We often see yoga as a form of physical exercise. Stretching, toning, increasing strength and flexibility. What if I was to tell you that the shapes you see people make in a yoga class are just the tip of the iceberg? That there is a whole life’s philosophy within the practice of yoga? That yoga not only incorporates what you do on the mat but what you take with you into your day-to-day dealings with life? A couple of years into my practice, I wanted to learn a little more about yoga. What exactly is it? Who invented it? How, from doing a some exercises on a mat a couple of times a week, had I become more relaxed? More accepting of life’s challenges and their outcomes? Smiling at the person in front of me in the supermarket queue who ran off the grab something they forgot on the furthest shelf from the check out?
The first book I ever tried to read about yoga blew my mind. And not in a good way. It was full of words I found difficult to comprehend. Sentences that didn’t resonate with me. On the whole, I found it confusing so I put it down, stepped away from it and went about my business making shapes on the mat. Today, after spending a little bit more time and discussion deciphering some of the philosophy behind the concept that is yoga, I would like to try to simplify things a little to save you time. So that you won’t immediately step away from the first yoga book you attempt to delve into.
This week, I will attempt to give you an overview of the yogic philosophy, the structure it takes and the path that we follow from our first encounter with our yoga mat.
What is Yoga?
Literally meaning ‘to yoke’, the word ‘yoga’ refers to the union between body, mind and spirit. A bit too deep for you? If you think about the time spent on your mat, besides the odd thought creeping into your head about what to have for dinner later, you’re generally completely focused in the moment. Where do I put my arms? What way are my feet supposed to be? What is that twinge in my lower back? Am I breathing? Your body, mind and spirit are completely aware of and connected to each other in the present.
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
Approximately 200AD, a great sage of ancient India by the name of Patanjali defined the Yoga Sutras a guidebook of classical yoga made up of 195 ‘words of wisdom’. Regarded as the authoritative text on yoga it brings together the ancient traditional practice into a handy manual of sorts and describes the science of yoga, the practices involved, the obstacles you may come across on your journey, how to transcend them and the results obtained from regular practice. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra follows an eight fold path called ‘ashtanga’. ‘Ashta’ meaning ‘eight, ‘anga’ meaning ‘limb’ in Sanskrit. Each step acts as a guide on how to maintain a meaningful and purposeful life incorporating moral and ethical codes, self discipline and mindfulness of our overall health. Although listed out in order, it is important to remember that no one limb takes precedence over another. They are all intertwined and can be explored and/or practiced in a holistic manner. Still with me? See below the eight limbs of yoga:
The ‘yamas’ refer to the attitude we have towards things and people outside of ourselves. Our code of ethics and morals, our sense of integrity and how we behave in life.
The ‘niyamas’ relate to your own personal observances. How we relate to ourselves with our attitude and behaviour.
‘Asana’ is the physical practice of yoga. This is, not only where we build on our physical strength, balance and flexibility but also where we bring our focus inwards. We begin to observe our attitudes to ourselves during challenging postures or moments of weakness. Here we begin to learn to strengthen our will, let go and accept where we are, right now.
‘Prana’ can be described as energy or life force. We draw our energy and our ‘life force’ from the breath. ‘Pranayama’ is generally understood as ‘breath control’. Practicing breathing exercises either on their own or within Asana practice helps to calm the mind and soothe the nervous system. See if you can notice the effects next time you’re in a challenging pose. Close your eyes and breathe. See what happens.
A broad definition of ‘Pratyahara’ means to withdraw and retreat. In more simple terms, we are talking about turning our focus from external distractions to ourselves. Rather than thinking about whether the room is hot or cold, noises happening outside your window, taking some time to step back from all of that. To almost detach from your surroundings while still being aware of your senses.
Each stage prepares us for the next and so Pratyahara prepares us for ‘Dharana’ or ‘concentration. Following a withdrawal from outside distractions, we can now focus on inner distractions. Our thoughts. In the lead up to meditation, we learn to slow down our thinking process. Rather than thinking about getting the ironing done or that deadline you have in work, or those shoes in that shop that you just need so much, we draw attention to one single act, be it be focussing on the breath, a mantra or visualisation of an image and so on.
Although it seems that ‘Dharana’ and ‘Dhyana’ are one in the same, there is a fine line between the two. Where Dharana brings focus to one point, Dhyana means being aware without focus. In Dhyana, the mind is completely still. Producing little or no thoughts at all. A difficult stage to master, it is important to remember yoga is a practice, not a perfection and we benefit from each stage of our practice, not achievement of a final goal.
The last stage is known as Samadhi, a state of ecstasy where we transcend consciousness and find complete peace. Enlightenment. A difficult stage to reach, if ever, it can also be fleeting. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra suggests that the yogi practices Asana and Pranayama to prepare for Dharana which helps to create space in the mind. Only after Dharana has occurred, can Dhyana and Samadhi follow.
Are you still with me? The point being, yoga is not just a series of shapes you make with your body. The physical practice helps us to become observers of ourselves. We learn to observe of our health, our strength, our flexibility, our thoughts, our reactions to challenges, our attitudes to ourselves and we grow from what we learn. Pretty powerful stuff! Still…you don’t have to immerse yourself in the philosophy. You can still continue to go to your weekly class for physical fitness. The rest just… happens.