What is Yoga? – Part 1

When I first started practicing yoga all I thought it was nothing more than a workout. That is how it seems to be viewed by most people in the west. After studying yoga in more detail I have realized that the yoga we all know is only a small part of Yoga.

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there are 8 steps to yoga. These steps guide the individual on a process of transformation.

The eight steps are:

1. Yama
2. Niyama
3. Asana
4. Pranayama
5. Pratyahara
6. Dharana
7. Dhyana
8. Samadhi

The end goal is to help the practitioner reach the state of Samadhi. Samadhi is the state of enlightenment where the ego is released. To actually reach this final level is achieved by few but this does not mean that you won’t see massive benefits from following the other steps.

“Yoga cannot provide a cure for life, but it does provide a proven method for coping with it.”

– Swami Satyanada Saraswati

What are the Yamas?

Yama translates to “control or contain”. They are a guide to how we should live our lives everyday both with others and ourselves.

There are five yamas:

1. Ahimsa

The direct translation to Ahimsa is “non violence”. Respecting your own body and all other beings. This is why a plant based diet is advocated during Yoga. Eating meat results in harming animals (I do eat animal products). Non violence or non harming can also be applied verbally and emotionally. So the main point here is to treat all beings with respect.

2. Satya

Satya translates to truth. Don’t tell lies or deceive people with lies. This also relates to being honest with ourselves in all walks of life. Be truthful in your feelings, thoughts and words. Be impeccable with your word. Your word is incredibly powerful, only speak the truth when you speak.

3. Asteya

Not stealing “not stealing,” is freeing oneself from the desire to have something that one has not earned or paid for. We steal because we either don’t think we can create or we are too lazy to create the same thing ourselves. Putting in the hours on the yoga mat is a good practice of this Yama as you must work hard at most things before you can experience the benefits.

4. Brahmacharya

It is typically given loose interpretation as the “right use of energy.” Show respect to yourself and others in relationships. Don’t let your sexual energy take control of you with lust. Channel this energy into your spiritual practice. It is finding the balance and not becoming a slave to your desires.

Going through periods abstaining from sex can be beneficial to your spiritual practice. Brahmacharya reminds us that sexual activity is one of the quickest ways to deplete our life force.

5. Aparigraha

Aparigraha means not being greedy, or wanting what isn’t ours. Cravings as thought by many religions are the route to your suffering. I wrote about this in a previous article. It also relates to comparing yourself to others. Think about a yoga class you attended and you wish you could do the poses as graceful and effortless as the guy or girl beside you. All this does is make you feel bad. Focus on your own life and stop comparing and craving others.

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What are the Niyamas?

The second limb of yoga contains the niyamas also known as “contracts with oneself”.

The five niyamas are

  1. Saucha (purity)
  2. Santosa (contentment),
  3. Tapas (austerity),
  4. Svadhyaya (study of the Self)
  5. Isvarapranidhana (dedication to the Lord)

What is Saucha (purity or cleanliness)?

The first niyamas represents cleanliness. This involves keeping your body clean both inside and outside. So regular bathing is a no brainer. Asana and pranayama practice both help to cleanse the body internally. Asana practice strengthens the physical muscles, tendons and ligaments. It also massages the internal organs allowing for a deeper purification. Pranayama aerobes the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves.

On the inside you should be feeding yourself with pure foods. What are these? Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, nuts seeds, beans, legumes and for those not following a full yogic lifestyle meat, fish poultry and eggs are all okay. The foods you are eating should also be cleaned and washed properly (with quality water). Another point about food is that we should eat to sustain us. We should not over indulge in food and become a slave to our senses.

The most difficult part of Saucha is cleaning the mind. All day we feel thoughts of greed, envy, hatred, jealousy and so on. These are toxic for us. Saucha of the mind teaches us to be happy for others success and helpful if they are in trouble. It teaches us to focus on our own efforts and stop comparing to others.

The final part of saucha is to have a clean space to live, eat, exercise and just be. Cleanliness should be seen and practices in all parts of your life. So no more hoarding of possessions, mountains of clothes you’re not using and so on.

What is Santosa (contentment)?

This is my favourite niyama. All of the niyamas are important but this one has had the most profound impact on my own life. I will never forget the name either because if was the name of an awesome cafe in Mysore (where I first studied yoga).

One day a man painted a long picket fence. From the outside it seemed to be an arduous task but he changed his mindset to one of content. After a while a neighbour approached the man who clearly was enjoying painting the fence and asked if he could help. Now the man left the arduous task and could move onto something else.

I love this simple analogy because we all find ourselves in unfavourable situations that we would rather not do. Instead of whining about the situation and being miserable, changing your mindset to one of contentment makes these parts of our life much more enjoyable.

What does Tapas mean?

Tapas means going through times of difficulty or austerity. Tough times are required to grow and learn. I listened to a podcast recently on “Barbell Shrugged”, Dave Tate made a point that stuck with with. He said throughout his career it was during times of austerity that he grew the most. The whole science of character building may be regarded as tapas.

                 “Life without tapas is like a heart without love” – BKS Iyengar.

During Vipassana mediation Goenka encourages you to experience the pain when sitting. Even just for a few moments before you switch your foot position. Each one of these painful moments make the next sitting easier. It is the same during your asana practice. You may be introduced to a new asana and the first time you try it, it is painful but over time you it gets easier and easier.

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What is Svadhyaya (study of the self)?

The study of oneself. We should constantly be learning about ourselves and other cultures, technologies faiths and so on. So we should actively study throughout our lives but also actively look in words and get to know ourselves. The best way is to spent time each day in meditation or prayer where you can reflect inwards. Silence and time without external stimulation are best to achieve this.

Also focusing on continuing to learn late in your life. Not after school, not after you retire. You should be willing to learn up until your last breath.

What does Isvarapranidhana (surrender to God) mean?

When I first read this, the mention of god was off-putting as it put a religious feel to it. I guess it means surrender the God (meaning the whole, the universe). Realising that we are all connected and surrendering the “1” and realising that it is actually “us”. The universe is in all of us.

What is Asana?

The third limb of Yoga is the one the we all think of when you hear the word “Yoga”. Before I studied Yoga I thought the same. I thought Yoga was a workout or something hippies did to stay fit.  This is the reason I have written this blog post so as to educate others that asana represents just 1/8 of the Yoga system.

Asanas bring, steadiness, health and lightness to the body. Since I started practicing asana I feel much better throughout the day. Aches and pains are less frequent and day to day tasks are easier.

To give an example; when I was in university I remember trying to get in the window of my house (I forgot my keys) and it was a challenge. My groin felt like it was going to snap! On returning to Ireland I saw the window open so I decided to try it again. The process was effortless. I glided onto the ledge and easier slipped through the window.

My strength to body weight, flexibility and balance have all improved through regular asana practice.

Now my body serves me much better than it did when I was just doing weight training and playing field sports. The balance of the practice is a major benefit of regular asana practice. Most guys (myself included) start working out and focus on the upper body and mostly on the arms and chest.

This throws your body out of sync as you become this top-heavy, injury induced ape limbering around. I started getting a lot of shoulder problems and when I would try a new activity I found it more difficult.

Along with being more balanced the other major difference between asana practice and other types of exercise is the training of the mind.

“The yogi believes that his body has been given to him by the Lord i’  not for enjoyment alone, but also for the service of his fellow-men during every wakeful moment of his life. He does not consider it his property. He knows that the Lord who has given him his body will one day take it away.” BKS Iyengar.

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Asana frees you from physical disabilities and mental distractions. Asana practice teaches us to respect and invest in our body. Yogis do not look to the heavens for God but within. For this to be possible we must treat our bodies like temples.

The names of the asanas illustrate the principles of evolution. Some are named after trees, others after insects, animals, amphibians, birds, serpents, sages and gods. This is a reflection of whether we look at the lowest of insects or the most respected of sages we can respect them all as equals and realise that all creations are made of the universal spirit which takes numerous forms.

What is Pranayama?

Just like Yoga has many meanings prana is the same. Prana means breath respiration, life, energy, vitality and strength. Ayama means length, expansion or restraint. Pranayama deals with the control of the breath, Pranayama relates to controlling all parts of the breath, The inhalation, the exhalation and the holding of the breath where there is no inhalation or exhalation. This can be when the lungs are full after inhaling or when the lungs are empty after exhaling.

Pranayama is the science of the breath and should be treated with patience and respect. It is advised to only practice under the guidance of an established teacher. The yogic texts warn of the serious side effects of improper pranayama practice. Some even claim it can cause death!

Pranayama is a great way of controlling your feelings. If you are excited your breath will quicken, if you are relaxed your breath is slow. Therefore, to calm the body, focus on the breath. Breath long slow deep cycles of breath and feel your body relax and ease. There are pranayama sequences which slow down the heart rate and calm the rate. There are also sequences which increase the heart rate, heat the body and increase energy levels.

“If you would foster a calm spirit, first regulate your breathing; for when that is under control, the heart will beat peace; but when breathing is spasmodic, then it will be troubled. Therefore, before attempting anything, first regulate your breathing on which your temper will be softened, your spirit calmed.”

-Kariba Ekken.

This wisdom comes from a 17th century mystic. We’ve all heard the anger management advise, “count to 10”, and it runs true. Control of the breath can calm your temper and reduce cravings. Becoming more mindful of the breath brings you into the now therefore cravings and aversions are automatically reduced as these are a result of thoughts from either the past or the future.

It is said that the mind is like a chariot being pulled by two powerful horses. One is the breath and the other is desire. The one you feed wins. This is why Yogis put such an emphasis on training the breath. A trained breath leads to a calm mind. The untrained breath leads to the agitated “monkey mind”.

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