Yoga is a philosophical means of inquiry or reasoning… the origin of the word itself guides us with regard to the subject of any investigations.
Yoga is a word derived from two possible Sanskrit words, yujir which means to bind, join, attach or yoke, or, yuj which means to concentrate.
The question arises then, what is being yoked together, or, concentrated on?
If we look at the whole system of yoga and not just one element of it, we find more clues.
Contrary to what many believe, yoga is not just about increasing flexibility or exercise to improve health and appearance (although these benefits are achieved), the poses or asana’s are only one of eight aspects or limbs of the yoga system.
The eight limbs are usually referred to as Ashtanga yoga* (Ashta=8 and anga= limb) and are comprised of:
- Yama – Personal observations
- Niyama – Social observations
- Asana – Postures
- Pranayama – Breathing techniques
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – Single focus
- Dhyana – Meditation
- Samadhi – A state of tranquility
The order of the limbs is specific and progressive, however, one can begin with asana’s and start to develop the other limbs as the asana’a provide a tangible starting point for most seekers looking to find more depth of understanding of themselves and how they interact with the world around them.
Now we can see how, with the practice of these eight limbs, the health of the body and mind can be sustained, in fact, all aspects combine holistically and include morality, energetic (pranic), mental, emotional, conscience, intellect and spiritual (as this is a philosophical framework, the concepts are applied to whatever your personal belief system is) elements.
Delving a little deeper we learn that the Yama’s cover five categories of personal observations, namely:
- Ahimsa – non-harming
- Satya – Truthfullness
- Asteya – Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – Self restraint
- Aparigraha – Non-covetousness
And the Niyama’s also have five social observations:
- Saucha – Cleanliness
- Santosha – Contentment
- Tapas – Austere discipline
- Svadyaya – Self study
- Isvara Pranidana – Surrender to God
There is beautiful complexity between all facets of the yogic lifestyle that encompasses all eight limbs, allowing for ongoing growth and personal development as ever deeper layers are discovered and delved into… But, it starts with the yama’s which is a practice of self control over ones own actions, then niyama’s which govern our daily path, the asana’s discipline the body and mind giving us insight into our own intelligence (physical and mental). Next is pranayama which affects and stimulates us energetically as breath is the life force that drives us, these last three create a foundation for gaining control over the senses with pratyahara where we are no longer at the whim of our desires and the minds constant wavering. Dharana then develops strength in concentration, which can be used in Dhyana to penetrate the depth of our own consciousness before finally achieving samadhi where our true self is clearly visible and transcends any current version of “me” or “I”.
Iyengar said it best “Yoga establishes proper links between the body and nerves, nerves and mind, mind and intelligence, intelligence and will, will and consciousness, consciousness and conscience, conscience and self and finally self with the universal Soul”.
* Ashtanga Yoga – Not to be confused with a style of yoga of the same name which was developed by Patabi Jois in Mysore.