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The Practices of Yoga
Yoga is a complete system which can be used to balance and optimise all aspects of a person's life: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Yoga practices harness the healing power of body and mind to promote a healthy and harmonious life. One person who has been highly influential in helping people to understand the practices of yoga is the sage Maharishi Patanjali.
In about the 3rd century BC, Patanjali composed his Yoga Sutras from the teachings of Yoga that had been passed on from teacher to student for thousands of years beforehand. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is a concentrated guide to the essential teachings of yoga. In it he describes yoga as having eight 'limbs' or connected parts. This is literally called Ashtanga. ('Ashta' meaning 'eight', 'anga' meaning 'limb.') Ideally these 'limbs' are developed simultaneously because each limb supports the others. One of these limbs is 'asana' (or postures) and this is the one that many people in the west associate with the word 'yoga'. But in order to attain the goal of yoga, the vast majority of people need to give attention to all eight limbs. This constitutes the complete art and science of yoga.
Some commentators have considered the limbs to be more like stages starting from 1 through to 8, so before you could start asana practice, you would have to have already developed the ethical limb of Yama and adhered to the personal observances of Niyama. With this approach, you wouldn't start meditation until you'd mastered asana and pranayam. For us at InSync this is an unhelpful approach. Patanjali called them limbs for a particular reason and when we consider the limbs of our own body, it's obvious that we want to nourish and develop them all simultaneously for balanced overall development.
In summary, the eight limbs are as follows.
- Yama: This focuses on our relationship with the wider environment. We could say that it describes guiding ethical principles to help us become more aligned with the laws of nature that govern life. These Yamas include: Truthfulness (Satya), non-harming or loving kindness (Ahimsa), letting go and non-attachment (Aparigraha), not misappropriating or stealing (Asteya), whole being commitment and channelling our sexual energy in an uplifting, focused and wise way.
- Niyama: These are observances and behaviours that help us cultivate more balance and well-being on the level of body and mind. They include purity and cleanliness (Shaucha), contentment (Santosha), focused dedication and commitment (Tapas), self reflection and study (Swadhyaya) and devotion to the highest principle or the Divine (Ishvara Pranidhana).
- Asana: These postures are designed to help all elements of the body to be balanced and in harmony. Asana practice develops strength, flexibility, lightness, comfort and ease in the body. As a result, the body is more settled and supportive for the mind to relax and go deep within in meditation.
- Pranayama: means the control and expansion of prana. Prana is the life energy or life force which is known by different names around the world, including 'Chi', 'Ki', 'Shakti' and 'The Holy Spirit'. Pranayama practices are often in the form of breathing techniques, and they have the effect of balancing and enlivening prana within the body.
- Pratyahara: is concerned with the connection between the mind and the senses. It is mainly focused on developing the ability to control the senses and draw them within.
- Dharana: sometimes translated as 'concentration', is concerned with developing the capacity to effortlessly focus the mind and is very much a part of the meditation process.
- Dhyana: is a Sanskrit word often translated as 'meditation'. Dhyana is the sphere of transcending, of letting go, so that our attention moves from the gross, outer layers of the mind, to finer and subtler layers. It involves the mind moving towards absorption in its source.
- Samadhi: This is the field of transcendental awareness, pure consciousness or the Higher Self. Whenever we transcend thought and all sensory experience, and have the experience of Awareness awake within itself, this is Samadhi. This is to be who we really are. Samadhi literally translates as 'evenness of intellect'. When the mind has completely identified with pure consciousness permanently, this is "enlightenment" also called Nitya (eternal) Samadhi or Sahaja (natural) Samadhi.
At the heart of yoga are the meditation practices, but these involve and are supported by all of the other limbs.