Welcome to a new series of blog posts titled Living Your Yoga: Beyond the Mat
The purpose of this series is to explore how our physical practice of yoga translates into our daily lives. It doesn’t matter what form of yoga you practice, all will eventually lead to a certain sense of wholeness and ease in life (sooner or later). Even if you aren’t consciously integrating your yoga practice into your daily life, it is integrating into you. It is the secret surprise that yoga offers, if you simply come to the mat.
Just the other day, I saw a woman with a purple mat tucked under her bicep jog to the front door of a new yoga studio in town called the Yoga Room. Brightly lit, it reminded me of a hair salon in its attractive spa-like welcome, a far cry from the first yoga studio I ever went to with its ragged pictures torn from back issues of Yoga Journal taped to the walls.
Today, yoga is very mainstream. Studios are popping up all over town and multiple classes are being added to most fitness centers’ calendars. Wine and yoga dates for couples? Any residual skepticism about yoga’s Eastern “religious” roots seems to have faded away, but that doesn’t mean that the body/mind/spirit benefits that have always followed yoga have left the scene. Stepping back, it’s important to note that yoga has always consisted of more than just a form of exercise. Patanjali organized yoga practice into what he called the 8-Limbed Path. I thought that sharing those 8 aspects of Ashtanga yoga might be a good starting point to get us inspired and fired up about the possible life changing benefits of yoga for you.
Yoga is usually referred to as a practice because there is no end goal – nothing to attain. But along the way, as you practice, you find that life changes for the better because you are building and growing a foundation of solid principles that all humans need for a life worth living. I love the limbed tree metaphor because all of the limbs of a tree are fed and grow at the same time, none more important than the other. If you think of it another way, the limbs ARE the tree and vice-versa. And so, the qualities that we build while doing yoga are who we ARE – there is no separation.
1. Yama – The first limb, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity. It focuses on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yama occurs naturally as you begin to pay attention and improve the integrity of your body, your physical structure. As your place in the world expands, with an open heart and more freedom of movement, you begin to change as a person. These changes are subtle and stem from a deeper desire to connect with others around you. You will feel it first as a sense of connectedness with your fellow yoga students, but it will permeate other areas of life soon enough.
2. Niyama – The second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Whether you practice once a week, or every day, your yoga practice is your time to tap into a stronger sense of self and a deeper understanding of who you really are (your soul-self). The more you devote to your yoga practice, the greater will be your sense of self-esteem and appreciation for yourself and others. You will begin to make choices that support and affirm your own being.
3. Asana – are the physical postures practiced in yoga. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habits of discipline and self-awareness. Asanas are the gateways to transformation on the physical plane. We put ourselves in the circumstance of a particular pose to practice a specific response (strength, balance, concentration, release, control). If you’ve been practicing yoga for any length of time, you already play an active role in your evolution. You know that growth is inevitable and we can affect it for the good if we choose to, if we practice.
4. Pranayama – is your attention to breathing that almost all yoga instructors speak about while you’re on your mat. When you’re away, on your own, it is up to recognize the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions and use that to your advantage. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or ideally, learn to integrate it into your asana work – or to calm yourself when you’re feeling intense emotions like anger, frustration or fear.
5. Pratyahara – Pratyahara means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. During Pratyahara we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. We become more aware of the self and less reliant on the opinions and approval of others. We learn to close off distraction and still the mind to find clarity and peace despite our circumstances. We learn to recognize the things that are good for us and those things that aren’t, so we can direct our energy and attention for our own good.
6. Dharana – Many challenging balance poses demand the practice of calm concentration. We learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: or in many cases, our drishti or gazing point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation. We can draw on the power of Dharana when we want to accomplish goals or make big changes in our lives. Focus can be an elusive point in our lives, so developing the ability to turn it on can bring big benefits in our attaining the lifestyle we enjoy.
7. Dhyana – This state requires a stillness of mind where there are few or no thoughts at all. While a still mind may seem a difficult, if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the “picture perfect” pose, or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress. Some people compare this no mind state to being in “the flow,” or at one with the spirit or universal energy, a state of consciousness where amazing things happen.
8. Samadhi – Enlightenment. Most of us never give much thought to attaining enlightenment. We consider it unreachable – available to only a few devotees, but aspects of enlightenment like peace, joy, fulfillment, and freedom are available to all of us in varying degrees. Glimpses of these states of being occur in yoga rooms everyday and over time, they add up. Don’t discount enlightenment as part of your life. Any time you open yourself to change, the potential to find answers to your souls’ truth sneak in. Soak them up; take it in; it is the secret surprise yoga offers to those who come to their mat.
This information was adapted from Yoga Journal’s “Get to Know the 8 Limbs of Yoga.” 8/28/07