So, when we relax our bodies, we calm the waters of our inner selves, and we find that this lends way to a quiet mind. From here, we access the witness in ourselves, the eye that can watch ourselves react on the mat, and in the world. Quieting the mind clears our minds for present practice.
The practice of intent sets our mind for practice after it has been cleared. Intent prepares ourselves for the experience of practice as a whole. Intent can also be used as a tool to access more challenging postures, or perhaps can help us enter practice in the more challenging unmotivated times in our lives. In asana, intent is the practice of visualizing the posture you are moving into before moving into it. Like an imprint on the psyche, this practice aids us in moving deliberately, executing movement efficiently, and arriving into postures calmly.
Rooting is, to me, the most tangible of the 7 principles. It is earthy and grounded, helping us utilize our bodies with strength in physicality.
When starting to think of rooting, watching the nature around us can be a wonderful source of inspiration. Like the roots of a tree rooting into the earth, we see an interdependence at play, where the tall verticality of the tree with its expansive branches cannot exist without the strong roots connecting it down into the earth. There is a continuity between our bodies and the earth we walk on, a healthy dependence on one another, a relationship. Our yoga practice is not only about ourselves, in our own bodies, it is also about the recognition of these bodies in space and time, relying on the world around us. Through practice we honour this gift of life.
The principle of connecting guides us in looking at the space between two opposing parts. It helps us engage the anatomy from one part to the next, aligning our bodies in ways that best support a healthy flow of energy and action. Connecting is the continuation of Rooting. Once we root, (be it our hands, our feet, our head or any other body part!) the ‘doing’ part of yoga begins. Connecting is how we then guide this energy output in a conscious way. We use soft round lines to help transfer force through our joints and tissues, finding ease in our efforts, and fluidity in our motion.
The principle of breathing places emphasis on the Awareness of breath. So long as we are alive, breathing is a given. However, breathing is not often at the forefront of our mind, or a part of our conscious daily experience. In yoga and in life, we utilize the breath to help us in certain movements or postures, and other times it is quiet and in the background of our experience. It can be big, or it can be subtle, but breathing is ALWAYS a part of our living experience. We move with breath in a sort of dance. Watching how, as we breathe, we are moved. As without breath, we would literally collapse. Breathing is our vital connection to the world within and around us. <3
Expanding - Elongating, Widening
Like the warmth of the late summer sun on your skin, the principle of expanding melts away physical restrictions and helps us arrive into the fullness of our posture. With Expanding, we land into Elongation and Widening of the physical body, giving our mental and emotional bodies a taste of freedom.
Elongation and widening of the physical body provides space in the body. Though there is not actual space in the body, there are many potential spaces. When we practice yoga we free bound up tissues, ultimately bringing blood, and thus oxygen to these dark restricted corners of our sacred home. Expanding brings breath to our tissues.
The 7 Vital Principles are meant to be practiced all together, occurring almost simultaneously. Before mastering them it is helpful to focus on one at a time to fully understand and integrate it into your body. Then, it is helpful to practice them in relationship to one another, like rooting to connecting, or breathing to elongating. Each principle can support another.
*Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash