An endless journey of discovery

The mastery of yoga is a misnomer. In my view, you can never master it. It is a continuous journey by you to discover ‘you’, and the world around you.

For most yoga practitioners who seek yoga as a form of exercise, it is pretty straightforward. Practice makes perfect. But for others who look beyond it as a physical endeavour, yoga is a lot more than what it appears.

Most books and literature will define it as the ‘union of mind, body and soul’. Simple as it sound, to fully grasp the ‘union’ is not at all a smooth-sailing journey. In Ashtanga Yoga, the ‘eight limbs’ provide a guiding path and I will attempt to share my interpretation of the eight limbs here.

The first two limbs – Yama and Niyama – are known as restraints and observances respectively. To me, the former outlines what each of us can do to create a world every one wants to live in and the latter provides a guide to how we, as individuals, should lead our lives.

Every person wants to live in a world that is free of violence and war (ahimsa); where people seek and speak truth, not lies (satya); where sexual energy is moderated and directed faithfully (bramacharaya); where one does not covet (asteya); and, where desires can be differentiated from needs (aparigraha). These Yama lay the foundation of our value system and guides us in creating a beautiful world.

However, life’s a treacherous journey where hurdles and roadblocks confront you, especially when you least expect it. Niyama, or personal disciplines, guide us here. From leading a life of purity (saucha), contentment (santosha) and austerity (tapas) to inner inquiry (swadhyaya) and devoting to the study of your beliefs (ishwara pranidha), it is about better managing what life throws at you. When you are unhappy about what you don’t have, it is the best time to think about what you already possess. And if you are constantly noticing mistakes in others, it is the best time to ask yourself when you last sang praises of them.

Asana – the third limb – is the achievement of a steady, comfortable pose, such that it becomes an effortless manoeuvre. While this is the only visible manifestation of the eight limbs, it is only a means to an end – the surrender of the mind. Be it balancing, stretching, inverting or simply holding a pose, the mind often plays the contradictory role of both master and servant.  While one seeks peace, the mind still chatters, constantly unsettles, derails and distracts. The practice of Asanas leads us towards a stilling of the mind, eventually making us the true masters of our minds.

Pranayama, the fourth limb, is the mindful channelling of the breath to cultivate our vital life force (prana).  Like petrol is to a vehicle, the breath is our life force anchoring our every thought and action. We can stop eating, drinking and sleeping for days and weeks, but we cannot survive without our breath for five minutes. Learning to manage our breath is akin to watching a gymnast perform. While the routine may have activated every inch of the gymnast’s muscles, the routine remains a graceful and smooth one to an outside observer. Pranayama, when managed and practised regularly, can almost be the omnipotent natural antidote or relaxant.

Pratyahara – to withdraw your senses and turn the mind inwards. This act of inner reflection and self-inquiry, to me, is what makes you, you. It is having the highly feared ability in most people to ask yourself questions. On one hand, this fifth limb is about recognising your personal limits and innermost fears, and constantly pushing yourself to see what our mind and body can handle. On the other hand, it is also about having the courage to humbly succumb to what your mind and body cannot handle. If supta kurmasana is not happening that day, let it go. Let ego take a backseat. Self-awareness is probably the greatest gift you can present to yourself.

The next two limbs, Dharana and Dhyana, bring the yoga experience further inwards. Dharana, concentration or the internal focus of all your mental energies in one location, can be seen as an exercise towards Dhyana, or meditation. History tells us that the concentration of people, thoughts and ideas usually lead to a big event, as we remember in the Renaissance period, and most recently the Arab Spring that saw the incumbent leader Hosni Mubarak deposed in Egypt. Similar to the practice of Asana and getting to the stage whereby your breath and your physical movement becomes one, the approach towards Dhyana should eventually become effortless. You are able to channel your mental energies towards one single location internally; you settle into your state of being; your mind ceases to chatter. You are free.

Samadhi, the final limb, is what I would refer to as the union of mind, body and soul.  The body is supple and open, the mind is still, and the soul nourished. You have no fears. You are in bliss and nothing in the world can daunt you.

As elusive as the ‘union’ may sound – and some of us may not ever achieve it in our lifetime – we are after all the best judge of our personal journey towards this union. My favourite quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince – ‘It is only with the heart that one can see. What is essential is invisible to the eye.

So when you feel with every inch of your body and heart and soul that you are one with yourself, in my mind, you have, already, mastered yoga – a state of mind.