I first started practicing yoga with my mom in 2007. We would pop in a Wai Lana DVD and move through the class together. It has turned into a wonderful source of bonding now that we live 1,600 miles apart. We discuss classes we have taken recently and attend yoga festivals together every year. Yoga has become a huge part of my life since I first started practicing. It helps to reduce my anxiety and helps me find peace in an often stressful world. I think a great way to get introduced to all that yoga encompasses is to take a look at the Eight Limbs of Yoga mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. This text is considered to be one of the earliest cornerstones discussing the practice of Yoga, and was first put down in writing almost 2000 years ago. The path lists eight steps to personal improvement along the way towards ultimate union of the Self with the Universe.
- Yamas: Ethical restraints, or actions to limit in your life.
- Ahimsa: Non-violence. This can also be translated as compassion for all things, including yourself. This means working to eliminate the detrimental thoughts, judgements, and actions we make against ourselves and others. Ahimsa is considered to be the most important goal to strive for.
- Satya: Truthfulness. Yogis are encouraged to be honest and truthful in all things. If being totally honest will end up causing deep suffering, sometimes ahimsa will trump the importance of satya.
- Asteya: Non-stealing. This includes the stealing of material items from another, but more importantly encompasses the stealing of nonmaterial things. If someone does something impressive, we should not try to steal their joy or feel jealous of their success.
- Brahmacharya: Virtue. Find moderation in all parts of your life, trying not to over-indulge in any arena.
- Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness. Embrace simplicity in life and do not grasp for physical possessions. Notice what is driving you to possess more and more.
- Niyamas: Qualities to encourage and nurture in life.
- Saucha: Cleanliness or purity. Keep both body and mind clean. This includes personal hygiene, eating foods that keep the body clean, and practicing mindfulness to keep the mind clean. Asana and pranayama (discussed below) can help to cleanse the body internally as well.
- Santosha: Contentment. Accept life as it comes and try to find happiness within yourself.
- Tapas: Heat or discipline. It is important to have goals and to work hard to achieve them (without grasping or becoming attached to exact outcomes). Tapas means to have the self-discipline or internal fire to keep striving for the bettering of one’s own life and that of others.
- Svadhyaya: Self Study. Study to learn more about yourself and the world around you.
- Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to God. Yoga does not tell you what religion to follow, or even that you need to follow any religion at all. It encourages developing a form of spirituality in order to find a sense of purpose, serenity, and understanding of your role in the world. By appreciating something outside of yourself, you can avoid the pitfalls of excessive pride and find compassion for others.
- Asana: This is the physical practice of yoga, the postures we think of when we hear someone say they do yoga. The main goal of an asana practice is to encourage flexibility and strength in the body, in order to create flexibility and strength in the mind. By moving the body through various positions, muscles, bones, connective tissues, internal organs, and lymph tissues will be massaged and invigorated. Developing stronger body-awareness over time can be a powerful method of increasing mind-awareness as well.
- Pranayama: Breath Control. Prana is defined as breath, energy or life. The breath is the only vital function of the body that we can consciously control. Controlling the breath can lead to the slowing down of the thoughts and the release of tension in the body. There are countless different methods of pranayama, designed to bring about different results in the body and mind.
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses. This can be as simple as closing the eyes or wearing earplugs. By eliminating one of the senses, the others can become enhanced. The body can more deeply feel sensations, the mind can more fully focus.
- Dharana: Concentration. Once the body is calmed with asana, the breath deepened with pranayama, and the senses withdrawn via pratyahara, the mind can come to a focus on a single point, thought, or idea.
- Dhyana: Meditation. Dhyana goes a step deeper than simple concentration. It arises when one concentrates fully and “body, breath, senses, mind, reason, and ego are all integrated in the object of [one’s] contemplation”1.
- Samadhi: Ecstasy. This is the ultimate goal, the holy grail, of a yoga practice. It is a state beyond consciousness, where body and senses are at rest while the mind remains awake. This results in a deep connection with the universe and an awareness of one’s role within it. This leads to a liberation from fear and eliminates the duality of self and non-self.
If we can even embrace the very first aspect of the eight-fold path – nonviolence – imagine how much improvement could come to our world! If you first come to yoga simply as a form of exercise, you might be surprised by changes you see in other parts of your life.
1. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (New York, Schocken Books, 1979). pp. 51.