Yoga is often misunderstood to be only a physical practice of stretching, working out, contorting the body, and maybe a little bit of meditating. While it’s true that yoga involves physical postures, or “asana”, there is much more to it than that! Coming from the Sanskrit word “yuj” (to yoke or bind), “yoga” can also be interpreted as “oneness” or unity. It is a pathway, a set of practices and morals, a philosophy for life. This pathway was outlined by the sage Patanjali in an ancient text called the Yoga Sutras, a set of 196 threads of wisdom composed about 2000 years ago. In the Sutras, Patanjali presents the following Eight Limbs of Yoga – guidelines for living with good morals and fostering the connection between mind, body and spirit.
Five moral disciplines for self-conduct and ethical behavior. They include the practice of Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahamacharya (moderation), and Brahamacharya (non-coveting).
Five observances and practices for the body, mind and spirit. They include Saucha (the practice of purity and cleanliness), Santosha (being content), Tapas (a burning zeal for self-discipline), Swadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara-Pranidhana (devotion and a willingness to serve).
The practice of physical postures. Be it downward dog, tree, or savasana, the practice of any pose fosters the habit of discipline, engagement, and concentration. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines Asana as taking a “steady, easeful seat” – no mention of any other posture in particular.
Literally meaning “life force”, pranayama can be defined as the practice of using the breath. The breath animates our bodies from our first moments on earth until the last. Pranayama techniques and breath control exercises are seen as a way to rejuvenate the body.
The practice of “drawing in”, or a process of focusing our attention towards the inner world and away from the outer. The first four Limbs outlined above all have to do with more outward, physical practices; Pratyahara serves as a transition to the final Limbs, which are much more internal.
Having one-pointed focus through the practice of concentration. This can be done through concentration on the breath, with the gaze, on a mantra. Dharana deals with working through the distractions of the mind, and prepares the practitioner for the next limb, meditation.
The practice of meditation. Meditation can be seen more as an experience that you have, not something that you do. It is stillness of the mind, a state of awareness, having no focus in particular – but certainly not an easy state to attain! The practice and discipline of the preceding six limbs are all in preparation to get here.
A state of bliss and peace. In this final limb of yoga, one is thought to transcend the self and experience total oneness with all things, unity with the Divine. It is considered to be a point of liberation.
With the Eight Limbs in mind, yoga could potentially be defined as a practice of connecting to yourself on a physical, mental and spiritual level. Connecting to your true self, tapping into the feeling of “life-force”, experiencing the interconnectedness of all things.