Beyond The Postures
If you’ve been practising for a little while, you’ve probably noticed that most yoga classes we go to are based around asana - the postures. So it’s easy to interpret this to mean that yoga is just a physical practice. One where we get stronger and more flexible.
Here I’m balancing, I’m engaging various muscles to hold me in this position, but am I doing yoga? Yes? No? Maybe..?
The truth is that you can’t really tell... Yoga is much more than what you see from the outside. Most of the practice lies beneath the surface.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj, which means to yoke or unite. It’s often said that we can think about yoga as a practice that helps us unite the mind and the body, by focusing on moving with the breath.
Further into our practice we might start to see how yoga unites us with others. Either with our communities or on a larger scale as a species. But we could also think of it as a practice with many aspects. Aspects we need to unite within us in order to connect to a universal oneness or consciousness.
That sounds pretty big… It is. But all this doesn't just happen overnight... For many of us, we initially come to yoga for fitness - maybe to get stronger or improve our flexibility. We might also come to it for relaxation or to help us de-stress. So how does it go from this to something that can connect us to our communities, or to universal consciousness? The asana (postures) we practise are just one small part of yoga. Many of the styles we have today stemmed from the Yoga Sutras - an ancient text written by Patanjali which outlined the 8-limbs of yoga. These limbs can be considered a route to take to unite our mind and body with a universal consciousness, otherwise known as samadhi - the final of the 8-limbs.
I’ll outline Patanjali’s 8-limbs, then we’ll dive a little deeper into a few of them…
Patanjali’s 8-limbs of Yoga:
Yamas - outward actions Niyamas - inward actions Asana - movement Pranayama - breath Pratyahara - sense withdrawal Dharana - focus Dhyana - meditation Samadhi - bliss-state consciousness You might read this list and think:
‘Well I just wanted to get a bit more flexible, maybe yoga isn’t for me?’
It totally is. Asana or the movement/postural aspect of yoga is where most of us start as it’s generally the easiest one for people to connect with. A physical practice helps us focus, and starts to get us more connected to ourselves. Then once you’ve been practising for a while you might start to notice some of the other limbs creeping in.
Asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing practices) are common practices in your average yoga class. But you may start to practise pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and dharana (focus/concentration) without even realising it…
Have you ever been so in tune with what you’re doing that you don’t hear the traffic outside, or even missed the teacher's cue - not just because you’re thinking of other things, but because you’re fully immersed in the practice? Well that’s pratyahara.
And if you’ve ever been so focused on your breathing that everything else disappears, that’s dharana.
You can start to see how these limbs naturally build as your practice develops. And this is why you can’t tell if someone’s ‘doing yoga’ just because they’ve nailed their headstand.
Let’s jump back to the first 2 limbs - the yamas and niyamas. These can be considered ethical actions or moral codes to follow in order to help you experience the other limbs more deeply.
The yamas are generally thought of as restraints. And Patanjali outlines 5 restraints to follow:
Ahimsa - non-violence Satya - truthfulness Asteya - non-stealing Brahmacharya - non-excess Aparigraha - non-attachment The niyamas, on the other hand, are usually translated as observances. They are:
Saucha - cleanliness Santosha - contentment Tapas - discipline Svadhyaya - self-study, or the study of yogic texts Isvara Pranidhana - recognition of, or surrender to, a higher power We can start by incorporating these into, or around, our physical practice. But the key idea is that we start to follow these restraints and observances throughout our everyday lives.
Yoga starts to become a way of living. Not just something we do when we step onto our mat.
For most of us, an asana practice starts to unlock these other aspects of yoga, and that’s what keeps us coming back for more. You might start to recognise that yoga is different from other forms of exercise - because it is. It’s rooted in ancient wisdom that our western science and understanding is only just starting to catch up with.
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