The Bigger Picture of Yoga Practice
So often the physical practices of Yoga are prioritised and mistaken to be ‘Yoga’ in it’s entirety. Studying even some basic Yoga Philosophy can help to ground the practice into it’s true meaning and add potency to our journey.
We can begin with this question.
‘Why do I practice Yoga?’
Answers I have heard:
- “I can’t live without it”.
- “It’s relaxing. It creates stability when all else seems to be falling apart.”
- “It reminds me to slow down”
- “It’s the only time I actually connect with myself”
- “It makes me feel strong. I have a sense of Inner Resource”
Everyone will have a slightly different reason but as we look at the underlying reason for all the above quotes, yoga is offering solace from the daily afflictions, difficulties and stresses of life.
When we are honest with ourselves we recognise that life involves suffering, and this has been true throughout time; it is Universal. In Yoga and many other traditions the cause of this suffering is seen as our own misunderstanding that we are separate from others; separate from other people, other creatures, the trees, the oceans, the earth that we walk upon… and all matter. Once we can fully understand that we are totally interconnected and that the life force that pulses in you also moves me, we can wake up to our True Nature.
These teachings of Yoga were first recorded in the ancient Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We don’t know much about Patanjali as a person but he sure had great understanding of the nature of our minds and the process of unfolding into Blissful Awareness! It is thought that he lived about 2000 years ago and had been passed on these timeless teachings by Rishis (wise ones) living in the Himalayas. Until this time these teachings came through many yogi generations in an oral tradition. The format of his writings followed this oral tradition and recorded the information in sutras. ‘Sutra’, meaning ‘thread’, is an aphorism or statement that contains potent truth and is in a format short enough to remember so that it can be learnt and internalised. The richness and variants found in the Sanskrit language allows for ongoing interpretations and translations to be made of the Sutras. Even today, new commentary’s continue to be released as new refinements and understanding within our contemporary setting arise.
From the very first Sutra Patanjali calls us into the present moment and welcomes us to accept wholly who we are. He tells us that Yoga is a stilling of the patterns and fluctuations of the mind as it is the mind that are creates our suffering.
He describes Yoga as a state of being AND he introduces Yoga as a practice. In the state of Yoga the patterns of suffering are released and we abide in our True Nature which is Pure Awareness. The practice of Yoga is our dedication to work with the obstacles that keep us in a state of separation and suffering and prevent us from finding true liberation.
Patanjali describes two maps. The first map describes a map of Consciousness and all matter that is always susceptible to change and fluctuation. It is a map of materiality and it describes the patterns of suffering caused by the obstacles of the Mind and Ego. As a part of this he describes the pitfalls of ignorance, desire, attachment, aversion and fear.
It doesn’t matter that this text was written 2000 years ago because the nature of the contemporary mind remains the same. In fact our current circumstances of advancement in communications and focus on material acquisition make the mind far more susceptible to suffering. It could be argued that the Patanjali Yoga Sutras are more relevant now than ever.
The second map lays out the practices and path of Yoga needed to successfully navigate the unpredictable oceans of Consciousness.
Known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) Patanjali describes all the practices that are needed to integrate a state of yoga into our lives – mind, body and spirit. Not so much a hierarchical, step-by-step approach but rather practices to be cultivated alongside one another. All the limbs feed into and support one another in order to make progress from the material and more external existence towards the realm of higher Awareness.
He lists them in this order to reflect the goal of Wholeness and Integration:
- Yamas – External Restraints including non-violence, truth, non-stealing, moderation and non-grasping
- Niyamas – Internal Restraints including purification, joy, surrender, discipline and self-enquiry
- Asana – Postural Ease and Steadiness
- Pranayama – Energy and Breath Regulation
- Pratyahara – Withdrawl of the Senses
- Dharana – Concentration (on a Single Object)
- Dhyana – Absorbtion (Subject and Object Dissolve)
- Samadhi – Pure Awareness (No separation)
In a recent talk I gave on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras I drew the often used image of a flower growing out of the earth with it’s roots being the Yamas and Niyamas, the stem and leaves being the practices and refinements of the body, breath and senses to create the stability for the higher meditative practices that still the mind at the flowerhead of Bliss!
If you are interested in delving further into the philosophy of Yoga and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras here’s some recommended further reading:
The Heart of Yoga – TKV Desikachar
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali – A New Translation and Commentary by Chip Hartranft
The Inner Tradition of Yoga – Michael Stone
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