The physical benefits of yoga are countless. It seems to work for pretty much everything from weight loss to strengthening the core muscles, protecting the spine and joints, stimulating the glands, getting more flexible, detoxifying the entire body, balancing the nervous system - to name just a few of the positive effects. No wonder it has become one the fastest growing fitness movements in the United States.
Really, a fitness method has survived for over 3000 years? So did the Olympic Games, well they exist for about 2700 years. Can it simply be that we humans tend to glorify our bodies when we drive ourselves to top performances? Even more astonishing and attractive is it that there are so many examples of older people, and survivors of illnesses and accidents who practice yoga and seem to get stronger and more glowing with every year they keep pulling their legs behind their ears. Wow, and did you see what all they do at the yoga competitions?
Is that it? Did I understand it fully? Or maybe, is there more to it, a deeper meaning that adds a whole new approach to the practice?
First, there is no competition in yoga! Every student is on his or her own path, at his own pace, at her temporary and ever-changing level of understanding, in each moment, from moment to moment. The emphasis on asana practice, and thus on the body, is a false prioritizing of only one of the eight limbs of yoga.
Why is that? What’s wrong with getting stronger and physically more attractive? Absolutely nothing, as long as it is about living healthy, keeping the body pure, and enjoying the beauty of life. But, in order to be complete, it needs a deeper, harmonizing, humbling meaning, otherwise the risk to feed solely into the ego, and turn into a narcissist is very high. No, yoga is not about self-realization - and all that comes with it: self-care, self-happiness, self-love, self-empowerment. All those are aspects of the practice, are on one end of the scale. On the other end there is Self-realization - and all that comes with it: compassion, union, non-attachment, non-judging, love, devotion, eternity.
The vedic and tantric scriptures bequeathed vast wisdom to us, and Patanjali compiled 4 volumes of yoga sutras which provided the standard guidelines to follow for every yogic apprentice over centuries. The sutras (Patanjali) teach us that everything is in constant flux, changing - what we think to have mastered today might appear like a first chapter tomorrow, what we assume we will never be able to accomplish, might just happen effortless tomorrow. The goal is to quiet the mind in order to see the real picture clearly. Like a lake would make a perfect mirror when all waves are gone and its surface becomes completely calm - in this way we shall quiet our minds. In this way, we shall not worship our bodies, but surrender body, mind, and soul to a higher, divine purpose.
But how to convey these teachings to a modern Western student?
It starts with facing prejudices against yoga: “I don’t wanna convert to Hinduism for yoga”, “What are all these weird sanskrit names about?”, “When you started doing that OM thing, that’s when you lost me”. While yoga is a spiritual practice, asking us to cultivate ethical principles and deeply longing for a higher purpose, and a connection with the Self, our divine source, it is not a religion asking us to worship a specific God or deity. While it has its roots in India, and thus historically there are connections to the Hindu concept of how our world is set up, the teachings of yoga are universal.
If every yoga student in the West would practice only the first two limbs of yoga, and incorporate the yamas and niyamas into daily life, there would be no need to defend nor explain the deeper purpose of the practice. In fact, it would restore yoga as a striving to become a better person, and not just trying to make oneself feel better.
So, for now, let’s look at what the yamas and niyamas are. They are ethical principles that every spiritual teacher since the dawn of humankind seemed to have tried to get across to us:
The five yamas are wise characteristics we seek to develop to create health and happiness for us and others, our society:
1. Ahimsa – Compassion for all living things, non-violence, having a thoughtful and kind attitude to all living beings.
2. Satya – Commitment to Truthfulness, and the discernment to know when to speak the truth and when to remain silent.
3. Asteya – Non-stealing, not taking advantage of people or things.
4. Brahmacharya – Sense control, an modest and peaceful attitude of the mind toward all sense objects.
5. Aparigraha – Neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth, taking only what is necessary, only what we have earned.
The five niyamas are the personal attitude we adopt towards ourselves so that we may live more soulfully:
1. Sauca – Purity, both inside and out. It means we keep our bodies clean, we practice asana and pranayama to clean the insides of our bodies, and we practice meditation to cleanse the mind of it’s disturbing emotions like hate, greed, delusion and pride.
2. Santosa – Contentment. Simply being happy with what we do have. Being happy in child rather than unhappy we can’t do wheel.
3. Tapas – Disciplined use of our energy.
4. Svadhyaya – Self study, cultivating self-reflective consciousness so that we can truly see who we are – shadow and light.
5. Isvarapranidhana – Celebration of the Spiritual, laying all our actions at the feet of God. Surrendering to Divine Will.
“Atha Yoganushasanam”, Sutra 1.1 (Patanjali) - Now unfolds yoga.
(For more see Kara-Leah Grant, theyogalunchbox.co.nz)