When most of us hear the word yoga, we visualize super bendy, gooey-muscled gurus and impossible contorted poses. If we know a little more, we may think of relaxation or centering and strengthening. While it’s true that yoga can be all of these things, just 5 or 10 minutes of daily yoga can relax both body and mind, releasing tension that accumulates in the muscles, and pacifying an overworked brain. In actuality, yoga is so much more.
The term “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word for unification, as in to “yoke” or connect. Yoga was originally intended to describe a complete physical, emotional, mental and spiritual practice that linked of these four aspects of being. Historically, this connection was solidified by activities that consisted of 8 fundamental elements which, when they were exercised regularly and consciously, were said to support and promote a joyful and actualized life through moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline. This eightfold path, called Ashtanga – which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb) – directs our minds toward our health and well-being, while helping us acknowledge all aspects of our nature and the nature of others.
1. Ethical standards
This first limb encompasses our ethical standards and integrity with regard to our behavior to ourselves, others and situations in life. These universal practices and teachings can be summarized best by what we know as the Golden Rules of “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you.” The five ethical standards that determine Yoga’s moral and ethical code, are:
Living peacefully without engaging in violence
Exercising self-control and restraint
Neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth
2. Spiritual disciplines
This second limb further discusses self-discipline and also has to do with spiritual observances including meditation, regularly attending temple or church services, and taking solitary reflective walks.
There are five spiritual disciplines to practice for spiritual health and well being:
Contentment with what you have and how life is at this very moment
Keeping our bodies fit through regular, vigorous exercise to literally burn up and cleanse it of those desires that stand in the way of leading a spiritual life
Spiritual study and self-examination
Surrender to God (This is more about recognizing that we are small in the scheme of life and knowing that there is or are a higher power(s) that is (are) in charge of the universe and what occurs throughout it—rather than worshiping a biblical supernatural being.)
3. Physical postures
According to yogic precepts, the body is the sacred vessel that carries the spirit. Taking care of the body is essential for spiritual growth. Practicing the physical postures of yoga helps us to develop the discipline, strength and concentration that are essential to meditation. In more modern scientific terms, holding the body in certain positions facilitates, improves and modifies the flow of electrical energy through the muscles and connective tissue.
4. Mental postures
As physical postures tone and energize the body, it is also necessary to tone and energize the mind. This stage consists of yoga breathing techniques that are designed to control our life force, cleanse our lungs, oxygenate our blood and purify our nerves, while clearing the mind of negative emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride.
5. Looking Within
While we live in an external reality, effective living requires periodically turning our thoughts and awareness away from our outer stimuli and placing our attention internally. Through self-examination and withdrawal from the sensual world, we can better observe our cravings and bad habits that may be interfering with our spiritual growth.
This stage encompasses further honing our powers of concentration. After relieving ourselves of outside distractions by looking within, we are better prepared to deal with our own active minds, loaded down with cares, distractions and desires. To help slow down our thoughts, concentration has us place our awareness on a single thought, a specific energy center in the body, or the silent repetition of a sound. In this manner we turn our attentions away from the external world and inward, focusing our mind on a single point.
Meditation comprises the seventh stage of Ashtanga. Meditation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration and meditation may seem like they are the same things, as in, if you are doing the former, then you are doing the latter, they are actually different practices. Concentration involves focusing on one point, while meditation is the act of being aware, yet having a quiet mind with few or no thoughts at all. Though this is a challenging state to achieve, regular practice will always bring progress.
This final stage of Ashtanga is the reward for faithfully practicing the other 7 limbs; it is a state of peace and enlightenment that brings about feelings of being at one with the universe and connected to all living things.