The word yoga literally translates as ‘to yolk’ or ‘union’. In yoga we try to harmonise our body with our mind and spirit but also with people and the world around us. Yoga isn’t just about our physical practice on the mat but is just as much, if not more, focused on our relationships with ourselves and with others.
Somewhere around 200BCE the great sage, Patanjali, composed the Yoga Sutras in which he outlined an 8 fold path that defined classical yoga. Commonly known as the 8 limbs of yoga, Patanjali not only gave attention to the physical postures, or asanas, but also put importance on other areas of personal and spiritual development such as the codes of ethics to be followed by a yogi, breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation.
This post is just a short introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga and their functions and benefits. In future pieces we’ll focus more deeply on each limb individually but, for now, lets get our heads around the general guidelines of this classical yoga system.
The yamas, translated as to 'curb' or 'rein', are 5 ethical disciplines that guide us in how to live in relation to other people and the world around us. While they may seem quite straight forward, putting them into practice can be trickier than anticipated when you extend them to apply to your actions, words and thoughts.
Ahimsa: Non-violence or harming
Satya: Truthfulness and non-lying
Asteya: Avoidance of stealing
Brahmacharya: Practicing moderation and temperance
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness and practicing detachment
Translating as 'observances' or 'positive duties', the niyamas are 5 virtuous habits and behaviours that guide us in how to live in relation to ourselves. These observances lead us further down the path of self realisation and liberation.
Saucha: Purity of body and mind in what we do, say and think
Santosha: Practicing acceptance of, and contentment with, others and our situation
Tapas: Self discipline and perseverance in our yogic practices
Svadhyaya: The study of spiritual texts but also the spiritual study of the self
Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrendering of our actions to a higher power/source/God
Although, in the west, we generally assume that asanas are the be-all and end-all of yoga, in reality, they make up just one of the eight limbs of the yogic practices. Saying this is not, in any way, an attempt to undermine their importance but is just a little reminder that, while they have their value, there are other aspects of yoga to bear in mind as well.
There are many reasons as to why we practice asana which we'll look at in more detail in another post. For now though, generally, the poses are designed to strengthen and lengthen the muscles allowing us to sit in meditative positions for longer periods of time. With a regular physical practice comes good physical health and, with the body in good condition, we have more time to focus on the mind and spirit.
The word pranayama can be divided into two parts: prana, meaning 'life force' or 'vital energy', and 'ayama', meaning 'to extend'.
Pranayama is made up of a variety of breathing exercises which, on a physical level, work to develop a healthy respiratory system and, on an energetic level, work to purify and balance the nadis (subtle energetic channels)
The ultimate goal of yoga, Samadhi, or the absorption into the absolute, is achieved by long time practitioners and yogis who have dedicated their lives to the practice of yoga and meditation. In Samadhi, the yogi experiences their true self as one with the universe and the supreme source/God.