Yoga Philosophy in a Nutshell

By Elaine Ee

Coming across yoga philosophy for the first time can be a little bewildering. For the uninitiated, yoga philosophy can feel like an abstract universe of esoteric concepts with unpronounceable Sanskrit names. Yet it can be made straightforward and concrete. Here are five key ideas to get you going.

#1: Don’t forget the other 7 limbs of yoga
Yoga is not just about getting into postures like a pretzel. In fact, Asana practice—which how the modern world defines yoga—is only one component of one path of yoga.

Before this gets too confusing—let’s start with what yoga is. Yoga means union—of body, mind and spirit. There are four paths to this union: Karma yoga, which put simply means doing deeds without any intention (or expectation); Bhakti yoga, which is a devotional form of yoga; Jnana yoga, which is acute self-reflection and the study of philosophy; and Raja yoga—also known as Ashtanga yoga, which is the control of the mind.

Practice of Asanas is one part, or limb, of Raja yoga, and there are seven other limbs. Without sounding like a laundry list, the seven, in this order, are: Yamas and Niyamas (living a ethical, pure life), Pranayama (controlling the life force), Pratyahara (detachment from the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and, the final stage, Samadhi (attainment of a super state of consciousness). Asanas is the third of the eight limbs, and means holding steady poses to still the body, to in turn still the mind.

Only when all eight limbs are viewed together is a yoga practice whole. So take your practice beyond the classroom, and into your life and live the eight limbs.

#2: Prana is the master teacher
In most yoga classes, the instructor will ask the students to do Pranayama—the fourth limb of yoga—which most will understand as breathing exercises. But what is ‘prana’ exactly? It’s more than just inhaling and exhaling oxygen and carbon dioxide—it is the life force, the vital energy that courses through your mind and body, that keeps you ticking and allows you to be balanced and in control. A similar concept exists in Traditional Chinese Medicine, known as ‘qi.’ Like ‘qi,’ prana is the fuel that keeps your engine running, and just like high-grade fuel helps a car perform at an optimal level, prana in a good state helps you function at your best—physically healthy, mentally alert but calm, engaged but at peace, active yet still.

Pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, is the best way to harness and control the prana. Breathing can help prana rise or cool down, remove blockages, and bring about physical, mental and emotional healing. During yoga practice, Pranayama is what sustains your Asanas, centres you and helps you go further and deeper into your practice. So the next time you are in class, and the teacher says ‘breath,’ remember there’s a whole lot more to it.

#3: Karma is unfinished business
The term ‘karma’ has been used a lot. It is commonly understood to mean ‘destiny’ or ‘retribution’ and is described in terms of ‘good karma’ and ‘bad karma.’ In fact, karma is something quite different.

Karma is what stems from unfulfilled desire. What this means is—in each one of us dwells very deep urges. They may be so buried embedded in our subconscious that we are not aware of them, but they shape our character and drive our thoughts, decisions and actions. They may be things like the desire for acceptance, for recognition, for security or for love. Until we let go of our basic desires, they will continue to drive us and we will continue to produce karma through our chosen deeds and their consequences—which is why karma is called ‘unfinished business.’

Fortunately, there are ways to wrap up our unfinished business, like by mastering our mind and will through the practice of Raja yoga. Taking care of unfinished business frees us from our karma and allows us to lead a higher existence—the pinnacle of which is Enlightenment.

#4: Stuck in Samsara
Because of our karma, we remain caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth. This means that even after our physical bodies die, our soul remains on this earth and enters a different form, as it continues to seek its unfulfilled desires. And that before our soul entered our body it probably already existed in someone else’s. And it will continue to do this until it lays to rest its desires.

This cycle is known as Samsara, which is often depicted as a wheel. But before you think you are going to come back as an eagle, a worm or the next Bill Gates, remember that striving for a particular form is a desire in itself. Of course you have to believe in reincarnation in order to accept this paradigm, but even if you don’t the thought that one should purify and advance one’s spiritual development already offers huge potential for one’s yoga practice and one’s life.

#5: Be Sattvic like the sun
One level of existence that is higher but not yet fully enlightened is Sattva, which means purity and knowledge. A Sattvic person is highly evolved, discerning, and spiritual, and understands the path to Enlightenment though he or she may still be seeking it themselves. It is one of three basic qualities of living things, called Gunas. The other two Gunas are Rajas and Tamas. Rajasic people do not see the truth and operate mainly at an emotional, egotistical level. Tamasic people live in darkness—they are ignorant, negative and destructive. These three Gunas are in all of us, in varying degrees at different times of our lives. Together, they form the human existence.

Ultimately we want to move beyond the human existence, beyond even Sattva, to become enlightened, free from Karma, free from Samsara.

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As you can see, yoga philosophy is not just about ideas or thought. It is a holistic way of looking at life itself, in which everything from the past, present and the future, to how you think, how you breath, what you do, is interconnected. The best way to comprehend yoga philosophy is to live it. Only then will you internalize it and will it become as natural to you as the sun rising in the East and setting in the West. Because yoga philosophy is not static words on a page, or something that a preacher says, but a living philosophy that guides you through life and to finally your highest fulfillment.