When we hear the word yoga, most of us think of mats and studios, stretching and balancing. And that’s a part of it, sure, but yoga is a lot deeper than that. Deeper and broader, touching every part of the human experience and giving us practical tools to refine our body, mind, and soul.
Sounds intense, right? And maybe a bit of an exaggeration?
Well, it can be intense, but it’s definitely not an exaggeration.
The ideas the word yoga conjures up relate to one limb of the yogic path (Raja Yoga) outlined by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras: asana.
Asana is the use of posture, breath, and motion to refine awareness, of the body, and of our experience in the moment. And it might surprise you to hear this, but it’s not the starting point of the yogic path.
The first limb of the path of Raja Yoga is called yama, which means restraint
It can be interpreted as universal moral commandment. There are five yamas:
- ahimsa (nonviolence)
- satya (truth)
- asteya (not stealing)
- brahmacharya (sexual and spiritual integrity)
- aparigraha (not hoarding)
We are all human, and we all make mistakes. By undertaking the yamas, we become aware of where our energy is going, when it is in alignment with our ideals, and when it slips out of alignment. Like the practice of asana, observing the yamas is a process of continual refinement, bringing us closer to where we want to be with each conquest of the awareness over the primal impulses.
The second limb is called niyama
These are efforts we make to purify ourselves through discipline. Also like yama, there are five niyamas:
- saucha (purity of body and mind)
- santosa (contentment and gratitude)
- tapas (effort and perseverance)
- svadhyaya (self-education and honest self-reflection)
- isvara pranidhana (dedication of all actions to the divine)
Each of the yamas and niyamas has a gross and subtle level of observation. For instance, the first level of ahimsa is nonviolence in action. As our practice refines, we extend this into word, and finally into thought itself, the practice moving deeper into the core of our being.
Asana is the third limb of yoga The beginning of physical refinement taking part only after we have endeavored in moral refinement. The fourth limb is pranayama, the awareness and control of breath. Breath is the link between the conscious and subconscious mind, an entry point into the subtler levels of being. Once this has been practiced for some time, we are finally ready for pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses from the distractions and temptations of the outer world. Pratyahara, the fifth limb, readies the mind for the next, dharana. This is concentration, focusing the mind upon a single point, undisturbed by wandering thoughts or animal urges. Now are you ready for another surprise? The next limb of the yogic path, number seven, is dhyana: meditation. In the tradition of yoga, only once we have learned to refine the attention, focus the breath, and engage in concentration without distraction are we prepared to use meditation t its highest potential. Dhyana is a focal point for contemplation of our nature and that of the divine. Ever wondered why meditation is so hard? Just clear your mind, right? Well the mind is a bit of an untamed wilderness until the effort of our practice brings it into alignment. Yoga offers the serious seeker a practical approach to do just that.
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering about the eighth and final limb, so I won’t leave you hanging. Samadhi is the objective of the art of union, the experience of oneness with divinity. And it’s easy to get stuck on the idea of Samadhi, rushing to get there and being impatient with the details leading up to it.
Here are a few tips: first, all things are a part of experience. Yoga is not an escape, but rather an embrace of every aspect of the human experience and nature. Second, the yogic tradition recognizes the divine within, rather than outside of us. All that you need is within you in every moment. Finally, we get there when we’re ready, and not a single moment before. Enjoy the ride.