What is Yoga?

What we think of as “yoga” in the Western World today is usually an Instagram image of someone bending into an artful shape as gentle light illuminates the beautiful contours of their physique. Or, in the case of hot yoga/power yoga, people may see it as a low-impact way to sweat our way to fitness. However, traditional yoga is so much more than that. In fact, what we think of as yoga is only one part of the eight-limbed path of yoga (Step 3 of 8).

Say what?

Yes, the yoga you likely think of is actually called yoga asana. Yoga, the broader term, has multiple meanings and, not surprisingly, originated in ancient India. It encompasses various types of practice and philosophies that aim to promote physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root word “yuj,” which means to join, unite, or connect.

At its core, yoga is a holistic discipline that seeks to harmonize and integrate the body, mind, and spirit. It incorporates various physical postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation techniques, ethical principles, and self-reflection practices. The ultimate goal of yoga is often described as self-realization or union with a higher consciousness, although different schools of yoga may emphasize different aspects of the practice.

Yoga asana (the physical part) has gained immense popularity worldwide due to its numerous benefits. Regular practice of yoga can improve flexibility, strength, balance, and posture. It can also enhance mental clarity, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and cultivate mindfulness. Additionally, yoga is often regarded as a spiritual practice that fosters self-awareness, compassion, and inner peace.

It’s important to note that there are various styles and approaches to yoga, ranging from gentle and meditative to more vigorous and physically demanding. Some well-known types of yoga include Hatha yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Yin yoga, Bikram yoga, Forrest yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Kundalini yoga, and Iyengar yoga. Each style has its own emphasis and techniques, but they all share the fundamental goal of achieving unity and well-being.

Personally, I practice and teach Vinyasa Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Yin Yoga and teach Children’s Yoga. I have practiced most different forms of yoga asana over the past 25+ years.

So what is the real yoga about?

The traditional eight-limbed path of yoga was outlined by the ancient sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, which is considered a foundational text of classical yoga philosophy. The eight limbs, or steps, are designed to guide practitioners on a journey of self-realization and spiritual development. Here are the eight limbs:

  1. Yamas (morals): These are ethical principles that guide how one interacts with the external world. They include Ahimsa (compassion and reverence for all), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (honesty and generosity), Brahmacharya (moderation), and Aparigraha (acknowledging abundance).
  2. Niyamas (observances): These are personal disciplines and practices that cultivate self-discipline and inner growth. The niyamas include Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher power).
  3. Asana (postures): Asanas refer to the physical postures practiced in yoga. Through the practice of asanas, practitioners cultivate physical strength, flexibility, balance, and overall well-being. The goal is to prepare the body for meditation and higher states of consciousness.
  4. Pranayama (breath control): Pranayama involves controlling and regulating the breath to enhance the flow of prana (life force energy) in the body. Various breathing techniques are used to cleanse and energize the body, calm the mind, and balance the emotions.
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses): Pratyahara is the practice of turning the senses inward and withdrawing the mind from external distractions. By cultivating a state of sensory withdrawal, practitioners develop greater focus, concentration, and inner awareness.
  6. Dharana (concentration): Dharana refers to the practice of single-pointed concentration. It involves focusing the mind on a specific object, image, or mantra, while excluding all other thoughts and distractions. The aim is to develop a steady and unwavering concentration.
  7. Dhyana (meditation): Dhyana is the state of meditation, where the mind remains effortlessly focused and aware. It is a state of deep absorption and heightened awareness, free from the fluctuations of the ordinary thinking mind.
  8. Samadhi (union with the divine): Samadhi is the ultimate goal of yoga, where the practitioner experiences a state of oneness and union with the divine. It is a state of pure consciousness, transcending the limitations of the ego and experiencing a profound sense of unity and bliss.

The eight limbs of yoga are interconnected and build upon one another, guiding practitioners towards spiritual growth, self-realization, and liberation.

How Can I Learn More?

My favorite book to study the Yoga Sutras is Nischala Joy Devi’s The Secret Power of Yoga. It’s beautifully written, contains practical exercises to bring the theoretical to life, and glides into the heart rather than getting stuck in the brain.

If you’d like to deepen your knowledge in a one-to-one way, or in a group setting, please reach out to have a chat!

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