A few weeks ago, on a Sunday in June, the international community held an observance called “International Yoga Day”. A first of its kind, it was an initiative that attempted to highlight the health and relaxation benefits of performing Yoga as a daily physicalpractice. Whatever the physical benefits of any Hatha Yoga practice, when performed under the tutelage of a ‘qualified’ teacher may be, we are here to go a bit beyond physicality and physics…
In his book, “Light on Life” (amazon link), one of the most widely known and respected Yoga Masters of the west, BKS Iyengar, delineates the greater benefits of Yoga. Iyengar’s thesis, arrived at through diligent practice over many decades, is that the mental and emotional benefits of Yoga follow from the physical benefits. For those of us who are considering adding a daily Yoga practice to our toolbox, this is welcome news indeed! But wait. There is more. If there are physical, mental and emotional gains to be derived, can spiritual benefits be far behind?
The aspect of Yoga that is of equal, if not greater importance to the spiritual aspirant, is delineated by the Indian sage, Patanjali. In his treatise called the “Yoga Sutras”, his definition of Yoga is simple and succint:
Yoga is the cessation of the mind stuff ~ Patanjali
Keeping this definition in mind (no pun intended!), we can immediately see the spiritual benefits of Yoga practice. So, one may view the physics and physicality of hatha Yoga as the skin, the outer layer of Yoga. The multiple layers that reside underneath the outer skin, are uncovered through an eight-step practice. Each step of the practice requires greater commitment from the practitioner, and builds on the gains of the previous step. These eight steps are:
- yama ~ practice of a universal code
- niyama ~ practice of a personal code
- asana ~ body postures (this is the well-known hatha Yoga)
- pranayama ~ breathing exercise, discovering the life force
- pratyahara ~ understanding the emotions and senses, and what controls them
- dharana ~ developing the power of concentration
- dhyana ~ one interpretation is the practice of meditation
- samadhi ~ perfect union, becoming yoked, or in Yoga with the divine
At first read, the above list may appear daunting. Some may assert that it is not exhaustive. However, it can provide a framework for those who may be looking for one, and can bring some clarity to the diverse practices that are given the tag of #Yoga. As we scan the list from step 1 to step 8, we may be able to identify the steps which need more work than others. For example may be already attempting dhyana (step 7, meditation), and wondering why it is not working for us like we thought it would. The answer(s) may lie in the preceding steps. Maybe we haven’t quite yet learnt the nature of breath, or our emotions are running wild as we try to concentrate!
Needless to say, it is way beyond my ability, and time and space does not permit, to talk about all the intricacies of Yoga in this short post. There are many, many qualified teachers and masters who can explain Yoga to those who would like to learn. My intent for this short post was to provide a spark and introduce you to the (for me) life-affirming works of Iyengar and Patanjali. The ocean of Yoga is vast and deep ~ we can sit on the shore and watch the waves, wade into the water and get a bit wet, get on our surfboard and skim the waves, or do a deep dive.
The ocean is patient. It will wait for us with her gifts…
P.S. We will make an attempt to touch on some aspects of Yoga in our weekly #SpiritChat on twitter on Sunday, July 12th at 9amET/1pmUTC. I will bring some questions, and some tea. I invite all of you to bring some cookies to share. Come join us!