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Yoga – More Than A Physical Practice

December 13, 2015

yoga2For most Westerners when the word “YOGA” is said an image of someone in a yoga pose usually comes to mind. And probably most Westerners first come to know yoga as the physical practice. That is, physically moving in and out of different yoga poses.  Yet, in reality, yoga is much more than the physical movements.

There are eight, yes eight, limbs in yoga. One of the limbs is the physical practice. They are called limbs and not steps, which is a distinction you need to know. “STEPS” are usually learned and practiced in a lateral sense.  You learn one step, once there is a degree of understanding you then move to step two, then step three, so on and so forth.

Whereas “LIMBS” usually refer to part of a whole. As a point of reference, think of your body, with the arms, hands, legs and feet. You are currently in your living room watching TV and the doorbell rings. You get up and go to the front door.  When you do this you don’t leave your left hand on the couch — you take the entire body with you. In yoga the different aspects of the practice are called limbs for a very specific reason.  They are to be practiced simultaneously.

You already know that one of the eight limbs is the physical practice – the pose itself — in Sanskrit (an ancient language) the pose is called ASANA. What are the other seven limbs in yoga?  I’m so glad you asked!

Breath (Sanskit word is Pranayama) – In yoga the breath is extremely important. When practicing the asana’s (or poses) the breath is synchronized with the movement. In most physical practices the student would breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. However, in yoga, traditionally, and when synchronizing the breath with the movement the student will breathe in and out through the nose. This can take some getting use to at first. One technique to use to help you with this concept is to keep the jaw and face completely relaxed with the mouth closed. Notice you naturelly bring the tip of the tongue to the upper palette. When practicing be aware of the tongue resting on the upper palette and you most likely will breathe in and out through the nose.

Concentration (Sanskit word is Dharana) – Another one of the limbs is Concentration. During the practice if the mind begins to wander bring the attention back to a single point. This can be an object in the room, it can be a mantra or intention set at the beginning of the practice, it can be bringing the attention back to the breath or bringing the attention to a sensation within the body. All these are forms of concentration.

Meditation (Sanskit word is Dhyana) – When we focus our minds we can find stillness within. The mind calms down, we begin to practice in the present moment and simply “BE”.

Withdrawal of Senses (Sanskrit word is Pratyahara) – In our yoga practice we begin to draw our attention inward withdrawing from all external stimuli. If you hear laughing, crying, a car screeching it’s tires, etc. you pay no attention to this. You do not engage or entertain. Instead you become captivated by the subtle internal sensations without attaching or labeling. You become a witness, the observer of your body and mind. Pratyahara gives us the opportunity to look deeply within ourself.

Observations (Sanskrit word is Yama) – There are five observations when practicing yoga: 1. Nonviolence 2. Truthfulness 3. Nonstealing 4. Continence and 5. Noncovetousness. You might be thinking, “I don’t steal”, “I am truthful”, “I’m not a violent person” and you might be thinking how can I practice this on my mat? When the yogi’s and guru’s talk about these observations it is at a more subtle level. For example, you are in class and the instructor says, “Let’s shift our weight to the left and move into dancer’s pose” … and you think, “Oh man, I hate this pose, I’m overweight, this class is for people just starting out, why is she making us go into this? It’s not fair!” … when we practice in this way it is actually a form of violence. We are not at peace with ourself, the practice or the instructor. When thoughts of this nature come up – first become aware of the thought – then step back – do not entertain or engage – simply go back to your breath or the intention you set for your practice.  This is how we practice on our mat, we first become aware… then we have a choice. The more we practice, the more we begin to notice, to observe the thoughts and the emotions.

Disciplines (Sanskrit word is Niyama) – There are five disciplines when practicing yoga: 1. Cleanliness 2. Contentment 3. Spiritual Austerities 4. Study of scriptures and how it relates to one’s Self and 5. Surrender to a Higher Power. Again you might be thinking how you can practice this on your mat. How many times do we attend a class with a specific expectation and get disappointed with the class. This is a form of practicing discontent and not surrendering. The next time you attend a class have no expectation(s) of the class, the environment, yourself or the instructor and see what happens. Simply be and trust the class will be perfect.

State of Ecstasy (Sanskrit word is Samadhi) –  Have you ever experienced this on your mat — even for a couple seconds? A feeling of profound connection to the Divine – an interconnection to all?  The experience of bliss and being one with the Universe.  When this happens we are practicing Samadhi – which is attainable when we practice all eight limbs simultaneously.

The above limbs are in no particular order… because remember they are limbs, not steps.  Each time you step on your mat you have the opportunity to INTENTIONALLY practice the eight limbs. And the more you practice on the mat guess what? Your life starts getting easier. How can this be? You see there’s one more thing to know about the eight limbs of yoga and the practice of yoga — it’s not just a physical practice on your mat — it’s a lifestyle. In fact, practicing the limbs off the mat will change your life! When circumstances happen in life that are out of your control, when you let go and surrender, not get angry, but instead breathe, instead of getting sucked into the drama you learn and practice stepping back from the situation, you begin to look at situations like an observer, you begin to trust in the Divine and be at peace in the moment with what is — that my friend is being a true yogi.

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