By: Juliana Cole – Living Yogi, Yoga Instructor, Studio Manager at Yoga Heights
Hello again, Yoga Heights Yogi! First and foremost, thank you for reading! This is the first of a series of five posts that I will be writing exploring the Eight Limb Path of Yoga, so here we go!
Before we get started, it’s important to answer the very basic question: What is Yoga? Yoga means many things and presents itself in many ways. The beauty is that whatever you glean from the word yoga, you are right…and there is more of that! Most of us in the western world think of yoga as a physical practice, the Asana (poses). I think you would agree that in your practice of the Asana, you find a calming of the mind, or at least a reduction of stress. You hear your teacher talk about quieting the mind, focusing the breath and allowing your practice to be a moving meditation. That’s what I focus on when I practice the asana. If you come back to the mat, it is most likely because you have found that sensation of release from the stuff that clouds the mind on a daily basis…and you want more of that. Well, you are figuring out what yoga is all about. In a very basic and simple explanation, Yoga is the study of the mind.
Yoga has such a rich history, much of which was unwritten and only passed on through spoken word, and can be traced back almost 6,000 years. The codification of yoga, so to speak, came out in the Yoga Sutras, a text by Sri Patanjali. This text is comprised of 196 sutras, or aphorisms, that deal with defining the physical and theoretical aspects of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras are divided into four sections, or books: Book One is named the Portion on Contemplation; Book Two is named the Portion on Practice; Book Three is named the Portion on Accomplishments; and Book Four is named the Portion on Absoluteness. For the yoga student, the Yoga Sutras can be considered the essential manual for the study and practice of Yoga. When I came upon the Sutras, I was initially overwhelmed, concerned that I needed to read and understand the entire manual in order to be an authentic student and teacher. I was prepared to dive into a deeply philosophical text and frankly, I was concerned with how that would affect my ability to let go during my asana practice. Over time, I have come to appreciate the Sutras as a reference book for every day life and one that I can pick up, turn to a specific sutra and contemplate on the teachings or advice therein. The Sutras is an incredibly approachable, yet dense, text that you find will show up in your thoughts, words and actions when you least expect them and when you most need them. A couple recommended interpretations are:
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary by Edwin F. Bryant
Here’s a great example of how approachable the text is: the very first sutra of Book One is: “Now the exposition of Yoga is being made”. That’s it – now begins the exposition of Yoga! If nothing else, it is a simple sentence that states merely where you are and what you are embarking on. The second sutra of Book One, on contemplation, talks about what the goal of yoga is and essentially defines yoga: “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga”. These first two sutras are really all you need to start the path of exploration. With that, we will start to explore what it means to live Yoga and how to go about doing it.
Alas, this series of posts I am writing is not covering the entire text of the Sutras but I want to highlight the book from which Yoga teachings derive and I highly recommend every yoga practitioner have a copy on their shelf. The Yoga Sutras is a dense manual for mastering the mind and finding what we might call, Bliss or harmony with the world around us. It is in Book Two, the Portion on Practice, (where we will live for this series of posts) that Patanjali tells the reader not to be overwhelmed by the advice on how to essentially control the mind and he presents a framework or foundation for practice. This to me is all about Living Yoga. From Book Two, we get the Eight Limb Path or stages of Yoga. These are eight means of practice and states of mind that support the practitioners quest towards the soul: how to study the mind. The eight limbs are : Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. If you don’t know what these all mean, don’t worry. Over the next few months we will be exploring them together. Here’s an image that resonates with me when I think of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga from a book that I love to wake up to: Meditations from the Mat, by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison.
It is helpful to think of the Eight Limbs as a wheel, instead of a ladder. There is no hierarchy amongst the eight limbs; each limb supports the others and can be engaged all at the same time. In order, however, this is what each limb means:
Yamas – ethical disciplines or moral restraints.
Niyamas – observances or individual disciplines.
Asana – postures, pose or seat; this is the physical practice or exercise that we all engage in.
Pranayama – breath control or mindful breathing; control of the vital life force.
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses or sense control; turning inward.
Dharana – concentration.
Dhyana – meditation.
Samadhi – absoluteness, union of the self with the object of mediation.
The western world has clearly embraced the physical aspects of yoga, Asana, and we see more and more that Pranayama (breath control) and Dhyana (meditation) are becoming regular practices in the western world. Yoga is not only about taking moments in the day to practice asana, meditation or breathing exercises, though. Yoga is all encompassing and deals with thoughts, actions, practice and everyday doings. The practice of yoga becomes second nature and can be observed in every action; how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. In this series of posts we will explore, from the top, what the Eight Limb Path of Yoga is all about and what it means to Live Yoga.
Next post is all about the Yamas and the Niyamas, the moral restraints and the individual observances, so continue to tune in. Allow this series to be a platform for contemplation and discussion. My interpretations of the theories and practices are based in my experiences of living Yoga as I understand it, and I am, as we all are, ever-changing and evolving. My experiences with Yoga are both personal and communal; I share this life with you all as I share my Yoga with you all. There is little I won’t discuss about my experiences with Yoga so always feel free to ask questions, start a conversation, question my interpretation, and share your experiences! Until next time: let’s begin the exposition of Yoga!