Not just for exercise, yoga has a deeper side that can do wonders when used as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Yoga is a path of self-understanding that was developed in India over 5,000 years ago, and continues to evolve today. The path is a systematic approach to self-realization. It is a philosophy and psychology of incredible depth, but no matter how much we study these teachings, the true depth of this path must be experienced within ourselves in the present moment. The path is an art and science that conveys the wisdom energy within. The roots of this path are in the distant past, and yet, the essence of yoga can be found in our everyday life, in any moment. The key to yoga is discovering the timeless energy of the present moment.
As you read this article, I want you to take a moment and feel the energy of being in your skin, in your bones, in your flesh and blood. I want you to exercise the power of resting in the present moment. Simply recognize the inner sensations and feelings that are moving below the surface of your skin. Notice the movement of your mind.
Now, sense your skin again, feel how the external element of air touches your skin. Feel where the skin and space around you merge, feel that connection and union between you and everything that surrounds you. For a moment, give yourself permission to simply be in this experience without needing to do anything. Sensing your connection to the space around you and the ground beneath you, rest in this space. By recognizing the conscious movements of mind and relaxing into your body, you connect with the essence of yoga.
The path of yoga represents a paradox: it is both a vast field of study and at the same time, it is as close as our own breath, an expression of the deepest part of our being, our own essence. Contemporary culture has come to associate yoga with the physical practices called asana. These postural practices within the system of yoga are powerful and potent tools that bring balance, strength, and vitality to all systems of the body. What makes the physical practice of yoga different from other forms of exercise is the awareness and focus of the mind and the power of the breath. When these physical practices are combined with dynamic extensions of the physical breath, there is potential for deep physical transformations to arise. Breathing affects your respiratory, cardiovascular, neurological, gastrointestinal, muscular, and psychic systems, and also has a general affect on your sleep, memory, ability to concentrate, and your energy levels. Asanas are maps that allow one to navigate and explore our embodied nature, moving from the gross physical experience towards a subtle energetic quality. For me, yoga is “embodiment”. It’s a deep visceral sense of being; it’s a somatic experience of truth. The body is a field of potential experience and profound understanding.
Learning to arrive in the present experience of body and mind requires practice. Most of us focus on the past or the future. We are often scattered in many places simultaneously, looking outward rather than focusing inward. The more we can turn our focus inward and begin to see ourselves, the more we can understand. Rediscovering who we really are at our core opens the way to experiencing the most basic connection with others. This connection lies at the heart of the practice called yoga.
The scope of this path is vast. For this reason, the traditions and techniques within yoga are varied, and the needs of individuals at different points along the journey also change. This ability of yoga to respond to the varied needs of individuals through a wide variety of approaches is an important aspect of yoga.
Rather than thinking of them as separate approaches, it is more useful to see them as facets of a single gem, which is yoga. In the traditional context, these facets are often complementary. A yogi might have Hatha yoga and physical asana practices as a main focus, but along with these practices, chanting mantras, devotional prayers, and meditation are also needed. Furthermore, yoga practices can be found in Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, and others spiritual traditions.
The variety provided by the various facets of the gem of yoga allows individuals with different temperaments and backgrounds to enter the yoga path through a door that is appropriate for them. For example, many people begin yoga practice by connecting with the physical body, while others are initially drawn to meditation. Most individuals will find it important to work with all aspects of their being along the yoga journey. These include the physical body based practices, the inner energetic prana practices, transformative psycho-emotional methods to train the mind, and working with the inner wisdom energies of the subtle mind in deeper meditative states.
All of the yoga texts describe the essence of yoga with different words, and all yoga is pointing us towards a realization that moves beyond duality. A vision of life that suggests our separation is actually the greatest illusion, and to really realize yoga is to realize this great unity and interconnection. Language has limits when one tries to describe the indescribable! However, the great teachers of the past did try to convey the height of yoga with words as a way to describe this experience. The following words are found in yoga texts to describe the essence of this path of self-realization; kaivalya, which means ‘to rest in one’s nature’, moksha,which means ‘liberation’, and shunyata, which means ‘empty fullness’. These words have their own particular flavor and meaning, reflecting the different traditions from which they arise, nevertheless they all are pointing to an experience of awakening in which one discovers the true nature of our experience as spiritual beings having a human experience.
A very clear synthesis of the vision of yoga, together with its theory and practice, is found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Although there are many texts that describe the path, this text has become popular in the modern understating of yoga. Giving the practice a clear reference point of the physical and mental training required for the individual seeking self-realization through self-understating. This text is approximately 2,000 years old and forms a basis of yoga as a philosophical system. It contains 196 short verses, called sutras, in four chapters, giving an overview of yoga, the ways and means to practice, and experiences encountered along the journey. The text was written about 500 years after the time of the Buddha. There are many similarities in the ancient teachings of Lord Buddha and Patanjali. They both describe an eight- limbed path to support one’s journey towards self-realization.
The eight steps or limbs of Patanjali’s path are a series of practical tools to live in harmony with oneself and the world. A set of values and restraints in order to create more balance and equanimity within one’s own mind-body complex, but also in the greater community, becoming spiritual citizens of the world. The eight-limbed path is listed below.
1. Yama: ethical precepts in relation to society. These precepts include non-violence, non-stealing, truthfulness, etc.
2. Niyama: ethical self-discipline, which includes purity, contentment, self-study, etc.
3. Asana: postural practice (physical practices)
4. Pranayama: working with the vital essence through the breath
5. Pratyahara: inner absorption from sensory stimulation
6. Dharana: concentration
7. Dhyana: meditation
8. Samadhi: union – beyond duality
The eight-limbed path of yoga is an ancient teaching, and yet, these ethics, practices, and values are beneficial to us as much today as they were 2,000 years ago. Although we have come along way with technology, we still face the same emotional turbulence, the same existential questions, and seek more love, harmony, strength, and understanding. The path is available to anyone who is brave enough to face themselves with themselves.
On the one hand, yoga is a science and a discipline to which yogis have dedicated years of concentrated effort. On the other hand, yoga is the art of effortlessness, in which we discover a sense of being that is already complete, and to which nothing can be added or subtracted.
The universe is an unfolding story in which each of us has an opportunity to discover more truth and understanding. Questioning and exploring keep us present to the moment-to-moment unfolding of our life’s journey, it’s a wonderful gift to be curious and explore this incredible experience we are having human beings… as spiritual beings. Yoga is available to all, and can be practiced by anyone. The great saying in yoga is that, “If you can breathe, you can practice yoga”. There are many different traditions and teachers offering valuable tools to develop self-understanding, compassion, and awareness. My wish is to contribute to this path as best as I can and uphold my vows as a yoga teacher and citizen of this world. At the end of the day, I feel that yoga can bring more balance to this seemingly chaotic world.
All the contents of this article with photos was originally published on ECS Nepal