What is yoga all about and how is it not what everyone thinks
If I ask you what is yoga, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
Most people will immediately think of a physical activity class that is mainly suitable for fit and flexible people. Today, with the consumer culture that has grown around yoga in the West, you might also think about the beautiful clothes we know from social media.
But what if I told you that the physical part of yoga is only one of eight parts that are considered the full yoga practice?
These eight parts are called the eight limbs of yoga and they were written by a man named Patanjali around 500 BC. Of these, the part of physical practice is only one part.
Many times the word yoga is translated as connection or unity. This connection is interpreted as a connection between the body and the soul or between the self and the world.
If we look at the philosophy of yoga, we can say that the goal of the practice is to experience something called enlightenment. Simply put, enlightenment is a state where we feel connected to everything in the universe around us. A state where we experience everything that is similar instead of everything that is different. A situation where we are fully aware that in the most basic structure of everything we are made of atoms and thus everything is made of the same thing.
According to the philosophy of yoga, the way to reach enlightenment is through meditation (see article on meditation (link)), a practice in which we allow ourselves to be without thoughts. The reason we want to stay without thoughts is, among other things, because when the mind is clear we are able to feel and experience our connection to everything. The boundaries of where we start or end begin to blur.
One of the big reasons why in the practice of yoga there is an emphasis on the physical practice is because if our body is not in shape – meaning, not strong and flexible at the same time, than we will not be able to sit in meditation for long. After a few minutes of sitting, preferably in the Lotus pose, the recommended pose for the meditation practice in which the legs are crossed and the feet come up on the thighs, we will begin to feel pains in the body that will not allow us to be in a state of physical and mental relaxation.
Therefore, it can be understood that we actually perform the physical practice so that we can sit in meditation more comfortably and for longer time.
The eight limbs of yoga
Let’s take a look at the eight parts/limbs of yoga.
Basically, these are 8 principles or guidelines designed to help us live more meaningful and healthy lives.
The first two limbs are what I call ‘the ten commandments of yoga’. Each of them is made up of 5 principles that refer in the first part to how I should behave with the world around me and in the second part about how I should behave with myself.
The first limb is called Yama and it contains the following principles:
-Correct use of our energy and awareness of how it fits with the world
The second limb is called Niyama and it contains the following principles-
-A connection to something bigger
The third limb is the physical practice, which in Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language used in the practice of yoga) is called Asana.
From there we move to the fourth limb, Pranayama, which refers to our breathing. If you’ve ever been to a yoga class you’ve probably heard the teacher talk about breathing at least once during the class if not more. Yogis believe that the breath is the life force and by learning to control the breath and work with it, we can influence our state of mind and state of being.
The fifth limb is called Pratyahara which means ‘withdrawal of the senses’. The meaning here is learning how to reduce the impact of the stimuli coming in from the various senses, such as smells, tastes, sounds or even sights. This is in order that we will not be distracted and that we can stay focused for a long time during our meditations. This limb is about the ability to control our senses and not letting the senses control us, in that we will have to act on any impulse or distraction that arises.
The next limb is closely related to the one before it, and is called Dharana. This limb is about concentrate itself. The instruction to withdraw from the senses is intended to facilitate our ability to concentrate.
You can see how the limbs build on each other. Each of them comes to prepare us for the climax which is the eighth limb, but we will get there soon.
The seventh limb is meditation, Dhyana. Only if we can reach a level of mastery or expertise in the first limbs, can we then sit in meditation in a clean and pure way. Meditation is a state of observation, listening and silence. This silence invites to it insights and a connection to a higher consciousness. (For more information about meditation, see the article here (link))
As I wrote at the beginning of the article, the practice of meditation is meant to bring us closer to enlightenment, Samadhi, which is the eighth part, often translated as bliss.
“Samadhi is when the goal alone shines as if consciousness were empty of its own form.”
Now that you understand that the physical practice known in the West is only a small part of the yoga practice, and is intended to enable the other parts, maybe you can look at the practice a little differently next time you practice.
As in everything, if we try to burden ourselves with high expectations of doing the practice in its entirety, we will only lose motivation, because the task is too big. Therefore, my recommendation is, take these as guiding principles that you can strive for. When there is something to strive for, we will always be in a state of progress.