Historians and scholars often date yoga at 5,000 years old– old enough to have gone through many iterations and variations in meaning and expression. Today, many yoga classes are designed to be physical experiences, with students focusing on their bodies, their energy/mood, and their breath. When you translate the Sanskrit word Yoga, however, you find meanings such as “union,” “to join together,” and “to yoke.”
You might argue that through the physical practice of postures and breathing, you are “joining together” your body with your mind in the present moment. After all, it’s very difficult to worry in depth about changing your cat litter or reminisce about “the good old days” while you are balancing on one leg; trying to take smooth, even breaths; and feeling an intense stretch in your hips.
There is no doubt that a good breathing and posture practice can “yoke” your thoughts to the physical experience you are having in your body. However, ancient yogic texts offer another interpretation entirely of what you are “yoking” or “joining together.”
What is Yoga and Who Wrote “the Book” on Yoga?
The term “yoga” describes both an end state and the process of arriving at that end state. That end state is “union,” and you achieve union through the practice of various yoga techniques. In the Yoga Sutras (an ancient text credited as being the first written attempt to define what yoga is and how you practice it), eight techniques or “limbs” of yoga are outlined.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
1. Yamas – ethics (to unite you with universal values)
2. Niyamas – moral codes (to unite you with personal rules)
3. Asana – postures (to unite your body)
4. Pranayama – breathing techniques (to unite your energy)
5. Pratyahara – reduced distraction (to “tune in”)
6. Dharana – focused attention (to concentrate)
7. Dyhana – sustained and unwavering attention (to meditate)
8. Samadhi – bliss (to unite with all that is)
More on the Ethics and Moral Codes
The yamas and the niyamas are considered to be the yoga we practice “off of the mat” as we live in relationship with others and as we grow and transform through life experience – they are the ethics and moral codes we live by.
The Five Yamas
1. Ahimsa – non-harm; non-violence
2. Satya – integrity; truthfulness
3. Asteya – non-stealing; self-sufficiency
4. Aparigraha – non-grasping; detachment
5. Brahmacharya – moderation; mindful use of energy
Of these yamas, I would point out one with a significant evolution since the writing of the Yoga Sutras: brahmacharya, which initially meant celibacy. As the practice of yoga traveled outside of ashrams (spiritual communities and monasteries) and was introduced to individuals with partners and families, the definition has evolved to mean using our sexual energy wisely.
The Five Niyamas
1. Saucha – cleanliness; purity of body, speech and thought
2. Santosha – contentment; acceptance of current situation without resignation or coveting
3. Tapas – austerity; self-discipline required for transformation
4. Svadhyahya – self-study; contemplation of oneself in the universe
5. Ishvarapranidhana – devotion; dedicating all efforts to God
Of the niyamas, I would point out one that can be challenging for some contemporary yogis: ishvarapranidhana. Individuals and communities of different religions and faiths (including those who question their faith) now practice yoga. Without needing to define God, a yogi can apply this niyama as the idea of devotion to something bigger than oneself (e.g. to serving humankind, to respecting the planet, to contemplating the universe, to understanding science, to making art).
The Journey to Yoga
While we can intentionally practice the first four limbs of yoga, the last four limbs of yoga are a combination of intentional practice and then some grace– they occur more frequently and more rapidly for us as we consistently practice the first four limbs. Here’s how.
As we move through our lives following universal values (yamas) and providing ourselves with personal rules (niyamas,) we spend less time feeling guilty, ashamed, unworthy, arrogant, depressed and angry. As we elevate our health and vitality for life through postures (asana) and breathing practices (pranayama), we respond to life with more ease and less stress.
With these four limbs in place, we are able to turn our attention away from the world of distractions around us towards the worlds of possibility within in us (pratyahara). While we can’t really “practice away” all of our distractions, we can mute them by knowing we are acting with intention, closing our eyes, finding a quiet place, and becoming still in our bodies.
This stage of yoga is followed by our choice to focus our attention (dharana) on something that elevates us (perhaps we become aware of our breath, repeat a meaningful phrase, or visualize the ocean). Although we don’t have complete control of our practice at this stage, because our mind will likely wander off from being focused, we do have control over bringing our wandering mind back.
Grace enters the picture when meditation (dhyana) occurs for us and our wandering mind grows steady. Just beyond this stage lies bliss (samadhi), which occurs as a feeling of wholeness; union; lack of separation from all that was, is, and ever will be. And this is the end state, the “union” of yoga.
Can I Practice More Limbs of Yoga on My Mat?
I encourage you to ask this question again and again now that you are familiar with the tenets of yoga. Your answer might be as simple as bringing the first yama to mind (ahimsa: non-harm) as you step onto your yoga mat– listening to your body, never forcing, never straining, always enjoying the practice of yoga.
Image credit: Alissa