About eighteen months ago I began doing daily yoga as a way to fight back occasional blues in my own life. What I've learned in my own personal practice has truly opened my eyes to the importance and connections between yoga and spirituality. Truth is, it is so much more than a series of positions you do before a run or workout! And if your mind is wandering and worrying about the day ahead or you're guilty of skipping savasana you are missing the point behind yoga. In fact, the physical poses of yoga, called asanas, are only one of the eight important "limbs" of yoga.
The Yoga Sutras describe yoga as a selfless action, a technique to discover the depths of the mind and a means to liberation from ego. These texts outline the eight limbs of yoga. The ethical: Yamas and Niyama, the physical: Asanas and Pranayama, and the internal: Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Understanding and committing yourself to practicing the eight limbs is considered by many to be the way to personal contentment.
Yamas and Niyamas describe the ethical aspects and behaviors of the practice. The major yamas are nonviolence, honesty, fidelity, non-stealing and non-greediness. These are the ethical guides behind yoga. Niyamas are the behaviors and habits involved in the path of yoga. These include purity, acceptance of others, perseverance, self-reflection (through studying Vedas, important texts of Hinduism), and contemplating the existence of a higher being.
Asanas and Pranayama are the parts we are most familiar with, they deal with the postures and breathing respectively. Asanas are described by Patanjali as any motionless posture that is "in accordance with one's pleasure". The idea is that over time, with dedication and practice, poses can be mastered so that you can hold even the most difficult ones with relaxation, comfort, and calmness. In this way, the poses are a form of physical meditation in which you focus on your breath and concentrate on the infinite. Pranayama is the conscious breathing that is practiced throughout yoga. This regular breathing aids in finding the calm in temporary discomfort and change.
Pratyahara and Dharana deal with the idea of bringing your focus away from the external issues around and into your true self. Pratyahara is all about experiencing and evaluating yourself internally. This does not mean necessarily closing yourself off from the external world, but allowing yourself to see things from a clearer, truer sight. Dharana means concentration, holding and maintaining focus on the inner self. With this, you might choose to focus singularly on one body part or topic to be aware of. examples would be focusing on a particularly tense area, bringing your breath there and focusing on that part, or focusing on repeating a particular mantra, affirmation or saying. One goal in practicing yoga is to be able to reach this focused state more easily and maintain it for a longer period of time.
Dhyana and Samadhi are all about contemplation and the state of meditation. Dhyana translates into contemplation and meditation. Dhyana contemplates on whatever you chose to focus on in Dharana. In this state, you follow a stream of thoughts about a single object with no interruption. With time, practicing this will lead you to the final limb, a state called Samadhi. Samadhi means "putting together, combining with, harmonious whole, trance." Your mind loses its sense of identity and becomes part of the oneness of the universe. (yes that might sound cheesy, oh well)
So now, when you're sweating it up in you Bikram or stretching it out in your Ashtanga yoga and you find your mind racing and wandering, hopefully, you'll remember to pause, realign and devote your practice and time on the mat to yourself. Your true self.
Don't be surprised if you find a sense of happiness and acceptance as side effects of your practice!
So get out there and find your eight limbs!