Let’s Learn About Yoga! (Part 1)

Being that this is a blog about my experiments for cultivating more bliss in my life, I feel like it’s high time I do some posting about one of the experiments that has been consistently paying off for me:  Yoga!

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I plan to cover this very broad topic in a series of posts, so be sure to check back often for more yoga talk.  For now, we’ll begin with some basics …

Yoga, as many people will already know, translates to union.  To practice Yoga is to practice the unification of body, mind and spirit.  We practice asanas (postures) to tonify the body.  We practice meditation to clarify the mind.  And we practice pranayama (breathwork) to purify the spirit.  This all leads us toward samadhi or enlightened connection with the divine.

Yoga, itself, has become a pretty vulgarized philosophy these days.  We westerners have picked at it, like the culture vultures we are, and pieced it together to suit our own modern needs.  And just to be clear, I think that’s okay.  That works for some people.  It works for me, sometimes.  But I also think it can be helpful to at least have a basic working knowledge of a thing before it gets restructured into something else entirely.

So, today’s blog post is about sharing a basic understanding of the foundations of Yoga.

I’m going to keep this pretty simple since this is a blog post, not an encyclopedia entry.  However, the philosophy of Yoga is vast and, in my opinion, worth exploring if you get a little free time in your days.

Let’s begin with the 8 LIMBS OF YOGA.  These 8 limbs consist of practical steps for working toward enlightenment.

8 LIMBS OF YOGA:

  1. Yamas
  2. Niyamas
  3. Asana
  4. Pranayama
  5. Pratyahara
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi

Let’s learn what each of these lovely sanskrit words actually mean, shall we?

  1. Yamas – These are universal ethical recommendations.  They are designed to make us better contributing members to the World Community.  The more people who practice these moral recommendations, the healthier and happier the World Community becomes.  There are 5 Yamas:
  1. Ahimsa – Ahimsa literally means an absence of violence toward others.  This can be expanded to include not just a lack of physical and/or verbal violence, but also a general compassion and kindness towards all sentient beings including one’s own self.  This concept also means adopting an attitude of thoughtfulness about how one’s words and actions affect others.
  2. Satya – Satya means truthfulness.  It is the idea that it is best to express one’s Self authentically in all interactions.  The one caveat is that speaking your truth should never inhibit your ability to practice ahimsa.  If speaking your truth is likely to cause great pain to another, then it might be best to abstain from speaking altogether.  More simply stated, sometimes if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.
  3. Asteya – Asteya is the Yogic equivalent of “thou shalt not steal.”  This includes, of course, material items, but also applies to ideas (intellectual property), proprietary information (secrets), and even others’ attention (the old ‘bait and switch’ schemes).  Aside from the notion of taking from others, asteya also urges us against using the property of others in ways other than their intended purpose, or beyond the expected time of use.
  4. Brahmacharya – This yama is most commonly associated with sexual abstinence, but that is a limited interpretation.  Brahmacharya teaches us that it is best to be conscious about how we utilize our personal energies.  To throw away our energy freely and recklessly, either through meaningless sexual encounters or through over-committing to too many projects, is to further segregate ourselves from the divine.  It is best to be impeccable with how we offer our energies to the world.
  5. Aparigraha – The lessons of aparigraha are two-fold.  First of all, this yama is an advocate of minimalism.  We are cautioned against hoarding and greed with both material items and situations.  Aparigraha teaches us that if we burden ourselves with too many things, we leave no opportunity for the Universe to provide for us, and, therefore, implies a lack of faith in divine providence.  The second piece of this yama is the notion of only taking that which has been earned.  We are cautioned here, too, of the inappropriateness of taking advantage of that which has been produced by others.

2. Niyamas – Where the yamas provide a universal ethical code, the niyamas offer us a personal code of conduct.  These basically make up a how-to for living a happy, healthy, productive life.  There are 5 Niyamas:

  1. Sauca – Sauca is about purity.  Purifying our external environment means cleaning our living space, getting organized and decluttering.  The same can be applied to our internal environment, as well.  Cleaning up our bodies with proper diet, hydration, sleep, exercise and other practices that increase optimal physical functioning is always advisable.  (Using practices like asana and pranayama can help here.)  Likewise cultivating purity of mind and spirit can bring us great benefit. Speaking in positives rather than negatives, utilizing affirmations, practicing meditation, and so forth are invaluable tools when putting sauca into practice.
  2. Santosa – Contentment is the gist of santosa.  This niyama encourages us to cultivate equanimity even in the face of challenge.  Doing so reminds us that the Universe is always conspiring to bring us to our Highest Good, and even our challenges are part of that process.  Everything happens for a reason.  The Yogis refer to this concept as karma.  This doesn’t mean that we lie down when we’re being kicked, but rather that we take what actions we can, and accept with gratitude what remains, trusting that all will unfold to our greatest good.
  3. Tapas – The lesson tapas teaches us is how to cultivate and control our internal fires.  These fires are both physiological – the digestive fires, the kundalini energy – and mental/spiritual – namely, our passions.  Tapas relays the importance of stoking and directing these fires with self-discipline.  The ultimate goal is a transcendence of suffering as we align ourselves with our highest purpose and passion.
  4. Svadhyaya – Svadhyaya translates to self-study.  If we regularly redirect our attentions to ourselves, we are given the opportunity to learn about, and to address, recurring patterns and limitations.  This is the way we grow.
  5. Isvarapranidhana – This niyama can be summed up quite nicely by quoting George Michael:  “You gotta have faith!”  Isvarapranidhana is the acceptance of and reverence for a higher power or creative force.  It could mean a belief in a monotheistic god, polytheistic pantheon, the Natural Order, or even Science.  It is the recognition that that force is present in all of creation – that we are all one, and the notion that it is important to pay homage to that legacy on a regular basis.

3.  Asana – This is the Yoga most of know and love (or don’t …).  Asana is the physical practice of postures.  It is through regular asana practice that we cultivate tone and flexibility in our bodies.  The resulting suppleness allows us to sit for extended periods of time while practicing the remaining 5 Limbs.

4.  Pranayama – Pranayama is the practice of measured breathing.  There are many individual exercises for doing this, but they are all geared toward improving respiratory function and control.  When we have trained our lungs to optimum performance, we are better able to foster a sense of connection between the mundane and the divine.  The breath is, essentially, the intermediary between the two, and the more we develop its capabilities, the stronger that connection, and, therefore, the greater our ease of existence.

5.  Pratyahara – The word pratyahara means to retreat from that which feeds the senses.  Basically, this Limb is the practice of restraining our focus.  It’s about keeping our inner magpie in check so that we can maintain focus on living a spiritually grounded life, rather than getting distracted by every sparkly object or idea that is presented to us.  The way to do this is to practice always returning our awareness to the present moment, getting in touch with how we feel in our inner environment about what’s happening in our external environment, and choosing our responses accordingly from that place of authentic awareness.  It is also a useful practice which teaches us to sever the connection between our minds and our senses.  In doing so, we are preparing ourselves for the Limbs that follow.

6.  Dharana – With pratyahara we practiced the restraint of our senses.  With dharana, we are practicing the controlled focus of the mind.  When we are able to free ourselves of the stimulation of external distractions we are able to then start training the mind to disconnect from internal distractions.  This is what we often refer to as quieting the monkey mind.

7.  Dhyana – Dhyana is, essentially, meditation.  But it is really more than that:  It is devotional meditation, or meditation with the pursuit of discovering the inherent truth of that upon which one is meditating.  The idea is that intensely meditating on an object gives one an intimate understanding of that object, ergo, intensely meditating on the divine gives one an intimate understanding of divinity.  And since Yogis believe that we are all containers of Divine Spirit, then it goes to reason that meditating on the divine gives us a more intimate understanding of ourselves and each other, too.

8.  Samadhi – It is in the attainment of samadhi that we are finally and fully merged with the divine.  We cease to exist as separate, and experience ourselves as the energy of all that is.  We truly embody oneness, which is a bit of an ironic choice of phrasing since we are really transcending the physical experience altogether.

There you have it:  The 8 Limbs Of Yoga broken down into what is, hopefully, an easy-to-understand bite-sized chunk.  Stay tuned for more fundamentals of yoga philosophy to come!

Namaste, y’all!

(above photo by Steve Clarke)