Yoga can mean different things to different people, but the definition of yoga comes from its ancient Sanskrit root word “yuj” which means “yoke” or “join”. Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual practice originating in ancient India that aims to create a union between mind, body and spirit, as well as between the individual self and universal consciousness. This union allows the individual to neutralize or combat ego-driven thoughts, behaviors and speech, creating a pathway to spiritual awakening.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years and during this time many different interpretations and styles have been developed. That said, most people tend to agree that the ultimate goal of yoga is freedom from pain and suffering. Although each school or tradition of yoga has its own emphases and practices, most focus on bringing body, mind, and breath together as a way to shift energy or shift consciousness.
In today’s yoga scene, many people associate it with physical practice or asanas, which are a series of postures often sequenced in styles such as Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga, Iyengar, or Yin. Asana practices are primarily intended to build strength and endurance, while improving flexibility, balance and coordination, and ultimately to relax the body. However, the physical aspects of yoga only tell a small part of the general tradition of yoga as a whole.
These eight routes or paths are known as the “Eight Limbs of Yoga”, which offer a guide or roadmap for people who are dedicated to fully immersing themselves in creating a union between the mind, the body and mind. Each of the eight members describes a lifestyle centered on integrity, self-discipline, respect for nature, and connection with the spiritual aspects of life. Here is a brief description of these Eight Limbs:
- Yamas – Five universal, ethical and moral observances to respect (non-violence, veracity, non-theft, continence and non-covetousness)
- Niyamas – Five spiritual and self-discipline observances (cleanliness, contentment, spiritual austerities, scripture study, and submission to God)
- Asana – the physical posture, initially intended only for seated meditation, but more recently adapted to encompass all physical yoga practices
- Pranayam – breathing exercises to control the flow of prana (vital life force)
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – Point concentration
- Dhyana – Meditation
- samadhi – Liberation or blissful union with the Divine
Although modern schools of yoga such as Jivamukti, Bikram and Sivananda offer a different perspective or alternative interpretation, most yoga practices are rooted in the same philosophical and practical concepts as Patanjali’s eight limbs. Additionally, yoga can also be used as a therapeutic tool for many physical and mental conditions, and mind-body research is now showing its effectiveness as a treatment for a variety of issues, including anxiety, chronic pain, depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. , to name a few.1-4
No matter who you are, where you are, or what’s going on in your life, yoga can play a vital role in your overall health and well-being. It may have begun to respond to physical needs, emotional needs, or a deeper appreciation of your spirituality, but it doesn’t always translate to these possible benefits. Hopefully over time this can improve all of these aspects of wellness in your life, but if for some reason it doesn’t seem to be working it may be worth considering another style of yoga.
Remember that your yoga practice is unique and personal to you. As you enter your yoga (asana) practice, I strongly recommend that you follow these steps to ensure that you allow each pose to serve your body, instead of letting outside expectations dictate an unattainable standard or “goal”. :
- Ask yourself: what bothers you about this pose? For example: Where are there tensions? Is my body compressed in this pose? Can I breathe deeper in this pose for a deeper stretch?
- Always be curious and discern what you box control and what is beyond your control.
- Create your intention around self-discovery in your practice.
- The overarching goal of your yoga practice should be rooted in celebrating your unique anatomy with curiosity and compassion…AND NOTHING ELSE!
More than anything, be compassionate. It’s important not to beat yourself up when comparing your practice to other people because we should all know that “comparison is a thief of joy”. So don’t take the joy and wonder out of your practice by focusing on what someone else may be able to do on their yoga mat. Everyone has a different skeletal makeup, different muscles and connective tissues, and stories that brought them to that particular moment in time. Your body is the only one like it, so embrace it and find yourself where you are, every day, when you step onto this mat.