THE YOGA SUTRAS: a guide to yoga or the original self-help manual
What is yoga?
«Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind. Then the Seer abides in his own form» ~
Go to a yoga class and you might think (quite rightly too) that yoga is a system that helps improve physical fitness working on strength and flexibility, improves our breathing and helps us to relax the mind. But in fact yoga has a whole lot more to it.
The practice of yoga originally was meant to reduce our suffering through giving us the tools to still our racing thoughts (see above quote) and reach a state of “yoga”, or union with our self. Simply put, yoga is when we get back to a state of connection with our body, mind and soul. The best way to describe that feeling of connection is one of feeling at home within and in the world and being able to see things clearly as they are rather than our coloured perspectives.
How do we achieve this state?
And what does the physical practice we do in class have to do with it?
There are different ways to achieve the state of yoga but the 8-limbed path is one that is often taught (piecemeal) in yoga classes today. This is an ancient method laid out and explained by Patanjali, an indian sage around 400 CE (common era), in what is seen as one of the key ancient texts on the practice of yoga: the Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras is a collection of 196 Indian sūtras (aphorisms). In it, the author first explains what yoga is (see quote above), why it is desirable (it reduces suffering) and the obstacles that impede us. He then outlines and explains a practical path to achieving yoga, what he calls the 8 limbs of yoga:
Yama: ethical practices, such as non-harm (e.g. listening to your body in a class and not forcing anything).
Niyama: personal practices, such as gratitude.
Asana: postures (our main practice in a class).
Pranayama: breath control (breath work).
Pratyahara: sense withdrawal (drawing your awareness within rather than without).
Dharana: concentration (focusing on breath for example).
The Yoga Sutras are in essence an ancient self-help manual, helping people deal with their issues. Indeed ancient yogis understood early on that one of our main causes of suffering is our thoughts. Meditation is the main tool suggested by Patanjali to help us observe our thoughts and that enables us to reach through our thoughts to our very essence. But sitting in meditation is not easy if the body is stiff and weak or we are distracted by illness (hence the physical practice). Moreover, sitting in meditation is not easy if our emotions are all over the place (hence the breath work). Finally sitting in meditation is easier if we have the right attitude towards ourselves (hence the ethical and personal practices). The practice of yoga can thus be transformative: enabling us to be healthier in terms of the physical, emotional and mental and to find the spiritual within.
Sitting in formal meditation is not absolutely necessary to achieve the countless benefits of a yoga practice. When we work integrally with the body, breath and mind, we become more connected and attuned to ourselves (as well as healthier overall). Nor do we need to sit in formal meditation to experience a state of yoga. Indeed you can reach yoga for example through being thoroughly absorbed in a creative task like painting or while doing something wholeheartedly.
The path to yoga is not set in stone, each can find their own way, but a good guide (teacher, therapist or self-help book) can help along the way.
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