Yoga defined: Not just postures

Yoga is not in the postures taught in classes but in the principles that form the roots on which this mighty tree stands


Creating a new form of yoga seems so easy today. Just prefix the word yoga with another word that you fancy, like power, sufi or hot. You may like to believe you’ve created something patent-worthy, but it’s definitely not a form of true yoga.

Yogic science is said to be thousands of years old. In fact, it is not just a science but also one of the six systems of Indian philosophy. Originally taught in ashrams or monasteries through a Guru-disciple medium, it later got popularised through mass teachings as traditions and lineages slowly started to fade into the background of a fast-developing modern world.

Yoga defined not just by postures

In the ancient times, it was a common practice for those suffering physically or mentally to retreat to the ashrams of the yogis, and build their strength through practices advised within the system of yoga. When I say mental suffering, what I am referring to is disturbances caused by the ‘adhis’ such as anger, jealousy or insecurity that often lead to diseases or illnesses. The ancient yogis, it seems, were well-versed with the effects of the mind over the body, what we commonly term as psychosomatic today. These yogis knew that in order for a human being to live happily and successfully, he didn’t just require a series of exercises that would strengthen his limbs but also a systematic and healthy way of ‘being’ through mental and spiritual vows.

It is saddening to see how this holistic and well-rounded science has been reduced to a ‘series of postures’ today. I often encounter practitioners who boast of a 10 – 15 year ‘practice’, and upon my further inquiry into the nature of these ‘practices’, I am shocked to discover that it simply is an asana practice twice a day! I am almost always tempted to ask these great practitioners whether they have managed to incorporate the principles of yoga into their daily lives in order to refine their personalities. But I have to bite my tongue and hold back.

It teaches you how to ‘be’

The practice of yoga was shared with mankind by the great sages as a roadmap to liberation and freedom from suffering. They seemed to understand the conflict that human beings struggled with, to live both in the internal and the external world; hence they created practical methods to resolve these conflicts. Their main teaching to mankind, through the philosophy of yoga, was that man’s true nature is divine, but he remains unaware of this and believes his body to be the final reality. With the body being subject to death and decay, he lives in constant fear of losing ‘himself’ at what he perceives to be the end. The practice of yoga leads man to discover his true inner self, allowing him to rest in its infinite nature while performing his duties in the external world bringing harmony to his existence. One can define yoga in the words of a Himalayan sage as, “Religion tells you what to do and what not to do but yoga teaches you how to be.”

Yoga and the Gita

In the Bhagvad Gita, Lord Krishna mentions the word ‘yoga’ on numerous occasions, presenting to Arjuna, the different paths of yoga that an aspirant could choose from to find liberation. These main paths are Karma yoga [the path of action], Bhakti yoga [the path of devotion], Jnana yoga [the path of knowledge] and Raja Yoga [a combination of all the other paths] also known as the royal path. The differences in these paths are only in the preliminary stages, the end goal being perfection and realisation.

It is said that for those of us who live in the material world, Raja yoga is ideal as it combines the teachings of Karma [action], Bhakti [devotion] and Jnana [knowledge] into a practical path that leads one to the development and mastery of the physical, mental and spiritual. Hence, it is recommended for householders and non-renunciates. Its origin can be traced back to thousands of years and the wisdom contained therein is said to be of a ‘revealed’ nature and not created by man. Around 200 B.C., these teachings were collated and systematised by a great sage called Patanjali, who felt there was a need to present the teachings in an organised, easy to follow way. Patanjali wrote the well known Raja yoga treatise called The Yoga Sutras, a classical text that guides an aspirant to realisation of his true Self.

Ashtanga explained

In this treatise, Patanjali shared with aspirants the eightfold path or ‘Ashtanga’ system which present a practical way to achieving liberation. These eight limbs are: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These eight steps enable an aspirant to go from the gross to the subtle, systematically guiding one to deepen one’s practices in order to discover the true Self.

It’s tragic to hear people speak of Ashtanga yoga as a series of asanas. It is certainly not that. And neither was it conceived or created by a recent lineage. The real Ashtanga yoga is simply eight rungs of a ladder [asana being only one of them] meant to lead one to self-realisation. When I encounter people who tell me they practise Ashtanga yoga I am always tempted to ask them how they are doing with pratyahara [withdrawal of the senses] but then realise that they probably are just ‘parroting’ what they have been taught. Some people even mistake Patanjali to be the creator of Ashtanga yoga and that isn’t true either. Patanjali only systematised the teachings for the benefit of mankind and these teachings existed long before him.

The first four steps of the Ashtanga system comprise the path of Hatha yoga—Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama —which is a preliminary path to the final stages of Raja yoga. If you practise asanas, then you are practising Hatha yoga.

Your conduct with others

Both yama and niyama comprise the principles on which the practice of Raja yoga is based. They are vows that a practitioner makes to himself in order to let the practice manifest completely. Yamas are five observances that a practitioner is encouraged to follow: Ahimsa [non-violence], Satya [truthfulness],  Asteya [non-covetousness]. Brahmacharya [continence] and Aparigraha [non-possessiveness]. These five bring about behavioural modifications in an individual and enable one to form better relationships with others. The observance of the yamas lead one to becoming aware of their imperfections and building virtues rather than further strengthening these imperfections.

Your conduct with yourself

The five Niyamas that an aspirant is encouraged to follow are Shaucha [cleanliness], Santosha [contentment], Tapas [austerity to bring about purity], Svadhyaya [study to obtain knowledge] and Ishwara Pranidhana [surrender to a greater reality]. Observing the niyamas is said to enable the aspirant to build habit patterns that bring about purity of thought and action. Together both the yamas and niyamas allow an individual to overcome one’s imperfections and bring about true transformation. Given the reality of the times we live in this becomes vital as most diseases and illnesses are said to be caused by emotional and mental disturbances.

The ancient yogis explain that if the mind is constantly full of unsettling thoughts and emotions, then no amount of asana practice will be able to help you. The asanas allow you to strengthen the external limbs and maintain the health of your physical body, but it is the mind that influences the body eventually, proving that asanas and pranayama have limited value when done in an isolated manner.

For example, the practice of Ahimsa or non-violence does not just refer to being non-violent in action, but also to being non-violent in thought as thoughts often manifest as actions and if you have a habit of thinking violent thoughts, chances are they will manifest into actions one day. Additionally, being non-violent starts with being non-violent towards ourselves first—avoiding berating ourselves, and putting ourselves through emotional and physical pain by indulging in self-destructive behaviour. If you observe a physically violent person, you will always notice some form of self-destructive behaviour before he or she starts acting out destructively. I often see people venting their aggression on their bodies in an asana class and I wonder what sort of Yoga they are practicing if they have to punish the body by forcing it into postures that it is not ready for. The end result of such a practice is always injury and the lesson, unless explained by a competent teacher remains unlearnt. We must start with ourselves first. We must observe how we think and act. We must observe ourselves in all our relationships. Where and in what scenario can we spot self-destructive behaviour? This is a good way to begin observing the principles of yoga.

In addition to observing Yamas and Niyamas, Patanjali talks of the four brahma-viharas or right attitudes, which bring about purification of thoughts and emotions. These four attitudes are: friendliness towards the happy; compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous and indifference towards the wicked. When practised together, all of these bring about chitta prasadanam, clarity and purification of the mind, thereby loosening karmic bonds.

Now I know that one may feel overwhelmed by all of these principles and the task may seem impossible, but it is doable and progress can be made if one takes it slow, allowing for slip-ups now and then but remaining committed to building a firm foundation. And once this foundation is made, the tree of Yoga will grow into a mighty one, bearing the fruits of tranquility, serenity and a deep inner strength. Imagine what sort of a world we would be living in then! When each one of us is non-violent. When each one of us practises non-covetousness; when each one of us practises truthfulness; when each of us exercises self-restraint. We wouldn’t have to look elsewhere for heaven, because we will have created it right here, in our physical world.

This was first published in the February 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Aditi Gaur
Aditi Gaur teaches a traditional Hatha Yoga practice. She has earned her RYT 200 certification from the Sivananda Yoga & Vedanta Centre and is currently studying for her RYT 500 certification with the Himalayan Yoga Tradition. For her, practice is about worshipping the divine within and this is what she offers to her students as well — the ability to switch off and discover who they really are.


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