Yoga is generally considered to be a set of physical postures; often a class to which millions of people throughout the world go to stretch this way and that. Yoga, however, is a much grander philosophy which encompasses not just physical health but mental well-being and spiritual regeneration. Yoga is often ridiculed and made fun of in today’s modern materialistic societies; it has also been revered in many of yesterday’s ancient spiritual societies.
Yoga goes back thousands and thousands of years. It is an ancient and time tested approach to physical health, mental well-being and spiritual regeneration. It is the ultimate self-care, and could be considered a requirement if not for surviving then definitely for thriving. Throughout these ages and ages, there have been many excellent teachers expounding this comprehensive view of physical health, mental well-being and spiritual regeneration which is Yoga. One such teacher was the East Indian Yoga Master Patanjali. Patanjali expounded Yoga as having eight limbs. Each limb is a practice or set of practices, some for physical health, some for mental well-being, and some for spiritual regeneration. These limbs are not hierarchical; they are systemic. That is, one does not necessarily lead to the next. All eight limbs, like the tentacles of an octopus, are independent, though connected through that ninth element of the whole octopus itself.
The language of Yoga is Sanskrit, an ancient technical and scholarly language which translates to English as ‘refined speech.’ The word Yoga itself is Sanskrit and translates to English as ‘yoke’ or ‘union.’ The terms used to label these limbs of Yoga are Sanskrit as are many terms used within the field of Yoga.
The limb, or tentacle, of postures and bodily positions, of stretching this way and that is called Asana. But, that is just one limb of Yoga. Two other limbs are called ‘Yama’ and Niyama.’ These two limbs are along the lines of guidelines for behavior which are conducive to physical health, mental well –being and spiritual regeneration. Yama is more concerned with physical behaviors and actions, such as having compassion for others or being honest in relationships whereas Niyama is more concerned with psychological behaviors and actions, i.e., thoughts and decisions, such as self-examination and self-discipline. Another fairly well known limb or tentacle, and one which is often associated with Asana, is Pranayama. Pranayama is the myriad of breathing exercises of which there are multiple dozens. It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that our life, our personal existence, is more dependent upon breath than just about anything else. One can go many weeks without food, many days without water, but no more than minutes, and more often seconds, without breath. Breath is Life. Learning to breathe properly and well has extra-ordinary benefits for both physical health and mental well-being. Coupled with Asana, which is a tremendously positive influence on the nerves, muscles, joints, glands and skeletal system, these two limbs of Yoga go a long way towards physical health and mental well-being.
The fifth through eighth limbs are concerned primarily with spiritual regeneration and can be clumped together under the umbrella of Meditation. Meditation is the process of redirecting awareness from outward to inward and then transcendence of the subject-object duality. This transcendence is a ‘melting’ of individual, dualistic consciousness into non-dual, universal wholeness. It is referred to as Samadhi and considered the fruit of Yoga. There are as many forms and styles of meditation as there are postures and positions of Asana, or breathing exercises of Pranayama.
Pratyahara is the beginning of meditation. It is the embarking upon a journey inwards, with ever increasing focus and awareness leading to the transcendence of subjectivity, and its intimate partner, objectivity. The ever deepening experience over time is called Dharana, and then Dhyana, leading to Samadhi. The path of Pratyahara to Samadhi can be lengthy; but, it is not unheard of to be instantaneous. These eight limbs of Yoga, though often believed to develop in a linear fashion from ‘first’ to ‘eighth’ is not necessarily factual. Certainly, and traditionally, linear development beginning with the proper behaviors leading to postures and breath, then to and through meditation, arriving in Samadhi, is a route taken by many. But, like the tentacles of an octopus, which do not develop in a linear fashion, but rather holistically and systemically, so too a glimpse of Samadhi, that transcendental consciousness, described, in the language of Yoga, as Sat, Chit Ananda (Truth, Consciousness, Bliss), can be the initial igniting force behind a life-long love affair with Yoga. Such a person is then described as a Yogi, or Yogini (female). Because the nature of Samadhi is often described as nectar, it is not surprising that the path of Yoga is populated with hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.
These adherents to Yoga all tend to align with various emphasis on some limb or another. Hatha Yoga tends to emphasize the Asanas and Pranayama, but would certainly not discount Yama and Niyama, or Dhyana. Those who are called to service, practice Karma Yoga, of which there are millions in every walk of life, every corner of the world, every race and creed and of both genders, while those who travel the path of knowledge are Jnana Yogis. Many a scientist is Jnana Yogi. Bhakti Yoga is all about love, surrender and devotion. Many an artist is Bhakti Yogi. Tantric Yoga is for those who have a proclivity towards the mystical and is the one which can be, and often is, most misused. Because of the potential for misuse, and injury – physically, mentally, and spiritually, in any aspect of Yoga, the Guru is not only the instructor, guide, mentor and model, but also a protector. In today’s global world, there are many mentors, models, guides and instructors to access, most all available to some degree online. Protection comes about through the most subtle and effortless acceptance of Samahdi.
Yoga, as a comprehensive educational philosophy for health and well-being , accommodates a wide variety of personalities and nationalities. It is generic like aspirin. It is some of the very best information available in the world about physical health and mental well-being, which combined together is spiritual regeneration. The information, and the spark of animating energy that gives it breath, has been available for a very long time, and will remain so far beyond the foreseeable future. It is the life breath of generations.