As a teacher of yoga, I often am on the receiving end of the question “How can I get better at yoga?”
This question generally comes from a yogi or yogini who has been doing yoga for a short time…and whom is interested mainly in the practice of the physical poses (asanas) of yoga. While the asanas are beneficial in so many ways, purifying, strengthening and improving flexibility…essentially, taking care of the physical self (the container in which we live out our lives on this earth), they are not the most important aspects of a yoga practice. These questions, then opens the door for a teaching about the finer points of this ancient tradition!
Many, many years ago (no one knows exactly when – but the estimate is about 2,500 AD) a sage called Patanjali collected what he had learned from his guru (teacher) and wrote it down for all of us who practice today. He called this collection “The Yoga Sutras.”
There are 196 sutras – pearls – of wisdom – divided into 4 chapters. Ways in which to control the workings of the human mind, which is believed to be the cause of all suffering. Much has been written, taught and passed on about these teachings.
In one of the main sutras, Patanjali explains that liberation/freedom (which is the main goal of yoga) – freedom from the mind – can be cultivated and obtained by practicing what he called the Eight-Fold Path of Yoga.
These eight steps are as follows:
Yamas "yama," originally meant "bridle" or "rein." Patanjali used it to describe a restraint that we willingly and joyfully place on ourselves to focus our efforts, the way a rein allows a rider to guide his horse in the direction he would like to go. In this sense, self-restraint can be a positive force in our lives, the necessary self-discipline that allows us to head toward the fulfillment of our dharma, or life purpose.
The 5 Yamas are: Ahimsa - non-violence
Satya - non-lying
Asteya - non-stealing
Brahmacharya - moderation
Aparigrapha – not coveting that which is not ours
The Yamas are oriented toward our public behavior and allow us to coexist harmoniously with others.
Niyamas "niyama" means "observance," and these practices extend the ethical guidelines provided in the first limb, the yamas. While "yama" is usually translated as "restraint," and the yamas outline actions and attitudes we ought to avoid, the niyamas describe actions and attitudes that we should cultivate to overcome the illusion of separation and the suffering it causes. The 5 Niyamas are: Saucha - purity
Santosa – contentment
Tapas - austerity
Svadhyaya - self-study
Ishvara pranidhana - devotion to the Lord.
The other 6 steps to freedom are:
Asana – the physical postures of yoga
Pranayama – control/redirection of the breath
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses from the external
world to the inner one
Dharana – interrupted focus of mind
Dyhana – uninterrupted, steady stream of mind
Samadhi – Freedom/Connection with Divine Source.
Self-actualization. Pure awareness.
Let’s take a little closer look at the important Yamas called Svadhyaya – self study. Yoga teaches that all humans are here on earth to fulfill a purpose (Dharma). And it is up to us to figure out what that purpose is, and then to go about the job. Essentially, svadhyaya is about self-knowledge…knowing who you are beyond what you do for a living, what kind of foods you like or dislike, or what music is pleasing to your ears. The quiet poses of yoga, and meditation, give us an opportunity to practice being alone and to discover the truth.
We are sometimes face-to-face with imperfections – things we do not like about ourselves. This is the first step in transformation. Little by little, our practice on the mat brings us closer to knowing. So, then, there are many many ways to ‘go deeper’ in yoga….! There is so much to learn and study.
The way is inside. The last stage, the ultimate sage, Samdhi is not attainable by any external means. Freedom has always been available…it’s simply masked behind the trappings of our lives and our own (often false) beliefs about ourselves.
“Before we can find peace among nations, we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being.” B.K.S. Iyengar