Someone asked me recently: “So, what is yoga exactly? It’s just like stretching yeah?”
Although I was slightly taken aback, I understand how one could easily come to that conclusion and associate yoga with a purely physical practice aiming at stretching and turning one’s body into a pretzel, whilst not wearing much and preferably in an exotic locale.
However, whether you are an adept yogi or totally new to this art, if that's what you thought it was, then bear with me and read on. There's way more to it!
In the United States alone, yoga has become widely practiced with numbers reaching to more than 20 million people since 2002. According to the U.S. News & World Report in 2015, yoga practice showed more growth than any other natural therapy. (1)
This is indeed great news, as yoga is a practice which not only helps the body stay strong and supple, it also contributes to calming and focusing the mind and gives us positive and wholesome guidelines to live by, on an individual level as well as towards others.
But mostly, what it is is a practice of deep self-enquiry, through which the veils of ignorance and separation eventually lift, gifting the practitioner with the realization that our individual consciousness is one with the universal consciousness.
Still with me? What it means is that although we are all individuals, each with a body, a mind, different life experiences etc., we are also all integral parts of a whole from which we are not separate – yet think we are, and this is where most of our suffering comes from.
"Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self."
- The Bhagavad Gita
The 8 limbs: the foundation of yoga
The most commonly practiced form of yoga in the West today is Hatha Yoga, a physical practice which dates back about a thousand years. It grew out of the Tantra Yoga branch, which itself was born out of Classical yoga, some 2000 years ago.
Although a few ancient texts about the teachings of yoga have been found over the centuries, traditionally, the knowledge was passed on from teacher to student orally. Only when the student was considered ready, would his teacher initiate him to more complex and advanced practices, kept hidden until then.
One of these famous texts is called The Yoga Sutras, written by a sage named Patanjali, around 200 AD. It comprises 196 verses, out of which only 2 mention anything about asana – the physical practice – simply pointing out that it should remain a balance between effort and ease, ‘sthira’ and ‘sukham’, where one strives to be steady in his effort yet comfortable, without over tensing, over stretching or going past his own limitations. (2). It asks of us to be curious and open to the different ways our body speaks to us and to really listen, in order to nourish and grow, rather than force past our edge and injure ourselves.
sthira sukham asanam - 2.46 The posture (asana) for Yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable, and this is the third of the eight rungs of Yoga.
This point is especially pertinent in our culture where so much emphasis is put on achievement, competition and always striving for more, rather than being deeply satisfied with the way things are by being present enough to enjoy even the smallest of things.
Patanjali devised the Sutras as a guide. Used metaphorically like a ladder, to climb up each step and attain freedom and liberation from the fluctuations and limitations of our mind.
The 8 limbs, or steps, are as follows:
** YAMAS: universal moral virtues
** NIYAMAS: rules of personal observances
** ASANA: physical postures
** PRANAYAMA: breath control
** PRATYHARA: withdrawal and control of the senses
** DHĀRANA: concentration
** DHYĀNA: meditation
** SAMĀDHI: union with the Divine, through a deep state of meditation
As you can see, the physical aspect of the practice of yoga is only 1/8 of the whole and not one that is more important than the others. In a society where we are so attached to form, it is not surprising that we seem to have embraced asana practice at the expense of the more subtle aspects of yoga.
Here is one of my favourite quotes from B.K.S Iyengar, illustrating the importance of each limb on the eight fold path:
“ A tree has roots, trunk, branches, leaves, bark, sap, flowers and fruits. Each of these components has a separate identity, but each component cannot by itself become a tree. It is the same with yoga. As all the parts put together become a tree, so all the eight stages put together form yoga.
The universal principles of yama are the roots and the individual disciplines of niyama form the trunk.
Asanas are like various branches spreading in different directions.
Pranayama, which aerates the body with energy is like the leaves, which aerate the entire tree.
Prathyahara prevents the energy of the senses flowing outwards, just as the bark protects a tree from decay.
Dharana is the sap of the tree that holds the body and intellect firm.
Dhyana is the flower ripening into the fruit of Samadhi. Even as the fruit is the highest development of a tree, the realisation of one’s true self – atma-darsana – is the culmination of the practice of yoga.”
More than another thing to add to your ‘to-do’ list, yoga is a way of life. Getting on your mat and into your body is a great starting point but it doesn’t stop there.
Once we start to really pay attention to the inner workings of our whole body mind complex, we begin a never-ending journey of discovery where both the beginning and the end are the self.
Eva Joan 🕉
Hi, I'm Eva Joan. I'm super happy to have you here & to share some of my thoughts with you. The topics I'm writing about will vary from anything to do with food, yoga, parenting, traveling, mindfulness, nature and anything that