Yoga can mean different things to different people, but the definition of Yoga comes from its ancient Sanskrit root word “yuj” which means “to yoke” or “to join”. Yoga is a physical and mental practice that aims at creating a union between the mind and body. This union allows one to overcome ego-driven thoughts and behaviors, as well as speech, and creates a pathway towards spiritual awakening.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands upon thousands of years. Throughout this time, many styles and interpretations have been created. Despite this, most people agree that yoga has the ultimate goal to relieve suffering and pain. Although every tradition and school of yoga is different, the majority of yoga practices and schools focus on bringing together mind, body, and breath in order to alter energy and shift consciousness.
In today’s yoga scene, many people associate it with the physical practice or the asana’s, which are a series of postures often sequenced together in styles such as Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, Iyengar, or Yin. Asanas are meant to increase strength and stamina, as well as improve flexibility, balance and coordination. They also help to relax the body. However, yoga’s physical aspects only represent a small portion of the overall tradition.
These eight roads or paths are known as the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’, which offers a guide or roadmap to individuals who are dedicated to fully immersing themselves into creating a union between the mind, body, and spirit. Each of these Eight Limbs represents a way to live that is centered on integrity, self discipline, respect for nature, and connection with the spiritual side of life. Here’s a brief description:
- Yamas – Five universal, ethical and moral observances to live by (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-covetousness)
- Niyamas – Five spiritual and self-discipline observances (cleanliness, contentment, spiritual austerities, study of scriptures and surrender to God)
- Asana – physical posture, originally intended only for seated meditation, but more recently adapted to encompass all physical yoga practices
- Pranayama – breathing exercises to control the flow of prana (vital life force)
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – Single pointed concentration
- Dhyana – Meditation
- Samadhi – Liberation or blissful union with the Divine
Although modern schools of yoga such as Jivamukti, Bikram and Sivananda offer a different perspective or an alternative interpretation, most yoga practices are rooted in the same philosophical concepts and practices as Patanjali’s Eight Limbs. Yoga can also be used to treat many mental and physical conditions. Mind-body research has shown that yoga is effective in treating anxiety, chronic pain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.1-4
Yoga can be a part of your overall health and well-being, no matter who you are or where you live. It may have started to address physical needs, emotional needs, or for a deeper appreciation of your spirituality, but it doesn’t always result in those possible benefits. Hopefully over time it can improve all of these aspects of wellness in your life, but if for some reason it doesn’t seem to be working, it may be helpful to consider a different style of yoga.
Your yoga practice is unique and individual. When entering your yoga (asana) practice, I highly recommend you follow these steps to be sure you’re allowing each pose to serve your body, instead of letting outside expectations dictate some unattainable norm or “goal”:
- Ask yourself, “What is stopping you from achieving this pose?” For example, where is the tension? Is my body tight in this pose? For a deeper stretch, can I breathe deeper into the pose?
- Be curious and try to discern between the things you are interested in. can control and what is beyond your control.
- Set your intention for self-discovery in the practice.
- The overarching goal for your yoga practice should be rooted in celebrating your unique anatomy with curiosity and self-compassion…AND NOTHING ELSE!
Be compassionate. It’s important to not beat yourself up when comparing your practice to other people because, we should all know that “comparison is the thief of joy”. So, don’t take the joy and wonder out of your practice by focusing on what someone else may be able to do on their yoga mat. Everybody is unique. They have different bones, muscles, connective tissues, and histories. Your body is the only one like it, so embrace it and meet yourself where you are, every single day, when you get on that mat.