What is Yoga?
What is Yoga? Western ideas of Yoga often only depict the practice of the postures (Asanas), often done by very flexible and athletic women. This gives the impression that you have to be either extremely fit and flexible or female. In fact, the earliest historical records show that Yoga evolved as a male-oriented practice up until very recently.
Some of the most common physical practices we see today started in the early part of the 20th century. It evolved into physical training for young boys in India for military service. This ‘style’ of Yoga was later exported to the Western world. In the last 30 years or so, it has exploded in popularity for its physical and mentally transformative power. However, it is often viewed as a pursuit for females or incense burning hippies. Yoga is in fact for everybody and everybody can benefit from regular practice.
The origins of the meaning of the word Yoga means ‘to join’ or ‘unite’. It is a practice or process of personal reintegration of the self. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define this as a channelling of the thoughts in our mind in a desirable direction. To cultivate a level of focus and awareness that transcends distraction.
This is achieved through various physical and meditative practices alongside the observation and adherence to a set of moral behaviours towards others, our environment and to ourselves. This process can lead us to a state of clarity in the mind and integration of the breath, body and mind. The process and the goal can both be described as Yoga.
Patanjali's The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yama relates to our behaviour towards others and to our environment. It includes the understanding and practice of consideration, proper communication, non-covetousness, moderation and the absence of greed.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to make our interpersonal actions thoughtful, loving and respectful.
Nyama relates to our personal discipline and our attitude toward ourselves. This includes personal cleanliness, contentment, the practice of discipline and good habits, and continuing self-study and acceptance of our limits.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to our personal practices and disciplines.
Asana is the most familiar of the limbs and is concerned with the physical postures of Yoga. This practice incorporates the body, breath and mind, as a result, this will strengthen, balance and stabilise the body. The emphasis of using the breath in Asana practice serves to integrate body and mind.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to take care of our body and mind through physical practice and training.
Pranayama is the practice of training the breath in ways that affect our state of mind, awareness and physiological state. Prana is the concept that means “life force” and Ayama is to extend. Practising Pranayama, changes the normal pattern of the breath, which in turn changes your state of mind. The ultimate aim of Pranayama is to focus the mind.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to regulate and balance the breath and nervous system through breathing practices.
Pratyahara relates to the influence of the senses on the mind. When our mind is drawn in many different directions by the senses, it becomes distracted. Pratyahara is about withdrawing the mind from servitude to the senses.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to pay attention to the awareness that lies beneath (and it’s power) the sensory organs.
Dharana is the first stage in the process of meditation and involves sustained concentration, focusing the mind on a particular object. This trains the mind to become more focused and less distracted.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to direct the mind’s focus and attention and to refocus it when required.
Dhyana stabilises the mind in an uninterrupted state of concentration on an object of our focus. During this state, we are able to focus the mind for extended periods without distraction.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to move the mind toward absorption in an object of focus and attention during meditation, such as the breath or mantra.
Samadhi is the purest awareness of an object, where the mind is free of everyday distractions and movements. It is the complete meditative absorption of the self, where there is no difference between ‘the seen’ and ‘the seer’.
You may think of this as the conscious decision to shift our perception toward a state of and experience of unity consciousness or ‘oneness’.