Yoga (article courtesy of my friend and yoga teacher Amanda Brown)

Yoga : or union with the soul is popularly thought of as either a series of deep breathing exercises or, perhaps a rather strange set of holding postures.  However, there is a lot more to it than that.  Although Yoga is not a religion itself it is sometimes referred to as the art of living based on the science of living, and can enhance sincerely held religious beliefs.  There is certainly no incompatibility between the basic principles of yoga and those of the main religious doctrines.  

In the textbooks it is variously described as a philosophy, an art, a healing therapy or an ancient classical science dealing with the search for and union with the soul.  It is all of these.  About 2000 years ago an Indian sage named Patanjali, wrote a treatise on yoga which had been practiced for many hundreds of years with no formal written texts.  In this treatise Patanjali defined yoga practice as stilling the fluctuations of consciousness, sometimes more simply interpreted as thought control, and set out the foundation and philosophy of Astanga yoga, the eight limbs of yoga, to achieve this aim.

These eight limbs of yoga comprise the following:

First Limb containing the 5 Yamas (Universal Ethical Principals)
Ahimsa (Non harm) Harmlessness towards oneself and others: "careless speech, gossip and unkind thought are among the commonest ways in which we harm each other" (1).  But more than this ahimsa requires the conscious cultivation of positive qualities such as: patience, calmness, compassion, reasonability and respect for self, others and the environment.
Satya (Truth) Truthfulness: "develop an attitude of truthfulness by recognising and accepting the state of things and circumstances as they are and work with what is" (2).  Beware of exaggeration, heresay or "holding and opinion without studying the facts" (3).
Asteya (Non stealing) From the obvious stealing of money or possessions, to the subtle, i.e. "stealing another's time, emotions, attention or ideas.  The main reasons for people stealing is insecurity, selfishness, greed, poverty consciousness and desperation" (4).  
Brahma charya  Restraining the senses: "Remember happiness or pleasure is not in the objects you desire but within your own Self (soul nature)" (5).  A new pair of Gucci shoes probably won't make you happy for any length of time, but peace, a clear conscience and deeper sense of purpose in life probably will.  "Artificial values stemming from acquisitiveness and self interest lead to an alienation from the spiritual purpose" (6).
Apari graha Non-covetousness: "If people took only what they needed instead of what they greeded there would be enough for everyone" (7).  Something to ponder in while shopping.

Second Limb containing the 5 Niyamas (Principals of individual behaviour)
Saucha Cleanliness: The practice of asanas helps to tone the body and remove the impurities and toxins that are built up.  "But more important than the cleansing of the body is the cleansing of the mind of disturbing emotions, such as: passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride" (8).
Santosha Contentment: "There is contentment and tranquility when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire" (9).  Learn to be still within, the mind's natural state is to be calm and crystal clear; uncluttered with desire and attachment.  Many of the yoga techniques will bring about a state of calm and objectivity, which help create inner harmony and content.
Tapas Austerity or self discipline.  Regular, precise asana practice, steady diaphragmatic breathing and calmness are all aspects of tapas.
Svadhaya Self study: "Self awareness begins with you here and now, in this moment, in every moment of life" (10).  Svadhaya is also a reference to studying one's thoughts, actions, feelings and motives to remove the obstacles to self realisation.
Isvara prani dhana Literally means: "Surrender to the Lord: One way of looking at this is to think in terms of surrender to the higher being within the soul or spirit.  In Yogi philosophy the inner being is called Atman and is seen as a spark of the greater divine being called Brahman.

Third Limb
Asanas (Yoga postures) "Asanas are an integral part of yoga.  They are not mere physical exercises as they involve both psychological as well as physiological processes.  They are linked to all the other aspects of yoga, rooted in ethics and ending in spirituality" (11).  There are said to be some 840,000 positions and variations corresponding to the full potential of human movement.

Fourth Limb
Prana yama Pranayama is the practice of yoga breathing techniques that deal with the flow of prana.

Fifth Limb
Pratya hara Control of the senses and withdrawal into the inner world.

Sixth Limb
Dharana concentration of the mind.

Seventh Limb
Dhyana Meditation.

Eighth Limb
Samadhi Absorption in the infinite.  Samadhi can be defined as the culmination of yoga practice.  According to Iyengar and Sturgess, it is a state of truth and bliss, rarely attained, which is divided into a number of levels of spiritual evolution.

NB: There are literally hundreds of yoga philosophy books and the above notes are simple extracts to give a flavor of the subject.

Practical Tips for those practicing yoga (12)

*  There is no need to push beyond what one is happy to do, there are no prizes to be won and no points to be scored for performance.  Yoga is more of a healing tool than a sport.

*  Loose clothing should be worn and at least two hours allowed to elapse after eating a meal.

*  During menstruation it is advisable to practice only cooling postures, no inverted nor overly strenuous postures should be performed.

*  As a general rule do not hold breath during postures, deepen and lengthen the breath.

*  Remember: rhythm and release whilst working in the postures.  Use the out breath to extend the posture not exaggerated force of muscle.

*  To get real and constant benefits half and hour's daily practice is highly recommended followed by a period of relaxation.


Sources:
 
1).  The Application of Yoga in Daily Life - Ianthe H Hoskins
 2).  The Yoga Book - Stephen Sturgess
 3).  The Application of Yoga to Daily Life - Ianthe H Hoskins
 4).  The Yoga Book - Stephen Sturgess
 5).  ditto
 6).  Yoga the Iyengar Way - Silva Mira & Shyam Mehta
 7).  Mahatma Ghandhi
 8).  The illustrated Light on Yoga - BKS Iyengar
 9).  ditto
10). The Yoga Book - Stephen Sturgess
11). Yoga the Iyengar Way - Mehta
12). Acu Yoga - MR Gach and the Yoga Book - Stephen Sturgess


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