If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you’ve probably heard your teachers mention Patanjali and the Yoga Sutra (YS). Perhaps you’ve wondered exactly who Patanjali is, what’s this book he wrote, and what’s a sutra? All good questions, and ones which may not always be addressed in the limited time span of an asana class.
Surprisingly little is known about the great Indian sage Patanjali, considering he wrote one of the most influential works of yoga philosophy. There is debate over who he was and when he lived. It is generaally believed that he wrote the YS at least 1,700 years ago.
The Yoga Sutra comprises 185 sutras (an Indian term for aphorism, or words of wisdom) that collectively delineate and clarify the discipline of classical yoga.
In the second of four chapters, he describes the eightfold path, or ashtanga (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight limbs are intended as guidelines for living a life with meaning and purpose. They may be seen as a kind of map for seekers of greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
Most yoga classes in the West focus predominantly on the development and honing of asana (posture) technique. However, asana is just one of the eight limbs described in the YS.
The eight limbs are:
1. Yama – universal ethical practices
a. Ahimsa – nonviolence, love, compassion for all
b. Satya – truthfulness
c. Asteya – non-stealing, generosity
d. Brahmacharya – balance and moderation of the live force
e. Aparigraha – greedlessness, awareness of abundance
2. Niyama – personal lifestyle observances
a. Saucha – cleanliness, purity, simplicity
b. Santosha – contentment
c. Tapas – heat, spiritual austerities
d. Svadhyaya – study of the Divine through scripture, nature, and self-reflection
e. Isvara Pranidhana – surrender to the Divine
3. Asana – posture
4. Pranayama – breath control, enhancement and guidance of prana (the vital life force)
5. Pratyahara – sensory withdrawal
6. Dharana – concentration, gathering of consciousness inward
7. Dhyana – meditation, uninterrupted flow of consciousness inward
8. Samadhi – enlightenment, union with Divine consciousness
It’s possible to derive great benefit from asana practice without ever paying attention to the other seven steps on the eightfold path. But if you do choose to dig deeper and explore the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, your practice (and, consequently, your life) can be so much richer, fuller, and ultimately more gratifying.
Moving Forward with Intention
The turning of the seasons, the autumnal equinox, is nearly upon us. As we prepare for the transition from summer to fall, it’s the perfect moment to pause…to slow down…to stop and observe. This moment is a chance to notice what the past few months have wrought, and to contemplate what seeds we will sow for the months ahead.
This pause is akin to the time we devote at the beginning of a yoga class to set an intention, or sankalpah, for our practice. Sankalpah is a Sanskrit term for will or determination. When we set a sankalpah, we are choosing to move beyond the physical aspects of the practice and imbue our efforts with meaning and purpose.
What we choose need not be complicated or verbose. It might be an idea, a concept, even simply a word that signifies something we wish to cultivate in our lives: peace, love, health, honesty, truth, gratitude, relaxation, mindfulness, compassion, kindness, strength.
This brief moment of consciously and deliberately slowing down marks the transition from the external and often scattered attention of our daily life to the inward, steady focus of our practice. It prepares us to move forward with purpose and dedication.
It also serves as an anchor to what is truly important to us amidst the inevitable distractions and meanderings of the mind. When we get lost in thought, or the mind wanders, or we come up against frustration and annoyance, we can return to our intention as a reminder of why we are here on our mats practicing yoga. Our sankalpah propels us back to the present moment with direction and focus.
This practice of contemplating and choosing one’s sankalpah is just as useful off the mat as on. Before embarking upon the final few months of the year, perhaps set aside some time to pause. Take as little or as much time as you like – a few minutes, an hour, a day – to put aside the phone, email, computer, television, Facebook, Twitter, and any other distractions. Turn inward; observe; contemplate what you’d like your focus to be for this day, this week, this month. Having taken this time to choose your intention, you can move forward with stability, clarity, and inner strength.
The Sacred Sounds and Gestures of Yoga
It was approximately 5,000 years ago that yoga first emerged in India. While the yoga that we come together to practice today has evolved and changed considerably over these many years, its roots are embedded in the Vedic traditions of India (check out this illuminating article by Mark Singleton on the evolution of yoga asana).
Due to this ancient heritage, many of the words, gestures, and rituals presented in a typical yoga class may at first seem mysterious and strange. Often a class will open and close with the chanting of Om. As class ends, teacher and students usually seal their practice with a bow and the word namaste. What exactly do these sounds and gestures mean and why do we use them?
Mantras are sacred chants that come in all shapes, sizes, and sounds. Om is considered to be the root mantra from which all other mantras emerge. It is also believed to be the primordial sound of the universe, the cosmic vibration that contains all other sounds.
While it looks like just one simple syllable, Om actually consists of three sounds:
- A (pronounced “ah”)
- U (pronounced “ooh”)
- M (pronounced “umm”)
As the vibration of the three sounds of A-U-M dissolves into silence, we experience the mantra’s fourth part, the anusvara (after-sound). This deep, profound silence is symbolic of the transcendent state of consciousness, wherein we are aligned with the universal consciousness and body, mind, breath and spirit are united as one.
By chanting Om at the beginning and end of a yoga practice, we are reminded of our kinship with all other beings and the whole universe. Thousands of years ago yogis taught that everything in the universe continually vibrates and pulsates; modern day science teaches the same. When we chant Om, we tap into this universal vibration. On a micro level, we create harmony and unity among our fellow practitioners and the teacher in the room. On a much larger level we attune ourselves to the interconnection of everything and everyone in the universe.
Namaste is a Sanskrit term. “Nama” means bow, “as” means I, and “te” means you. Namaste literally translates as “bow me you”, or “I bow to you.” When performing the gesture of Namaste we touch the palms of the hands together at the heart center, close the eyes, and bow the head. It can also be done by touching the palms together in front of the third eye, bowing the head, and then bringing the hands down to the heart.
This gesture acknowledges that the same Divine spark that exists in you exists in me. Teacher and students bow towards each other and say “Namaste” as a symbol of respect, gratitude, and reverence for the energy that interconnects us all. We transcend our attachment to the ego to experience the truth that we are all one.
While Om and Namaste have different meanings and origins, their essential purpose is the same: to go beyond the fragmentation and delusion that results from identifying with the small self and the ego in order to experience wholeness and the underlying unity of the universe. And this, in essence, is the true purpose of yoga.
Some yoga students don’t feel comfortable chanting mantras or bowing with hands in prayer. If that’s the case for you, it’s always okay to choose to skip these practices. Yoga is a practice of authenticity; therefore it is never necessary to do something that feels wrong or false. You alone can determine what feels right and true for you.
Have you ever wondered why your teacher asks you to make a sound with your breath when you hold a yoga pose? What’s the purpose of the breathing exercises in the beginning of a yoga class? What is prana and why should it matter to you?
Focusing on the breath and controlling its movement through the body is the most powerful and transformational part of a yoga practice. On a physical level, working with the breath impacts the nervous system, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and helps the body to manage the effects of stress and anxiety.
When we look beyond physiology, we discover that the exploration of pranayama allows us to tap into the deeper energetic and spiritual aspects of yoga practice.
Pranayama is the fourth limb on the eightfold path of yoga delineated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. These eight limbs are guidelines for leading a life with meaning, purpose, and authenticity. Prana is a Sanskrit term for the vital life force that animates all things; ayama translates as extension or elongation.
Pranic energy flows through nadis (Sanskrit for rivers), the energy channels of the subtle body. Prana is analogous to chi or qi in Chinese medicine and martial arts, and lung in Tibetan Buddhism. Yoga teaches us to access prana by controlling and playing with the flow of breath. Pranayama enables us to connect with the vast energetic network of the subtle body through the breath.
If you’ve been to a few yoga classes you might have heard your teacher refer to Ujjayi breath. Ujjayi means “victoriously uprising” which refers to the upward movement of pranic energy through the central channel running along the front of the spine known as the sushumna nadi. This is the audible breath that is engaged throughout a Vinyasa yoga class.
Ujjayi pranayama has two defining qualities:
- A soft whispering sound which results from the slight constriction of the muscles of the throat. This action activates the diaphragm and shifts the sensation of the breath from the nose and chest to the throat and back body, creating a more expansive, less strained breath.
- Steady, even flow of inhalation and exhalation as the breath enters and leaves the nose. Usually our breath begins quickly and then tapers off towards the end of the inhale or exhale; in Ujjayi the volume of the breath remains the same from beginning to end.
It is the soft, steady, sibilant sound of the Ujjayi breath that we bring our mind to rest upon as we flow into and out of each posture. It is the connecting thread that strings together each asana. It is the catalyst for the union of the body, mind and breath that is the ultimate purpose of yoga.
Another common form of pranayama is Nadi Shodhana, which literally translates as “channel cleansing” but is usually referred to as “alternate nostril breath”. As we manipulate the flow of breath through the nostrils, we access the Surya (sun) or pingala nadi through the right nostril and the Chandra (moon) or ida nadi through the left.
At any given time, one nostril is more active than the other. When breath flows dominantly through one of these two nostrils, prana predominates in the related nadi and there is an effect on the nervous system corresponding to the energetic quality of that nadi:
- Right nostril, Surya or pingala: breath is heating and energizing; when this side is overly dominant anger, hyperactivity, aggression, or elevated blood pressure may result
- Left nostril, Chandra or ida: breath is cooling, quieting; depression, fatigue, weak digestion or sleepiness may result
Nadi Shodhana calms, centers and stills the mind by balancing the flow of energy between these two channels and discouraging the predominance of one side over the other. Other benefits include:
- Lowered heart rate
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Synchronization of the right and left hemispheres of the brain
- Purification of the subtle energy channels (nadis) of the body so the prana flows more easily during pranayama and asana practice