The Soul of Yoga
The name Yoga Alma translates to 'Yoga Soul' or 'The Soul of Yoga' meaning Yoga is not about the asanas (poses) and how we look doing a headstand or major backbend but it's about stripping all the layers away bringing us back to our true self which is a place of acceptance and unconditional love. Letting go of the ego and conditional ways of thinking, acting and reacting to events and feeling a sense of purity and peace to live in harmony with ourselves and all other beings.
When you hear the word ‘yoga’, what’s the first things that comes to mind? Google the word ‘yoga’ and you are bound to see a vast amount of insane looking yoga poses (generally practiced by dancers, gymnasts and people that have incredibly flexible bodies), studios, blogs, the latest yoga fashion, retreat centres, and the reasons why we should all be doing it.
Yoga is benefitting millions people worldwide however the understanding of yoga has changed immensley in the past decade and it is important for us to get back to the true nature. Yoga is NOT about how good you look in the latest tights, how far you can backward bend or how flexible you are. It's about connection, acceptance and compassion.
The teaching of Yoga is that our true nature is and comes from a place of pure love and divinity. We are infinte beings however when we falsely identify ourselves with our body, mind and external objects, this false identification makes us think we are imperfect, limited, subject to sadness, sickness, decay and death. Through meditation and Yoga many can cast off this ignorance and become aware of the true self which is pure and free of all imperfections.
Yoga is a journey to self-realization and union with all that is.
Being prepared to start: To sincerely begin the pursuit of Self-realization is a most significant step in life, when the highest goal of life is taken on as number one on your list of things to do. The first word of the Yoga Sutras is atha, which means now. This particular word for now implies a preparedness in arriving at this auspicious stage of desire and commitment towards Self-realization, the highest goal of Yoga.
Definition of Yoga: The first four sutras define Yoga, with that definition being expanded upon in the other sutras. In a systematic process of meditation, you gradually move your attention inward, through all the levels of your being, gaining mastery along the way. Eventually you come to rest in your true nature, which is beyond all of those levels. This action and the realization of this center of consciousness, is the meaning of Yoga.
The 8 limbs of Yoga explained.
Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows
This first limb refers to vows, disciplines or practices that are concerned with our interaction with the world around us.
There are five Yamas, including Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non stealing), Brahmacharya (right use of energy), and Aparigraha (non greed or non hoarding).
Positive Duties or observances
The second limb refers to duties towards ourselves, but can also be considered with our actions towards the outside world.
There are five Niyamas, including saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline or burning desire or conversely, burning of desire), svadhyaya (self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts), and isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power).
The physical aspect of yoga is the third step on the path to liberation, the word asana , means ‘seat’ - in meditation. In the yoga world today there are 100's of postures which certainly help the physical body, energetic and mind but true mastestry is a seated posture in meditation for an extended period at a time not an arm balance or crazy backbend. The only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this Asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable.
The word Prana refers to ‘energy’ or ‘life source’. It can be used to describe the very essence that keeps us alive, as well as the energy in the universe around us. Prana also often describes the breath, and by working with the way we breathe, we affect the mind in a very real way.
Pranayama can be understood as either ‘prana-yama’ which would mean ‘breath – control’ or ‘breath restraint’, or it could be understood as ‘prana-ayama’ which would translate as ‘freedom of breath’, ‘breath expansion’ or ‘breath liberation’.
The physical act of working with different breathing techniques alters the mind in a myriad of ways – we can choose calming practices like Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath) or more stimulating techniques such as Kapalabhati (shining skull cleansing breath).
Each way of breathing will change our state of being, but it’s up to us as to whether we perceive this as ‘controlling’ the way we feel or ‘freeing’ ourselves from the habitual way our mind may usually be.
Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and the second part ahara refers to anything we ‘take in’ by ourselves, such as the various sights, sounds and smells our senses take in continuously. When sitting for a formal meditation practice, this is likely to be the first thing we do when we think we’re meditating; we focus on ‘drawing in’. The practice of drawing inward may include focussing on the way we’re breathing, so this limb would relate directly to the practice of pranayama too.
The phrase ‘sense withdrawal’ could conjure up images of the ability to actually switch our senses ‘off’ through concentration, which is why this aspect of practice is often misunderstood.
Instead of actually losing the ability to hear and smell, to see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of mind so that we become so absorbed in what it is we’re focussing on, that the things outside of ourselves no longer bother us and we’re able to meditate without becoming easily distracted. Experienced practitioners may be able to translate pratyahara into every day life – being so concentrated and present to the moment at hand, that things like sensations and sounds don’t easily distract the mind.
Dharana means ‘focussed concentration’. Dha means ‘holding or maintaining’, and Ana means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. Closely linked to the previous two limbs; dharana and pratyahara are essential part of the same aspect. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all attention is put on that point of concentration, and in order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently. Tratak (candle gazing), visualisation, and focussing on the breath are all practices of dharana, and it’s this stage many of us get to when we think we’re ‘meditating’.
The seventh limb is ‘meditative absorption’ - when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation, and this is when we’re really meditating. All the things we may learn in a class, online or from a teacher are merely techniques offered to each person in order to help them settle, focus and concentrate, the actual practice of meditation is definitely not something we can actively ‘do’, rather it describes the spontaneous action of something that happens as a result of everything else.
Bliss or Enlightenment
Many of us know the word samadhi as meaning ‘bliss’ or ‘enlightenment’, and this is the final step of the journey of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. After we’ve re-organised our relationships with the outside world and our own inner world, we come to the finale of bliss.
Breaking the word in half, we see that this final stage is made up of two words; ‘sama’ meaning ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘dhi’ meaning ‘to see’. There’s a reason it’s called realisation – and it’s because reaching Samadhi is not about escapism, floating away or being abundantly joyful; it’s about realising the very life that lies in front of us.
The ability to ‘see equally’ and without disturbance from the mind, without our experience being conditioned by likes, dislikes or habits, without a need to judge or become attached to any particular aspect; that is bliss.