The World of Yoga Beyond Asana
For many people today, the word ‘yoga’ conjures up images of lycra-clad students in an exercise class bending themselves into seemingly impossible shapes. While there are many physical and mental benefits to stretching, balancing, strength building and breathing mindfully, this represents just one small part of the vast world of yoga.
The word yoga, meaning to “yoke” or “unite”, first surfaced in around 1500 BC in India. Over the next few thousand years, many classic yogic texts were written, describing various philosophical approaches to living that lead to freedom from suffering. One of the most well-known texts, The Yoga Sutras, written around the second century AD by a philosopher called Patanjali, is still studied today by yoga practitioners around the world.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali set out a systematic approach to obtaining enlightenment, known as the eight-limbed path of yoga. This path challenged yogis to live in the world, without becoming attached to the objects of the world. It begins by giving instructions for how to get along in society, and turns increasingly towards deep internal observation.
The eight limbs are:
- The Yamas: 5 “restraints” in order to live ethically
- The Niyamas: 5 “disciplines” to promote freedom from suffering
- Asana: physical postures
- Pranayama: breathing techniques
- Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana: concentration
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: liberation or enlightenment
All eight limbs can greatly benefit our lives today, thousands of years later, but the one I want to focus on is the Yamas. These can be described as “moral codes” for living and together with the five Niyamas, closely resemble the Ten Commandments and the ten virtues of Tibetan Buddhism. However, you don’t have to be religious or spiritual to recognise that the Yamas are ways we can have a positive effect on our lives and the lives of those around us.
The five Yamas are:
Ahimsa means non-violence in all senses of the word, not just relating to physical actions, but also words and thoughts. Patanjali said you must become mindful of your actions and take a stand against the violent actions of others. Next, control how you speak and think, expressing no animosity or hatred towards others. Finally, you must practice non-violence towards yourself, observing with compassion both your positive and negative attributes. We can practice Ahimsa during a yoga class by respecting our own limitations and not pushing ourselves too far. It is easy to think negative thoughts about yourself if you are not able to do a pose, so try to acknowledge your abilities and be kind to yourself.
Satya means not just being as truthful and honest as you can with your words, but also seeking a deep understanding of your own true nature and of the world around you. Through practicing Satya we can realise that all people in the world are essentially the same and all struggling through the journey of life, allowing us to stop holding onto our egos and become open and sincere with those around us.
Asteya: non stealing
On the surface, this means taking nothing that belongs to someone else. Patanjali made no distinction between actions and thoughts, so he said desiring or coveting someone else’s ideas or possessions are the same as stealing them. Furthermore, Asteya is the practice of generosity – asking yourself what you can give to others rather than just taking. Patanjali said you can steal from yourself if you deny yourself the opportunity to realise your true potential. In a yoga class and in daily life, allow yourself to live in the present moment and feel gratitude for what you have and who you are.
Brahmacharya: celibacy or ‘right use of energy’
Traditionally yogis practiced celibacy, or sexual abstinence. In the modern world, yoga practitioners are not expected to be completely celibate, but are encouraged to exercise self-control and respect themselves and others. Being mindful of the power of sexuality and the way it can distract us and cause us pain, allows us to use this energy compassionately and wisely.
Many people struggle with the desire to change and achieve more, whether that relates to their home, job, relationships or possessions. This is truer than ever in the modern world, where we are constantly encouraged to buy more material goods, and lead to believe that this will improve our lives. However, as we are all too aware, this often leads to just wanting more, and feeling that happiness will come in the future, once we have achieved X or bought Y. By practicing Aparigraha we can become more content with the way things are, less interested in becoming, and more focused on being.
By keeping this philosophy in mind, both during a yoga class and in our daily lives, we can allow the practice of yoga to have a much deeper impact on our lives than just increasing our flexibility and strength. Yoga is essentially a way of life that teaches us to live mindfully and be grateful for the present moment and what we have. That’s not to say that it is easy, or that all yoga teachers have managed to achieve this way of being! As with many things in life, yoga is a journey, not a destination; so keep practicing, keep learning, and enjoy the many benefits that yoga can bring to your life!