In the Western world thanks to social media, yoga is mostly recognized by asana (yoga posture). In many countries, yoga does not exceed the boundaries of the physical body practices. Are yoga’s essence, philosophy, and intention limited by the posture? What is yoga? Why do people do yoga, go to yoga lessons, or become yoga instructors?
For thousands of years sages, hermits, and seekers of knowledge in the East reached different levels of consciousness by way of deep meditation and contemplation. Vedic knowledge (Vedas), inner visions, and myths that contain the knowledge of existence in itself, such as the Bhagavad Gita, slowly began to feed society and become part of collective consciousness. Patanjali collected all the known information about yoga in the Yoga Sutras around the years 200-300 BC.
Yoga means “yuj” or “unity”; it is a system that aims to unify the individual with other humans and with all life forms of the world, with the inner space, with the invisible, and with the infinite and inexperienced formless one. It is a lifestyle, an attitude, a perspective, and a way of understanding which stands high upon eight great limbs. In the Yoga Sutras, these eight limbs brought thousands of years of work together for the first time.
Let’s take a look at them.
1. Yamas: Ethical and Universal Standards
Ahimsa (Non-Violence): Ahimsa means non-violence in words, thoughts, deeds, and intentions. This non-violence is an area which begins with the person and extends through all of existence. From social interactions to your inner relationship with yourself, it is a very valuable point of view. It includes many choices from being a vegetarian to holding no grudges. When practicing Asana, it can be interpreted as embracing your body, your mind, and your feelings with compassion and avoiding compulsions which might hurt you.
Satya (Truth): Satya means truth. It teaches speaking the truth and avoiding lies. It teaches finding your own truth, mission, and purpose for life and living according to them. In the practice of asana, satya means knowing the limits of your anatomy, psychology, emotions, and many other things and practicing according to your truths.
Asteya (Non-Stealing): Asteya means not stealing any property, money, or ideas. Not taking anything that is not given and not forcing others to take anything. Swami Sivananda says, “Desire or want is the root cause for stealing.” When we steal anything, including time, energy, happiness, property, promotions, money, ideas, love, or dreams, that means we actually lack what we steal. Having no trust for the natural system or the perfection and authenticity of existence and not feeling any excitement for the path which the soul is meant to discover may reveal the jealous mask of ego and generate feelings of injustice. In asana practice, asteya involves not stealing breath or effort from others while practicing a pose and not comparing yourself with others and thus stealing value from your own pose. It also means not separating yourself from the moment of practice with your mind by projecting yourself to other times and places and instead being able to experience the moment of practice to the fullest.
Brahmacharya (Using Energy for Unity): Brachmacharya is working for unification, being able to live for everyone in society, taking your worldviews outside your home to the world, and focusing on a certain subject to expand your creative energy. It means not being a slave to your emotions and instincts, especially lust, and keeping the level of focus you want. It is the use of sexual energy with love rather than judgment or negative emotions. When practicing asana, brahmacharya is being able to value all parts of the flow equally and see it as a whole.
Aparigraha (Non-Grasping): Aparigraha means non-grasping. Grasping for a person, a dogma, a look, or anything else in this world that is centered around change and temporariness keeps us away from new things that will make our lives more colorful, and it blocks learning by causing us to become stuck in certain parts of our lives. Aparigraha includes staying away from ambition, greed, and excessiveness. In the practice of asana, aparigraha is approaching your practice with respect, sparing some time and space for yourself, not obsessing over asanas, and not making strict habits.
2. Niyamas: Reference Points for Self Discipline and Spiritual Enlightenment
Saucha (Cleanliness): Saucha teaches being clean in body, mind, emotions, and energy, purifying yourself in these four areas with intentions and practices for living a better life. It is the practice of asana as a clean and pure whole, creating a zone of clarity reaching from your yoga mat to your heart.
Santosha (Contentment): Santosha is knowing that the condition you are in is the best combination for you and acting according to the knowledge that something is “for you” rather than “to you”. Knowing what is in your way, what is good for you, and having a calm inner world are all parts of it. In asana practice, it is accepting the limitations of your body with love and celebrating your current state in the practice.
Tapas (Fire): Tapas derives from the Sanskrit word “tap” or “fire”. It means work, discipline, and burning everything which keeps us away from the real yoga – the state of being one with the universe. In asana practice, it means working with the agni of the body (the energy of the fire element), going beyond agni, and keeping the passion of regular practice alive.
Svadhyaya (Introspection): Svadhyaya is the heart of yoga and its deepest stand. It is the knowledge of one’s self by way of introspection. It requires knowing the reasons behind your reactions and the meanings behind your words, your emotions, your judgments, and your mental patterns. Real freedom is freeing the self from the past and the webs of the mind. In yoga asana practice, it is accepting the movements as reference points and therefore recognizing the person who makes and applies those forms. Recognizing who that person is, what that person is, what mental or psychological state that person is in, and what the condition of that person’s self-relationship is through these movements.
Ishvara Pranidhana (The Power to Surrender): “Ishavara”means “God” in Sanskrit, “Pranidhana” means “devotion and surrendering”. This is the walk of a person on the path of yoga into the unity, the universe, the God, or the truth. In yoga asana practice, it is the practice of the pose for reaching beyond the perception of self, rather than practicing the pose for the pose itself.
3. Asana (Posture):
Asana refers to the yoga postures. Today, yoga is best known for its asana practice. As told in Hatha Yoga Pradipika, asanas are movements which are taken from nature itself or from the movements of other living beings and practiced by yogis.
Asanas have effects on all four bodies: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
There are many uses of asanas for the physical body such as softening the muscles that regulate blood flow, improving joint capacity by relieving the spinal cord through opening the vertebrae, and improving lung capacity through weight control. The association of asanas with the hormonal system comes from the ability to regulate the nervous system. In regular breathing and movement, the body reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol and increases serotonin, oxytocin, and melatonin secretions.
“Yoga chitta vritti nirodha” or “Yoga relaxes the fluctuations on the waters of the mind” is the most meaningful sentence that comes to us from the Sutras and shows the effects of yoga on the mental body (mind). During a yoga lesson, and especially at the end of the lesson and afterwards, the mind is very calm, and you can enjoy hours of deep relaxation. Yoga improves healing, health, and feelings in all bodies; cleans blockages in the meridians, nadis, and energy lines; and balances the flow overall.
Today, thanks to the influence of the capitalist system and the search for eternal love in the practice of asana, both instructors and students are trying to achieve the “necessary” flexibility, strength, mobility, and balance by practicing, but in a very human way, causing them to sometimes miss the real purpose: a deeper contact with the inner world.If we remain attached to aesthetic concerns, such as being able to achieve a posture or not being able to do so, the mind becomes solid, and the practice becomes a boring routine. The mind finds something to fight and lose again, and the invisible part remains secondary and forgotten.
We know the saying “Sthira-sukham asanam” from the Sutras, which means that asanas are patience and comfort. It describes both the state of our inner being and the experience of the body in a posture or in a variation based on our own limits and the level of our practice. It means to be rooted in our innermost area, where both the body is pleased with the mind and the mind is pleased with the body. In this way, the body is there to support a clean, clear, open, and free mind.
4. Pranayama (Energy / Breath Control):
Prana is the Sanskrit word that referes to chi, the vital energy. According to yogis, there are two large energy channels starting from the tail end and reaching the two nostrils: Ida and Pingala. If these two channels, as well as the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the masculine and feminine energies, and all other things, are in balance, then energy rises along the Sushumna channel up and down the middle line.
Prayanama involves taking high amounts of energy into the body in different forms and intentions through breathing practices, therefore cleaning, purifying, and focusing. For this, three diaphragm locks, as well as certain body shapes, certain breathing speeds, and certain breathing techniques, are applied.
5. Pratyahara (Withdrawal):
Pratyahara is being able to examine the inner world with a distance from the the external world by turning all the senses inwards. Pratyahara means controlling ahara (food / external factors) or, in other words, gaining control over the external factors.
Yogis turn themselves inwards to gain a stable power, rather than taking their power from ever changing external factors, looks, and pleasures. Afterwards, all that introspection turns into a garden of happiness and inner peace. The external factors no longer affect the yogi.
There are 3 levels of aharas in the yogic system.
The first one is our food in physical terms. We feed our bodies on 5 elements – earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
There are “impressions” which feed the mind on the second level – sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell perceptions – and they match with the subtle presence of each other; sound matches with ether, touch matches with air, sight matches with fire, taste matches with water, and smell matches with earth. On the third level of ahara, there are “ties”. The people we keep in our lives and in our hearts feed the soul and affect us with 3 basic guna – sattva (harmony), rajas (distraction), and tamas (laziness).
Pratyahara has two faces simultaneously: avoiding bad or inappropriate food and impressions and eating the right foods and having the right impressions and ties. We cannot provide ourselves with mental impressions without having a proper diet, proper friendships, and proper ties. But pratyahara’s primary emphasis comes from being able to stay away from sensory impressions and pleasures or being able to control them; this allows the mind to leave the outside and turn inside.
As we stay away from negative and low vibrational impressions, pratyahara increases the immunity level of mind. A healthy body resists all toxins and pathogens and wants to throw them back out when they try to invade. Similarly, a healthy mind is actually strengthened against negative thoughts and external influences around it. So if you feel that you are stressed from external construction sounds, crying children, or car horns, practicing pratyahara could be the right step for you.
Going Beyond With Control
Patanjali suggests that the last three steps of yoga should be grouped together since they are tightly bound together: Dharana, Dyana, and Samadhi. This is the part of the road map that emphasizes control and shows the path to nirvana.
Dharana, or concentration of mind, is the unity of the mind with the object through intense focus on one object. It can be an external object such as a flower or a candle, or it can be something internal such as a chakra or an organ. Usually, this is practiced in yoga when instructors tell their students to “focus on the breath” or “follow the flow of the breath.”
Dyana is turning the concentration from the single object towards the whole existence, the whole perceived area. Therefore, the concentration becomes one that is unlimited and all-embracing. This removes the limits of the physical area in which one can express the self. In this step we experience our true selves in a way that is beyond human.
Samadhi is a state of complete unity with existence, the creator, and everything.
In a Nutshell
These are the precious steps that yoga stands on, both progressing in order and open at the same time to the practitioner. It is not easy to share all of this in a yoga lesson while simultaneously respecting the limits, sensitivities, and well-being of many bodies, since there are many thoughts, perspectives, and volumes of books behind them. As yoga instructors, we actually pass through different steps in every lesson by sharing questions and thoughts with our students.
My suggestion to anyone who has been doing yoga or is just starting out is to take some quiet time for yourself every day. We do not have two ears and one mouth for nothing: Listen.
Stay silent and listen to what is beyond.
If you wish to join, let’s listen together with shapes, ideas, utterances, and feelings.