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Jasmin Khafagi Water

What is Yoga?

"You are the Ocean of Silence, not the Waves of Thought."


-Ramana Maharshi

For many people (me included), the path of Yoga started with asana (the physical practice). But soon one gets to realize that Yoga is so much more than just that. To put it in the words of Pattabhi Jois

"Yoga is for internal cleansing, not external exercising. Yoga means true self-knowledge."


Over time you might recognize that the asana practice has a certain effect on you - not only physical, but also mental. Maybe you become more aware of your thoughts and realize that your mind is never really still, that there is always something going on. If this is the case already: congratulations! Now you might ask yourself How can I get rid of this constant chatter?  Excellent question, this is the goal of Yoga! To quote the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali

1:2 Yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

1:3 tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-'vasthānam

1:4 vṛtti-sārūpyam itaratra

"Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.

Then the seer rests in her/his true nature.

At other times, the seer is identified with the fluctuations (of the mind)."

What is this "true nature" Patañjali is writing about? The realization that we are not the body, not the intellect, not our mental activities and so on, so we stop identifying with our surroundings and the chatter in our head and see things as they truly are. At the same time we become aware of what lies within our core: pure consciousness and love, which was always there, but these changing states of the mind (vrtti) put a veil over our true nature. An example that you might can relate to: You are at a beautiful location, let's say, watching the sunset. From the outside it is all wonderful, but you have something on your mind: maybe you had a disagreement with a dear one, or your thoughts drift into future scenarios and your to do list, or you compare this situation with a similar one you had a while ago. You are not fully present anymore, and you see this moment with tainted glasses of your past. Now you might ask yourself: How can I be fully present and get rid of the constant chatter in my head?

Now the real work begins. Fortunately, we have numerous scriptures and teachings at hand that can guide us on our way. One of the most prominent ones are the already mentioned Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Patañjali was a Hindu philosopher and mystic, who created an amalgamation of various yoga scripts that, when followed, enable us to attain liberation (samādhi).

As you can imagine, it's a fairly extensive topic and I'll try to summarize it as briefly as possible, but I encourage you to do some reading on the subject yourself.

Oral transmission used to be a major way to spread knowledge, so the sutras are kept quite short and on point (195 sutras with about 1.200 words)Without a teacher (guru), the meaning of these sutras can be quite cryptic - the reason is that it was supposed to be taught in close relationship with a teacher. Nowadays there are numerous interpretations and translations of the Yoga Sutras with vast commentaries that help us understand these scriptures better. You can find some of my favorite commentaries here.  

The Eight Limbs of Yoga - Ashtanga Yoga 

Ashta means eight in Sanskrit, anga means limbs. There are eight points (with numerous sub-points) which gradually lead us to liberation and guide us towards a holistic way of living a yogic life. But you don't need to be an aspiring yogin to follow some of these guidelines. 

Together the eight limbs lead practitioners out of the maze of their own preconceptions and confusions to a sublime state of freedom.

- Feuerstein (The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, p 41)

1)  External Disciplines (yamas) deal with the moral, ethical matters and explain the correct ways of behavior. 

In short, it is about non-violence (ahimsa; means not to willingly harm yourself or others - including other animals that aren't human; ahimsa is not only external tho, it also concerns our thoughts towards ourselves and towards others), honesty (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharia; means wise use of energy - not only sexual), non-possessiveness (aparigraha; means also not to accumulate anything that isn't essential - in short: living as minimalistic as in ones power) 

2)  Internal Disciplines (niyamas) deal with habits which we should adopt.

These habits are purification (shauca; "cleaning" the mind, body and our speech), contentment (santosha; can also be understood as acceptance - of certain circumstances, of others,...), discipline (tapas; also persistence), contemplation and study of the scriptures  (svadhyaya; this can be understood also as studying of the Self/Self-inquiry, not just external scriptures) and last but not least devotion and contemplation of the True Self Brahman (Ishvarapranidhana; to explain it shortly in my own words: we are not separate from one another, nor are we separate from anything that surrounds us. To put it in a less spiritual way: Everything is matter - earth and everything that exists on it, as well as the stars and the planets in the universe. To understand this unity is to understand the Self.) 

3)  Posture (Āsana), what we usually think of as Yoga. The purpose of Āsana is to enable us to sit comfortably in stillness for

prolonged periods of time - for meditation. Āsana and Yoga have become synonymous, but it's important to acknowledge, that Patanjali only dedicated three (out of 195) sutras (verses) for Āsana. So here we come to understand that the physical postures in fact only make up a tiny fraction of what Yoga actually is.

4)  Control of Life-Force (prāņāyāma) means, among other things, the control over our breathing, but there is much more to it

than that. Prana is understood to be the source of all movement in our body (so not just the movement of our breathing gasses, but also other physical functions like blood flow, digestion and so on). We practice prāņāyāma in form of breathing exercises, which activate the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore enable us to focus. 

5)  Redirecting of the Five Senses (pratyāhāra) can be understood as not getting distracted by the stuff that happens around

you, by drawing your attention inward. You become aware of sensory input and redirect the energies of your organs of perception to where it is suitable for you. So basically, you decide what deserves your attention and what not. Especially nowadays, with the constant overload of information, this comes very handy. Only when this is accomplished, we can proceed further to the next steps - without focus and a calm mind, it will be hard to continue with the following limbs.

6)  Concentration (dhāraā) stands for locking your awareness on a single object. This can be done by locking the attention on

one object - for example your breath (anapana) or a mantra (a syllable like OM ). Another possibility is also the stare at a burning candle or at the moon, but you can also focus on a certain object by visualizing it with your eyes closed. It is important to stay with one object during the meditation session and not let the mind change it for something else just because it gets bored ;)

7)  Meditative Absorption (dhyāna) is deeply interwoven with the previous limb. Here we focus on the object without

projecting a label or comparisons (like or dislike) onto it, without judgement and without any attachment. Here we don't perceive the object as "beautiful" or "exciting", but see it simply as it is: the object in its pure form. 

8)  Samādhi is the final stage and consists of full meditative absorption. It is not easy to put this state into words - because

there are no words that could describe it. Samādhi consists of five different stages, where the last stage is beyond thought and beyond mind. This is when one is no longer aware of an external entity and there are absolutely no thoughts going on. When this happens, the final goal of yoga has been attained.

Pink Lotus Flower

ॐ मणिपद्मे हूँ

Om Mani Padme Hum

- Praise the jewel in the
   lotus within. 

At the core of every
being lies the same
Universal consciousness.

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