Yoga on the mat is fabulous for our health and well-being but it is actually only a small part of the total yoga practice. Traditionally it was expected that a novice yogi would already be proficient in being “a decent human being” before beginning yoga.
Academic Alan Watts once famously said, “We don’t teach yoga to baboons!”
These days a quick youtube search can find cats, dogs, horses and goats taking to yoga, so maybe baboons aren’t too far behind but his comment stemmed from historical evidence as to certain qualities required for humans to be allowed to participate at all.
According to ancient sankskrit texts – called The Yoga Sutras – an aspiring yogi ‘should’ be already be practicing:-
- Non-violence – ahimsa – First Do No Harm… not to yourself, to others or to anything at all – with your thoughts, words or deeds (This is why you find so many vegan yogis!)
- Truthfulness – satya – Both with others and with yourself.
- Non-stealing – asteya – Not just material possessions but ideas, time and energy or even just taking more than we really need. We can steal from ourselves as well, by living too much in the past or in the future.
- Self Restraint/Moderation – brahmacharya – Often simply translated as celibacy and while being celibate certainly prevents us from expending sexual energy unwisely, we must also cultivate – rather than repress – that energy and channel it wisely to be fully practising brahmacharya. This can be done through abstinence but does not depend on it. Think tantric practises… (Oh, now I have your attention!)
- Non-greed – aparigrapha – Being happy with what you have. Not grasping for more or hoarding possessions.
These five qualities together are known as the Yamas and are the first step – or limb – on an 8-limbed path to Yogic Bliss.
The following limbs (in order) are:-
- The Niyamas : Personal observances – Involve practising cleanliness (of body and mind), contentment and discipline, the act of self-study and the realisation that we individually are not the centre of the universe but instead are a part of something greater.
- Asanas: Physical Practice – The part many of us most associate with yoga – the physical part – and according to BKS Iyengar: “This down-to-earth, flesh-and-bones practice is simply one of the most direct and expedient ways to meet yourself.”
- Pranayama: Breath Work – Breathing techniques and controls that can alter the chemistry of the body and mind.
- Pratyahara : Withdrawing the senses – Bringing awareness within.
- Dharana : Concentration – Single-pointed focus
- Dhyana : Meditation
- Samadhi : Bliss
Luckily these days no-one is precluded from reaping the rewards of yoga. These philosophies are often woven into classes without you even realising. All can be practiced “on the mat” but it’s when we take them “off the mat” and into the world – into our daily lives, our work, our play and our relationships – that we start to really see the magic happen!
My personal favourite is the translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda [cool bit of trivia: he was the opening speaker the 1969 Woodstock Festival!].
His simple explanations and useful commentary help us to apply these ancient sutras more easily to our current, modern world.
Jeannette Amy (Nette) Hopkinson (BSc Hons Sports & Life Sciences) is a certified yoga teacher and Oneness Blessing Giver based in Andalucia. Follow her on IG @nettenirmalayoga or find her on facebook @NirmalaYogaSpain