Let’s be honest: Yoga is an excellent workout. As a form of exercise, it’s hard to beat. Personally, I like that it works your balance, strength, and flexibility. I like that it’s a mental workout as much as a physical one. And I especially like that it’s something you can do barefooted! I’ve been practicing yoga for a decade, but it’s only within the last couple years (when introduced to Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga) that I started to become more serious about my practice.
As my personal practice gets more demanding, I find myself wondering, what is the larger goal of a yoga practice beyond physical health? Why should I commit my time and energy to yoga over say, running or team-sports or weight-lifting? To be more precise, I’ve been wondering how yoga contributes to my emotional and spiritual development in addition to my physical well-being. This blog post is an attempt to answer that question. To do so, I approach the question as a layman, not a scholar, and I draw on many thinkers both within and beyond the yogic tradition.
To begin this conversation, it’s probably useful to define what yoga actually is. When we say ‘yoga,’ we primarily think of the physical postures of the practice; however, in Sanskrit the word suggests something more expansive: It means to bind or unite, and it represents the practice of disciplining mind, body, and will to be joined with God. In other words, the practice of yoga helps us integrate our minds, bodies, and souls with the Universal Spirit that animates all beings. (When speaking of God here, I lean on Anne Lamott who defines God as “the animating energy of love, for life, for the light that radiates from within people and above…”)
Before moving on, I want to reflect on the concept of integration. To integrate literally means to bring separate parts together into a whole. Truth be told, we are broken, disconnected beings. We can’t fully express ourselves in our jobs; we walk on eggshells in certain relationships; we shape-shift to the expectations of others. We feel disconnected from our kids, from those with different political views, from our very own bodies. In so many ways we are cut off from each other and our true selves. The consequence of such fragmentation is tremendous pain. As Parker Palmer has said, “The divided life is a wounded life...” Only by seeking and mending the fractured parts of ourselves can we find peace. Ultimately, then, yoga seeks to unite these shattered pieces with a greater truth, so that we can live with integrity: that is, to live in the complete, undivided, and unimpaired state that is our true nature.
At its core, yoga aims to dissolve our ties to suffering. The Bhagavad Gita, in fact, pronounces that “This is the true yoga: the unbinding of the bonds of Sorrow.” The handcuffs of sorrow are forged from feelings of separation rooted in destructive mental habits. I don’t know about you, but I am often overwhelmed by emotions, ruled by worries, and distracted by explanations and analyses. In such a state, I am captive to misunderstanding because I can’t recognize what’s real and what’s just a story I’m telling myself. The Katha Upanishad explains that only when we have calmed the senses and the mind can we be freed from the delusions that cause suffering. In this way, yoga is a practice of cleansing the mind of destructive mental habits so that we can be free from the chains of sorrow.
That yoga can free us from suffering is encouraging, but it also leaves me wondering, “How?” How does the practice of yoga change the way we think in such a way that we’re no longer subject to the sways of the mind? Let me return to a point made earlier: When we say ‘yoga’ in the West, we primarily think of physical postures, but yoga as a discipline not only has a more expansive meaning, it also has seven other stages to it. Together with the physical poses, these elements are often referred to as the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Whether we realize it or not, the other elements of yoga are an integral part of the physical practice, and when we work through the poses, we’re implementing these other limbs, too. For this reason, I have found it helpful to learn about these additional stages so that I can recognize when and how they show up in my practice.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga include:
1. Yama: Yama is the moral code of the practice, which emphasizes nonviolence (ahismā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), self-restraint (brahmacharya), and not coveting or desiring things (aparigraha). An apt metaphor for this stage is yama as the roots of the tree. Embodying the principles listed above feeds the rest of the yogic practices, anchors the individual, nourishes the body, mind, soul, and acts as the basis for future growth.
2. Niyama: If yama are the roots, then niyama can be thought of as the trunk of the tree. Niyama is the yogic code-of-conduct or how an individual should behave in relation to himself and others. It consists of:
● Cleanliness (śaucha) -- This includes good hygiene to clean the external body and good habits to keep the inner body and mind clean, too.
● Contentment (santosa) -- The Bhagavad Gita describes such a state as being “perfectly at ease in cold, in heat, in pleasure or pain, in honor or in disgrace.”
● Self-study (svādhyāya) -- This is the practice of introspection where one “reads his own book of life, at the save time that he writes and revises it.” In other words, the yogi makes himself the subject of study as he seeks to understand and retrain his mental habits. The yogi may also read books of wisdom (ancient and modern) in order to make sense of his own inner-life.
● Dedication to the Universal Spirit (īśvara praņidhāna) -- Here, one devotes all her actions (and the fruits of her actions) to a higher purpose and the universal good. In this way, she acts not for personal gratification but for God.
By practicing the principles of niyama, the yogi channels the nutrients of yama through the body and mind in order to feed the other stages of the practice.
Now we get to the third limb of yoga, which is the one we’re most familiar with. This and the next few stages can be thought of as the branches and leaves of the tree:
3. Āsana: Āsanas are the postures of this discipline, and because much of this post will explore the way the physical practice of yoga can bring spiritual insight, this is a limb we’ll return to in greater detail. It’s worth noting, though, that a significant goal of the āsana practice is that of moderating and controlling the body. Only when the body is healthy and in control can the other stages of the path be realized.
4. Prāņāyāma: Prāņa means “breath, respiration, life, vitality, wind, energy, or strength.” Āyāma means “length, expansion, stretching, or restraint.” So prāņāyāma is control over and study of the breath in order to soothe the nervous system and increase concentration. Where āsanas seek to regulate the body, prāņāyāma works to refine the mind and prepare it for the next stage of yoga.
5. Pratyāhāra: The fifth stage of yoga is pratyāhāra where one seeks to control the pull of the senses on the mind. Our senses naturally draw the attention outward. Like a ship on a tempestuous sea, we’re racked back and forth by all that we want and want to avoid: more friends, more toys, less stress, less pain. We expend great energy trying to understand and control the external world. Pratyāhāra is the practice of retraining the mind to move inward. It works to redirect the valuable energy we spend reacting to the senses towards realizing the True Self. In this way, we can begin disentangling from that which leads to sorrow. Pratyāhāra bridges the more external practices of yama, niyama, āsana, and prāņāyāma with the inner practices of dhāranā, dhyāna, and samadhi. Through pratyāhāra, we transition from “outer fixation to the inward revelation.”
6. Dhāranā: In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar writes:
When the body has been tempered by āsanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of prāņāyāma and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyāhāra, the sādhaka reaches the sixth stage called dhāranā.
Dhāranā is single-pointed concentration. To reach this stage, the mind, body, and senses need to be stilled and restrained. As the Dalai-Lama has noted, “Our ordinary minds are too uncontrolled and weak to be able to understand the nature of reality,” which is why we must cultivate the power of concentration in order to steer the mind and focus it on whatever we choose, in this case, the reality of one’s unity with God. At this point, one concentrates his mind on the “contemplation of [God’s] being” in order to “enter into him, the Self of all.”
7. Dhyāna: Dhyāna, the flowers of the tree, is a continuation of dhāranā, for concentration paves the way for meditation. The concentration of dhāranā leads to the meditative state of dhyāna where body, mind, and senses are fully integrated with the Universal Spirit. In Mindfulness: In Plain English, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana compares concentration to a laser beam that “burn[s] its way deep into the mind and illuminate[s] what’s there,” but it’s meditation that sees, examines, and understands what’s revealed. In this way, meditation, (dhyāna) is a state of awareness and wisdom enabled by concentration (dhāranā), which provides the power to keep the attention “pinned down.” Dhyāna is a stage of transformation where the yogi “is ultimately, through long-continued devotion, transformed into the likeness of that divinity” upon which he meditates. At this point, the ego has been dissolved along with any sense of separation from God or others. ‘I’ has been replaced with pure consciousness and illumination.
8. Samadhi: When roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and flowers work harmoniously together, they produce fruit. The fruit of yoga is samadhi, or liberation from all that causes suffering--grasping, aversion, and feelings of separation. When one has reached this stage, she has freed herself from all misunderstanding and delusion. She has only one experience, that of “consciousness, truth, and unutterable joy...a peace that passeth all understanding.” Samadhi is complete unity: with all beings, with the universal energy, with oneself. Even the process of concentration (dhāranā & dhyāna), the object of concentration (God), and the mind that concentrates have become one. Totally freed from illusion, when you reach this stage, you experience the absolute joy of pure, unadulterated being.
Clearly, people can (and do) devote themselves to realizing each of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, but what about the common person who only practices the āsanas? Can the practice of āsanas still lead to spiritual insight? I think so! As B.K.S. Iyengar notes:
Mahātmā Gandhi did not practise all the aspects of yoga. He only followed two of its principles--nonviolence and truth, yet through these two aspects of yoga, he mastered his own nature and gained independence for India. Even if we don’t devote ourselves to every aspect of yoga, simply practicing one element will lead to tremendous emotional and spiritual growth. Within the discipline of the physical postures, we are practicing the other limbs of yoga, as well. We are learning in our bodies the types of spiritual habits we seek to cultivate in our lives.
For example: attentiveness. How many times have you heard people talk about staying in the moment, being present, and being mindful? Yet, we get so easily distracted by our thoughts and what’s going on around us. During yoga, we have ample opportunity to practice staying in the moment when we attend to a specific posture, slow the mind to concentrate on using certain muscles, and notice the ways our bodies move and respond. Ideally, the entire yoga session is one of introspection, which is one reason we focus on the breath during the movement. The breath anchors the mind, giving it something to come back to so that it’s not lost in daydreaming or distracted by external stimuli. In this way, body and mind are concentrated in moving through postures, helping us cultivate the skill of single-pointed concentration (dhāranā) which prepares the way for the type of attentive awareness (dhyāna) we seek to embody each moment of our lives. For me, Utthita Hasta Pādāngustasana is a litmus test for concentration. In order to hold the pose, I must gather the senses to concentrate on the strength of the standing leg and foot. If I am distracted by anything else, I immediately waver and fall. Similarly, folding poses are a practice in mindful awareness: All in the same moment, I try to pay attention to how I’m engaging the leg muscles while moving the chest forward, and simultaneously noticing any pain that suggests I’m overdoing it.
To be in the moment is to be in my body, fully aware of it, conscious of its cues and messages. Yoga gives me an opportunity to know my body in an intimate way, which deepens my understanding of how interconnected my mind and body are. In fact, I frequently speak to my body when doing poses. I’ll say things like, “Okay, show me how to move into this so I don’t cause you pain” or “Nice work! You nailed that one!” And I’m consistently impressed by what my body is capable of; it always surprises me. Plus, I’ll begin to notice little things like the way I feel after a yoga practice: internally clean, unobstructed, like breath and energy can flow freely. Such body awareness moves me closer to the type of integration we seek in samadhi, the eighth limb of yoga, while also exercising principles of nimaya like cleanliness (śaucha) and self-study (svādhyāya).
Another benefit of the physical yoga practice is it helps me work on the principle of contentment (santosa) by perpetually making me uncomfortable. Indeed, yoga teaches me how to stay present in the face of discomfort. I think any yoga practitioner will readily admit that the poses are often awkward, to say the least. Consider Utkatāsana, for example, or Parivrtta Parsvakonāsana or Urdhva Dhanurāsana. Pema Chödrön has said, “As a species, we should never underestimate our low tolerance for discomfort,” yet one of the most essential facets of the spiritual life is to learn to be “content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12), for in so doing, we learn equanimity and begin to reduce our own suffering. What’s interesting to observe is how I react to being uncomfortable in my yoga practice, what kinds of emotions arise in difficult poses. Sometimes I get exasperated and want to snap at my instructor for pushing me to do the pose correctly. Sometimes I just want to give up. Such reactions of irritation and escape I carry into my everyday life, as well. So, working through challenging poses, poses that test my patience and confidence gives me the chance to retrain the way I behave when faced with discomfort. When I can’t seem to get into a pose and I want to take short-cuts, I’ll make myself do it again, go a bit deeper, or stay a few seconds longer. I’ve started noticing when I tell myself stories like, “I hate this pose” or “This is one of my favorites,” and I’ll try to stop the narrative there. The goal is to face all experiences without labeling them “good” or “bad.” Maybe one of the most useful tools is, again, learning how to breathe smoothly and deeply with equanimity even though my legs burn and my heart pounds. The training of the breath is part of the discipline of prāņāyāma, or the fourth limb of yoga. By controlling the breath, I calm my nervous system; by calming the nervous system, I begin to control the mind.
As Shakespeare’s Hamlet noted, “...nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, 2.2). The mind is the seat of our thoughts, and our thoughts shape the world. Yoga proclaims the truth of Oneness, of unity among all things. Nonetheless, we think of ourselves as fundamentally different from each other. This belief in separateness is the root of our suffering. Parker Palmer puts it this way: “Violence of every shape and form has its roots in the divided life, in that fault line within us that cracks open and becomes a divide between us.” When separated from ourselves and each other, we can treat the estranged pieces with a cruelty or indifference that causes tremendous pain. Rather than buy into the illusion of otherness, though, it’s possible to shift the viewpoint so that everything we experience outside of ourselves ends up being nothing more than a reflection of what’s going on inside. When I get cross at my instructor for correcting my posture, for example, it’s my own ego (who thinks she already knows the right way to do this) that triggers irritation -- it has nothing to do with the instructor herself. Difficult feelings towards others (fear, unease, outrage, despair) typically result from inner habits and stories we have failed to examine. Like so much of our lives, we seek to separate from these feelings, not realizing that there’s another option: that of integration. Studying difficult feelings, exploring neurotic tendencies, and accepting with gentleness what we find, is difficult, painful work. Yet, pain itself is a necessary part of the spiritual journey, for if we let it, it will expand our capacity for understanding and empathy. When we can start to bring together the separate parts of ourselves with patience and love, then we can recognize the interconnectedness of all beings and treat even the most difficult person with deep compassion. The Bhagavad Gita states:
He who is rooted in oneness
realizes that I (God) am
in every being; wherever
he goes, he remains in me.
When he sees all beings as equal
in suffering or in joy
because they are like himself,
that man has grown perfect in yoga.
Yoga aims to eliminate the persistent sense of alienation in order to reveal the truth that’s been there all along: we are intimately connected with each other because we are all just expressions of the One Divine. Only when this illusion of separation is removed can we love fully and experience the joy of perfect wholeness.
At its core, what we do in the studio is a physical practice of a spiritual discipline. This is the attitude we should take when on the mat. A spiritual life moves a person further and further inward to explore the mental obstacles to peace. If we can approach the discipline of yoga with intention and introspection, the tree of our being will flourish; our roots will grow strong and deep; our limbs, flexible and wide. And in this way, we will become shade and shelter for all.
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