More Than Asana
Until I attended yoga teacher training, I had no clue that yoga was more than asana (yoga postures) and pranayama - often reduced to "breathing practices" - though they are more about the movement of prana or life force energy within the body.
I was awed by how much deeper the roots of yoga were and it is these very aspects of the practice that have had - and continue to have - the greatest impact on my life.
Yoga is thousands of years old. Originally an oral tradition, practitioners began to record these philosophies in books of teachings known as vedas. The vedas were written in Sanskrit, the ancient language from which all yoga terminology is derived. The word 'yoga' means "to yoke" or "union" and the limbs of yoga, taken in order (see below), lead toward union with your own true nature (Source, Spirit, The Divine, God, Life Force …) as the ultimate goal of yoga.
Historically and culturally, It is important to note that when the British overtook India, practices like yoga that included sitting on the floor and chanting were deemed "primitive" and were ridiculed and banned. However the physical aspects - asanas - were seen as beneficial calisthenics in preparing soldiers physically for the rigors of war and were extracted from the whole of yoga.
I took a wonderful training a few weeks ago with Rina Deshpande on cultural appropriation in yoga. Her words made me think about how yoga in the west has become synonymous with only the physical postures and how the other aspects are ignored. As Rina wrote in a recent article for Self magazine:
"Perhaps most damaging is how yoga asana — physical posturing in yoga — has been appropriated in its entirety by the fitness industry and mainstream media.
According to yoga Sutras (classic texts), yoga asana is just one of yoga's eight limbs. Unfortunately, it has now been glorified to the point that the very definition of yoga has been usurped. The yoga I knew from my Indian upbringing—the spiritual philosophy embedded in everyday experiences—is no longer seen as yoga. Practices in the other limbs of yoga—such as purification of body, mind, and speech, controlling human impulses, the practice of breathing to control the life force within, supporting collective humanity, and mental exercises through meditation—are often cast aside or forgotten in many forms of modern practice."
The 8 "Limbs" or "Organs" of Yoga
While there are many vedas or texts that outline yogic practices, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describes Ashtanga Yoga. Ashta means "eight" and while "Anga" is commonly defined as "limb", I much prefer "component" or "organ" such as the organs of a living, breathing body. The term "limbs" evokes an image of extensions reaching outward from a core, however "organs" indicates integrated components of a functioning whole.
Asana – physical practice of yoga (yogasana)
Pranayama – breathing practices
Yamas – interpersonal practices
Ahimsa – non-harming
Satya – honesty
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – celibacy (modernly defined as wise use of energy)
Aparigraha – non-grasping
Niyamas – intrapersonal practices
Saucha – purity, cleanliness
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – discipline
Svadhyaya – self-inquiry, self-knowledge
Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender/devotion (to the Divine/our highest Self)
Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses/turning inward
Dharana – concentration
Dhyana – uninterrupted focus
Samadhi – union with your true nature (The Divine)
We all have to choose for ourselves how we practice yoga. But what is a body without a heart, stomach, liver, lungs, brain? True mental-physical-spiritual integration requires embodiment of all of yoga - beyond only asana. Can we pick and choose the aspects we practice and can we still benefit from them even if we don't practice all of Yoga? Of course, but I think it's important - at the very least - to know there is more to yoga than our fitness-focused culture would have us believe. So very much more.
Are you ready to dive more deeply into yoga practice and philosophy? Join me for Yoga Teacher Training - visit www.somayogatraining.com.