Yoga is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “union”. It is the practice of learning to unify the body, mind and consciousness so we can realize lasting happiness. Our habitual thoughts create patterns which shape our reality. Yoga allows us to reformat our ways of thinking so we can get rid of unhealthy thoughts or relationships that are inhibiting us from leading a happy, balanced and healthy life.
Yoga comes from ancient culture in India. It was handed down as an oral tradition until 500BC when an Indian philosopher named Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. This famous text outlines the path of yoga as eight steps (or ashtanga in Sanskrit).
These eight steps are translated below with the Sanskrit words in parentheses:
- How you treat others (yama). What goes around comes around so be mindful of your actions (karma). In particular you should: behave in a non-violent manner (ahimsa); be truthful and don’t lie (satya); not steal (asteya); control your sexual desires (bramacharya); and not be greedy (aparigraha).
- How you treat yourself (niyama). You should be: clean and pure (saucha); content (santosha); simple and austere (tapas); a student of the ancient texts (svadhyaya); and acknowledging of a greater power (Ishvar-Pranidhana)
- Postures (asana). Asana, has erroneously become synonymous with “yoga” in the west and has morphed from a handful of seated cross-legged postures into a potpourri of acrobatic contortions! Originally, the goal of asana was to prepare the body for meditation by making it physically strong and mentally stable to sit for long periods of time. This was done by “purifying” the energetic channels in the body via generation of internal heat, then directing and containing the heat using internal locks (bandhas). Since every person is unique, yoga was traditionally taught one-on-one to ensure the student progressed at an appropriate pace.
- Life-force or breath control (pranayama). Yogis believe that the mind follows the breath so if you can control your breath, you can control your mind. Have you ever been so angry you cannot speak? Or so stressed you cannot think clearly? By practicing pranayama, you can learn to use the breath to synchronize the body with mind, gaining clarity, calmness and focus.
- Sense withdrawal (pratyahara). Our mind is constantly being distracted by external stimuli. Bombarded with advertisements, we are manipulated into thinking wealth and pleasure are the source of true happiness. By practicing pratyahara, we can become independent of these external influences and develop an understanding of the happiness that lies within. A qualified yoga teacher can give you specific practices, but a simple experiment to try on your own is to abstain from watching television for a month — observe the changes you experience over the course of that month!
- Concentration (dharana). This practice helps us sharpen our senses, by steadying the mind in contemplation of the same thought for a short period of time. In today’s fast-pasted culture of multi-tasking, the practice of dharana can provide a much needed break for frazzled nerves.
- Meditation (dhyana). After you have purified the body and learned to control your thoughts and senses, you are able to see the empty spaces between all the phenomena arising in your mind. Your mind is uncluttered and flows in a single-pointed attention on emptiness.
- Contemplation, absorption, bliss, realization and the highest consciousness or truth (samadhi). Samadhi is said to arise spontaneously after extended periods of meditation. The sense of self (ego) dissolves in the object of meditation and the individual self exists in its own pure nature – love.