So, you thought it was just stretching?
Those delving a little deeper into it's meaning quite quickly learn that yoga means so much more than just contorting oneself into complicated shapes during a weekly class. Ancient teachings passed down through the ages by word-of-mouth from guru to student, known as the vedas, prescribed what is known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga to achieve a perfect balance of life, or yoga. These verbal teachings or 'sutras' in the form of ancient sanskrit chants and rituals were by collected and documented by the sage Sri Patanjali thousands of years ago, sometime between 5000 BC and 300AD. It is assumed that Patanjali is a person but really, nobody knows whether it was one person or a collection of people who gathered these ancient threads of wisdom and collated them in as best an order as they were able. An ancient Pinterest of philosophical gems, if you will.
Translated, the word yoga itself means to unite not only the mind, body and breath but also the realisation of the unity between the self and the universe. The teachings of the ancient sages recognised that each person or living thing is a part of the universe and therefore the universe is part of each of us. If there is discord in the world, then there is dis-ease in each of us and vice versa.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is a list of mindful practices that allow us to strip away the layers of internal dialogue and feelings of attachment to enable us to experience enlightenment or samadhi. On achieving this state of bliss, one can know the true self, or Atman.
Yamas - the five yamas are the ways in which we deal with the outside world; other beings. But to properly observe these guidelines, we must also apply them to ourselves. How can we be kind to other people if the little voice in our head is always being mean or critical ourselves?
Niyamas - the five niyamas are concerned with how we conduct ourselves when there are no witnesses, things we know to be true or right.
Asana - the bit we know. This is the limb that western society commonly thinks of as yoga. Asana is described as Sthira Sukhamasanam (2 : 46) in Sanskrit by our friend Patanjali, and is translated as a 'comfortable, easy seat'. Not so much the complicated pretzel shapes that we admire so much on Instagram.
Pranayama - prana translates as life force, or life energy, yama translates as extension - life force extension. We commonly think of prana as being the breath but it is so much more than the breath, it's our energy or soul. Without this, there is no life; control of the breath is key in achieving a state of yoga
Pratyhara - the withdrawal of or not being involved with the physical senses so we can move onto the next limb,
Dharana - concentrating on the breath, being present in the moment ready to experience
Dhyana - a state of meditation which may lead to the experience of
Samadhi - enlightenment or bliss. The state of knowing our true self without the internal chatter of the internal dialogue or the worry of things past or to come.
So it's clear to see from having just a brief overview of the eight limbs of yoga, that it really isn't only about what happens on the mat. There's more! And it's accessible to everyone, even if you don't consider yourself physically fit. Learning and beginning to understand this gives us access to the most precious gift of yoga and of life.