What is Yoga? Part 2

I am really not a lot closer to my answer to the question What is Yoga, but I do know what it isn’t, and I guess that is some sort of progress.  It is definitely not just cool poses, although it sure has those and some of my favorites include Tree Pose, Eagle Pose, Triangle Pose, Bound Side-Angle Pose, and of course, Downward Facing Dog–and I must apologize for not having the proper Sanskrit names learned as I think that is really important also, but languages are definitely not my forte.  Furthermore, yoga is not just poses with the correct breathing.  In fact, there are actually 8 limbs to Yoga, namely, yama, nyama, asana, pranayama, prathara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.  I’m just starting to explore some of these, and the metaphor of the eight limbs as part of a tree really does speak to me.


Yama represents the root of the tree, without which the tree will not stand.  Here on Vashon we live on glacial bedrock so that our trees have roots which can only go a few feet deep.  While the giant 50+’ firs and others do spread their roots wider as a result, nonetheless, a good windstorm (of which we have had two so far this winter) will cause the trees to become unstable and fall, because the roots are shallow.  The same, I suspect, may be true with Yoga, where the root or yama is pretty fundamental.  This area of yoga deals with our relationship to the outside world and consists of five abstentions, namely Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (freedom from avarice), Brahmacharaya (control of sexual desire), and Aparigraha (freedom from greed).  It is vital to stay centered in our selves by adhering to these principles and I think that if that were all the yoga a person did, it would still be incredibly powerful.


Niyama is the trunk of the tree and deals with the self.  Again there are five practices, namely Saucha (cleanliness or purity), Santosa (contentment), Tapas (ardor or passion), Svadhyaha (self-study), and Isvara-pranidhana (awareness of the divine).  Again, a strong and well-nurtured trunk is vital to the life of the tree.  I actually had to have 5 trees removed from my property recently (thankfully before the storms hit) because they were dying and the only really visible outward sign was their trunks which had become blackened and damaged.


Asana is the part of yoga which is most familiar to Western students, and that is the postures or poses.  These are the limbs of the tree and by some estimations there are more than 800,000 unique yoga poses!  I guess I won’t run out of new poses!  But the important thing for me to remember is that I have to be comfortable with my physical body and in harmony with it.  Over-stretching or over-doing only leads to injury, and I now have a hamstring pull in my right thigh and something else going on my left thigh, so I need to focus on taking care of myself more.


Pranayama is said to be the leaves of the tree and it is breathing.  There are over 100 breathing exercises (which I’ve only been exposed to briefly), and being able to coordinate the body and the mind while practicing the breathing is really important as this allows the life force to move freely.


This is about as far as my yoga development has taken me.    I will discuss the other 4 limbs at a later date, but they have to do with non-attachment, contemplation of our true identity, meditation with focused awareness, and equanimity.  What I have learned in all this is that yoga is a very powerful and a very spiritual practice which is definitely not about how many poses I can do or how well I can do them.  Since I am definitely feeling my age at the moment and since I’ve never had a great deal of physical flexibility (and maybe truth be known not a lot of intellectual or emotional flexibility and maybe they all go hand in hand), I think what is going to be most important to me is concentration on my roots and my trunk even if I have fewer branches and fewer leaves (I’ve always preferred conifers–wonder if I can have needles instead of leaves!).


One major lesson I’ve learned from my yoga practice is better balance, and I continue to try to carry that concept into my everyday life, balance in all things.  That is also a primary belief in Daoism so again, I do wonder how all these things fit together, at least for my spirituality.  I would love to have reader comments on any and all of this.  Namaste.

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