For many people, the word ‘yoga’ brings to mind the image of a model that appears on the cover of a yoga magazine in a pose that is almost impossible for the average person but in fact there is much more to yoga than first meets the eye! In the West, yoga is commonly practiced as a routine which helps in improving physical fitness and sometimes as a means of stress management. There is growing awareness that yoga can be effectively used as therapy in treating a variety of ailments, including hypertension, diabetes and heart conditions, just to name a few.
Many people are unaware of the true meaning and purpose of yoga which can be put in simple terms as ‘the ability to control the fluctuations of the mind’. This brief definition was provided by the Sage Patanjali more than 3000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras. One very important section of the Sutras describe what is commonly called the ‘8 Limbs of Yoga’ which provide guidelines for achieving the goal of yoga i.e controlling the mind to reach enlightenment, where physical postures, asanas, is only one of these limbs. Did you know that Ashtanga literally means ‘eight limb’ (ashta=eight, anga=limb) so those that practice Ashtanga yoga are following this path described by Patanjali below:
1. Yamas (self restraints):
The yamas are guidelines for how to interact with the outside world at a social level. The five yamas are: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (abstinence), Aparigraha (non-hoarding).
2. Niyamas (observances):
The niyamas represent guidelines for self-discipline. The five niyamas are: shoucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), swadhyaya (study of the scriptures and self-study), and Ishwara pranidhana (surrender to God). Together, yamas and niyamas provide an ethical and moral code to be followed so the aspiring yogi can establish an adequate moral foundation for his/her spiritual journey.
3. Asana (posture):
Asana refers to the seated posture which should be steady and comfortable so the yogi can sit and meditate for long periods of time.
4. Pranayama (breath control):
Pranayama, which literally means stretching or expansion of prana, the vital life force, involves breath control and helps train and prepare the mind for dharana (concentration).
5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal):
Through pratyahara one gains the ability to withdraw the senses from their objects thus achieving perfect control over the senses. One method of achieving this is through the practice of Yoga Nidra.
Through practice of these 5 limbs, we are able to have a calmer and clearer mind to lead us onto the final 3 limbs….
6. Dharana (concentration/focus):
Dharana involves focusing the mind on a single object of concentration for long periods of time.
7. Dhyana (meditation):
When there is an uninterrupted flow of the mind toward the object of focus, the yogi enters the state of meditation.
8. Samadhi (total absorption):
Finally when even the self-awareness of the mind disappears and only the object of meditation shines through, it is called the state of samadhi. It is only in the highest stage of “Samadhi”, called the “nirbeeja Samadhi” (seedless Samadhi) when the mind is fully under control and brings the yogi to a state of perpetual peace and tranquility.
So you can see now, that our yoga practice is much more than twisting out bodies into weird shapes!
For more information on the 8 Limbs of Yoga and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras visit: http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras.htm