What is Yoga?
The literal meaning of the word yoga comes from the origin “yoke”, which means to unite. In yoga we can see this in two ways. One is to unite ourselves, in remembering that we are whole, that body and mind are not separate and that we are not separate from the whole. The other way to understand this is to see that there is no separation between the individual self and the universal self. The ultimate goal of yoga is to know and experience wholeness.
Yoga is comprised of many different practices in order to achieve this. The most famous work on yoga is that of Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras.
Basic Yoga Philosophy – Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
Patanjali is the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, a major work containing aphorisms on the philosophical aspects of mind and consciousness. It is from Patanjali that we have our core yoga philosophy as we practice it today. Patanjali teaches us the eightfold path of Ashtanga (literal meaning 8 limbs) yoga.
These 8 limbs serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self discipline; they direct attention towards ones health; and they help up to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
The 8 limbs of yoga are as follows:
The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
The 5 yamas are:
• Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness, being nice to others and yourself
• Satya: truthfulness, honesty , not lying
• Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, not taking more than you need
• Brahmacharya: energy awareness and direction of energy
• Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grave before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks are all examples of Niyama in practice.
The 5 Niyamas are:
• Shaucha: purity, cleanliness
• Santosha: contentment, peacefulness
• Tapas: austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline
• Swadhyaya: introspective self-study, spiritual study
• Ishwarapranidhana: offering of one's life to divine.
Asana, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asana, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation. From a more physical point of view asana helps to create strength and flexibility in the body.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind and the emotions. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, “life force extension”, yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body, but actually extends life itself. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique, or it can be integrated into a hatha yoga routine.
These first four stages of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our characters, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this state that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keeny aware of, yet cultivating a detachment, from our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings; habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself, which is no easy task. In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object; a specific energetic centre in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of course, have already befun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses.
In asana and pranayama, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine-tune the many nuances of any particular posture or breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self observant, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concetration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these 2 stages. Where dharana practices one pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his her point of focus and transcends the self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection with the divine and an interconnectedness with all things, being at one with the universe.