There’s no denying that yoga is all the rage – everybody seems to be doing it. Soccer mums have given way to yoga mums. Yoga props and videos are sold at large in everyday chain stores and supermarkets. Classes are held in gyms, churches, recreation centres, and care homes around the world. Doctors, physical therapists, celebrities, and next-door neighbours extol the virtues of a yoga practice as a one-stop way to build cardiovascular fitness, strength, stamina, balance, flexibility, and peace of mind. What could possibly be better than a fitness routine with mental health benefits? What could be more modern?
Given all this right-here, right-now popularity, it’s hard to believe that yoga didn’t spring forth from our own trend-crazy, multitasking, fitness-obsessed Western zeitgeist. But in truth, it was developed in India some 5000 years ago by ancient wise men called rishis (seers). These rishis were not interested in getting tight abs, losing weight, eliminating back pain, or even relieving their stress. Rather, they were creating a method of using the body and breath to tame that wildest of beasts: the mind.
The roots of yoga
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, a scripture some have likened to the Bible of yoga, says it best right up front, in verse I.2: yoga citta vritti nirodhah or “yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the mind”. Only when our minds become calm and quiet, he says, can we reap the true fruits of practice, which include equanimity, love, compassion, and joy. These may sound like lofty goals, but in truth they are the undercurrent of any yoga class that asks you to be present in the moment, and to pay close attention to how things are for you right now.
Yoga is a Sanskrit word that can be roughly translated as union or yoking and the ancient sage Patanjali tells us yoga is indeed two things, both noun and verb – a state of being and the actions and practices associated with attaining that state.
The state of yoga is one in which the practitioner is no longer at the mercy
of the endless spinning of the mind and instead experiences a deep awareness
of, and an identification with, a consciousness much greater than the individual ego. This elevated and decidedly spiritual state is sometimes called enlightenment.
The practice of yoga focuses on the concrete and practical aspects of the techniques designed to evoke this enlightened state – the quality of the breath, the pressure of our feet on the floor in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), the sensation of stretching along the backs of our legs in a forward bend, and the tenor of the thoughts that flow through the mind while we move from one pose to another.
Yoga practice is all about building awareness, for only when the mind is still and focused can we realise the promise Patanjali offers in the Yoga Sutra’s next verse, I.3: tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam, which translates as “then pure awareness can abide in its true nature”.
Yoga, in other words, is nothing more or less than a practice of being one’s true, eternal, capital-S Self. We do our practice over and over, every day,
to slowly stitch together mind, body, breath, and spirit. Over time, we learn that sensations and emotions come and go just as trends do. We become familiar with the thoughts that drive us, both good and bad. We get to know ourselves a bit better, and we begin to realise the truth: The mind is a process, not a thing. We are in charge of the mind, not the other way around. And we always have a choice about what we think – a choice that allows us to act in skillful ways and to experience happiness and contentment on Earth, here and now.
The eight limbs of yoga
There are many forms of practice available today – and many yoga techniques for reining in and unifying consciousness. Many, though not all, have roots in the philosophy laid forth so succinctly in the Yoga Sutra, which is thought to have been written around 200 BCE. The book is a short one, containing only 195 terse verses, or sutras. But in it, Patanjali has created a logical road map for using the techniques of yoga to achieve the state of yoga. He offers a clear path: eight steps – or limbs, as they are more accurately called – to liberation.
Asana: creating ease in the body
The starting place for most Westerners today is the physical practice, the limb that Patanjali called asana (posture). Patanjali says that our posture, implying specifically the posture for meditation, should be “stable and done with ease”. He does not mention any of the poses usually practiced in a yoga class (these are described in other texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika). For Patanjali, the key concept is that the yoga practitioner should live and move in such a way that the body becomes an able instrument for further study and meditation. But there is more to asana than simply creating and maintaining
a still and upright sitting posture. An asana is a concrete “thing”, and as such it offers a straightforward way of learning how to focus the mind. The directing of attention to the breath and to different parts of the body – like bones, muscles, and organs – teaches us to focus our awareness. For example, when doing a forward bend, the strong stretch in the hamstring muscles brings focus to the backs of the thighs. This process of consistently bringing attention to one point over and over trains the mind much as one would train an unruly puppy.
The yamas: yoga’s ethical restraints Today, you’re likely to learn asana first, but it’s interesting to note that Patanjali’s path doesn’t begin with the physical practice but with the yamas, the ethical principles that underlie all yoga practice: ahimsa (nonharming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (nonstealing), brahmacharya (sexual moderation),
and aparigraha (nongrasping).
The word yama means “to restrain” and this idea often surprises some students of yoga. We tend to associate yoga with opening and expansion, especially on the physical plane where progress into pretzel-like poses tends to be measured by the range of motion.
It seems almost counterintuitive that classical yoga practice should begin with self-restraint. But if we are to become students of yoga, we must first understand what it means to restrain our actions in the wider world. Unless we bring awareness to our most outward and observable social interactions, we cannot hope to change the subtler aspects of mind and body.
It is important to note that the philosophy of yoga is not moralistic; rather, it is pragmatic in the extreme. Patanjali does not tell us that we are “bad” if we lie, steal, indulge our greed, become involved with many sexual partners at the same time, or act violently. Rather, the teaching is simply this: We will suffer more if we choose to act in those ways. We will not be able to end our own suffering if we are creating it around us. Steal if you must, he seems to be saying, but it will not make you happy. The choice is yours.
The niyamas: lifestyle observances
The second step on the yogic path involves the niyamas – five observances, or practices, to actively pursue. The first niyama is saucha (purity), which is not just about keeping our houses and bodies and practice spaces tidy, but about consciously choosing to act with a purity of intention during practice and at all other times.
The second niyama is santosha (contentment). It may seem odd to be asked to practice contentment. Isn’t contentment something that just arises when conditions are right? No, the contentment Patanjali describes has nothing to do with external circumstances. Rather, contentment is the willingness to be at peace with whatever is – even with the fact that one is presently not content.
The next niyama is tapas (discipline). To move toward our goal, we must be consistent in our practice. Few things reflect the spirit of discipline more clearly than consistency.
Svadhyaya (self-study) involves spending some time reflecting on our attachment to, and belief in, our own thoughts so that we can understand how they often keep us from the deepest connection with our true Self. It also means studying yoga philosophy or contemplating the deeper teachings – reading this article, for example, is a way to practice svadhyaya.
Last is Ishvara pranidhana (devotion). This one is a little difficult to describe, but it encompasses the sense of letting go of the fruits as well as the difficulties of our lives and practices by giving them to the Divine (one’s spiritual ideal). Practicing Ishvara pranidhana means remembering that we are not ultimately in charge; we are only human.
Pranayama: harnessing the life force
After the first three limbs, the yamas, niyamas, and asana, comes pranayama, or yogic breathwork. Breath and consciousness are undeniably linked. When we’re upset or angry, our friends and family often tell us to “take a couple of deep breaths”. They know, and we know, that those breaths are powerfully calming. So profound is the effect of the breath on the body and brain that many teachers place more importance on pranayama than asana.
Through the breath, we are able to directly access the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the body’s ability to “rest and digest” (it’s the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “flight or fight” response). Slowing the breath measurably affects the brain waves, producing a quieter state of being,
one that’s less reactive to the fluctuations within and without.
Pratyahara: withdrawing the senses
In practicing the fifth limb, pratyahara (sense withdrawal), we consciously move our attention away from the input of the senses. We start on our yoga mats by closing the eyes, shutting out the nonstop stream of visual stimulation. Then we work to reduce our reactivity to all sensory stimulation. In a state of pratyahara, we may still hear and sense things, but the sounds and sensations coming into the mind via the nervous system do not disturb or distract the mind. We learn that consciousness is not the same as sensory inputs, which come and go and are by nature impermanent.
Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi: the uniting of consciousness
The last three limbs – dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (union) – are presented by Patanjali in a way that underscores their connection. The ability to sit still and keep the mind focused on one thing is dharana, concentration. When that concentration becomes continuous and uninterrupted, it is called dhyana, or meditation. Thus, meditation is not to be experienced as a process of “going somewhere else” with the mind; rather, the state of meditation is the state of being radically here and now. Only in this state of raw presence can we experience samadhi, the Self-realisation that is
the ultimate goal in yoga.
The yoga whole
We often learn the eight limbs one by one, but it’s helpful to remember that each step on the path is part of an integrated whole, more hologram than linear route. Once they are learned, the limbs are to be practiced and lived together.
If we successfully weave all of the eight limbs into our practices and lives, Patanjali teaches, we will be happier and will suffer less, but we need them all. The last three steps have their roots in the previous five; without an awareness of one’s actions in the world, the cultivation of stability in posture and breath, and the ability to withdraw from the
input of the senses, the mind cannot become the appropriate ground for experiencing the state of union.
Paradoxically, that state is not an extraordinary one but is in truth available to everyone, all the time. All human beings have occasional glimpses of enlightenment, moments of clarity in which suffering drops away and love overtakes us. The practice of yoga is simply one of the best tools for helping us to live in this state more frequently.
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, is PT, has been teaching yoga since 1971 and is the author of eight books, including Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times.
The eight limbs of yoga
1. Yamas: Restraints
2 Niyamas: Observances
Ishvara pranidhana: Devotion
3 Asana: Posture
4 Pranayama: Breathwork
6 Dharana: Concentration
7 Dhyana: Meditation
8 Samadhi: Union
“Meditation is not to be experienced as a process of ‘going somewhere else’ with the mind; rather, the state of meditation is the state of being radically here and now.”
Is yoga a religion?
Yoga is not a religion. But it is theistic, meaning that it does posit the existence of a divine being. In fact, the niyama of Ishvara pranidhana is about devoting or surrendering the fruits of one’s practice of yoga to the Divine. Having a specific god or goddess to work with is less abstract and easier for many people than giving up the desires of ego to an amorphous principle of divine consciousness. Since yoga is not an organised religion with doctrines and worship, people from all cultures and religious backgrounds can practice yoga as part of their faith. If you’re a Christian, you might focus the devotional aspect of your practice on Jesus or Mary, for example.
According to master teachers in the tradition of Patanjali, the practices of yoga are efficacious even if one does not believe in a manifestation of the Divine. But no matter what you believe, yoga, at its best, is a spiritual practice that helps you to get in touch with higher values. J.H.L.
What’s the practice of yoga really about? According to the wisdom of Tantra – the philosophical system devoted to weaving the spiritual into everyday life – it’s about finding more happiness, pure and simple. Tantra views asana, pranayama, and meditation practices as technologies designed to help move a being into alignment with the joyful existence that is everyone’s birthright.
“Tantra is about weaving spirit into the fabric of everyday life,” explains Rod Stryker, the founder of ParaYoga. “As a philosophy, it talks about embracing all aspects of life – both spiritual and worldly – with equal passion.” That’s important, since all who approach the practice of yoga bring their humanity with them.
Though many forms of yoga were mainly practiced by renunciates (monks), Stryker notes that Tantra was always intended to be practiced by householders, those active in the social fabric of life. You needn’t withdraw from this world to do yoga; you can stay engaged with your job and family and hobbies and still have a deep and meaningful practice.
It’s worth weaving a little Tantra into your own life and practice, because doing so reminds us that everything and everyone and every moment is inherently divine. We can do our yoga and live our lives in a way that celebrates that inborn perfection – we don’t need to negate or transcend the human experience.
The pay-off for practicing this way is simple yet profound. “You will be more joyful, less fearful, and more powerful in every way,” Stryker says. HILLARI DOWDLE