What Does It Mean To Practice Yoga

Now , that is what I’d call  a challenging question.

 I am often asked what I used to do for a living – you know - when I had a “ proper job “ . For many reasons I am apprehensive about giving details of my previous life  ( I was a lawyer ) .  If I do confess I get a  quizzical look as if to say “really ?” .Yes really .  “ Why did you give it up ?” “ Why not ?”  .  The conversation continues  with my questioner telling me about how they either used to “do” yoga or would like to “do” yoga as they want to lose a few post Christmas  or pre Summer holiday excess pounds.  I explain that you do not “do” Yoga and that it is actually a discipline , a way of life .

Yoga is in fact thousands  of years old and was written down by the Indian sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras – a succinct series of 196 aphorisms . He states in the 2nd sutra “ yoga citta vritta nirodha “ – “ Yoga is the cessation of the movements in the consciousness “( BKS Iyengar – Light on the Yoga Sutras ).The crux of the matter is that we cannot prevent the vrittis or whirlpools or distractions  arriving but we can make a conscious choice not to get involved in them keeping our self calm and unruffled .

How do we do that ?
Patanajali sets out an eight limbed system consisting of  yamas  , niyamas  , asana  , pranayama , pratyahara, dharana  , dhyana  and finally the ultimate goal Samadhi .
Most people associate yoga with just asana  – or physical yoga  and it could be easy to tut tut at this but is this actually wrong ?
I try  in each class to explain something about  yoga and why we as practitioners do what we do whether on a purely physical  level or not . These things need to be explained . For example after one class a student came to me and said that after years of  yoga classes and being told to “ engage the core “ he had only now after the core work done in  class actually realized what it was or how to engage it . Because I had taken the time to explain . You cannot simply expect someone to do something blindly – they need to experience it for themselves .

Having said that ,I do think that all eight limbs of yoga  can be found in asana practice  if you work at it .

The yamas are observances . Ahimsa – non violence  , satya – truthfulness , asteya – non stealing or generosity, brahmacharya – continence of energy and  aparigraha – non grasping .
In a physical practice we must be kind to ourselves – paying attention , not pushing ourselves too far and beyond our limits . We must be true to ourselves and recognize that we all have physical limitations . We must not become envious of what others can do and we cannot .We must guard against over exertion and should bring our minds into the poses so that our body does not become over exerted . We should concentrate on our  own experience rather than trying to have the same experience as the next person .

The niyamas are internal purifications – saucha -cleanliness , santosha – contentment, tapas – perseverance , svadhyaya- self study and ishvara pranidhana – surrender to “God” .
In our physical practice we should be tidy and mindful of ourselves and others . We should be content with our own limitations and accept that we may not yet be ready for a particular pose  . We should apply effort to our practice . We should not be in  competition with any one else  .It is our practice and we should always be mindful of the subtle changes yoga brings to our body and mind each day and over time  . We should  focus  on the journey , on the moment rather than the outcome – which will be as it will be .
Pranayama is the breathing  technique we use during practice to focus ourselves and to prevent the mind becoming distracted by the world around us .

Pratyahara  takes place literally physically in some of the asanas .  The very positioning of our body cuts off our senses for example in supta kurmasana or pindasana . The use of asana , bandhas and drishti take us inwards.

Dharana  is the result of focusing on the breath or  the use of the drishti  and is most evidenced for me in the balances which are my nemesis . I like to think that the problem lies with my point of gravity but I suspect that  its most likely my astonishing lack of concentration something not too far from that of the proverbial goldfish . As one of my lovely teachers  reminds me in class “ You’re so very Vatta “ .  Yes . Ok .  Can we move on . Im  getting bored.

Dhyana  comes next and is a progression from dharana  and is total unwavering absorption .

And as for Samadhi – well may be in the next lifetime – or the one after !

So , in a nutshell , my questioner does get it right – all  limbs of yoga can be found in just asana if practiced with full awareness .

Its true however that yoga in the west has become physicalized for the vast majority of people . Mark Singleton in his book “ Yoga Body “ calls it “ Anglophone yoga “  . I don’t imagine for one second that many  people who go to a hatha yoga class have even given any of this the remotest thought – and to be honest they may well not  care less .

Our job as teachers however  is to present  these opportunities to them , let them take what they need and leave what is of no use to them at that particular point in time . It will be there for them to pick up in the future as and when it is right for them .We should guide them and encourage them – never force . And , if the time is right  the full practice of yoga will find them . I am always delighted when  a student approaches me after class with a query or a question on something I said during class . A real genuine interest and more fundamentally proof that they were actually listening to me .I am more chuffed by this than when a student manages a pose that they didn’t think that they had the strength , flexibility or stamina to do .

May be then the teachings of yoga will spread out into their own lives .  Perhaps they will limit their consumption of meat or alcohol . Perhaps they will think twice about stealing a colleagues idea at work . Take that extra second before pressing “ send “ to reply in haste to an email received . Or pause for a few breaths  before snatching a ringing phone off the hook when in a bad mood . Individually small steps but taken as whole the start of something big .

One thing is for sure – the physical postures we practice today are no where near as old as the main yogic texts such as the Yoga Sutras , Bhagavad Gita , Geranda  Samhita , Shiva Samhita or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika . Where physical postures are described in these works they bear little resemblance to the poses we practice today . Most of the postures today were introduced by the teacher Krishnamacharya and his lineage . But does that matter ? Probably not – all things need to evolve .

Yoga is a science after all and these physical aspects are more appropriate and suited to the way we now live . We all have lives , jobs , families and the sort of pressures the ancients could not have even begun to envisage . First world problems may be – but a fact of modern life all the same .

For me  yoga is a way of life . I don’t eat meat or drink alcohol .  I choose employment with a work life balance over salary .I avoid getting dragged into “ pettiness “ . I try to give credit where its due . I avoid toxic or poisonous people . I try to lead a generally good life . And do I succeed ? Yes – partly . But probably no most of the time . But that I guess is the point . No one said that this was going to be easy .

Michelle Higgins
Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow Teacher Southampton and Hampshire

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07803 586161

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