A Brief Summary of an Ancient Art
As a yoga practitioner, we might get encountered with a clash between modern ideologies and yoga philosophy, especially if we started practicing yoga as a physical exercise or mental health activity.
Below you will find a bit of a crash course in some fundamental yoga philosophy, from my own perspective.
For more, please visit my channel or blog.
"There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, so it doesn't matter which path you take."
Yoga & Spirituality
'Yoga' originally means 'union' in Sanskrit, and consists of various paths and practices intended to bring you closer into union with the idea of the divine or the supreme consciousness. Does this mean that you have to believe in the concept of the divine or a supreme consciousness? Not necessarily.
In my opinion, yoga does not become unavailable to you if you are atheistic, non-spiritual or similar.
While yoga can be considered spiritual, it doesn't have to be religious - it can be, but there's no demand for it. In fact, the very foundation of yoga is built upon self-realization, growth and introspection. Yes, it is about union, but for you union might be a connection to your Best Self, or a connection to nature, calm or any other idea that works for you.
As for me, I do relate to the idea of union in a spiritual and religious way, but I didn't originally, and I don't think any different of anyone else's experience. My own relationship with this idea fluctuates depending on the day too. I connect very much to the idea of Adi Parashakti - the idea of a Mother Goddess or primordial force of creation in Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) as well as to the idea of Shiva. For me, however, these are personifications of something beyond understanding and words. For me, "Adi Parashakti" can just as easily be the idea of life, nature, or my own inner power and ability as it can be connected to a humanized representation in the form of a deity. I think, in the end, what matters the most is my belief in connection and so the details of how I seek to connect to higher ideals, consciousness or states, isn't terribly important - it all becomes the same in the end.
It is my personal belief that it is important to respect and realize what the tradition of yoga is in its original form, but also accept that this doesn't mean that it has to be expressed in the same way by everyone. Yoga is deeply connected with Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), but this 'religion' itself is very open-minded. You can believe in a single deity, many, or none - it is, more than anything, a philosophy and a lifestyle with some mutual core values.
So what are the core values that can be found within Yoga?
Yoga shares the same ethical values as Santana Dharma, and is called the Yamas and Niyamas; both are 5 each for a total of 10 core values for ethical living according to Yoga philosophy.
The Yamas focus on how to treat others, whereas the Niyamas focuses on how to treat oneself.
The Yamas, or external ethics, consist of the following:
Brahmacharya (maintenance of vitality, or more literally, celibacy)
The Niyamas, or internal ethics, consists of:
Tapas (purification through discipline)
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to a higher power, or, recognizing the source)
Of course, these can have very many differing interpretations and applications. I suggest that you always find how it best relates to your personal circumstance and belief-system when practicing yoga.
The Four Paths of Yoga
Yoga can be considered to consist of 4 paths and 8 limbs.
The paths of yoga does not refer to style of physical practice (such as vinyasa), but rather yoga expressed in different ways in life. Remember - yoga means "union" with your personal idea of a higher self, state or being. This can be done through 4 paths; they are not mutually exclusive by any means.
Karma Yoga is the act of selfless service and action. It is community focused and the idea is that through selflessness, giving and kindness we elevate ourselves and come into union with that higher ideal, state or being.
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, in which the belief is that a devotion, surrender and connection with the Divine and/or Sacred Self, we become closer to union; the act of love towards this Higher Ideal/State/Being acts as a bridge to bring us closer.
Raja Yoga is the path which you are most likely to encounter while doing your practice at home or in a studio; Raja Yoga focuses on calming the mind to allow us to reconnect. This path is connected to regular practice in connection to the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Jnana Yoga is the philosophical path in which one uses one's intellect and reasoning to achieve union with our own true self and that Higher Ideal/State/Being.
As mentioned, none is mutually exclusive, nor do you have to practice the paths that you don't feel drawn to. Follow your own journey, whichever path - or paths - you may go.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
The 8 Limbs of Yoga are described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the foundational text for yoga as we know it). They can be considered a guide to live a life full of meaning and purpose; it's a way to incorporate yoga into your everyday life and take your practice beyond the mat.
The Limbs can be summarized as follows:
Yama – External ethics.
Niyama – Internal ethics.
Asana – The postures of yoga.
Pranayama – Breathing techniques and practice.
Pratyahara – The practice of sense withdrawal.
Dharana – Focused concentration - often part of pratyahara as sense withdrawal can lead to focused concentration and vice versa.
Dhyana – Meditation and meditative absorption.
Samadhi – Bliss or enlightenment; can also be interpreted as "balance".
Yoga As Physical Practice
A very common view of yoga in Western society is that it is an exercise, or physical practice. This particular practice often revolves around asana - poses. However, it is important to remember that there are also different kinds of physical yoga practices.
Asana practice follow different styles - restorative, yin, vinyasa, hatha, chair, prenatal and laughter are just a few examples.
In my opinion it is very important to remember that there isn't one style that is superior to another; it all comes down to what feels right for you. Yoga is for every body - there is no such thing as not being able to do yoga due to a certain circumstance or body feature. Yoga is not about being able to hold a beautiful pose in front of a sunset for a photograph - there is nothing wrong with this way to relate to yoga either, but we must remember that yoga isn't a physical practice in the sense of it having a certain specific goal that only some can achieve.
It is entirely okay to practice yoga just for the physical movement, perhaps to achieve a certain body goal. However, please do not ever let a preconceived notion of yoga stop you from practice.
Being able to go into Crow pose is yoga, laying still in Savasana is yoga, breath work is yoga, meditation is yoga, self care is yoga, drinking a warm cup of tea while curled up in a blanket and zoning out to the sound of rain can be yoga, and they are all equal. If you experience growth, self-realization and union to whatever resonates with you - you are doing yoga. There is no competition in yoga, nor should there be body shame, insecurity or ideas such as "I am not flexible enough for yoga" or "I can't zen out enough for meditation". It is a dedication and practice to yourself and for yourself, and whichever way that expresses itself is beautiful.
Yoga & Mental Health
There are an increasing amounts of studies regarding yoga and mental health. A lot points to yoga being successful as a powerful tool for healing.
As happy as I am to see this research, I also personally don't need to see the results. I have experienced the growth and healing from yoga first-hand, and seen many out there with similar anecdotal stories.
That is not to say that Yoga is about a complete lack of pain or toxic positivity. We're taught in Yoga Philosophy that while pain in unavoidable, suffering is optional. More than anything, yoga is about exploring the human condition and the world around us; you don't always have to feel like a rainbow after yoga. It is okay to cry, be vulnerable, be sad and down and still consider yourself a yoga practitioner. However, yoga does seem to help with grounding, healing and overall mental well-being.
At the end of the day, yoga is about growth, introspection and self-empowerment. If you allow yourself to find a path within yoga without pressure or preconceived notions, you open up for an amazing journey, in my opinion!
For more in-depth information about the history and philosophy of yoga, please visit my blog and/or YouTube channel, where I discuss these elements in more detail. Yoga is an old tradition with ancient roots, so I highly recommend keeping an open mind while exploring it and being mindful of the complexity and depth of it.