Millions of people the world over practice yoga for all its amazing health benefits. For the majority of these people yoga consists only of physical postures, known as ‘asanas’, which in miraculous ways not only physically stretches tones and strengthens, but it stimulates organ functioning, improves energy levels and flow in the body, and ‘something special’ happens when you practice these asanas – with the deep slow breathing that goes along with it – leaving you feeling calmer, relaxed, more in control of your life and emotions and – just a little ‘better’. So without knowing anything about the underlying philosophy of yoga – the asanas in and of themselves, have been enough for yoga to be one of the fastest growing practices in the West – and a billion dollar industry in the US alone.

For those who like to dig a little deeper, and understand a little more about this ’gift from the East to the West’, there is a treasure chest full of beautiful history and depth of philosophy that seem to come only from the wisdom of the ancient nations. Yoga is not a religion. Some describe it as a philosophy, and others as a science. The principles of yoga is contained in most religions, but Yoga in itself is not a religion. It doesn’t pray to or worship any god, has no creed or formal statement of religious belief. There is no requirement for a confession of faith and no ordained clergy or priests to lead religious services. There is no system of temples or churches and no congregation of members or followers. Yoga doesn’t prescribe anything or aim to convert anyone.

Yoga can be practiced whether you are religious or not. For spiritual people it provides a space to connect to the God you follow or believe in. There is no judgment or prescription about what to believe or who to pray to. Yoga systematically deals with all levels of your being, leading you to a place of deep stillness and silence. From within this stillness and silence you can more fully experience spirituality in the context of your own religion and personal beliefs. It therefore creates space for you to grow closer to your own spiritual roots – even though the practice in itself is not a religion.

Patanjali is a well-known name in the yoga community as his sutras contain the most comprehensive and understandable outline/description of the ‘science’ or ‘philosophy’ of yoga. Yoga means ‘union’ and essentially is the process of uniting those parts of ourselves that should never have been divided – body, mind and spirit. It describes 8 limbs of the yoga philosophy – al geared towards achieving so-called ‘Elightenment’, ‘Self-Actualisation’ or ‘Perfect Unity’. I always think of this ‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Liberation’ as being that place where nothing can really get to you anymore. You get to that realization that you are not ‘of this world’. You are here to experience life – and everything on your path is here to teach you something to bring you closer to that perfect place of peace and harmony. We ultimately are a spiritual beings – created in the image of God. The true and lasting peace and freedom that comes from knowing and owning that – is Enlightenment and Liberation. But I digress….

Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga provide a set of guidelines and a chronological process of stages or levels to master on the path to ‘Enlightenment’ (I use the term ‘enlightenment but you can substitute for what suits your belief system – perhaps peace, ultimate love etc). Many of what is contained in the sutras are contained in different religions and so should resonate with people from different backgrounds. Hence Yoga being such an inclusive practice, with space and acceptance for people no matter what their beliefs or backgrounds.

1. The Yamas – these are guidelines about our ethical standards and sense of integrity and how we conduct ourselves in our lives. Simply put it implies the Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. They are:

  • Ahimsa: non – violence to yourself (self-hatred, low self-esteem, putting up with less than you deserve, putting harmful substances in your body) or to others (incl animals)
  • Satya: truthfulness to self and others
  • Asteya: non-stealing (stealing in all its forms as we learn from the bible and other religious texts)
  • Brahmacharya: continence (exercising sexual restraint and self-control in her senses of the word too)
  • Aparigraha: non-covetousness (not excessively desiring something belonging to others)
2. The Niyamas – Guidelines around self-discipline and spiritual observances. It relates more to the ‘do’s of personal conduct, lifestyle and diet. Examples of Niyamas in practice will be attending temples or church services, having a personal meditation practice, establishing a habit of taking long contemplative walks, creating space for spiritual time and learning. The five Niyamas are:

  • Saucha: cleanliness in body and mind
  • Samtosa: contentment – being at ease with what is. Knowing things are perfect as they are – you have enough, you are enough, you’re good enough. Being grateful enhances contentment.
  • Tapas: Heat; spiritual austerities – this may include spiritual practices such as fasting or whatever is appropriate to you. Tapas literally means ‘ to be strong enough not to be affected by opposites, such as heat and cold and many sees it as discipline determination and grit – perhaps pushing through a difficult asana. However, A better way to understand tapas is to think of it as consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting on the meditation cushion every day-or forgiving your mate or your child for the 10,000th time. If you think of tapas in this vein, it becomes a more subtle but more constant practice, a practice concerned with the quality of life and relationships rather than focused on whether you can grit your teeth through another few seconds in a difficult asana.
  • Svadhyaya: study of sacred scriptures and of one’s self. Dedication in whichever spiritual path or religion you follow. Studying and becoming famillar with what you are committed to.
  • Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to your God. This niyama shifts our focus and attention away from ‘I’ and all the distractions that come with the ego. It implies surrendering and receiving the grace and beauty of being alive and connected to out Source. It goes beyond surrender in the darkest depths of despair when there is nothing else left to do and we have hit rock bottom. Instead it is an ongoing consistent practice of getting out of our minds and letting go of our egos, and just connecting, and loving being connected to God.
3. Asana – the physical element of Yoga to keep the body strong active and toned – and preparing the mind for the later stages. The body is seen as the home of our spirit (My body is my temple). It is therefore an essential part of Spiritual Growth to learn to love and care for the body that so honourably houses your spirit. Through the practice of asanas we also develop discipline and concentration necessary for meditation.

4. Pranayama – developing control over the basic and vital life force – breathing. Yogis believe that this kind of breathwork not only rejuvenates and revives us, but it actually extends life.

The first four limbs focuses on us working on our personalities, and mastering our body and breath in preparation for the second four limbs which focus on higher level functions such as the senses, the mind and a higher level of consciousness.

5. Pratyahara – developing control over the five senses . It implies the practice of withdrawing the senses and completely turning the focus inwards. It creates an opportunity to observe ourselves from the outside in. We may begin to be able to notice habits, cravings etc that may not be good for us or be detrimental to our physical or emotional health. These will interfere with our inner growth and development and so are worth observing and addressing.

6. Dharana – bringing the mind to a single point of focus. This involves being able to concentrate on just one thing, i.e. bringing your monkey mind back again…and again…and again…and again….In the practice of Pratyhara we have effectively relieved ourselves of outside distractions and now the task is to relieve ourselves of the interference of the mind. A very difficult task indeed! In order to achieve this we turn our focus to either a specific energetic centre in the body, perhaps God, perhaps you will focus on the silent repetition of a sound. This ultimately prepares us and leads us into meditation – the 7th limb:

7. Dyana – practicing meditation and connecting with your spiritual self. This stage differs from Dharana as it involves being very much aware – but not having a single point of focus. Someone once said that you will find God in the space between your thoughts. During meditation you are working to lengthen the space between thoughts. Connecting to your true self as a spiritual being – to God without the disruptions of your mind, without the need for anything in return. A simple state of being in complete stillness, yet completely aware.

8. Samadhi – This limb is described as Enlightenment/Liberation and also in some texts as Ecstasy. It is the stage where the yogi transcends the self and realizes his interconnectedness with everything else around him. The completion of the yogic path really brings what we experience as perfect peace. No more analysing or rationalizing. No noise in your mind or in your body. No tension within yourself or between you and the word around you because you appreciate and acknowledge we are all one.

My Yoga

The eight limbs of Yoga encapsulate what the yoga philosophy is about and points as much to a journey as anything else in yoga ever does. It’s not just about the postures here – as you can see. Yoga takes you on a journey to peace. It can fit into any spiritual practice of your own and set you on a path of discipline and devotion – a path that leads to peace.

A yoga practice will give you endlessly more than a physical workout. You can adopt one, none or several elements of its philosophy – adjust it to suit your spiritual needs and background. There are no rules in yoga. No judgment about doing it right. There is no end goal other than achieving your own personal peace. No one to tell you are doing it right or wrong. Yoga is yours….and it is everyone’s.

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