It is often thought that yoga is a form of exercise: that it is purely a physical discipline. However, regular practice of yoga and study of the ancient yogic texts demonstrates that yoga is a far broader subject that this.
According to one of the first known texts (written by Patanjali c400 A.D.) yoga is classically divided into eight aspects or ‘limbs’, so called because these aspects are developed simultaneously rather than sequentially.
Patanjali states that the goal of yoga is to eliminate suffering – personal suffering and the suffering one inflicts on others and the eight limbs of yoga are the means by which this is achieved. These limbs are interlinked and each has numerous facets that are experienced through study and practice. It is said that dedication to all aspects of yoga leads to higher levels of awareness and spirituality.
The limbs are:
1. The Yamas or social observances
The yamas are about ‘right-living’ and include the following:
Ahimsa or non-violence – towards others or ourselves
Satya or truthfulness – in all thoughts, words and actions
Asteya – not stealing or coveting others possessions
Brahmacharya or faithfulness – loyalty and virtuous behaviour
Aparigraha or non-greed – only taking our fair share of the world’s resources
These help us to live happily and harmoniously within a community.
2. The Niyamas or personal observances
The niyamas are also concerned with ‘right-living’ and include:
Saucha or cleanliness – in mind and body (and not descending into depravity)
Santosha or contentment – cultivating satisfaction and curbing unnecessary desires
Tapas – self-discipline or self-control
Svadhyaya or self-study – knowing yourself and your place in the world
Ishvarapranidhana – respecting and surrendering to a higher spiritual force (if you are religious this might be ‘God’, alternatively it might be respect for the natural universe)
These help us to live happily with ourselves.
Asana is about ‘right-exercise’ and it includes the physical postures and practices that we are most familiar with. These are designed to remove ‘dis-ease’ in the body and cultivate health and wellbeing.
This is usually described as yogic breathing although the actual definition is the management of ‘prana’ or the life force that flows in our bodies. Pranayama practices cultivate a feeling of balanced, healthy vitality.
This involves the control and/or withdrawal of the senses. When we pay sole attention to our breath, this is a pratyahara practice – we are turning-on our sense of hearing and turning-off or withdrawing our attention away from seeing or feeling. Pratyahara is a means of focusing our minds and directing our energies.
Pratyahara and Dharana are practiced together in succession. As the attention is withdrawn and turned inwards (pratyahara) the mind is given a focus of attention (often the breath) and the awareness becomes highly focused and concentrated. This one-pointed attention is Dharana.
The aim of the practices mentioned above is to reach a state of Dhyana – complete absorption in the object of focus. In modern day language we use the term ‘in the zone’ to describe someone who is so absorbed in an activity that they have undisturbed focus, it is the same thing. Initially we might only have momentary glimpses of this state of Dhyana, but with repetition and regular practice of all the yogic techniques we become more adept at reaching this ‘in the zone’ state.
Samadhi is the culmination of all yoga and is the point where one is permanently in a state of Dhyana. It is a state of unending joy and bliss and is rarely, if ever attained.
A balanced yogic lifestyle is one that is:
a) balanced physically through asana practice
b) balanced energetically through asana and pranayama practice
c) balanced socially through the practice of yamas and niyamas
d) balanced mentally through asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana and dyana practice
e) balanced spiritually through the practice of the yamas, niyamas and dyana