Yoga, what are you?
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Ah, Yoga, I guess it's the reason you're sitting here now, why you're looking at my site, the very reason why you're reading this. You want to know more, you want to develop some aspect of your life. You've heard of Yoga and the great potentials available, maybe you have a long standing practice. I'm really not to know but by all means feel free to leave a comment below and let me know, it'll be great to hear from you. On that note, community is a great place to start when talking about Yoga.
Yoga योग - Yuj युज् - Yoke, to bond, to unite.
Simply from its translation you can see why community is a good place to start. To be honest it's not why I started to practice Yoga, which you may have seen in my previous blog - An introduction to the who and the how. Most people in western society come to Yoga for the physical benefits, some to destress but it is mainly the physicality, flexibility being the main one with toning and some strengthening following up behind. It really doesn't matter how you come to start your practice the important thing is that you do, if you're here reading this then you have that voice urging you to know more, you almost definitely have that other voice telling you a million and one reasons not to as well! Totally been there, believe me!
The question is, is this really what Yoga is? Is it a means to a better body, was Yoga created all those thousands of years ago so people could touch the back of their head with their toes or balance on their finger tips for seven days? In todays world you'll see people (including myself) pulling an array of asanas (poses) on Instagram and Facebook demonstrating their 'Yoga prowess', something my master Yogacharya Santhosh Kumar calls 'the circus'. Something else you'll see is people remodelling Yoga saying how the Yoga asana caused them injuries, that Indians bodies are different to ours so we shouldn't attempt what they do. We also have the argument that Yoga asana didn't even come form India in the first place but was in fact drafted in from European gymnastics taken and used to train the Indian army. I'd go as far to say the all of that is true apart from Yoga asana caused them injury, I'd hazard a guess that it was more their ego that was to blame for the injury, that inner voice saying, 'well that person over there is doing it so I have to do it or I'll look/feel stupid/lacking' or 'I want to be 'good at Yoga' so I have to get into this insane pose' completely overriding the fact that they know their body isn't suited for that. The fact is that EVERYBODY is different and EVERY BODY is different. Indians have different bodies to each other as does anyone else anywhere on the planet, we are ALL different so why would you try and be like someone else? Do these random asana create this yoke, this binding that is Yoga?
So is Yoga the asana?
In the Yoga sutras asana was originally, and still a general term for, a seated meditation pose. So originally asana was a single posture to sit comfortably in preparation for and for the act of meditation. In the western culture we tend to jump the gun a bit and work with the breath and inner awareness at the start of a class to set our mind and intentions onto the practice ahead whether that be our Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Yin practices (many others are available). When we look at the 8 limbs of Yoga, which we'll go into fully another day, we see that asana practice comes before Pranayama (breath control), Prathyahara (turning inward) and a whole 4 steps before Dhyana (meditation) which is a term we tend to throw around quite loosely nowadays! The introduction of Hatha Yoga saw asana used to prepare the body for meditation, allowing the muscles and body to warm up to access a steady and comfortable position, which is what Patanjali later went on to describe asana as. I can see why we have switched around in this modern world, people rushing around non stop day to day, rushing from work or home to get to a busy class in the nick of time, blood pumping and thoughts racing we most definitely need that time to calm the senses before we have any sort of chance to practice our Yoga asana mindfully. Thats not to say we can't take that calm away with us after a practice and find a space to sit and be still with our body and mind prepared but the chances are we'll run out the door to get back for the kids dinner or to finish an assignment that needs to be done yesterday!
What are these 8 limbs of Yoga?
Patanjali set this out in his Yoga Sutras as a classification of classical Yoga sometime between 500 BCE and 200 BCE. Included in these were the 8 limbs of Yoga, with these being a guide to how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. We won't go into full details today but I'll list them out with some basic information, it really will blow your mind the depths to which this philosophy can go which is why it can't all be noted in a single blog.
So we start with the Yamas. These are our social ethics of which there are 5.
Ahimsa अहिंसा - Kindness
Satya सत्य - Truthfulness
Asteya अस्तेय - Non-stealing
Brahmacharya ब्रह्मचर्य - Moderation
Aparigraha अपरिग्रह - Generosity
Secondly we have our Niyamas. These are our personal practices, of which there are 5.
Shaucha शौच - Purity
Santosha संतोष - Contentment
Tapas तपस् - Austerity
Svadhyaya स्वाध्याय - Self-study
Ishvarapranidhana ईश्वरप्रणिधान - Surrender
Thirdly we have our Asana आसन. This is our postural practice, originally a seated meditation pose but over time this has developed into a practice of preparing the body for the further limbs. It went to 15 asana (poses) with the introduction of Hatha Yoga and has increased over the millennia.
Forth up we have Pranayama प्राणआयाम . Breaking it down we have 'Prana' which translates to life/energy force, you may be more familiar with the Chinese 'Chi' from Martial Arts movies and 'Yama' which translates to control or restriction. We know that a lot of our energy comes in the form of oxygen from the air, which feeds and energises our entire body. So this 'life force control' relates to the control of our breath.
'Then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature', Genisis 2:7
In at number five (sorry I've always wanted to say that!) we have Prathyahara प्रतिआहार. This is turning our awareness inwards, can you see how they are starting to lead from one to another. With our breath we are already beginning to take our awareness and control inward, once we gain control of our breath, our pranic (life force) energy, we are already well on our way to this limb of Yoga. So here we are letting go of external stimuli, this is where we turn our phone off...Yeah I said it! We tune out of the neighbours fighting, we tune out of the children screaming at each other! Maybe we take some time on a train or tube journey (not while driving 😉) where we can tune out of the background noise and this again already begins to flow seamlessly into the next limb.
The sixth limb of Yoga being Dharana धारणा. So as we begin to control our prana and we begin our journey inwards we find ourselves concentrating, bring focus and awareness to what we are doing. You may find at start of Yoga classes that you have attended, if you haven't and you join me on my journey then you soon will, that one of the techniques to bring us to the present time is to use the breath to guide us in, using the breath as a point of focus drawing our awareness into our bodies and away from all the shite going on around us. It's through repeated practice of these processes we begin to rewire neural pathways, and 'pathways that fire together, stay together!' - Joe Dispenza (Sorry slid off there, he's famous for that saying and well worth checking out). So basically, the brain just like any muscle in the body can be trained through consistent repetition. With this training and familiarity comes ease, just like the weights appear lighter because we've got stronger the neural pathways which have been firing together and staying together see the patterns and become stronger so at a certain point we are able to release the need to focus and concentrate and, of course, flow gracefully into the seventh limb of Yoga.
Dhyana ध्यान - Now we get to our meditation. You can see what I meant earlier about throwing the term around loosely with it being the penultimate limb of the 8 and one that is, I personally find, by far the hardest aspect of Yoga for an array of reasons. A tendency is to say because we're sitting down with our eyes closed we're meditating, even focussing on the breath or the body tends to be seen as meditation when in fact they are preparation for meditation, which is the release of focus and attachment while still maintaining a clear free, energised state of consciousness. Imagine a stormy day. We have big heavy clouds with rain pouring down, high winds with thunder and lightning, all this turbulence is in essence our thoughts running a mock in our brain. If we were able to be in an airplane coming in at a higher altitude to the storm we would be looking down on these big heavy storm clouds from a place of calm and clear blue skies, we may even be able to see down through breaks in the clouds and observe the turbulence but it would not effect us. This being our true state of consciousness, the ability to observe the turbulence with non attachment and surrender.
Samadhi समाधि - 'Unification of mind' A state of pure bliss is the eighth and final limb of Yoga. Our consciousness connects to that of the universal consciousness. We release attachment to Prakrti (nature, that which decays). Some say this can be found several times in a lifetime and some say it takes a lifetime to find but the more I learn the more I'm inclined to go with the former, I truly believe it is within our grasp at any given time throughout our lives.
A code of ethics for better community, for better self care. A form of exercise for the body, brain and mind. A mastery of life force. 'Chitta Vritti Nirodha' - The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. A return to the source, a connection to all that we know. It can be whatever we wish it to be, just as we can. You can start for whatever reason you like but I'm sure you will get more than you ever expected in return. It's a practice of self exploration and acceptance. It's quite simply a practice, a place to learn and grow.
Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory - Pattabhi Jois