You probably came to yoga for the physical side of things - to get more flexible, stretch, be stronger. You might have even heard yoga is great for our mental wellbeing too. I mean, that's why I started yoga. I had chronic back pain for a decade and wanted it to go away, I couldn't have cared less about anything beyond the poses, I just wanted my back to stop flipping hurting. At least, that was the case at first. I can hand on heart say yoga changed my life and has made me the best version of myself.
I was chatting with some of students online a couple of weeks ago and it came up that they were getting curious about the OTHER SIDES of yoga - the stuff beyond poses. Questions about why they feel different, the wider impact of what they do on the mat when they're off it in their day to day lives and the struggle to actually define what yoga really is.
This blog series Beyond the Poses is going to tackle just that. I'm going to introduce some yoga philosophy to you in simple and digestible chunks and today, we're going to talk about the central aspects of The Eight Limbs of Yoga.
There are a couple of main philosophical texts to reference here; The Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. These are ancient texts, thousands of years old and they basically support yoga at a wider level and inform a lot of what I teach, the craft and yoga teaching ethics and principles. There's loads of different translations, interpretations and versions of these texts out there, some are better and easier to follow than others.
Personally, I find people switch off if I say I'm going to teach stuff that's thousands of years old, so I make it totally relevant today and weave it into the fabric of my classes so you learn the lessons and pick it up as you go in a way that translates for you.
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras describes the Eight Limbs of Yoga - the eight constitutional elements of yoga as a practice. These are:
Yama - ethical standards and integrity (There's 5 Yamas)
Niyama - self discipline and study (Also 5 Niyamas)
Asana - physical practice
Pranayama - Breath control
Pratyahara - withdrawal/sensory transcendence
Dharana - Focus/concentration
Dhyana - Meditation/contemplation
Samadhi - state of ecstasy
Yoga isn't JUST poses.
Yep, that's right! Initially it looks like yoga is all about the poses - the shapes we make. But actually, the poses are the vehicle we use for the other stuff.
Poses is one distinct part of yoga in it's own right, called Asana practice. Originally, the only Asana was seated with legs crossed (Crossed legs/Easy Seat/Sukhasana). Monks back in the day basically found it was much easier to meditate for extended periods of time after they had done some movement practice. So some of the Asanas we know and love were born.
A lot of the other poses are actually way more modern, with the current style of yoga in practice now actually emerging in the 1920s-1960s/70s. It's always evolving with lots of focus on Neurology, Active mobility and other disciplines being taught inside a yoga setting too.
So what you do in class with me is actually Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana practice. Cool, eh? Over time, you learn these valuable skills all of which help you navigate the stuff that goes on in our day to day lives.
Conversely a yoga practice doesn't have to be Asana - your yoga practice can be done nowhere near a mat too. Most days, this is what my practice is (mainly cos I'm knackered a lot of the time, but yanno!)
So, what is actually yoga? Well this is the thing. It's not one thing, it's many. Every practitioner's yoga practice will look totally different. Initially it might be about learning the shapes, but over time that shifts and evolves. You learn things about you. You become a better person.
At it's core, it is about you as an individual connecting your mind with your body. It's a deep knowing and understanding that allows you to grow in confidence in all areas of your life, develop self esteem and be comfortable with yourself, your view, the decisions you make and who and what you advocate for.
In my recent Embodied Yoga module of my advanced training we collectively came up with the definition of Yoga is Coming Home to You. It's a magical thing that no one can quite put a finger on, and the thing that keeps us coming back consistently.
Next time, we're going to dive in to the Yamas and Niyamas and why these matter (and you'll find out why I'm so strict on time keeping! 😂)