What Is Yoga, And How Is This Ancient Practice Relevant In Our Modern world?
Without a doubt, yoga has become an increasingly popular form of exercise in the United States. According to a 2016 study by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, more than 36 million people in the U.S. practice some form of yoga. Typically, when we think of yoga, we are talking about the physical practice of asana. But yoga is so much more than a form of physical exercise for the body.
In the Yoga Sutras, compiled by Patanjali around the third century BC, yoga is defined as simply “the settling of the mind into silence.” How is this “settling of the mind” achieved, and what does this have to do with the physical practice of asana?
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Patanjali only mentions asana 4 times in the Yoga Sutras. In Sutra 2.29, asana is described as one of the 8 limbs of yoga, which provide the foundation for “settling the mind into silence” and finding freedom. The other 7 limbs include: the yamas (laws of life), niyamas (rules for living), pranayama (breathing exercises to facilitate the movement of the cosmic life force through the body), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (steadying of the mind), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (the settled mind). The Sutras discuss each of these limbs in detail, but for our purposes here, we will focus on asana, pranayama and meditation.
Regarding asana, Patanjali says that when we practice, “the physical postures should be steady and comfortable” (2.46), “they are mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” (2.47) and only “then we are no longer upset by the play of opposites.” (2.48) (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated by Alistair Shearer, 1982).
What does this mean? When I am on my mat, I am able to get out of my head and focus only on breath, movement and body awareness. The “play of opposites” can be thought of as the constant chatter in our minds as we navigate our existence – trying to find pleasure and happiness and move away from pain and suffering. When we engage in the physical practice of yoga fully by following our breath and listening to our bodies – finding comfort and ease in the postures, we are becoming intimately familiar with our bodies – this vehicle that carries the mind and spirit – we are getting to know ourselves. If we listen, we can learn where we are holding the trauma of past experiences in our bodies. We can release pain and find freedom. Then, we prepare our mind to be open and embrace our own Divinity.
Clearing the Nerves
B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the foremost teachers of yoga in the world and the founder of Iyengar yoga, wrote about the physical practice of yoga in his book, “Light on Life”, “The techniques of yoga give you the opportunity to capture energy from the outside as well as from the inside and to use that energy for your personal evolution. The practice of asana clears the inner channels for prana to move freely and uninterruptedly. If the nerves are corroded and blocked with stress, how can prana circulate? Asana and pranayama practice removes the partition that segregates body and mind. Together they dispel darkness and ignorance. In a sense, it is asana practice that opens the gateway to perfection. It breaks the rigidity and hardness of the inner body. This allows the unrhythmic breath to become rhythmic, deep, slow, and soothing. Then pranayama, in its turn, clears and soothes the feverish brain, making way for reason and clarity of thought and lifting the mind toward meditation.” (p. 103-104)
Limbs of Yoga
Almost the entire 3rd Yoga Sutra is dedicated to the last 3 limbs of yoga: dharana (steadiness of mind), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (the settled mind). These 3 practices together are called sanyama. According to the Sutras, “when sanyama is mastered, the light of supreme knowledge dawns.” (3.5) and “It is the heart of yoga, more intimate than the preceding limits.” (3.7) (Translation by Alistair Shearer)
The practice of steadying the mind in meditation offers so many benefits to all of us living in the modern world. We all experience suffering and stress during our lives. According to yoga, our suffering is caused by ignorance of our True Nature. Meditation offers us space to find stillness, and in that space, to let go of all the obstacles in our path that keep us from knowing our Divine True Nature.
Through asana and pranayama we first clear our bodies and minds of the tension and stress of our present world, then we are able to steady our mind, find focus and clarity and be in the present moment. In meditation, we can find peace in our chaotic world, even if only temporary, and we can experience our Divine True Nature and connectedness to all beings. Then, through continued daily practice, the temporary becomes permanent, leading to ultimate bliss.
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