What is Yoga?
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
Is Yoga a religion?
In the traditional yoga sutras text, ‘yoga’ means union and ‘sutra’ means thread. Simply put, ‘Yoga’ means union of the parts of ourselves, which were never divided in the first place. Yoga literally means to yoke, from the foot yuj, which means to join; it is the same as the absorption in the state of samadhi. Sutra means thread, and this thread, or multiple threads weave a tapestry of insight and direct experience.
Therefore, the practice of yoga can be considered both an art and a science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation. In short it is about making balance and creating equanimity so as to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole.
Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual a person can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they round out their understanding. In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows:
1. Yama : Universal morality
2. Niyama : Personal observances
3. Asanas : Body postures
4. Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
5. Pratyahara : Control of the senses
6. Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine
The first two limbs that Patanjali describes are the fundamental ethical precepts called yamas, and the niyamas. These can also be looked at as universal morality and personal observances. Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given on how we should deal with people around us and our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is yama, how we relate to ourselves inwardly is niyama. Both are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and to ourselves.
The yamas are broken down into five “wise characteristics.” Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, “they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful.”
Yoga Philosophy and Everyday Living
Is Yoga a religious practice with an affinity to Hinduism?
How can Yoga be applied to everyday living?
After having gone through the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra on the eight limbs of yoga, I reflected on these and how they may relate to my belief (Catholicism) and way of life. Many people out there still perceive yoga as a religious practice related to Hinduism and they generally ‘disapprove’ of yoga. I remember asking a friend to join me for a yoga class and he responded that he was “Christian” and that it was not appropriate to do yoga for him (and his family). Yoga is often linked to Hinduism because it originated from India and the founders tend to make comparison with Hindu beliefs but Yoga is definitely not a religion.
I always kept an open mind when reviewing the 8 limbs of the so-called Yoga Sutras and I look upon these as a philosophy – a way of life – not so much a religion or belief. In comparing the yamas and niyamas to my Catholic belief, these are very similar to the ‘ten commandments’ in the Christian faith. In my opinion, all religion that teaches good are similar and perhaps, there’s only one God or Divine, in whichever form or name that he/ she is known by. Yoga philosophy takes this one more step further in encouraging us to be more aware of our bodies and to keep healthy and fit, both in mind and body. Pratyahara, dharana and dhyana are vehicles and tools to help us relax and find peace within ourselves. And, finally, Samadhi is like finding oneself.
Yes, the sutras talked about past lives, karmas and reincarnations, and many Christians feel that this is not right, but I tend to differ. There is no concrete sentence in the bible to indicate that past lives do not exist. It just highlights the fact that all Christians should follow the ten commandments, follow God’s will and eventually aim to go to heaven at the time of death. What about those who did not make it to Heaven and those who are banished to Hell or somewhere in between (purgatory, perhaps) – what happens to their souls? Finally I reckon that going to heaven in the Christian faith is equivalent to achieving Samadhi in the Yoga sutras that is the state of the Divine.
All religions teach one to be good and do good – to be pure in heart and mind. Applying the yoga philosophy of the eight limbs to everyday life, I become more conscious of my own thinking and behavior, and even perspectives in life. Most importantly, I have become even more composed, calm and relaxed; and I find that I am able to think even more clearly and logically than before.
I hope that everyone will eventually find inner peace and calmness and discover your true self.
What is Yoga?