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What is Yoga?

Posted by Smita Kishore on

yoga-joshua-tree-national-park-simply-smitaPhoto Credit: A.K. Agarwal 
“You are so wrong if you think Yoga is about what’s going on in this room. About bending, stretching, breathing, sweating on this yoga mat. Yoga is about whether or not you can keep this breath, slow, nonreactive breathing through your nose, when somebody flips you off on the freeway in L.A. and you keep that breath and you don’t fall into that.” ~ Rev. Ed. Bacon  

With all of the craze out there about Yoga and the variety of classes available, it can be hard to know what Yoga really is. In today’s world, the focus often leans towards physical exercise and stretching, but Yoga extends beyond the physical to something much much deeper:

It’s an art - a passage to the soul mastered through a series of asanas (poses) aligned with conscious breath and designed to harmonize the body, mind, and spirit.

It’s a science - dedicated to utilizing body and breath to unite us with the one Universal energy that is everything.

It’s about creating balance - so we may live in harmony with the greater whole.

Various paths of yoga have been created to help us achieve this union. But where exactly did they come from? Although the dates of origin are controversial, the science of yoga stems back to the ancient texts written by Patanjali, known as the Yoga Sutras. This ancient text outlines an 8-limb path that forms the core structure of Yoga, a guide to a way of living that surprisingly doesn’t contain a single asana within it. Rather, each branch is designed to help us live a more disciplined life, to learn how to still the mind and to merge into oneness with the Universe.

The 8 Limbs

Yama

Universal codes for morality that include ahimsa (compassion for all living things), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (sense control), aparigraha (neutralizing the desire to control or hoard).

Niyama

Niyama refers to the attitude we adopt towards ourselves or achieving self-purification through discipline and rules which include saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study or awareness), Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to whatever you consider Divine).

Asana

Postures used to prepare the body for meditation or mastering the body to sit still for meditation. Ancient yogis used asanas to free the body of tensions and restlessness, allowing them to sit in contemplation for lengthy periods of time. It wasn’t viewed as an exercise or way to stay fit like it is today.

“The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths.” ~BKS Iyengar

Pranayama

Prana is the life force or energy that flows through each of us through the breath. Pranayama is control of the breath. The practice of pranayama purifies the mind, helping to remove distractions through focused breathing movements (inhale, hold, exhale). Ancient yogis believed that one could prolong their life through proper practice of pranayama.

Pratyahara

Pratyahara means to retreat or “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.” It is known as sensory transcendence and occurs when we consciously direct our attention inward, withdrawing our awareness from the external world. This practice allows us to respond to external forces rather than react to them. In this way the senses become our servants rather than our masters; we are able to choose how we want to direct our energy and respond to the things outside of our control.

Dharana

Dharana means “immovable concentration of the mind,” or to focus our attention in one direction. This can be done by steadying the mind to focus on one point (an image, or a silent repetition of sound). Here we learn how to slow down our thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object. These extended periods of concentration eventually lead to meditation.

Dhyana

When the steady flow of concentration is uninterrupted the state that arises is dhyana or meditation, a state of being that is highly aware without a specific focal point. The mind is truly quiet in this state. This leads to the ultimate goal of heightened awareness and oneness with the Universe.

  meditation-on-rock-under-bright-blue-sky-joshua-tree-national-park

Photo Credit: A.K. Agarwal 

But how do you know if you're simply concentrating or meditating?

Well, one easy way to tell the difference is to see if you are aware of any distractions. If so, then you are only concentrating. In meditation, the calm achieved carries to all aspects of your life, no matter what’s occurring in the world around you. In other words, you'll be in such a state of flow that there will be no one there to notice any distractions ;)

Samadhi

Absolute Bliss, merging with the Universal Life Force, when we become so absorbed in something in our mind, we become completely one with it. This is the ultimate goal of the eightfold path of yoga. 

So how do they all tie together? 

Working together, the eight limbs of yoga are designed to help us reach enlightenment.

The first three stages focus on outer quests. Yama and Niyama are meant to help control our emotions and passions, keeping us in harmony with our environment. Asanas keep our bodies healthy and strong, in harmony with nature, and free of body consciousness. 

The next two stages or the inner quests, Pranayama and Pratyahara, teach us to regulate our breathing to help focus the mind. This allows us to free our senses while cultivating an inner perceptual awareness.

The final three stages, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi are known as the quest for the soul to help us to realize our oneness with Spirit and to reach enlightenment. 

Ancient yogis believed that dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) couldn't be practiced. Rather, all one can do is try to create the right conditions to help bring about a state of meditation, such as through asanas (poses) and pranayama (breath control). In other words, in order to reach these higher states, the mind must be calm and undistracted by external stimuli. Only then can dhyana and samadhi (absolute bliss) truly occur.

So the next time you gear up to keep those joints limber, take a moment to go inward and become one with your breath. Allow your mind, body, and soul to harmonize with all that surrounds you. You just might find absolute bliss ;) 

Are you a fellow Yogi or Yogini? Write in to share your stories and strategies on learning to keep that breath! 

Sources:

Iyengar, BKS. Light on Yoga. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2000. 

Doran, William JD. "The Eight Limbs, The Core of Yoga." Expressions of Spirit.<http://www.expressionsofspirit.com/yoga/eight-limbs.htm> 

Mathew, Dr. J. "Ashtanga Yoga, The Eight Limbs of Yoga." Holistic Online. ICBS, Inc. <http://www.holisticonline.com/Yoga/hol_yoga_astanga-limbs.htm>

Fondin, Michelle. "What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?" The Chopra Center.<http://www.chopra.com/articles/what-are-the-8-limbs-of-yoga>

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