Almost all the people in the world have probably heard about yoga. In fact, a study conducted in 2012 has shown that more than 20.4 million people are practicing yoga in the United States alone. But for people who aren’t really familiar of yoga, they might think that it’s just an exercise meant to increase your flexibility. And while that notion holds true, there is much more to yoga than what meets the eye.
The main reason for yoga is to unite the individual consciousness to the worldly consciousness through a series of poses or asanas. The word yoga came from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which literally means “to yoke”. However, as time went by, yoga came to be interpreted as “union” since its sole purpose is to unite the mind, body, and soul.
It isn’t really clear when the yoga practice started but some believe that it might have started more than 5,000 years ago in India. And since its discovery, it has undergone a lot of changes. Ancient yoga isn’t exactly what is taught in yoga classes in modern times and that’s actually okay. As long as the essence is still there, yoga can and would still remain to be a way for people to reconnect to the source.
Most of what is taught in the yoga classes nowadays relies heavily on Pitanjali’s Yoga Sutra. According to Pitanjali, the path of yoga that leads to self-realization can be broken down into eight limbs: the Yama or restrains, Niyama or Observance, Asana or posture, Pranayama or controlled breathing, Pratyahara or introversion, Dharana or concentration, Dhayana or meditation, and Samadhi or oneness. What does these mean?
Essentially, yama talks about the ethical, moral, and spiritual guidelines of yoga. It talks about how a yoga practitioner should behave in order to be able to connect to the world and experience the uniting force of yoga. Through following these guidelines a yogi could lead a honest and ethical life.
Pitanjali instructs that each person who practices yoga should go through yama and observe its five characteristics in order for us to purify ourselves and have a healthy participation in the society.
- Ahimsa or Non-violence is the first characteristic of yama that means being kind towards all living creatures, starting with yourself. It is through compassion and accepting things for what they really are and reacting towards it with a positive attitude that a person starts to feel good about their selves.
- Satya or truthfulness and it basically means being true to ourselves, our words, and all the things around us. Though it may be hard for us to uphold this, but sometimes not being truthful can do more harm than good. By being truthful in a good way, you can cultivate respect, honor, and in a way it can become liberating.
- Asteya or non-stealing is another characteristic of Yama which can be best described as not taking what isn’t freely given to us. It doesn’t necessarily mean taking worldly possessions or physical things rather it can also indicate persuading someone to do things they don’t want to do. In that way, we are stealing their time. Realizing and accepting that we have everything could lead us to being grateful with what we currently have instead of dwelling on what we don’t have.
- Bramacharya or continence talks about us being in control over our impulses. Sometimes it can also be interpreted as celibacy or abstinence from sexual activities. Controlling it so as not to cause harm to others and ourselves. As we succeed in controlling each of our impulses, we will eventually create moderation in our activities which leads us to conserve our energy and use it for a higher purpose in yoga.
- Aparigraha or non-coveting basically tells us to let go of things we do not need. These include toxic events, memories, and relationships because when we hold on to these, it can become an anchor that can bring us down and prevent us from going further into our future. By allowing ourselves to be free, we become open to receiving all the things that we need in order to sustain our lives.
Practicing these five yama characteristics is no doubt a difficult task for each yogi. However, if we want to be able to live a healthier life, we need to reduce the bad karma that’s continuously accumulating.
The second branch of Pitanjali’s Yoga Sutra talks about the rules and laws we need to follow for us to learn how to relate to ourselves. According to the text, there are 5 “do’s” in niyama that we have to follow in order to achieve personal growth.
- Shaucha refers to purity and cleanliness. It has two parts: outer and inner cleanliness.
Outer cleanliness means washing your hands after using the bathroom, showering, and essentially anything that keep your body clean. Inner cleanliness, on the other hand, talks about cleansing your mind of unclean emotions, passion, pride, and etc. When yu think about it, these two dimensions come hand in hand. How can you be clean on the inside if your outsides are cluttered and messed up?
- Samtosha is basically the saying “when life throws you lemons, make lemonades.” It talks about making do of what your currently have and making the best out of it while you’re at it. It’s finding a silver lining on each bad situation.
- Tapas means putting disciplined effort into achieving specific goals. For instance, if you’re trying to avoid excessive spending, you can opt bringing your own meals to work rather than buying one at a restaurant. By doing this, you’re basically teaching yourself to control your will power helping us become more dedicated in the practice of yoga.
- Svadhyaya talks about finding our true nature by contemplating on the truth teachings of seers and sages. Through meditation, we allow ourselves to accept our mistakes and learn from them and in order to do this, we need to be able to examine ourselves. It is through seeing what we currently are that we solidify our connection with the higher being.
- Isvara Pranidhana or the devotion. It encourages the yogi to surrender his/her fruits to the divine. Through dedicating ourselves to the practice of yoga, we become reminded of why we are doing it in the first place.
Asana is the yoga’s third limb. It is the practice of the physical postures of yoga. Ancient asanas were mostly seated poses since it helps yoga practitioners get ready for meditation.
Asana helps in conditioning the body to be healthy. It also reconnects the mind and the body thereby making it steady and stable. We cannot reach the last stage of meditation without making sure that our body is strong and healthy since our body’s condition affects how we focus.
The fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama or breathing. It’s a force that constantly flows through us, and all living creatures. We can use it to encourage calmness and balance within ourselves thereby maintaining good health.
They say that the key to a good yoga practice is proper breathing. It’s true. In fact, all yoga classes start by focusing their breath and incorporating it in every asana. When you’ve got it all figured out, everything else then follows.
Pratyahara is the start of inner yoga practice. It essentially tells us to withdraw from all our senses gradually moving towards careful meditation and finally enlightenment.
The word came from two sanskrit words “praty” which means “against” and “ahara” meaning something we take in from the outside. It’s about us withdrawing from the physical senses so that we may be anle to hear the sounds within us.
As we go on deeper into our yoga practice, we eventually reach a stage of total concentration, the Dharana. It talks about fixing your focus to one specific point – may it be a physical thing or an internal one. When we do this, our minds typically starts to quiet down and leaving no room for other thoughts. This is especially important si that we can easily move into the next limb, the Dhayana. It trains us to have a complete control in our minds so that we can have a quiet mind for meditation.
Dhayana is the 7th limb of yoga which encourages yogis to fixate their focus on one thing to be able to learn the truth about it. It came from the Sanskrit word “dhyai” meaning “to think of”. It teaches yoga practitioners to engage in deeper concentrations and meditations so that they cans separate illusion from reality. Once yogis are able to do this, they can then reach yoga’s ultimate goal which is: union with the source or Samadhi.
Samadhi is yoga’s final and highest state of consciousness where the individual’s awareness becomes incorporated into the whole. It is something that cannot be explained in words. The person should be able to experience it to understand. They just be willing to go deeper into the experience to be able to reach Samadhi.
Pitanjali’s eight limbs or Ashtanga remains to be one of the foundations of modern yoga. Each limb teaches the yogi how to live a purposeful and meaningful life. Learning about each of the limb and incorporating them to your practice can make a huge difference in how you see yoga as a practice and discipline.