This spring I made a new commitment to my longtime yoga practice, and I’ve been talking about it to everyone who will listen. In response, I’ve had a few different people ask me about yoga. The questions are not so much about the physical routine I use, but more about what’s behind my practice, and the philosophy of yoga. This post is intended as my response. It’s not an academic discussion. I’m not a certified yoga teacher, nor an expert on the subject. What I’d like to share with you is my experience with yoga over the past two decades, and some resources you might find helpful if you decide to explore it for yourself. Enjoy!
First, it’s important to understand that yoga isn’t just the poses we think of folks doing on rows of colorful mats in yoga class, but rather an entire philosophy. It comes to us from the East, from what is now India.
I read somewhere that the various yoga poses, or asanas, were originally practiced so that one’s body would have the strength and flexibility necessary to sit still in meditation for long periods of time. I find that interesting, considering how yoga has become incredibly popular in a time when we are often sitting still for long periods of time at our desk jobs. I work for myself now and can vary my activity levels throughout the day, but when I worked at a full-time office job, yoga was helpful to me in staying healthy and flexible.
People seek out yoga for many reasons – relaxation, physical fitness, stress relief, help recovering from an injury, centering, flexibility. The physical practice of yoga poses, which is really just one facet of the entire system of yoga, can certainly help accomplish these things. The physical aspect of this ancient practice is known as hatha yoga. It is a terrific companion to any type of exercise or sport. It tones the muscles, helps you to become more flexible, and strengthens your core as you practice holding yourself in various positions. Yoga is also a gentle and easily-adapted form of exercise for those who have suffered injuries or want to get physically fit. It works for any type of body. A regular practice of hatha yoga will help you feel better, no doubt about it.
You can leave it there if you like, or dive deeper into the full practice of yoga, which reaches into mental and emotional wellness as well as spirituality and mysticism.
Along with the benefits to my physical body, I find that doing a session of asanas (a flowing series of these poses is called vinyasa) helps calm my mind and emotions. My yoga practice is much like a moving meditation. When I do yoga, I’m focused on my body and each movement. Maintaining a slow and steady breath is essential, coordinating the breath with the movements (the breath work itself is called pranayama). Being fully in my body, rather than living in my chattering mind, is liberating.
The term yoga, from Sanskrit, means “to yoke,” or connect. I love how practicing yoga helps connect me with myself and the Universe as a whole — mind, body, emotions, and spirit. When you look at the entire framework of what is known as yoga, which we’ll do in a moment, you can see how hatha yoga is just one aspect. By taking yoga classes or doing some reading, you’ll start to pick up on some of these other aspects over time. You might be inspired, as I was, to study and practice some of the other facets.
Yoga has been around for at least 4,000 years, and perhaps longer. The philosophy of yoga was described in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali in approximately 200 C.E. He detailed an 8-limbed path that makes up the basic framework of the practice of yoga.
Here are the 8 limbs of the path to yoga:
1. Yama : Universal morality
2. Niyama : Personal observances
3. Asanas : Body postures
4. Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana [or energy]
5. Pratyahara : Control of the senses
6. Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine
Note: the above list is excerpted from the article “The Eight Limbs, The Core of Yoga” by William J.D. Doran. See resources, below, for a link to the article.
The entire system of yoga could take an entire lifetime to explore fully. However, there’s no need to be overwhelmed with information, or try and mentally conceive of what yoga is all about before you start. The best way to experience yoga is to try it, and then to do some further reading on aspects that call to you. I would recommend starting by taking a basic yoga class, if at all possible (see resources, below, for how to find a local studio). If money is an issue, you can look up yoga routines for free on YouTube. Find one with a teacher or narrator who leads you vocally through the poses, so you can learn as you go.
As you begin to practice, you’ll notice the gradual expansion of yoga’s many benefits into your daily life. Yoga isn’t an elite system used only by yogis living apart from the modern world, not anymore. Using everyday activities as a means to spiritual growth turns the lofty notion of enlightenment on its head. Yoga dovetails well with your own personal spirituality, whatever it may be. Yoga is not a religion, but rather a system for exploring human consciousness more fully. Yoga will seep into your world and help you to feel more alive and present.
A common teaching that I’ve encountered in yoga classes is the notion of the “edge.” The idea is, in any pose, to find your own edge, the place where dynamic tension dances. When applied to a stretch, the edge is the place where you’re pushing your comfort zone just a bit. You’re not stretching too far or using force, which would be harmful, nor timidly stretching so little that you’re barely challenging yourself. Your edge is an interface between where you are and where you’re going, and is a place of great learning. Your edge is where you can lean into a stretch and coax your body toward flexibility. In everyday life, you can use the notion of your edge to gently encourage yourself to keep growing, learning, and moving towards your dreams.
As I’ve practiced yoga over the years, I’ve noticed that yoga fosters equanimity. Think of this as a sort of balance for the mind and emotions. Yoga increases your ability to focus and to be in the present moment. When the inevitable crises of life rear their heads, rather than freaking out, you can rely on your practice of yoga to find a still place from which to respond. You’re able to tap in to your observer consciousness, the pure awareness which is at the foundation of everything.
It’s not that yoga makes you perfect, but it’s an excellent tool for expanding your knowledge of yourself and how you wish to live. This type of exploration will bring you into relationship with the entire Universe, and you’ll see how you are an integral part of the All. Yes, this gets into the mystical side of things, and your experience on those frontiers will be uniquely your own. Yoga provides a useful framework for exploring the notion of the Divine and how you relate to the cosmos as a whole.
The ethics of yoga are expressed through the yamas and niyamas. This part of the framework is helpful when exploring your own personal values. Rather than adopting these observances wholesale, I would recommend studying them and reflecting on how you feel about each one. My favorite yoga teacher incorporated them into her classes, exploring one precept each week and encouraging students to observe how they come alive in one’s own life. As your study and practice of yoga expands, you may be drawn to meditation, which in itself is a huge topic that I’ll leave for another time.
Yoga, no matter how deeply you choose to delve into it, is a wonderful foundation for overall wellness, particularly in our hectic modern world. When you’re immersed in your yoga practice, you’re moving slowly, grounded in the moment. You’re giving yourself the gift of your focused attention. It feels so incredibly delicious, and will enhance your connection with the whole cosmos. I dare you to try it.
The ideas I’ve set out here about yoga are based on what occurred to me. I would love to answer any further questions you have about yoga, or point you to particular resources if I don’t know the answers. How can I support you in trying yoga or expanding your personal yoga practice? Please leave your questions in the comments section, and we’ll joyfully further this discussion of yoga philosophy and practice!
How to find a yoga studio near you: http://www.yogajournal.com/directory/
More about the 8 limbs of yoga:
http://www.expressionsofspirit.com/yoga/eight-limbs.htm (this is the link referenced above)
And some books for exploring the background of yoga philosophy:
The Bhagavad-Gita, trans. Eknath Easwaran
The Upanishads, trans. Eknath Easwaran
The Dhammapada, trans. Eknath Easwaran
Great places to explore:
As well as a website, Yoga Journal is also a print magazine, one I very much enjoy. The site has a lot of great information and resources: http://www.yogajournal.com/
A good place to get an idea of some of yoga’s basics: http://www.yogabasics.com/
Kripalu is the style of yoga I’ve practiced most, and there are some great resources here: http://kripalu.org/article/288
More about pranayama (breathing exercises):
Highly recommended books on yoga and the philosophy behind it:
Living Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide, ed. Georg Feuerstein
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
The Secret of the Yamas: A Spiritual Guide to Yoga by John McAfee
Meditation and yoga psychology:
Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience by Sally Kempton
The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield
Articles on establishing a home yoga practice:
This one is more in-depth, for those who already do yoga and wish to create a powerful home practice: http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/819