Yoga has become a form of physical activity to work on flexibility and strength, and is often forgotten once we get off the mat. Though you do not need to be a spiritual person to practice yoga, taking time to look at the philosophy that coexists with yoga could enhance your practice, or even your day-to-day life.
The Yoga Sutra is a text of reading that lists little to nothing to do with the physical practice of yoga. This text is considered key in understanding yoga fully, and can be looked at as a guide through the 8 limbs of yoga and the philosophy behind the poses. The Yoga Sutra refers the 8 limbs of yoga, which act as guidelines to follow for a life full of meaning and purpose.
Yoga can be practiced without taking any of the following to heart, and can be overlooked if that is your intention for your practice. There is nothing wrong with using yoga as a purely physical outlet for the self. It can be interesting to learn about the rest of the limbs of yoga, and what you do with that information is up to you, and no one else.
Regardless of your spirituality, the 8 limbs of yoga can be seen as advice on life. Physical poses is only one of these eight limbs, which prompted me to dive further into learning about all the limbs. I do not know if I even loosely follow any of these guides, and I advise not casting judgment onto others or yourself based on the eight limbs of yoga.
This limb has to deal with morality and a code of ethics. Everyone has a different code of ethics they apply to their everyday lives; we all decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, based on society, law, and our own experiences and preferences.
There are 5 “yamas” expressed in the Yoga Sutra, including: Ahimsa (nonviolence), Asteya (nonstealing), Aparigraha (nongreed), Satya (honesty), and Brahmacharya (using energy correctly).
I cannot personally say I apply all of these to my life all the time, nor do I think of ethics often. When it comes to yoga classes, these yamas become useful to keep in mind. Practicing nonviolence towards ourselves is very important in yoga, we tend to want to go further in a pose than our body allows. Keeping in mind that we are where we are, and working towards better flexibility and strength safely helps to prevent injury.
Limb number two deals in duties to ourselves and those we come into contact with, whether directly or indirectly. This limb is heavily related to spirituality, and may be practiced by those who want to take their yoga in that direction.
As we had five “yamas”, we also have five “niyamas”: Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (burning of desire), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara pranidhana (surrender to a higher power).
This is the limb I would be uncomfortable with, and has little to do with my personal yoga practice. I may rely on self-study, but more so to do with observing where my poses are at and where I can take them. I worked on camel and plow pose consistently for a long time to achieve, which are almost like second nature to me now.
The physical yoga practice! This is what most classes practice, and what most students focus on. Honestly, this was the only limb to concern me when I considered doing yoga for the first time.
The fourth limb is focus on our breathing. Most, if not all yoga classes begin with focusing on ourselves and concentrating on our breathing. Flow yoga makes sure to combine the fluidity of going from pose to pose, while aligning where you are at in the pose with where your breath is.
Breath work can be a form of meditation in itself, and can be used for relaxation in times of stress. In more physical classes, I tend to focus on my breathing to take away focus from hard yoga poses or to better balance myself. It is hard to balance if you are holding your breath.
This limb is the practice of withdrawal and letting go. This is heavily used in meditation, as we begin our yoga practice we take the focus away from what is going on in our lives off the mat, and focus just on ourselves and the yoga. Sometimes, the best way to tackle our problems is to separate ourselves from them in order to gain clarity, even if it is just while we are working on arm balances.
Yoga nidra is a great sense of taking this limb into a long practice, lying down in a guided meditation as we relax. Most yoga classes I have taken involve using this limb at the beginning along with breathing techniques, and ends with absorbing our practice in corpse pose.
If the first step is letting go, then the next step is finding your focus. Pratyahara helps us escape from stress and things that distract us, so dharana is taking advantage of letting those things go and putting our concentration where it matters. Whether this is focusing on your intention for that yoga class, or a spot on the wall to avoid falling, this limb may not be as easy as it sounds.
The seventh step is meditation. The last few steps all seem deeply related: letting go, concentration, and breath work. What makes this limb different from focus is that it overtakes you without effort, and if you are too aware then you are not really doing it. I guess the best way to describe it is by being aware, but not putting too much thought into focusing on awareness.
My mind wanders so much the point that even if I wanted to, this may not be something I could ever really accomplish, except when trying to sleep.
Our last limb deals with realization and understanding. Typically synonymous with finding a state of bliss, this limb is like achieving a real sense of enlightenment about yourself and the world around you. This does not have to be in a spiritual sense, it could be using the previous limbs up through meditation to gain the understanding you needed to tackle problems with your life, or just enhance it.
The aspect I want to make perfectly clear is that you do NOT need to keep these in mind to take yoga classes. You do NOT need to be spiritual to get benefits from yoga. NO ONE can force you to do anything you are not comfortable with.
Religion is something I am not comfortable with, so words talking about spirituality and enlightenment make me want to run for the hills. That does not mean going over these limbs was a waste of time! These ideas can be used in non-religious ways to enhance your life or just your yoga practice. Do not let anyone tell you that you are doing yoga wrong for not being this deep into the practice, but it is interesting to learn about the thoughts behind the poses.
Meredith Schneider is a senior Mass Communications Public Relations major at the University of South Florida. Currently, she is interning with Green Locus Yoga, Meredith gets to combine her love for writing with her love of yoga! You can follow Meredith on Twitter.