There is much more to yoga than stretching. We can incorporate yoga’s simple ancient tools into our lives – tools that really work and create a sense of much needed peace and harmony in our busy, rushed world.
Yoga has been around for more than 5 000 years and the yogic philosophy and wisdom is something that we can tap into right now, in 2016. Yoga is not all about touching our toes; the essence is rather about creating union, finding balance, connecting with ourselves and the greater whole, living in peace, good health and harmony, and ultimately reaching Samadi and bliss.
PATANJALI’S YOGA SUTRAS
This path of right living and philosophy of yoga was recorded in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and was perfected and practised in India thousands of years ago.
The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is an eightlimbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. The eight limbs of yoga comprise eight steps which act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They also serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct, inspire self-discipline for the right reasons, and assist us to connect to the spiritual aspects and path of yoga.
1st Limb – Yama
The first limb, Yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is Yama. The first limb is not a list of do’s and don’ts, but rather guidelines for a compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful nature.
- Ahimsa – non-violence
The word Ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any creature, person or our earth. It is also against the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves, or others, can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. Ahimsa means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration. of other people and things. It is about compassion and suggests that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm.
- Satya – truthfulness
Satya means ‘to speak the truth’, but it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing. The idea is that honest communication and action form the heart of any healthy relationship, community, or government. The practice of Satya focuses on carefully choosing our words so they do the least harm — and most good. Satya, to me, is not only being true to others but very importantly to be true to oneself. Living our true path and living in alignment with what we believe is true for ourselves is an important part of following our own sunshine.
- Asteya – non-stealing
Asteya, directly translated, means non-stealing. It might sound like simple restraint, and the physical act of taking that which does not belong to us is obvious. However have you ever thought of overeating, clinging tightly to your money, mindlessly consuming natural resources, taking someone else’s ideas, or hoarding your possessions, as stealing? By living in fear – fear of not having enough, fear of letting go, fear of the future – we are ultimately stealing peace, faith and wholeness from our lives. One of the most important aspects of Asteya is being aware of not stealing time . . . my own or somebody else’s. Time is so precious. Be conscious of not wasting time – whether it is being late for a meeting, talking too much, committing to projects that you have no desire to complete or staying in a situation that no longer serves you. In yoga we learn that there is enough in the Universe and that when we no longer desire something, or obsess over it, it will come to us by itself. When you give up desires then all sorts of wealth will come to you on its own. Asteya teaches that everything we need in life is already within us. By choosing Asteya, and not taking from others, we feel gratitude for what we have and only take what is freely given.
- Brahmacharya – sense control
Brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relationship to sexual activity. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy. Rather, it means responsible behaviour with respect to our own power and not gaining power over others. Practising Brahmacharya means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don’t use this energy in any way that might harm others.
- Aparigraha – non-greed
Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to act greedily. We should only take what we have earned – if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. The yogi feels that the hoarding of things implies a lack of the belief that there is enough in the Universe for everyone. Aparigraha also implies letting go of our attachments to things and an understanding that the only constant in life is change.
2nd Limb – Niyamas
The Niyamas have to do with self-discipline, how we relate to ourselves inwardly, and the attitude we adopt towards ourselves as we live soulfully and in harmony. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of the Niyamas in practice.
- Saucha – cleanliness
The first Niyama is Saucha, which talks about cleanliness and purity. This refers to our outward, physical cleanliness and looking after ourselves as well as looking at internal cleanliness which means developing a healthy body and inner purity through practising detoxing yoga postures and cleansing breathing techniques.
Just as important as it is to keep the body healthy and cleansed, cleansing of the
mind of its disturbing emotions such as hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride is just as important an element of Saucha.
- Santosha – contentment
Contentment in all aspects of our Life – even the difficult, dull areas – brings peace of mind and acceptance. It is about being happy with what we have, not unhappy for what we don’t have, and accepting that there is a purpose for everything.
- Tapas – disciplined use of our energy
Tapas encourages us to live with a burning desire and enthusiasm for our life, our yoga practice, our work, and our purpose in the world.
- Swadhyaya – self-study
This Niyama includes mindful self-reflection and cultivating self-awareness through formal studies and our life’s lessons.
- Ishvarapranidhana – celebration of the spiritual
Whatever you may believe in, whatever God, Universe or higher spiritual guide you may connect with, this Niyama is the recognition that there is some omnipresent force larger than us that is guiding and directing the course of our lives. Taking time out every day to remind ourselves that this higher force is all around you and within you, brings meaning to your life and a realisation that there is a bigger picture out there and that you are safe.
3rd Limb – Asanas (body postures)
In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, and looking after this temple is an important stage of our spiritual growth to reach enlightenment. Through the practice of Asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
The yoga postures were actually created many years ago to help ease the ancient yogis’ bodies of stress and get them used to sitting in lotus pose for many hours of meditation. Somewhere along the way many have lost the essence of yoga and think that the Asanas are the only aspect, or that true yoga is about attaining the perfect or most difficult pose, where in fact the postures are only one element, and one limb, of living a yogic life.
4th Limb – Pranayama (breathing exercises)
‘Prana’ means life-force or breath in Sanskrit, so by practicing Pranayama or breathing techniques the yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself.
You can practise Pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e. simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into your daily Hatha yoga routine.
5th Limb – Pratyahara (drawing your senses inward)
Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses. Here we focus on drawing our awareness away from the external world and direct our attention internally. The practice of Pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back from the busy, chaotic world and stay balanced and peaceful no matter what is going on around us.
6th Limb – Dharana (concentration)
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of Pratyahara creates the setting for Dharana, or concentration. After letting go of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind. This is not an easy one! In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object. Playing golf, being in the moment when painting or drawing, or focusing on one particular object or task is all a form of Dharana.
7th Limb – Dhyana (meditation)
Meditation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
It is quite a challenge to get to this point, but don’t give up, remember that yoga is a life-long practice and that we benefit at each stage of our progress along these eight limbs.
8th Limb – Samadhi (bliss)
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage as a state of ecstasy. This is where we feel ultimate joy, fulfillment, and freedom as well as live our hopes, wishes, and desires.
What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. This ultimate stage of yoga – enlightenment – can neither be bought nor possessed.
It can only be experienced.
As we can see, yoga is not all about stretching and being in the perfect pose. It includes many aspects – being grateful, being real and being at peace with what we have. So by living the eight limbs of yoga, we can all reach that beautiful space of happiness, bliss and ultimate sunshine.
As I always say, ‘Yoga is not about touching your toes, it is about opening your heart.’
By Sharni Quinn
As written for the May 2016 issue of Natural Medicine Magazine