For most people in the western world, when they talk about “yoga” they’re usually thinking of some pretzel-twisted pose, or a power vinyasa class, or whatever version of physical practice they participate in or are familiar with. But if you happened to be following along during my teacher training, you might have noticed that in the first three of the Reflections Along the Path posts (one, two & three) I mentioned that yoga really wasn’t about the asanas at all.
I know what you might be thinking. Wait. What? How can yoga not be about the physical postures? Isn’t that pretty much all there is?
Well, dear reader, this July I want to take you deeper into the full practice of yoga. This month, we’re going to explore the 8 limbs of yoga from the perspective of the world-changer. Just what are these 8 limbs, and what the heck do they have to do with me? Why should I do yoga, anyway?
We’re going to start with Asana (the physical practice, the postures) because that’s where most people become acquainted with and learn about yoga. Then we’ll move along to the Yamas and Niyamas, then Pranayama, and finally into an exploration of stillness and meditation. If you have no idea what any of those words mean, don’t worry; by the end of the month, I hope that we will have remedied that.
By the practice of the limbs of Yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.” – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2, verse 28
To give you a really simplified version of what this means – removing ignorance (gaining discriminative discernment through our practice), that we might overcome toxins and tensions.
The sanskrit words in the Yoga Sutras that reference asana are as follows:
Sthira = steady
Sukham = comfortable
Asanam = posture
This means that our physical yoga practice (the asanas) should be steady and comfortable. This isn’t to say that your personal yoga practice always has to be gentle, but in every posture, you should always strive to find a balance between effort and ease. By bending and twisting the body, we squeeze out the toxins that are accumulated in everyday life, and we strengthen our bodies as we also gain flexibility; keeping the postures steady and comfortable allows us to find the proper balance between strength and flexibility. And, as you’ll hear over and over, modern scientific research shows that practicing yoga can have a huge impact on levels of stress and anxiety.
So, yes. While it’s not about the asanas, that’s where we start. The physical practice is both very important and very beneficial; it’s the best place to start to build our foundation.
Swami Satchidananda talks a lot about the best yogis being good surfers, able to ride along the top of the crashing waves. What he means is being able to ride out the ups and downs of life in a more relaxed manner, not being tossed about by each change in the tides, not being flung from extreme highs to crushing lows, but instead finding a more gentle ebb and flow between the extremes.
Our asana practice is actually only the 3rd limb of yoga, not an end or goal unto itself. But, it all starts on the mat, with your own personal yoga origin story. What story will you tell, and where will your practice take you?
I have two different translations of the Yoga Sutras open on my desk as I’m writing this, a whopping 850 pages between them; I bring this up because what I’m doing this month is taking an incredibly complex topic and trying to break it down into bite sized bits. If anyone wants to have a deeper discussion about any of this, please ask questions and bring this discussion to life. The posts this month are intended to whet your appetite, lay a bit of groundwork for why we practice, and to open the discussion!