Classical Yoga by Donation
Classical Yoga is based on a system of eight limbs (known as ashtanga yoga) outlined in the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These eight limbs define the different methods that students can work with to find freedom from the compulsive nature of the mind and all the many different ways we suffer. So often we spend our time worrying about the unknown, dwelling on the past or just living in fear. These habitual ways of interfacing with life so often dominate our experiences that even when things are going great for us, we don't necessarily enjoy it! Gradually, these yogic practices help us look at the places in our lives where we get stuck and suffer. They also give us tools to start making different choices in those areas. This can literally mean working with the yoga postures to get our bodies unstuck and moving with more ease and range, or it can be subtler work of understanding the reasons we lose our temper or feel unsatisfied at work. Ultimately, yoga gives us the tools to show up in life in such a way that our actions align with our deepest values and purpose. In this way we can find real satisfaction and joy in life. We can find the freedom to live with ease in our hearts and minds, no matter what we encounter in our day.
Yama is often translated as abstentions, or restraints. In this, the yamas specifically outline what not to do, but by doing so, also point us to the cultivation of higher virtues. Interestingly, these higher virtues are considered by the ancient yogic texts to be native to human beings. That at our root, we are endowed with a sense of goodness and honor and that the yamas are simply awakening these dormant qualities within us. This first step of yoga is considered essential for all members of society, not just those on a deeper path of yoga. Initially the yamas provide an overt guide to how we can get along together (don't steal your neighbor's stuff, don't kill anyone, etc.), but over time the work of the yamas becomes more about personally redefining the subtle areas of our lives- those places where our values and our actions don't align. The five yama are Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy, conservation of energy), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
Niyamas are the second step of Yoga and are designed for those more seriously seeking the path of yoga. These observances assist to cultivate a deeper personal practice and knowledge of the Self. Divided into five parts, the Niyama are Saucha (cleanliness of body, mind and conduct), Santosha (satisfaction), Tapas (effort or austerity), Svādhyāya (spiritual study), and Ishvarapranidhana (surrender).
Asana is the limb of yoga that is most well known in the West, and what many consider to be the totality of yoga. In classical texts, asana is literally defined as a steady and comfortable "seat". Thus the purpose of an asana practice in the larger context of the eight limbs is simply to prepare the body to be able to sit comfortably for meditation. Our teacher Dharma Mittra often jokes about the great yogis thousands of years ago that would sit for days for meditation and start to get a little stiff. So, from their lotus posture they would turn a little to the right, and suddenly created a spinal twist! Then would arch back and discovered back bending! Like this he jokingly says they discovered the many exercises needed to maintain the physical body for the rigors and strength needed to sit long hours.
Pranayama is control of the subtle energy in the body through regulation of the breath. In Patanjali's yoga system the regulation of the breath and prana is the link between working with the body and working with the mind. The main purpose of pranayama is to unite different energies in the body, that when united bring great clarity and calm to our whole being. However, there are many different breathing exercises that function in different ways: some calm the mind, some raise the energy in the body, some are cooling, some are heating, the list goes on and on! These different breathing patterns offer a tremendous variety of tools to help you in your life and serve as a preparation for the other aspects of your yoga practice.
Pratyahara is the step of yoga where the focus shifts from the external physical practices, to the subtler internal ones. It is often considered the bridge between the two, as the remaining limbs of yoga after pratyahara are all internal techniques and all the previous are external. The idea here is to begin exploring the inner terrain in ourselves as a means to uncover the root of our unhappiness and suffering.
Dharana is the first internal stage of the eight limbs. It works with different techniques to cultivate concentration at will. Concentration is something we are all very familiar with, but can't often control at will. We worry and obsess a lot about a variety of things everyday, and although this is a kind of concentration, we can't often do it at choice. These exercises build the concentration muscle in us, so that we gradually can bring our attention to rest on any given point, no matter what else is happening in our lives. This tool is a huge life-changer, as it makes us more effective at whatever we place our minds to. It increases our ability to be where we are, instead of constantly being scattered in a million thoughts at once. We become better workers, friends, partners - we even have better vacations! This step of yoga also prepares us for the final stages of yoga, dhyana and samadhi.
Meditation is simply concentration. Once you are concentrating long enough on an object or practice, it becomes a meditation. In the old texts of yoga, there are actually technical time markers defining how long one "concentration" is and how many "concentrations" equal a "meditation"! Meditation is not something you can force yourself to do. In actuality, the other steps of yoga prepare you for it to naturally occur. The state of meditation is difficult to describe as it is something that reaches beyond most of our usual experiences in life. In meditation, the fluctuation or waves of the mind cease. It is as though the waves on a lake stop and it is clear to see to the bottom. In this way, meditation is a way to see into the deepest parts of ourselves and understand the true nature of who and what we really are. Are we simply the body? Are we the mind or the thoughts? Or is there something deeper that is animating our lives? Meditation allows us to explore these realms through our own direct experience and inquiry.
The line between dhyana and samadhi is an extremely subtle one. Again, this is something that is quite difficult to explain as it moves outside of the normal framework of how we typically perceive life. In the higher states of meditation and concentration a certain kind of freedom arises from the usual distractions of the mind. In these states, one can go so deeply into the contemplation of an object, that one almost merges with it completely. In other words, the boundaries around how we normally perceive ourselves and others become more porous and open to exploration. This level of absorption offers such a different level of understanding that it often brings about a sustained state of bliss or peace in the practitioner. In classic yogic texts, there are many different levels of samadhi described in great detail, which the majority of great saints and teachers claim they will never attain.
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