It is impossible to say when or where yoga started. It exists back in shadowy pre-recorded history and was, for the most part, handed down from one teacher to one student through face to face practices, not spiritual or historical texts, and not in holy books.
But we do know something of what the earliest yogis were doing and looking for, what, in essence, yoga is: it is a set of proven, tested, accessible practices for bringing our bodies and minds to their fullest capacity and to ease human suffering. Yoga is a path of liberation and souls on fire. It is a path, if you will, of deep healing and soul work. But it is more than identifying or ‘fixing’ what is wrong; it is also a means to find life beautiful, meaningful, and profound.
Those practices are not strictly physical, no matter how athletic the word ‘yoga’ has become in our culture. Yogis realized that a ‘soul awake’ was a soul unfettered by fear and interpersonal conflict; living a good life involves not only a strong and properly functioning body but a deep sense of purpose and meaning, connectedness to others, right relationship with the world. While we spend a lot of time talking about ‘balance’, ‘strength’, and ‘flexibility’ in our practice, we might catch glimpses of the fact that we’re not speaking of the physical body, only. The physical is a mirror and truth teller of the interpersonal, the deeply personal, and the spirit. Don’t underestimate the value of being balanced, strong, and flexible: these are the means to sift through the false to hit on what is true and meaningful.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the path is called Ashtanga Yoga (ashta, eight and anga, limb). The Yoga Sutra is the oldest extant text on yoga practice and philosophy, but it is understood to be a compilation or summation of practices that were already ancient when Patanjali wrote them down.
Some say the eight limbs are like a ladder one can climb toward enlightenment. Some say that traditionally, a student would spend years mastering the first two limbs – ethics and personal observances – before he’d be ‘ready’ to begin a physical practice. There is some truth to the idea that the limbs are progressive, as step; a student truly integrates the physical asanas only once the elements of ethics and personal practices have been glimpsed. Many point out that the word asana, which we generally translate to ‘yoga pose’ or ‘yoga posture’ literally translates to ‘seat’, as in the seat one takes to meditate. The point of each and every pose was to prepare the body and open it to a meditative experience.
But no spiritual path has a beginning or an end so much as it does aspects or variations on major themes, like verses and chorus of a song. Or the inhaling and exhaling of the breath, the rising and setting of the sun. The process is organic, rhythmic, and cyclical.
Truly, one can enter anywhere.
One day, a student approached me after her very first class. She called it amazing. Life changing.
I believe that it is. And I believe that she had touched and experienced many of the 8 limbs in a single class, although she wouldn’t have any reason to know that’s what she was doing or that these things have Sanskrit names, each with thousands of exercises and practices and theories attached to it.
She simply felt it. She felt the effects of expanding and opening her body, compressing the glands in asana; she felt the immediate, energizing effect of rapid abdominal breathing and the calming, grounding effects of slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths (pranayama); when she focused her attention on the breath in our centering meditations, she is withdrawing her mind from external stimulation (pratyahara); when I guide her to use a mantra or listen to her breathing during the holding of a pose, she is concentrating (dharana). During the holding, if she follows her intuitive sense and my cues to stay in touch with the sensations happening in her body, her mind is absorbed and she is meditating (dhyana); there may be times during the holding or releasing of a posture when she touches on, glimpses, or is washed with the deeply healing state known as samadhi.
Interestingly enough, Patanjali starts not with promises or should and oughts. There is no description of god or the meaning of life, no attempt to make you believe anything at all. He starts, instead, by listing the ways human beings suffer and the mental/emotional/physical ramifications or symptoms of that suffering. Yoga, he says, is the calming of sufferings.
We touch on the experience of yoga without having to know the whole philosophical system or intending to re-wire our brain or balance our pancreas. Those things just happen. That student may or may not have understood that yoga is a prescription, a positive how-to list, in the treatment of anxieties and depressions and physical diseases, a path toward whole. It is a systematic and proven process. Yet it is enough to simply experience and know you feel better for days after a practice, and that’s maybe all any of us need.
But knowing the limbs exist invites us to a new depth of the practice, a way to circle around and around again until we hit revelation. And then start over again, because there is more revelation. It is a path, a prescription, that has been followed by billions of people; we can trust their experience. We are given good directions and a ladder to grab on to, if not to climb. Ladders, things to grab on to, are sometimes hard to find in our shiftless, startling world.
Over and over again, spiritual paths and spiritual truths will teach a humbling reality: it isn’t a thing you understand or philosophize about; it’s a thing you must do.
The path of yoga begins in acknowledging reality: this being human is difficult. Like the Buddhist first noble truth (Life is Suffering) it could be seen as a bitter pill, a hard way to look at life. It is. But that isn’t the point. The point is that revolution is possible. There are ways out of suffering. It is entirely possible to approach your own potential and fulfillment. A purposeful, deep and richly nuanced life is both the goal and the path yoga takes us down to reach that goal. Yoga is perhaps unique in that it doesn’t start with the origins of the universe, the ends of the world, or explaining human relatedness to the divine. There is little point, yoga says, in trying to wrap our faulty minds around things that are larger than those faulty minds. There is power in the here and now, in unraveling illusions and abstractions to the solid abiding ground beneath.
The First Limb: Yamas
The heart of yoga is ethical. It recognizes the absolute truth of interrelation, connection, and disconnection. We are hardwired to desire understanding, compassion, forgiveness, love, and laughter, as well as a sense of justice. Most, if not all, of our pains in life come from misunderstanding our self and our connection. Most suffering is an experience of being alone, unworthy, separate, as though we are viewing life through a window and cannot touch or hear or live as we suspect others do, or we ourselves should.
Yoga seeks to lay down palpable ways to disentangle ourselves from a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, shame, anger, and greed. To reveal the false self for the true.
The word yama translates to restraint. There is an element to ‘self-control’ or moderating our own desires and motives to a bigger picture, and in many ways this is hard to swallow.
But it is a way to be more happy, more free, and more in touch with our core. They invoke a self that is confidant, unafraid, with depth of character and inner resources. They way we behave in our relationships – and our ability to change our behaviors to act in accordance with compassion and regard – is ultimately a self-loving and self-enlarging thing to do. As we change our behaviors and ethics, our souls are able to be more at ease. Imagine what it would be like to walk through the world without shame.
The Yamas are five:
Ahimsa: non harming
Satya: truthfulness and non-lying
Asteya: nonstealing, not craving or keeping what does not belong to you
Bramacharya: chastity or continence, usually sexual or interrelational
Aparigraha: greedlessness, non-hording
The Second Limb: Niyamas
If the first limb concerns our relationships to others and to world, the second limb is usually seen as indicative of our relationship to our self. It involves our private practices, our solitude, our self regard and self mastery. Each of the niyamas can be an endless practice (or diagnostic, or exploration) on its own. Each can be taken very strictly and literally, or endlessly unfurl into sublte layers of meaning and intention. For example, shauca, purity, is all fine and well as an abstract concept. But it becomes a lived thing if one actually decides to practice making one’s bed every day. The idea is so simple as to be laughable. But the smallest practices tend to have enormous effect on our experience moment by moment, and the tiny pepples add up to gravel that becomes a road that lead to an altogether different life.
Shauca: purity (of body, of mind)
Santosha: contentment with oneself and one’s life exactly as it is in this moment, including self acceptance
Tapas: austerity, fire, heat or zeal
Svadhyaya: self study
Ishvara-pradnidhana: surrender to the Whole, Real, God, or the It-Is.
The Third Limb: Asana
This is what most of us today tend to think of when we think of yoga; those series of postures that stretch, heal, invigorate and remodel our physical selves. They are both a science and an art. It is astounding how profound the study of the body can be, and how western medicine continues to realize the limitations and misconceptions we’ve had for centuries about what this being human, this human body, means.
The physical postures are one branch of an eight limbed path (similar and related to the Buddhist 8 fold path); further, while the physical practices do increase health, improve immunity, foster longevity and allow, with practice, a heightened sense of be-ing and moving in the world, the aim was not some kind of Olympic athleticism. The aim was wholeness. A purely physical path is not whole.
Although it is a way to begin.
A yoga teacher friend and I were chatting, and he talked for a long time about his other job as a psychotherapist. In particular, he talked about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the practice of learning to identify thoughts and feelings rather than be reactive to them, the power of knowing one’s own mind (and it’s false beliefs or cruelty to the self and others). He spoke of how our emotional or cognitive set of patterns deeply affects our physical bodies. This isn’t new. It’s science. The way we think changes both our immediate biochemical reality and has the power to literally form or deform our physical tissues. The body, he said, is attentive to every thought the brain has.
Yes, I said. But the brain is also very attentive to the body.
The secret is you can work both ways. You can enter, anywhere.
The Fourth Limb: Pranayama
restraint or training of the breath. Yogis recognized that the breath is both a root source of our being-aliveness and a easy way to observe and participate in that aliveness. They learned the experiential reality that an awareness of and participation in the breath can influence our health, energy levels, and mood in ways that nutrition, exercise, and cognitive thought simply cannot do.
The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara
withdrawal of the senses. Looking within, sensitivity to internal processes and patterns, finding the inner witness. In a world where we constantly look without for answers and direction, where we identify ourselves as the objects and events of our lives, pratyahara is a radical practice. It teaches the root truth of how impermanent objects and events are, and how an over identification with them leads to pain. It also reveals a level of constancy, depth, and unchanging in the midst of chaos. We are conditioned beings, and often react rather than respond to ourselves and our world. We have brains that categorize, evaluate, and judge. The practices of pratyahara teach us to step away from judgement and rest in a place that is beyond judgement and can see whole pictures, as opposed to dualities of black and white, good or bad. With time, withdrawal of the senses leads to increased discretion, discernment, and compassion. It is a heart of equanimity. We become able to respond, rather than react. Our beings become like the depth of the ocean, rather than the surface of ripples and waves.
The Sixth Limb: Dharana
Intense focus, building of concentration and discernment; the ability to think and see clearly, to heighten one’s powers of thought and cognitive ability, free us from all the layers of misperception and avidya (blindness). It is interesting that many people think of yoga and meditative or mystic traditions as turning off the mind, when the truth is the practices aim for clarity of mind and right thinking and seeing. Science is showing in remarkable ways that yoga actually works to change or improve our intelligence; areas of the brain we typically use or do not use actually change with eight weeks of a regular practice; ability to access ‘subconscious’ levels of intuition, insight, memory and self awareness increase. Study after study shows that a yoga practice improves school and work performance.
The Seventh Limb: Dhyana
Related to the ability to focus and concentrate is the state of Dhyana, or meditation. We could say that meditation is a deeper level of concentration, but that might lead to judgements of better or worse. Instead, Dhyana implies a different way of being, not a better one. Again, science is proving that contemplative states and mindful movements actually result in changed brain waves and cause restorative, rejuvenating processes to happen across the body and mind that are in some ways more profound than REM sleep. The mysterious ‘gray matter’ of our brains lights up with all sorts of things we can’t identify, yet. Theta brain waves – unconscious, according to our western science – are increased. Areas of the brain connected to empathy and compassion flare up and stay more active for days after a practice, and long term meditators seem to have access to this state more quickly, more profoundly, and more frequently. The hemispheres of the brain increase their communication, balancing our analytic and creative selves, our introversion and extroversion urges, our states of creativity and experiences of ease all increase.
The Eighth Limb: Samadhi
state of oneness or bliss. We may have touched on moments in our life in which we felt ourselves absolutely alive and deeply connected or in tune with the universe. Science calls it peak performance or the flow state. It might be stumbled upon in the most mundane of activities or cultivated through practice. It’s heart is a genuine recognition of ‘okayness’ and even more than okayness; an understanding or affinity for beauty, power, the order of the cosmos. A friend describes his first experience of samadhi in the summer of his junior college year, when most of his peers were away and he was engaged to paint and upkeep a professor’s home. The long, repetitive, rhythmic days spent alone in the sunshine, touched by the sounds and the schedules of birds and insects, drifting on the sensations of sun on his skin, summer grasses in his breath, and long periods of uninterrupted, moony thought peaked in a sense of aliveness that was both cognitive and physical. Call it epiphany. It is what Einstein chased after in his long hours of solitude drifting in a little sailboat. What Beethoven heard – even though he was stone deaf – as he composed his 9th symphony. It is very nearly an experience of feeling ourselves more than we typically do – the human animal or soul in all its beauty. Many experience it as a connection to god. But it may also be a connection to an infant or a puppy or a sunset. This state, according to yoga, is the ground of who we are. It is true and trustworthy. It is a recognition of oneness and a moment of living beyond fear.