We’re all familiar with the postures of yoga, but did you know that the physical postures were not a part of the original yoga practice? In fact, many forms of Yoga still exist today in which there is little to no physical movement.
Confused? I don’t blame you!
For whatever reason, maybe our A type personalities or desire to challenge and impress, but when Yoga came to the West, the physical component flourished, whilst the true origins, and perhaps meaning of Yoga, was lost.
Yoga was not intended to be something that we do for an hour once or twice a week. Yoga is a lifestyle, a way of living.
At its most simplest, the definition of Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. When the mind is clear, quiet, thoughtless, then that is Yoga.
The physical practice that we all know and love in the West is simply an approach to stilling the mind. It prepares the body for longer periods of sitting and it calms the mind for our practice of meditation. It can almost be thought of as a gateway to meditation. We burn our excess energy and quieten our minds from their busy day so that we can come to our meditation from a space of peace and tranquility.
But as I said above, Yoga is a system for living and there are other ways in which we can quiet the mind, other than through the physical asana practice.
Whether you are a beginner or an experienced Yogi it is so important that we go back to the basics and remember what Yoga is and why we practice.
In the 4th century C.E, Patanjali, an Indian sage, compiled the teachings of Yoga into 146 succinct lines known as the Yoga Sutra. In his text, Patanjali outlines the eightfold path commonly referred to as the 8 Limbs of Yoga. These 8 steps act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They outline moral and ethical codes of conduct, directions for self-discipline and ultimately help us to acknowledge our true self.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
1. Yamas (restraints)
The first limb is like an ethical code of conduct explaining how we should behave and act towards ourselves and others. In essence, treat others as you would like to be treated. The 5 Yamas are:
2. Niyamas (observances)
These are Patanjali’s guidelines for personal behaviour such as self discipline and cultivating spiritual habits. The 5 Niyamas are:
Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God
The physical part of yoga that the West recognise as Yoga; the downward facing dogs, the warriors and headstands. Originally, asana simply meant seat and the Yoga practice consisted only of three or four seated postures. It was 8 centuries later when more postures were included to help ready a persons body to be able to meditate for extended periods of time. It is this moving meditation that attracts most people to a practice of Yoga in the first place.
This refers to the various breathing techniques that are designed to control prana, energy or life force. Perhaps you’re familiar with alternate nostril breathing or the breath of fire from your yoga classes. The breath, the mind and the central nervous system are intricately connected. By learning to consciously control our breath, we can calm the body and mind. Yogi’s believe that the breath not only heals and rejuvinates but can actually extend a persons life.
The fifth limb looks at withdrawing from our senses and external distractions. It is a practice to stay present in each moment. With so much sensory distraction around us throughout the day it is estimated that the average persons attention span is as little as 8 seconds. The practice of pratyahara allows us to observe our habits and tendencies that might hinder our personal growth.
Through a practice of pratyahara we cultivate dharana, or concentration. Having developed focus to stay present in the moment without external distraction, we can guide our awareness towards the mind. We do this by concentrating on one single mental object; a mantra, an energy centre in the body, an image. You can see how the layers build upon one another, in asana, pranayama and pratyahara we have been developing and strengthening our ability of concentration and focus.
This is the practice of meditation itself. This is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Dharana is the practice of one-pointed attention, whilst dhyana is ultimately a state of being where the mind has been stilled producing few or no thoughts at all.
Finally, we reach samahi, Enlightenment or nirvana. This is a state of pure ecstasy in which all notions of the ego disappears and a person finds peace, bliss and understanding of the universe. The final limb is culmination of the previous seven limbs and Patanjali says that anyone is able to achieve this state with practice and dedication to the yogic journey.
So next time you're on the mat feeling frustrated that you fell out of your tree again, remember that there is so much more to yoga than the poses.
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