In my view it is impossible to condense and explain any part of ancient yogic philosophy in a way that feels truly authentic, or with any justice. I say this because the information is so vast, one could not learn all there is to know in a lifetime. Secondly – with so many translations and interpretations over the years, who is to say that what I’ve read is being interpreted or even understood as it was intended? I will however provide an extremely summarised overview of a minute portion of the very basic aspects I have learn’t as a way to introduce people to some of the foundations of the yoga tradition, knowing full well this does not scratch the surface. I do hope it will help to spark curiosity and support my view that we must not continue to erode and diminish the true essence of the yoga tradition.
Ancient yoga teachings provide a valuable set of foundations to guide our way of being in this modern age.
The wisdom offered in the earliest centuries is as applicable today as it was then, however for many the broader aspects of yoga are not known. We are truly missing the point if we limit yoga to being a physical practice.
Ancient texts such as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (translated by many different authors) speak very little about the physical aspects known as asana. In fact asana is just one of the elements of Patanjali’s teaching in what he calls ‘the eight limbs of yoga’. The eight limbs of yoga are described as being interrelated parts of a whole and said to convey all areas of an individual’s life. You may recognise a few.
1. The Laws of Life (Yama) *reflection of our true nature
2. The Rules of Living (Niyama) *evolution towards harmony
3. Posture (asana) *comfort in being, posture
4. Breathing (pranayama) *enhancement and guidance of universal prana (energy)
5. Retirement of the senses (pratyahara) *encouraging the senses to draw within
6. Focusing of attention (dharana) *gathering and focusing of consciousness inward
7. Meditation (dhyana) *continuing inward flow of consciousness
8. The settled mind (samadhi) *union with Divine Consciousness
Many of the interpretations of these ancient teachings, have been created by men, in this case the author of my translated book is Alistair Shearer. To bring a slightly broader perspective, (above) I have added interpretations in italics written by female author *Nischala Joy Devi.
Neither is right or wrong, however there are differences, some subtle that you may notice. The terms are also offered in Sanskrit, the ancient and classical language of India at the time the teachings began.
Below there is more detail with regards to the first two limbs, Yama and Niyama. The Yama and Niyama aim to provide a guideline for ways of living, *there are five of each. Interpretations by Nischala Joy Devi.
Ahimsa – reverence, love, compassion for all
Satya – truthfulness, integrity
Astheya – generosity, honesty
Brahmacharya – balance and moderation of the vital life force
Aparigraha – awareness of abundance, fulfilment
Saucha – simplicity, purity, refinement
Santosha – contentment, being at peace with oneself and others
Tapas – igniting and purifying flame
Swadhaya – sacred study of the Divine through scripture, nature and introspection
Iswara Pranidhana – wholehearted dedication to the Divine’
The Yama and Niyama underpin the remaining six limbs. When the eight limbs of yoga are joined together they form the greater whole – complementing and supporting each other.
Unfortunately, capitalism is alive and well, so it is not unexpected that yoga has been diminished to a practice often marketed purely for the ‘physical’ benefits gained, similar to the broader fitness industry. Sadly often preying on insecurities and a false reality of the human body, beauty and living a ‘perfect’ life. No such thing actually.
We’ve all seen the Instagram images, thin, white, attractive woman dressed in the latest yoga gear practicing a pose inaccessible to many. This gives a false representation of what yoga is.
Not the mention the false interpretation of 'reality'.
Furthermore, there’s been an explosion of yoga related brands, often promoting themselves as being environmentally friendly, specialising in yoga gear, mats. I can wear the same fitness gear for yoga, running, hanging around the house – I do not need a separate pair of ‘yoga pants’.
I digress, what I feel is very disrespectful to the ancient traditions, totally dishonoring the roots of yoga are examples of blatant exploitation when yoga is combined with things like Gin and Yoga, Wine and Yoga and there is Yoga with Goats – yes goats and people doing yoga together – and yes, it’s gone viral on YouTube. Sadly there are more examples, and people love it – perhaps to our own detriment though. These gimmicks may be fun, perhaps they may be commercially viable; they also misrepresent, erode and diminish the essence of yoga.
I hope my summary of yogic philosophy and examples of how the commercialisation of yoga makes a mockery of ancient teachings, supports my concern. As our world becomes more challenging our mental and physical wellbeing is at risk. Humanity as a whole, will need to learn how to build greater resilience. Many are already making changes – discovering practices such as yoga as a way to manage difficulties as they source classes non goat related !
I'm inspired to notice a change in responses to the question my participant readiness form with relation to motives for practicing yoga. It's often been to improve flexibility, however recently it’s becoming more about the need to find peace, slow down, help manage anxiety. My classes are geared for seniors - the wisdom of the elders reigns supreme !
The ancient wisdom and teachings of yoga cannot be eroded, instead we need to reignite the flame. The principles and teachings that guide us to quieten the mind as a basis to bring a clearer perspective, get to know ourselves, reconnect with our true selves, our values and settle our nervous system in my view will become a necessity to aid our wellbeing.
‘We are missing much joy if we allow the world to dictate the direction of our thoughts and feelings, But when our heart guides the focus of our consciousness, love is ever present in our life’
Nischala Joy Devi
Sources: Shearer, Alistair - The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1982
Devi Nischala Joy, 2007 – A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras – The Secret Power of Yoga