Updated: Apr 1
Yoga seems to be everywhere these days, everyone’s doing it! But why? Is it all just for the gram? What actually is yoga and why has it become so popular?
The word yoga means to yoke or to bring together. Yoga is not just physical exercise, it’s a practice in exercising our body and mind - bringing them together into one. You’re probably thinking, well that’s silly because aren’t they already connected? Like my body is me, my mind is me, it’s all just me? Hmm not really, how often do you complete a physical task and your mind totally wonders off? I.e driving, how many times have you driven home from work and totally just been on autopilot? You get home and don’t even remember how you got there. How often do we really think about the health of our mind in relationship to our body? When our mind is healthy, clean and in good shape, we’re able to focus on and enjoy the present moment, our spirits are lifted and we seem to vibrate at a higher frequency.
We all know exercise produces endorphins, endorphins make you happy, and happy people just don't shoot their husbands, they just don't! So then what’s the difference between exercising like lifting weights or a HIIT Class and yoga? Why does yoga claim to be the one that “yokes” together your body, mind and spirit. Doesn’t all exercise do this? Yes, to an extent all forms of exercise can also act as forms of mindfulness or meditation. They require you to focus your attention on a single point, action or outcome as you push yourself through mental boundaries and periods of intensity for the purpose of self improvement. Modern yoga, as we know it today, has evolved over thousands of years from an ancient Indian practice and philosophy that investigates the science of the mind and how to master it. Whoa heavy hey! The teachings were passed down from teacher to student and notes were recorded in little threads of Sanskrit text called sutras. These sutras are like a non religious guide on how to discover your true self, while living a happy and healthy life, free from pain and suffering. The sutras are estimated to be written somewhere between 5000 B.C to 300 A.D. Huh, so all those years ago people were already discovering ways to end emotional pain and suffering? You mean it’s not a new world problem? While the practice has and continues to evolve to fit our modern world, it is still deeply rooted in its ancient philosophy, even though you may not notice, in your hour of power heated vinyasa class.
There are actually 8 “limbs” or sections to yoga, performing any number of these is considered as yoga. Most of us are familiar with the yoga asanas which are the poses that are practised in class. The asanas are kinda like the “gateway drug” to a full yoga practice. This is because the asanas are physical, tactile, logical and are a great form of exercise with obvious outcomes and benefits. Where as the other “limbs” of yoga are a bit more subtle, philosophical and at times very esoteric. Yoga asana is probably the aspect of yoga that has evolved the most over the last thousand years and become the most prominent aspect to modern yoga. You see, Asana was originally almost like a side hustle. The poses were created to help yogis become strong and supple and prepare the body to sit in meditation for long periods of time. It also aids digestion, bloating and cleanses the body so it can be pure and light for meditation. Asanas (poses) have many great benefits to your muscles, bones, organs and nervous system. They are also a great way to build strength, flexibility and endurance in a way that is kinder to your body.
So what are the other limbs or yoga you ask? Good question! Next let’s talk about pranayama, which you may have heard of before as it’s usually the one that’s introduced after asana. The word prana translates to “life force” so pranayama means controlling our life force or also referred to as breath work because if you think about it, breathing is what keeps us alive, it really is our life force. There are lots of different forms of pranayama, it can involve slowing down and counting your inhalation and exhalation, retaining breath for short periods of time, single nostril breathing or using different techniques to heat or cool your body. But why do we want to control our breath? Our breathing can control our nervous system, slowing down your breath accesses your parasympathetic nervous system putting your body into rest and digest mode. This is where your body gets a chance to do its housekeeping and maintenance. The ability to focus attention on our breath is another technique used to calm and discipline the mind. Once we have mastered this we're able to train our mind for the more refined practices of yoga or meditation.
Now the next three limbs are where it starts to get very focused on meditation and a bit more esoteric. They are Pratyahara; which can be translated as sense withdrawal/harnessing of senses or drawing the sense inward to create more internal attention and reduce distraction. Dharana; effortful concentration - putting effort into concentrating by returning or binding your concentration on a particular object or action. Dhyana; effortless concentration - ease of steady and unwavering concentration or awareness of the present moment i.e meditation. Then you have reached the final limb, Samadhi; which means enlightenment - the moment when we realise our true selves and are completely at peace. This is a pretty heavy topic, so we’ll talk about this another time. Oh and the first two are the Yamas and Niyamas, which together makeup a sort of “10 commandment” type moral guidelines for participating in life and society. They contain things like; don’t steal, don’t harm, cleanliness as well as ideas such as self study. These guidelines are there to help us build kind, pure thoughts and to navigate through life in an empathetic and caring manner so that when we come to sit down in meditation we’re not holding onto all these negative thoughts and emotions. But again we will dive deeper into this another time. Also just a reminder that these are philosophical teachings that have been translated from Sanskrit. There are different ways to interpret, understand or view them. The interpretations above and how I explained them is the most simple and digestible way for me to grasp the sutras, I hope it made sense for you.
So as you can see, the physical part of asana is really just one small clog in the wheel of yoga. Like most people, I didn’t know much about these 8 limbs or the philosophy that this practice evolved from but I was already hooked. You see, without us even realising it’s sprinkled all throughout our regular yoga practice in subtle ways.
In class the teacher might incorporate a bit of breath work and it could be something as simple as just asking you to pay attention to your breath. They will also always end the practice with a 5 minute savasana where you lie still in a meditation. Hands up if the savasana is your favourite part of class? Uhuh, I know right! If you walked into a class straight from work and had to lie still for 5 minutes you probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Your 55 minutes of asana which drew your concentration and focus inward, is what enables you to lie in that beautiful peaceful savasana. Then the teacher might close class by saying something beautiful like “The light that shines in me, recognises and honours the light that shines in you, Namastay”, and your like YESSS! There is a light that shines in me! So there you are, just a few examples of how the other 8 limbs of yoga have influenced your one hour of vinyasa flow.
By living and practising these philosophies, teachers are able to cultivate the inspiring space for us to practice and the nurturing community that is often found at a yoga studio. Now not all teachers and studios are the same, you might come across a studio or teacher who personifies their interpretation of what it means to be a “yogi” and completely dwells in the realm of chakra alignment and charging crystals under the full moon. Or you might find one that focuses strongly on the physical aspects, both of these are great, there are many different styles of yoga and there is no right or wrong way to participate in it. Someone might only do a few poses a week but meditate regularly while living through the values of the Yamas and Niyamas, this person still has a very advanced yoga practice.
It can take time to find a practice, teacher and studio that resonates with you and what that may be for one person might be totally different for another. So if you’re kinda like, nup I don’t get it, yoga shmoga, I encourage you to shop around a little more and find a practice that fits you. I’m not saying that you should drop all other forms of exercise and just yoga. I don’t think one form of exercise is the most beneficial for anyone, but personally speaking I have benefited from my yoga practice more than any other form of exercise. Its helped me build strength, agility and flexibility in my body and my mind, creating a healthy vehicle to support me through life. This is what I think makes yoga so special and has made it such a popular form of exercise. It’s a very valuable tool to have during this journey, battle, war, adventure or whatever you want to call life.