Yoga is not simply a physical practice. It is a way of life.
The yoga student is to study and practice all of the limbs of yoga. They’re called limbs because they grow and expand together (not one following the other). The yoga poses, asana, on the mat are only 1/8th of all of yoga… so if you think yoga is all about touching your toes or standing on your head, you’re missing out!
The limbs of yoga are ::
1 | yamas
universal moral guidelines
2 | niyamas
self purification by discipline
3 | asanas
physical poses or postures
4 | pranayama
breathing practices, or harnessing of the life force (prana)
5 | pratyahara
withdrawal of the senses, towards silence, a centering
6 | dharana
focused attention or concentration
7 | dhyana
meditation or sustained awareness
8 | samadhi
a state of super-consciousness brought about by profound meditation, in which the student becomes one with the universal spirit
All of these are not goals in and of themselves. They’re tools and techniques for uncovering and embodying the truest essence of who we are.
I like to call the first limb (the yamas) “yoga manners.” They help us move in the world with kindness and freedom.
The second limb, niyamas, offer codes for living soulfully and guide us on our choices and way of life. They are not a list of what to do or not do – rather, they remind us of our essential good nature. We are generous, calm, truthful and compassionate.
(aka, how we embody our best selves)
Saucha, meaning purity, instructs us to maintain a clean body, mind and environment. Personal hygiene is important, so take care of yourself and enjoy your daily cleansing rituals. Water symbolizes rebirth and each day is pure and new. Proper consumption of nourishment is also essential – preparing healthy and clean meals. A mind cleansed of disturbing emotions is also a component (see be kind above). Finally, your surroundings should also be clean and pleasant.
Santosa (which literally translates to contentment) is the capacity to feel fulfilled with the life that one has. We cultivate acceptance with whatever stage of we are in. We are happy to grow and learn and to try and do better. To sustain this practice, do what you can to nurture good spirits and hope. Sometimes pretending a reality can create a reality. By focusing on the elements of our live that bring us joy rather than misery, we can create more joy.
Tapas translates as ardor or burning enthusiasm. Have an active enthusiasm in all parts of your life. The bad stuff – loss and grief – is also a part of life. Try to roll with the punches and not wallow. Create a joyous momentum to carry you forward. Meet your life fully – your happiness, your sadness, your goals, your chores and your challenges. Show up.
Svadhaya requires us to be engaged learners and endlessly search for knowledge. Be curious about your world, those around you, your community, your history, our history. Also, we are to study our own strengths and weaknesses. Svadhaya literally means self-study. Be curious, but without judgment. We all have blind spots, so a gentle mentor or insightful friend can aid us in becoming aware of a limitation or redirecting behavior that hurts or disrespects others.
Isvara pranidhana means dedication to the Lord. This niyama celebrates the spiritual and recognizes that there is meaning to our lives that is greater than our selves. Silence and space is the easiest way to access that meaning, that connection to God. A practice of meditation Approach life and ourselves and others with care and attention and love. We do this in order to honor to the divine within all of creation.
Why these matter
When practicing yoga, intention matters. Our practices – the poses, the meditation, the breathing and these precepts – all aim to help us live as well as we possibly can.
These guidelines for living specifically enable us to deeply integrate the ancient teachings of yoga, which are still relevant today. Rather than the outward appearance of achievement or an enviable form of a pose, a true practice of yoga manifests a true experience of transformation – of the body, soul and mind.
I’ve been practicing yoga since 1994. I like to say pre-Madonna, before Madonna made it possible.
I took to it easily because I am a dancer. But as my practice evolved – as I evolved – my yoga exploded like confetti. There was so much more in there that I didn’t even know existed. Those other pieces, the full expression of yoga practice, changed everything for me. It transformed me, and it can transform you too.