If you thought that yoga translates loosely into “turning oneself inside out in pretzel shapes while wearing cute rainbow clothes”, well, you might as well start putting lasagna in the vegetable category, or calling JK Rowling a housewife. Poor yoga is as badly defined as an attack poodle with zebra stripes and gills. If the original yogis heard that most people use ‘yoga’ to ‘improve their flexibility’ they would likely perform Besti-squats in their grave.
So, if you’re willing to take a little trip with me and rectify a few facts, here is the truth about yoga.
Yoga is at least 17 centuries old
The ‘Bible’ of Yoga’ was written by a sage called Patanjali. Very little is known of its author – so little in fact that historians believe he may have lived between the 5th century BEFORE Christ and the 4th century AFTER Christ. However, to make matters a bit simpler, let us assume he compiled his Yoga Sutras around the 4th century AD. The Sutras fell into obscurity for 700 years before being unearthed and widely shared by Swami Vivekananda, in the 19th century. You will recognize the word “Sutra”, presumably, which means ‘a rule or aphorism in Sanskrit literature, or a set of these on a technical subject’.
There are 196 Sutras in Patanjali’s book, of which ONLY TWO describe what most people think about ‘yoga’ – i.e., pretzel poses. Yoga, as defined by Patanjali, is a group of 8 mental, spiritual and physical practices.
Note: Buddhists (and the Buddha himself) are very fond of lists. Buddhism is a system and is keen on establishing an intellectually sound roadmap by establishing categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-sub-categories. You will find a pleasantly organized set of instructions in most areas of yoga.
Getting to know Yoga : The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The Yamas and Niyamas are a bit like the 10 Commandments :
- The Yamas – The 5 Moral Restraints : are ethical rules that deal with one’s behavior toward others;
Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint and non-avarice.
- The Niyama are a set of virtuous habits – The 5 Observances : for one’s self; purity and clearness of speech mind and body, contentment and optimism, perseverance and austerity, study of self and contemplation of the divine
- The third limb of Yoga – at last! : is ‘Asana’, which literally mean ‘sitting down’. THIS is what most people call ‘Yoga’. They are postures of the body – with the involvement of the mind and spirit – that aim to create strength, flexibility, balance and focus. ‘Asana’ is usually part of the name of each pose, like Virasana (hero pose) or Padmasana (lotus pose). Interestingly, a posture that causes pain or restlessness is not a yogic posture. The number of recommended asanas can go up to the hundreds, but can also be as low as twelve…
- Pranayama : the practice of regulating one’s breaths.
- Pratyahara : a practice of removing one’s focus from the external world and bringing it toward the inside.
- Dharana : the capacity to keep one’s mind on a single object or thought. The goal is single-pointed focus. It is a state of mind.
- Dhyana : non-judgmental, non-presumptuous contemplation. It is closely linked to Dharana, but it is a process. Pratyahara, Dharana and especially Dhyana constitute meditation.
- And finally, Samadhi : a state of oneness with the whole. Here, one reaches enlightenment.
This is the goal of yoga – not a toned butt or a gentle work-out.
So in the end, Yoga is not just about being flexible!
Yoga is a demanding system of self-improvement and purification. Some of it is physical, but that is literally only 1/100th of the whole. Meditation, kindness, generosity, study, honesty, discipline and so much more constitute the whole picture.
The question is now – how do you feel about this? Does ‘yoga’ now appeal to you more or less? Did you just discover you may be a little bit of a yogi, even if your abs are flabby?
If you wish to learn more about ‘asanas’ we strongly recommend you find a good class near you. As for meditation, Pause is right there to assist you on your path…