The aim of yoga is to unite all aspects of the person: mind, body and spirit. However, how many of us, after a yoga class, truly experience this feeling of union? How many of us truly understand what yoga is about: to help us gain knowledge of our true, inner self, as taught by the ancient yoga texts?
The yoga teachings (sutras, the Sanskrit for thread) of Patanjali date back to the 3rd century bc and it was he who developed the idea of the Ashtanga (eight-limbed) system. This should not be confused with Ashtanga Vinyasa which is a dynamic flowing form of yoga.
The yoga that you do in a class is only one of the limbs of this ancient system. The intention is that all eight limbs should be practised simultaneously.
The eight limbs can be broken down into three groups:
* Ethical and spiritual practices: yama and niyama
* Physical practices: asana and pranayama
* Meditation practices: pratyahara, dharana, dhayana and Samadhi
There are five aspects each to yama and niyama, making ten ethical instructions in all.
Yama means self-restraint and states the things that we should not do: cause harm, lie, steal, be sexually immoderate, and be greedy. Do they look familiar to you?
Niyama means personal observance and asks us to behave in such a way that we are trying to achieve: purity, contentment, discipline, self-study and devotion. Some of these might seem old-fashioned concepts these days but when you consider how they are interpreted, they are as easily applicable as the yama still are today. For example, if we think about purity, it can be applied to how we look after ourselves by not smoking or over-indulging. Equally it can be applied to how we treat our world by not contaminating it.
The physical practice is where we work with the body, by performing asanas (postures) mindfully. We use the breath to extend and lengthen the body naturally.
Breath control, pranayama, is used to control the breath and calm the nerves, as a prerequisite to controlling the body. The word consists of two parts: prana and ayama. T V K Desikachar describes prana as ‘something which flows continuously from somewhere inside us, filling us and keeping us alive: it is vitality’. Ayama means stretch or extend and describes the action of what we are trying to do with the breath through a pranayama practice.
The meditation practices are higher level practices which are harder to achieve unless we have gained some proficiency in the previous limbs. This does not preclude us from working on these levels too but it does require a high level of commitment to them.
The four practices are linked states of consciousness which we can move between.
They are :
pratyahara which is the withdrawal of the senses,
dharana is concentration,
dhayana is meditation and
samadhi, the ultimate state is absorption.
By moving our attention inward, through for example, yoga nidra, we withdraw the senses from the outer world. Concentrating by using a practice called tratak (steady gazing), allows us to be completely focussed. This involves us in gazing at an object (a candle, for example) and then alternating this with closing the eyes and visualising it. This allows us to concentrate the attention so that whenever we focus on a point, the result is that the mind becomes focused on the same point.
From there we move to a meditation practice in which we are stilling our thoughts. Eventually through meditation (which can take many forms), we reach a state of absorption – samadhi, in which we experience our true being.
So, a couple of months’ work or a lifetime’s? As we are constantly reminded in yoga, we are on a journey; the destination, well, who knows?