I dream of being a flexible yogini. To balance with poise and grace, and wrap my feet around my neck. Such strength, such self-mastery. I can’t even touch my toes! There are many kinds of yoga, but my kind involves a lot of swearing – not exactly the spirit of the thing.
Years of bad habits and bad thinking have given me sore knees and tight hamstrings. I spend too long sitting at a desk, and not in a Zen way. I want to be at peace with myself and not lose my cool. Yoga would help – if I did it more often.
Thankfully, help is at hand in the form of the International Day of Yoga. Around the world on 21st June, yogis and yoginis (and wannabes) will be settling into downward dog and smiling through the pain. But there’s more to yoga than swearing in a variety of awkward positions.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline from India which aims to transform the body and mind. Many think yoga is just another form of exercise, but the word comes from the Sanskrit yuj which means to join or unite. As Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi explains:
“Yoga… embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature.”
The point of yoga is to achieve union between the individual and the Universal Spirit, or between Atman and Brahman, or the small self and the Higher Self, or the Soul and God. The language doesn’t matter, the aim is the same in all mystical traditions and practices – to reach enlightenment.
There are four paths or schools of yoga, and each has a different approach:
- Karma Yoga – action and selfless service to others
- Jnana Yoga – wisdom and contemplation
- Bhakti Yoga – devotion, compassion and worship
- Raja Yoga – meditation and mastery of consciousness
Raja Yoga is also called Astanga and is made up of eight practices or stages, known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Each stage is equally important and were described by the Indian sage Patanjali over 2,000 years ago in his compilation of Sutras. This is a complete system of yoga that many associate with the asanas, or physical postures of yogic practice, but there’s more to it than that. Here’s a rundown of the eight limbs:
- Yama – ethical guidelines and moral restraints
- Niyama – positive behaviours and spiritual practices
- Asana – physical exercises to align body, mind and spirit
- Pranayama – breathing exercises and control
- Pratyahara – detachment and withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – deep concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – absorption in bliss and oneness
Yoga is about transforming yourself into the best version of you and balancing every aspect of your life: mind, body, emotions, work, philosophy and mysticism. Swami Vivekanada describes the union of yoga like this:
“To the worker, it is union between men and the whole of humanity; to the mystic, between his lower and Higher Self; to the lover, union between himself and the God of love; and to the philosopher, it is union of all existence. This is what is meant by Yoga.”
So the aim of yoga is to free yourself from illusion and suffering – not to touch your toes! I’ll be using the International Day of Yoga to commit to a regular practice and remind myself why I need to stop resisting reality. The asanas are less important than my attitude and intention. I’ll continue to dream of infinite flexibility and grace, but I won’t be too hard on myself when I fail to live up to my aspirations.
>More on yoga: Spiritual Glossary: Yoga
>Find out more about the International Day of Yoga