Though it’s common to start a yoga practice because of it’s physical benefits —more flexibility and strength, less stress and pain— it doesn’t take long to discover that something else is happening when you roll out your mat, something that stays with you long after “namaste.”
We generally understand yoga as a physical practice that includes breath awareness while stretching and strengthening the muscles of the body, but this is only one way to experience yoga. Yoga consists of eight limbs, or steps, which offer guidelines for living a purposeful, meaningful life. Here’s a closer look at each of the eight.
The yamas involve the habit of “living right with others,” according to author and yoga teacher Deborah Adele. The attitudes of the yamas are: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excessiveness and non-possessiveness. The interpretations of these attitudes vary, but fundamentally they focus on a commitment to good self-care, authenticity, gratitude and wonder, as well as curiosity and trust.
With the niyamas, we create right living within ourselves by cultivating awareness of the inner workings of our minds. We observe the niyamas by establishing purity in mind, contentment, self-discipline, self-study and surrender. In practice, we intend to live light and accept what “is,” while being discerning in our choices. We dive deeper into who we truly are beyond our beliefs and roles. We learn to surrender to a higher power, to serve something greater than ourselves.
Yoga asanas invite us to live right within our bodies. We focus our attention on placing the body into yoga postures with a balance of effort and ease, unifying the actions of the body, breath and mind. As T.K.V. Desikachar states in his book “The Heart of Yoga,” “More important than these outer manifestations is the way we feel the postures and the breath.” We utilize the body as a tool to bring us deeper into ourselves, rather than to continue habits of pushing, or achieving.
Pranayama encourages the right use of energy. The word prana represents the energy of the universe and how it moves. We experience prana distinctly through the breath – it’s rise and fall, contraction and expansion, and radiating quality. There are many breathing techniques offered in yoga practice that benefit our energy. For example, alternate nostril breathing helps to balance the nervous system, while the breath of fire helps to bring focus and release toxins.
Pratyahara is defined as “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.” We release distractions of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch in order to focus the mind. Pratyahara provides an alternative to our habits of drowning out intense experiences by overstimulating the nervous system. We experience pratyhara at the end of a yoga class with the practice of corpse pose, which draws our energy ever inward towards a state of deep peace.
Dharana is a state of concentration that can be found in common daily experiences. According to yoga teacher and author Judith Hanson Lasater, dharana is the experience of being “fully present and focused on an activity or object.” This can happen when a musician plays her instrument, when an artist raises his brush to the canvas, or when a soccer player defends her goal. When we experience dharana, we alleviate inner conflict and align our actions more fully with our thoughts.
Dhyana, the practice of meditation, requires us to focus our attention entirely on one thing for an extended period of time. If the experience of dharana were like the rain that falls intermittently, dhyana occurs when the raindrops converge into the continuous flow of the river. Meditation creates an experience of union between the one who sits and contemplates, and that which is contemplated. Thoughts or emotions still arise; this is the nature of the mind. But when they do, we bring our attention fully to them and rediscover our focus, recognizing and allowing without judging or reacting.
Samadhi is the experience of oneness, which Lasater describes as “a state of being intensely present without a point of view.” This occurs when we become so absorbed in something that our mind becomes one with it, and our personal identity falls away. Many of us have experienced this feeling of deep connection to a universal unity — in places of worship, in the grandeur of nature, and when we are in deep communion with another human being. The word yoga has many interpretations: to unite, to attain what was previously unattainable, to apply sustained attention without distraction.
The practice of yoga is vast, and can be done in a variety of ways by everyone at any time. If you’re curious about yoga, keep looking, keep trying, and you will find a practice that suits you.