Written for Awareness: Exploring Spirituality p. 31
What is Yoga Anyway?
In the Western world, there is a lot of buzz around “yoga.” For many, this word conjures imagery of women in stretchy pants carrying yoga mats into serene studio spaces. Social media fills minds with what yoga looks like, but these fleeting images and fashions do not and cannot encompass the transformational life-long practice that is yoga.
The most common misconception is that yoga is merely a physical practice. But yoga is not just about people making shapes on mats. The physical movement is only one small component of the practice. Ultimately, yoga is a way of being.
Yoga is one of the most ancient disciplines in history. It requires consistent self- study and practice. Many devote their entire lives to the study and practice of yoga and remain humbled by the fact that they will never master all there is to know about the practice. The following is a beginner’s guide designed to give the reader a deeper understanding and appreciation for this profound way of being called yoga.
So, why do people keep unrolling yoga mats?
In the Western world, many first begin practicing yoga as a way to exercise or “get in shape.” While this practice does carry many physical benefits, yoga is not a “work out.” The Sanskrit word “yoga” translates to mean “union.” The practice of yoga is a practice of finding union; the body is simply a tool to help settle the mind to reach this divine state.
The classical period of yoga began over 2,000 years ago when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, 196 “threads” of wisdom. These sutras offer an eight-limbed path, translated as Ashtanga, toward a meaningful and purposeful life.
To understand the depths of yoga and its application in daily life, it is important to have a basic understanding of the eight limbs of yoga, which provide a framework to controlling the mind and uniting the body and spirit.
The eight limbs are the Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. The eight limbs take the shape of spokes on a wheel or limbs on a tree, visual reminders that yoga is not a linear practice. It is evolutionary. The point is to try. To take it bit by bit, step-by-step, ever mindful of the subtle transformation at play.
One should not expect to become a great sage full of wisdom by unrolling a yoga mat once a week. But with dedicated practice and application of yoga principals on and off the mat, one’s relationship with life does begin to change.
Below is an explanation of each of the Eight Limbs and how they augment that change.
The Yamas provide certain restraints, guidelines for how to interact in the social world in order to live a more meaningful life. The Yamas prescribe: doing no harm, practicing truthfulness and honesty with yourself and others, not stealing, practicing moderation, and practicing non-attachment.
The Niyamas translate as observances and provide a set of personal virtues for interacting with oneself. The Niyamas are constant sources of self-inquiry that include purity, contentment, self-discipline, and surrender to a universal oneness. These observances provide ways to still the mind, quiet the ego, and know the true-self more deeply. As practitioners come to more deeply know themselves, they are able to recognize the union of all living things.
The physical practice, Asana, is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Asana brings most people to yoga. Often it is the first place that a student can see tangible results and benefits. Asana does provide a lot of physical benefits, however, the point of asana is not exercise.
Asana unites the mind, body, and breath. Connecting breath with physical movement unites practitioners with Prana, or life force. As Prana unites the body and mind, oneness is discovered.
Pranayama, or breath control, brings awareness and regulation to the breath. Breath control is a powerful technique in quieting the mind and calming the body. Focusing on the breath limits the distractions created by the mind and body, allowing for stillness within. When able to find union through the breath, practitioners can see and understand who they truly are with more clarity. This sense of union between the mind and body that the breath creates can then expand beyond the individual and serve as a unifying factor between all living things.
Pratyahara suggests that students withdraw from external forces in order to bring attention to what is happening within. By eliminating the distractions of the external world, students are able to focus on what is happening internally, developing a stronger sense of self-awareness. This can be challenging as the majority of a typical day is focused on externalities. Emails, phone calls, and social media are all useful tools in the modern world, but they take the focus away from what is happening internally. Jobs, thoughts, and relationships are often the ways in which people define themselves. But the reality is, these things do not define an individual. No one is a job, a thought, or a relationship. People simply are.
When practicing Pratyahara, students take a step back from external stimuli in order to understand their true nature. Peeling those layers back by silencing the distractions of daily life, students are better able to know who they are at their core. With fewer external distractions, they can focus on what is happening inside the mind, how to control thoughts, and how to find peace within the present moment.
Bringing concentration to a single point or focus is Dharana. With the distractions of the external world set aside, students are able to work through the distractions of their minds. A useful tool is bringing awareness to a single point. Through deep focus on a single point, such as an object or the breath, the observer becomes completely present as the past and future dissolve and complete awareness is brought to the moment.
But it does not stop there.
Dhyana is this practice of bringing meditation into one’s daily life. Through the dedicated practice of inward focus, students learn to carry that same focus into the very distracting world. Ultimately, external quiet and isolation become less and less necessary in the pursuit of inner peace.
Samadhi is described as a state of eternal peace, liberation, and oneness. Many people practice for their entire lives without reaching Samadhi, the ultimate goal of all existence.
Yoga moves Beyond the Self
While many begin to practice yoga as a way to “get in shape,” something often changes along the way. As students move their bodies, the deeper lessons of yoga unfold. For many, it becomes a lifelong endeavor. And there is no right or wrong way to practice; yoga is to be experienced and interpreted by the individual student, who is his or her own greatest teacher.
The Eight Limbs offer the guide posts to one’s innate wisdom. Through a committed practice, students learn to set aside thoughts and emotions in order to experience union both within the self and among all living things. The journey of the yogi is one of internal peace and compassion for all. The world needs yoga now, more than ever.
Take a moment to bring yoga into your daily life. Start by taking one minute today to focus on your breath and/or bringing your awareness to your body as you move it. Find a community and yoga studio near you to begin practicing and to learn more about the many benefits the practice has to offer.
Project Yoga Richmond, a local non-profit dedicated to making yoga accessible and affordable to all, is a great place to begin, deepen, and experience all that the practice has to offer. Bring a yoga practice into your life by connecting with your breath, yourself, and your community today.