For some, yoga provides an amazing physical workout. For others, it’s a great way to relieve stress. Still others step into the studio to heal injuries, create a stronger connection between body and mind or improve their overall health. Whatever your reasons for practising, one thing holds true: yoga can help you live a better life.
It’s so important, we’ll say it again: yoga can help you live a better life. Just ask Patañjali, the ancient Indian sage who, about 2,000 years ago, compiled the Yoga Sutras as a sort of guide to enlightenment. The book contains 195 sutras or steps to living a moral life by incorporating the “science of yoga” into it.
1.Yama: your moral principles, social behaviour or how you treat the world around you. This includes the following “don’ts”:
•non-violence (ahimsa): don’t inflict harm or injury, in thought or action, to any creature (including yourself);
•truth and honesty (satya): don’t lie;
•non-stealing (asteya): don’t steal anything that isn’t yours, including material objects (a wallet left unlocked in the change room) or intangibles (a fellow yogi’s peace in the yoga room);
•non-lust (brahmacharya): don’t have meaningless sexual encounters; and
•non-possessiveness (aparigraha): don’t be greedy or hoard/collect material objects (do you really need another pair of shoes or a fancier car?).
2.Niyama: inner discipline and responsibility, or how you treat yourself. This includes the following “dos”:
•purity (shauca): practise the five yamas above, which help clear away negative physical and mental states of being;
•contentment (santosha): find happiness with what you have and who you are at this very moment;
•austerity (tapas): develop self-discipline (in body, speech and mind) in preparation for higher spiritual purposes;
•study the sacred texts (svadhyaya): read books that teach and inspire you;
•live with an awareness of the divine (ishvara-pranidhana): whatever you consider “divine,” be devoted to it.
3.Asana: your yoga practice, which involves asanas or postures, can prepare your body for meditation, which involves sitting for a lengthy time in contemplation. According to Patañjali, once you can be free of physical distractions (say, reaching for your water or wiping the sweat) and can control your body, you can also control your mind.
4.Pranayama: the control of breath. Prana is the life force or energy that exists everywhere and flows through each of us through our breath. The practice of pranayama refers to the inhalation, retention and exhalation of breath. (No wonder so Bikram calls pranayama breathing the most important part of class – make it count!)
5.Pratyahara: the withdrawal of the senses during meditation, breathing exercises or yoga postures (basically, any time you’re directing your attention inward). Concentration is a battle with distracting senses (hearing the guy beside you breathing noisily, feeling that itch on your big toe, etc.). When you master pratyahara, these external distractions no longer affect your ability to concentrate.
The first five steps – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara – are called “external aids”; they are concerned with the body and brain and form the preliminary steps to yoga that build the foundation for spiritual life. The next three steps are considered “internal aids”; impossible without the previous steps, they’re concerned with reconditioning the mind. They are:
6.Dharana: teaching the mind to focus effortlessly on one point or image (say, one spot on the ceiling during savasana) in complete concentration, pushing away all other, superfluous thoughts.
7.Dhyana: uninterrupted meditation without an object, which is a step up from dharana. This leads to a state of meditation: heightened awareness and oneness with the universe. (By the way, the key difference between concentrating and meditation is, if there’s an awareness of distraction, you’re only concentrating. The calm achieved in meditation spills over into all aspects of your life: a bad day at work, a long lineup at the store, gridlock on the highway, etc.)
8.Samadhi: absolute bliss, the ultimate goal. Pure contemplation – super-consciousness – where you are one with the universe. Congratulations: if you have achieved samadhi, you are enlightened!
Enlightenment may seem like a lofty goal when all you were really looking to achieve through yoga was a flatter tummy or a little daily “me” time. Don’t worry: many of us come for more superficial reasons at the beginning. But it’s nice to know that a higher level of consciousness – not to mention, a far better quality of life as you start to evolve on a physical, mental and spiritual level – are in easy reach once you’ve committed to making yoga a consistent part of your routine.
In honour of Patañjali and his eight limbs of yoga, we want to know: how has yoga helped you live a better life?
Leave a comment below by September 15, and we’ll choose a winner to receive the opportunity to secure a place in the next Bikram Yoga Experiment for a friend or family member of your choice!