So what was it about yoga – both the physical practice and the philosophy, that made me put a ring on it, and commit?
I like systems. Practical, tangible, proven models.
Yoga provides exactly that. Patanjali’s eight limbs gives us this incredible practice, a process, with very doable steps.
He starts by highlighting the importance of being conscious of our ethics, our behaviour. How we treat others, and ourselves. Of course, asana is important. The physical practice is fundamental to the experience of yoga. Through asana we become stronger, clearer, and more present. But there’s no point in getting physically stronger, being able to do handstand, if we leave the studio and lose our mind at the first car that changes lanes or the barista who takes too long making your coffee. The asana opens us up to start noticing our behaviour on and off the mat.
And as we become more conscious of our behaviour, we can choose how we treat ourselves and those around us.
So Patanjali gives us some guidelines in the “yama” and “niyama” or ethical practices to use as an anchor.
- AHIMSA: Be kind, try not to hurt others, as best as you can
- SATYA: Be honest- say what you mean, mean what you say
- ASTEYA: Don’t steal, in other words – don’t take from people what they are not freely giving (including their time- because let’s face it, that is possibly everyone’s most valuable and sparse asset these days)
- BRAMACHARYA: Don’t misuse your precious energy to manipulate others. (Use it instead to create something wonderful).
- APARIGRAHA: Don’t hoard or “grasp”- try NOT to attach- to time, money, things, people, situations, relationships. Trust in the flow and generous nature of the universe. You. Will. Always. Have. Enough.
- SAUCHA: Purify the body, mind and breath – you are what you eat, you are what you think.
- SANTOSHA: Be content with exactly where you are right now – the current science around practicing gratitude daily is incredibly compelling. It is one of the most powerful practices you can do.
- TAPAS: Be disciplined! Get out of bed and on the mat when you don’t want to. Honour your word (to self and others).
- SVADHYAYA: Get to know your “self” – your patterns, triggers, so you can stop being reactive and start to drive the ship.
- ISHVARA PRANIDHANA: Surrender – accept consequences gratefully, connect to something greater than yourself – call it what you will- the universe, God, intention…feel like the world has your back.
To support all of these yama and niyama, he gives us many practices. Of course the asana practice is an incredible place to notice how our tendencies play out on the mat. We modify and control the breath in pranayama which draws our energy and attention internally. We become more be mindful, watchful and disciplined.
Through meditation, we get frightfully conscious of the patterns of our mind and we start to loosen our strong attachment and identity to thoughts. And so we start to change… It can all feel like an awful lot of very hard work for a long time. But then…over time our awareness, our concentration and our discipline deepens. With steady practice, grace steps in. It starts to feel a little easier. We move towards longer periods of peace and flow, until as Sri Bramananda Sarasvati says – it feels like, “like nothing is missing”. We are whole again.
The great news is that there are so many choices to open up the practice for anyone. You can get on the mat and move your body in asana. Or maybe you like to sit in meditation. If you’re like me, you fall in love with the ancient texts. Perhaps modifying breath in pranayama has a profound effect on you and this is your daily practice you never miss. Or you love being able to take action, so you become a karma yogi and start working with a charity you believe in. Or chanting is your thing, you never feel as connected to a sense of joy or bliss, than when you sing kirtan, so you chant your booty off every chance you get. Whatever the way in, it’s all yoga.
Let me say this – these translations are very much my understanding from the perspective of modern yogis living in this big beautiful city at this moment time. Because, I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in living in a cave up high on a mountain in India any time soon. (My four year old Gabriel would probably think that was a really cool idea until we had to leave his Lego behind and then his practice of contentment and on-attachment would likely transform into a meltdown or “no thanks Mum” depending on the day).
And fundamentally the process is experiential! Don’t listen to me, just try these practices for yourselves. I can sit here and tell you about the power of yoga. BUT… It’s not until you get your booty on the mat and you feel it for yourself. You watch your relationships change and your heart grow bigger. That…there…is the real magic.
So I get on the mat. I do my practice. And I use the battlefield on and off the mat to transform my life one practice at a time.
For me the yoga philosophy is a living, breathing thing. How it’s manifesting in my relationships with self and others. Is it making me kinder, stronger and more flexible in my mind, body and breath? Because if not, it’s just beautiful words by incredible scholars many years ago, on a page.
Rachael Coopes leads our 50-hr Yoga Teacher Training module on Embodying Philosophy and Theming.