We've all heard of yoga before but hopefully you aren't as fuzzy about what it is or have preconceptions that I have had for years on what yoga actually encompasses. I believed for a long time that yoga was some exercise in which you twisted your body into some impossible pretzel and couldn't understand how this could be considered meditation or even comfortable!
In all actuality, yoga is based on far more then flexibility. It's designed to get the body under control but can extend to be a lifestyle, an ethical paradigm and a technique for meditation.
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word, yui meaning to yoke or to join together. It's a 5000 year old method of mind-body health leading to "self-actualization". There are many paths or methods in yoga including Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Raja Yoga.
Yoga was first described by Pantanjali, an Indian sage somewhere between 200 B.C.E. and 400 C.E.. His book of aphorisms, called the "Yoga Sutras" described an eightfold path for mind-body mastery that included rules for living, exercises, breathing techniques, concentration techniques, meditation, and philosophy that was to lead to enlightenment. This book has largely defined the modern practice of yoga as we know it today.
Pantanjali's rules for living, called yamas (the do's) and niyamas (the don'ts) gave practitioners a framework for facilitating a meditation practice by giving them a life more in tune with natural laws and behavior that was the most conductive to enlightenment. The Yamas are five yoga abstinences or forms of disciplines that are ment to purify the body and mind. The Niyamas are five yoga observances or personal discliplines. Together these create Dharma which translates as "duty" or "ethics". Dharma is that which upholds and sustains but also exists apart from humans, as opposed to a moreal code of ethics that humans created.
The concept of Dharma, at least according to yogic thought, is variously translated but you could call it the universal tendency to move toward the positive/good. The universe is fueled by it, the world is moved by it and people can chose to live by it or ignore it. When or if you chose to live in it, certain actions and ways of thinking will clearly and definitively be right or good while others will clearly and difinitively be wrong or bad. The concept is that if you live in dharma, you accumulate good karma. You will know what is right and what is wrong that goes beyond having that good or bad consciousness aka Jimney cricket's little voice in your ear. The problem with dharma is that it's not easy, and guess what? It's not designed to be easy or we would all be living in dharma. It requires a lot of effort and discipline but luckily, those that have lived before us have left us with some guidelines to help make it a little easier.
Karma is a concept in regards to universal balance. Every action, every single thought will be balanced by an opposite action or thought somewhere out in that vast universe. Every thing you do, every action you take, every thought you think has a ripple effect and will come back to you. It's not ment to be a type of revenge or to "get what you deserve" as much as a universal balancing act.
Some of us like rules for they give us some frame work with in which to work and others of us hate rules because they limit us. One thing Pantanjali's rules for living did was to give us a guide with which to discipline ourselves. We could cruise through life and its speed bumps willy nilly at our own speed but in comparison to driving, rules of the road ensure that we travel as safely as possible, not only for ourselves but for others as well. Imagine driving with no traffic rules and no road signs to warn us of whats next. Imagine no stop signs, no rules for which side of the road to drive on on who has the right of way and you can imagine what a dangerous mess we would have.
When Pantanjali designed his "Eightfold Path" as a guideline for living, he recorded it as a type of recipe for enlightenment or self-realization. You are able to work all the points of his path or one at a time working at your own pace to graduate towards greater happiness in your life and soul progression. It might also be helpful to keep in mind that while working one thread or path at a time, with each added thread, you have an entertwinded rope. With each added thread, you add strength and greater stability.
Step #1 in the Eightfold Path, The Yamas are as follows:
Ahimsa which translates to mean "do no harm" and is all about avoiding violence not only in your actions, but also in your words and even your thoughts. This means not only controlling your temper and not harming people but can include avoiding negative thoughts about others and about yourself. The idea of vegetarianism stems from this yoga as many yogis consider the killing of an animal to eat to be wrong and is accordance with murder of a sacred form of life as an act of violence.
Satya translates to mean no lies and is all about truthfulness. It's not only about big lies but also about little lies like calling in sick when you aren't sick and wanted to go hang out at the mall instead. Truthfulness is a strong point of personal integrity and upstanding character.
Asteya translates into the refusal to steal, quite simply, don't take what is not yours whether its an idea, credit for something you didn't do, a million dollars or downloading pirated material off the internet.
Brahmacharya is about controlling your sexual desire and expanding on that idea is the desire or the lust for anything else. The idea of enlightenment is to let go of things that we become obsessed on, those things bind and limit us including situations that control us.
Aparigrshs is an extension of the last yama in that it means to learn to live without greed and to only make due with what you have, not more or in excess. Greed manifests in many ways from monopolizing conversations and situations to jealousy and dissatisifaction with your place in this world.
Step #2 in the Eightfold Path, Yoga Niyamas are as follows:
Saucha translates to mean purity and is actualized with the practice of all 5 of the yamas. The abstinences are ment to clean the negative physical and mental states of being. Purity should be not only in mind and body but extend to environment such as bathing, keeping a clean space, eating fresh healthy, unprocessed foods, etc.. Meditation and mindfulness are valuable resources to lead you toward the direction of having pure thoughts and actions.
Santosha means finding happiness with who you are and what you do. This doesn't mean you can't work on your self, work for a better job, work on health and diet or more productive relationships. It simply means to evaluate the obstacles blocking your path as opportunities and taking responsibility for your life and actions.
Tapas is all about discipline in our actions, our health, our life. Discipline can be seen sometimes as taking up rituals in our lives for our betterment and sticking to a regimen like exercise, eating right, meditation, even practice in energy movement and the basics in psi. Discipline also means to carry out the rigours daily like controlling our temper and emotions, completing daily chores on a timely basis, even something as mundane as brushing your teeth. It's not meant to be easy but the more we do it, the easier all the other yamas and niyamas become.
Svadbyaya is about paying attention to many things like who you are, what you do, how you think and feel, what you believe. It's about thinking why certain actions are ingrained in us and why we react without thinking. It's about re-evaluating our beliefs to find out if they are good and strong as compared to being there because we are told to. This niyama is about maintaining a study of sacred texts of different religions and practices to inspire and teach us. In other words, never stop learning and growing in life.
Ishvara-pranidhana is about placing our focus on the divine, in what ever form this means to you. It doesn't mean you have to be a religious devotee although that can be one interpretation. It means to let go of ego and focus on the self to your highest ideal. This niyama can simply mean to look at devotion to nature, the soul, and the process of life in general.
Step #3, Asana involves body control. The Asana are the postures of yoga that people generally think of when speaking of yoga. These are not only exercises or stretches but you learn from this step control of body so it remains steady and comfortable. When you are flexible, strong and feeling great, then its less likely that your body gets in the way when trying to meditate. Asana translates to the pose of sitting or keeping the body still. All the other postures are part of Hatha Yoga for the most part.
Step #4, Pranayama is known as breath control. Prana is a word, like chi and ki that means life force. This life force flows not only through us, but in all living things as well as inanimate things like rocks through the entire universe. It is considered pure energy and the only way to fill yourself with it is to breathe. Pranayama practice works to change the mind. If you think about it, the breath relates directly to your mind, often our state of mind is directly linked to the quality of energy we have. As the mind changes, so does the prana or energy. Working with pranayama exercises influences not only the mind but also the prana within you and the flow of energy becomes increasingly more plentiful but also flows more freely, with less obstructions. Both the breath and the mind are needed to use the prana to effect a positive change in the body.
Step #5 is Pratyhara or detachment. It means to learn to shut off the senses and to be able to let go of the external distractions in order to meditate. The aim in meditation is inner focus but in order to do this, we have to temporarily learn to shut off the senses to limit the data input to the brain. It's a lot like learning sensory deprivation because even in an empty room, you might hear neighbors fighting, feel the pangs of hunger, maybe a misquito bite is itching. All these annoying little distractions make meditation difficult until you can learn to withdraw the senses.
Step #6 in the Eightfold Path is Dharana or the practice of concentration. Concentration, unfortunately, doesn't come automatically. It requires lots of practice. Some meditation techniques involve concentrating on one thing such as an object, candle flame, a mandala, a sound or mantra or even a single thought. The aim is to concentrate until you can eliminate the separation of the thing, whether it be candle flame, sound or thought and yourself to see that you and the object are one. Dharana is the technique of orienting your mind toward a single point.
Step #7 is called Dhyana and is the actual practice of meditation. So far up to this point, you have cultivated the practices of controlling your body and breath, learning to detach the senses and concentration. This has made the way for meditation in making it easier and more productive. At this stage, you are moving beyond all that stuff into actual self-realization and the union between yourself and the world around you. All the steps before this can be meditations in themselves, but at this stage in the game, when everything else falls away, the distractions, the attachments and ego, what you have left is called Samadhi or pure being.
The last step in the Eightfold Path, Samadhi, is about pure consciousness or bliss, also called nirvana which was considered by Pantanjali to be the final and ultimate experience of meditation. One thing to consider is that this step is not impossible, its about the journey, not the destination!