The Spiritual Side to Yoga
The modern Western view of yoga is predominantly gym-based. Yoga classes all over Europe, America, and Australasia offer a broad selection of yoga classes with the aim of improving the fitness and health of the practitioner. Yoga has something to offer everyone with a health goal in mind and there’s good reason for its proliferation – yoga practice works. If yoga was invented purely for the promotion of health and fitness then it has more than done its job.
Even if weight loss or improved muscle tone is the reason for taking up a yoga practice, the added benefits of stress relief and a calmer state of mind that come from attending a yoga class point to greater benefits that go far beyond the gym.
Yoga is an ancient Indian philosophy, also known as a Vedic science, and is thought to be over 5,000 years old. The purpose of yoga is to bring about spiritual enlightenment and the first clue to this is in its name. The word yoga is a Sanskrit word that means to unite, yoke, or join together. In this case, the uniting or integration of the body with the mind, the mind and body with the soul, and ultimately, the mind, body, and soul with the Creator that leads to the experience of enlightenment.
Yoga is divided into eight paths and each one is a starting point towards union, although they all intertwine and embody each other. These paths or ‘limbs’ of yoga are a prescription showing how to conduct yourself, what practices to undertake and how to live in order to travel the path of yoga. Surprisingly, the physical yoga poses we’re familiar with comprise only one of the limbs. This yogic prescription for spiritual development is delivered in the form of seven “how to’s”.
1. Yama – How to Behave
Meaning ‘self-restraint’, the practice of yama breaks down into five rules of conduct and social behavior:-
● Ahimsa – not hurting anyone or anything, harmlessness, non-violence
● Satya – honesty, being true to oneself, genuine, sincere, truthful and faithful
● Asteya – not stealing, but also making sure that what you take is genuinely yours
● Brahmacharya - the right and proper use of one’s energy, including sexual energy and personal power
● Aparigraha – non-possessiveness, or rather non-greediness and not hoarding
2. Niyama – How to Live
There are five ‘observances’, or they could be considered as commitments to self-development:-
● Saucha – cleanliness of the body, the home, the mind and eating a clean diet
● Samtosa – contentment in the current moment
● Tapas – self-discipline, non-complacency
● Svadhyaya – spiritual exploration through the study of sacred texts and the study of oneself
● Ishvara pranidhana – dedication to the Universal Source
3. Asana – How to Exercise
The physical poses performed and synonymous with the term ‘yoga’, asanas are instantly recognized the world over. The term asana usually refers to a pose or posture but actually means ‘comfortable seat’. The yogis of ancient times discovered a way to move and exercise the body, keeping it vibrant and healthy, while also creating mental space for introspection and self-analysis.
The purpose of practicing asanas is not only to strengthen and tone the muscles and tendons but also to rejuvenate and calm the nervous system, regulate the circulatory and respiratory systems and massage the lymphatic system. In addition, holding a yoga pose creates space in the mind giving the practitioner a mental holiday from inner chatter.
4. Pranayama – How to Breathe
Prana is a Sanskrit word that describes the foundation for all life. Prana is also sometimes interpreted as meaning the breath, or the breath of life, but this interpretation can lead to the mistaken conclusion that prana is just another word for the air that we breathe. Prana is much more than that, it is life energy.
This energy is literally everywhere. It is in your body, in the paper of this magazine, in everything in the room, all over this planet, and running through everything in the universe. The philosophy behind prana runs parallel with Chinese beliefs about chi, and like chi, ancient Vedic texts depict the flow and movement of prana around the human body.
Pranayama is a set of breathing techniques and breath control methods said to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. In ancient texts, prana flow is mapped out across the human body through channels called Nadi. The nadis are very similar to acupuncture meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine and they all have a varying degree of flow running through them, and even suffer some blockages from time to time.
Decreased flow and blockages of prana can be caused by such things as continual negative thinking, a sudden shock such as witnessing a traumatic event, an accident causing physical damage, or prolonged exposure to a negative environment. When prana is blocked we feel tired and out-of-sorts, our health suffers and disease follows.
Pranayama regulates and increases prana flow, cleansing and balancing the body-mind, calming the nervous system, and promoting health.
5. Pratyahara – How to Concentrate
When we temporarily withdraw our senses from the world we are able to concentrate solely on the inner world. Finding silence away from distraction, closing the eyes, and resting in stillness draws our attention inward and is a perfect prerequisite to meditation.
It takes a level of concentration to withdraw the senses from the world. There’s always a TV or music on, smells from someone’s cooking, the feel of soft clothing on your skin, an itch on your nose, a passing car with headlights blazing, and the electronic notification of a message on your phone. We live in a world abundant with sensory attraction and distraction and the draw of it can leave us spiritually lost in its sea. “When the mind is guided by the wandering senses, then it carries away one’s understanding, as does the wind a ship on the water,” says the ancient Sanskrit text, the Bhagavad Gita, reminding us that sensory gratification is a sure path to spiritual isolation.
When we cultivate an inner awareness and develop a relationship with our inner selves our spiritual path becomes easier to walk. Again, the Bhagavad Gita explains that “Just as the tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when a man withdraws his senses from the sense objects, his wisdom becomes steady,”
6. Dharana – How to Get into the Zone
Dharana is the mastery of one-pointed attention and the control of intention. Placing attention on a single object, such as a candle flame, a crystal, or an object of spiritual importance, draws the mind into silent reverie causing mental chatter to gently cease. We begin to feel one with the object and feel the vibrational energy of it.
We spontaneously practice Dharana when we are deeply engrossed in an activity and realize that time has swept by or someone has been calling us and we didn’t realize and acknowledge it because we were so occupied by what we were doing. We are so in love with what we are doing that we are oblivious to everything else.
We also practice Dharana when we commit with one-pointed attention to achieve anything such as heal ourselves, get fit, helping someone or improving ourselves in some way. Where attention goes, energy flows, and the more attentive we are, the more energy flows through us and the quicker those goals are realized.
7. Dhyana – How to Discover the Divine in You
Within all of us, there is a steady, constant, never-changing part that isn’t at the mercy of emotions, bad days, and high days. It is constantly observing, without judgement, and is sometimes called The Witness. Dhyana is a collection of meditation techniques that allow us to experience that witness state in us by observing thoughts as they come and go during a meditation session.
We can also repeat a mantra designed to accelerate our spiritual progress during meditation. With regular practice, it is possible to stay centered in your witness state in daily life creating a calm oasis in you that can be relied on when the world seems to be turned to chaos.
8. Samadhi – Reconnecting with the Ultimate Source
Samadhi is often described as experiencing pure awareness, unattached to time, space, the past, or the future. It is experiencing your natural, essential self, transcending the ego and emotions, and experiencing you as a universal being. This last limb is not so much a “how to” but more of a description of what to look for in your practice.
Samadhi is the ultimate goal of yoga – union with the Divine. Practicing each of the seven preceding limbs leads to a taste of Samadhi, and once experienced, even lightly and for the briefest of moments, there’s a desire to deepen that experience and receive more.
Whatever the reason may be to look at starting a yoga practice, it is a good reason because yoga works on the mind-body-spirit that leads to a better way of life. Ancient yoga philosophy states that in order to gain knowledge, one must learn through direct experience. Perhaps this will inspire you to directly experience union for yourself.
Photo by Markus Spiske: https://www.pexels.com/photo/clear-glass-candle-holder-on-brown-wooden-table-246125/