What is Yoga?
Yoga is a science of health and spirituality that originated many thousands of years ago in India. The ancient yogis sought to harmonize the body, mind and soul in an effort to achieve health, long life, and ultimately, enlightenment. Thus, the Sanskrit word yoga means union with or to join. This union with the divine is achieved through the disciplined practice of specific exercises, meditation and breath work.
Yoga is essentially a lifestyle, dealing with all the aspects of our being. The physical postures, or asanas that are widely perceived as yoga, are just one aspect of a very profound science of life. The Eight Limbs of Yoga, articulated by C.E. Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, describe the eight aspects of a yogic lifestyle. These aspects guide the yogi on a path self-development to harmonize the body, mind and spirit and attain enlightenment.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The first limb, yama, focuses on one’s behavior in the world and attitude towards those around him or her. The five yamas are: ahimsa or nonviolence, satya or truthfulness, asteya or non-stealing, bramacharya or non-lust, aparigraha or non-possessiveness.
The second limb, niyama, refers to one’s behavior and attitude towards oneself. There are five niyamas: sauca or cleanliness, santosha or contentment, tapas or austerity, svadhyaya or study of the sacred text and of oneself, and isvarapranidhama or living with an awareness of the divine.
Asanas or physical poses are the third limb. Asanas are designed to bring strength, vitality and relaxation to every bodily system.
Pranayama, or breathing exercises, encompass the fourth limb. Through disciplined regulation of the breath-the duration of inhalation, retention and exhalation, one strengthens and cleanses the nervous system. The result is increased life-force and a calmer mind.
The fifth limb is prathayara or withdrawal of the senses. One’s focus goes inward, losing awareness of what is going on outside of oneself.
Dharana, or concentration is the sixth limb. One trains the mind to focus without distractions.
Dhyana, or meditation is the seventh limb. In meditation one practices constant observation of the mind, stilling the mind in order to heighten one’s awareness and oneness with the universe.
The final limb, the ultimate goal of yoga, is samadhi or enlightenment. It is the achievement of oneness with the universe in which one experiences a state of peace, utter contentment and completion.
Yoga as it was designed and practices by the ancient yogis encompasses all these aspects of the self and of life. It is a spiritual path and a lifestyle meant to lead the student towards health, self-knowledge, and union with the divine.