Yoga योग, is a term originating in ancient India and derives from the root yuj, which means to yoke, to join, to unite. The unity brought about by the practice of yoga can be appreciated on all levels of human experience, from the gross (physical) to the subtle (energetic/spiritual). Yoga is also one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. Classical yoga is based on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.
Who can practice?
The answer is plain and clear, because when yoga is tailored to suit the needs of an individual – anybody can practice! A skillful teacher is able to determine what approach will best serve any given student, regardless of age, physical capacity, and so on. When properly applied, yoga is a powerful and transformational system of integration, awakening and healing.
Yoga is not simply a form of physical exercise. While yoga certainly can provide a wonderful balancing workout for the whole body and its functions, a greater context needs to be considered to appreciate its tremendous potential. The worldwide ‘yoga revolution’ over the past decade has brought yoga practices to millions of people who otherwise might not have had a chance to experience its benefits. However, many of the modern approaches have watered down yoga’s potential for transformation by placing much of its emphasis on the postures, leaving behind many other key aspects. The asana provide an effective, physiological workout that provides our system with wonderful sensations and numerous benefits – while also giving us an ‘exercise physiology addiction’ which makes us hooked. We can call it a ‘good’ addiction. If practiced in a intelligent and balanced fashion, vigorous asana practice can be wonderful. However, we also see many problems and injuries happening when the physical practice of yoga is approached without appropriate sensitivity and skill.
When looking for fundamental guidelines for yoga, many yogins refer to the framework known as the Eight-fold Path, compiled in the Yoga Sutra by the rishi (sage) Patanjali about 2,000 years ago. He delineates the eight stages of Raja Yoga as a path to living a meaningful and purposeful life, bringing about a true and liberating understanding of the Self. The eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb) and must not be confused with ‘ashtanga vinyasa yoga’. The eight stages do not necessarily evolve in a linear fashion.
1. Yama यम (restraints)
This stage deals with one’s ethical standards, sense of integrity, and how we conduct ourselves in life.
- Ahimsa: non-harming
- Satya: truth, absence of falsehood
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: energy conservation
- Aparigraha: non-hording
2. Niyama नियम (observances)
This stage deals with one’s capacity for self-regulation, discipline and spiritual observances.
- Shaucha: cleanliness
- Santosha: contentment
- Tapas: austerity
- Svādhyāya: study of the Self
- Ishvarapranidhana: surrender to Source
3. Asana (postures)
Yoga presents a map of hundreds of postures. With variations, we can create thousands of possibilities. The physical postures help to optimize the function of the body by promoting circulation, strength, flexibility, endurance, balance and integration. The asana should be systematically and progressively sequenced to help practitioners of all levels advance in their practice.
4. Pranayama (breathing)
Yoga breathing techniques bring awareness to our respiration and thereby regulate and liberate the breath. They cultivate awareness of the subtle body and have tremendous therapeutic benefits. Yoga breathing acts as a gateway to meditative states.
5. Pratyahara (sense-withdrawal)
This step is turning inside, away from outside stimuli, sensory transcendence. It provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves.
6. Dharana (concentration)
Concentration is one-pointed focus, slowing down the thinking process by concentrating on a single source.
7. Dhyana (contemplation/meditation)
This is a relaxed state of mind that is keenly aware without any specific focus.
8. Samadhi (absorption)
The final stage is a state of being without conscious thought, and the experience of ease, peace and bliss.