When we begin to study yoga in the West, it’s easy to assume that it is all about the physical practice with a little mindfulness thrown in for good measure. Our physical practice, however, is one part of a philosophy thousands of years old.
When I began my practice in 1984, the studio I attended was teaching an Iyengar style of yoga. BKS Iyengar is credited with being one of three or four individuals who helped popularize yoga in the West. Iyengar style yoga is alignment-specific, and uses props to help the student achieve the posture. In my Iyengar classes – and I believe this is how Iyengar yoga was taught at the time – the philosophy of yoga was left until after the student had a strong physical practice and had mastered at the very least the basic postures.
The Sanskrit word for the postures we practice is asana. And so we might say that what we are calling a ‘yoga class’ is in many cases an ‘asana class’, given that no yogic philosophy is taught.
Our first encounter with yogic philosophy usually begins with Patanjali’s Sutras. The word ‘sutra’ has the same root as ‘suture’. We can think of Patanjali’s sutras, then, as a collection of short, concise threads of wisdom. In the same way that a doctor’s suture closes a physical wound, Patanjali’s Sutras closes a spiritual wound.
Patanjali describes yoga as having eight limbs. To support my own understanding of these limbs, I ask myself a question about each one:
- Yama: These are our ethical standards and the question I ask is, “How do I walk through life without causing harm?”
- Niyama: This is self-discipline and the question I ask is, “How do I continue to nurture my spiritual Self and avoid distractions?”
- Asana: Our physical practice. The question I ask is, “How do I honor and keep healthy the container I inhabit?”
- Pranayama: This is our breathing practice. The question I ask is, “How do I use my breath to rejuvenate and soothe my body and mind?”
- Pratyahara: This is the practice of sense withdrawal and I ask, “How do I cultivate detachment from my cravings and habits?”
- Dharana: Our level of concentration begs the question, “How do I continue to practice when the world is calling?”
- Dhyana: This is our meditation and contemplative practice. I ask myself, “How do I manage the fluctuation of mental thoughts and emotional states?”
- Samadhi: This is bliss! Enlightenment! And so I ask, “How do I realize the profound interconnectedness with all living beings?”
I can’t answer these questions but, with practice, I can move toward an understanding of these questions. Perhaps that is key to all of this: remembering that Yoga – all of yoga – is a practice. And practice makes perfect, right?