In the Western world, many are drawn to the physical practice of yoga. You might take a glimpse at a class being held at your gym and think how nice it would be to more flexible. Or, maybe you just want to have a better golf swing. At first, possibly, that’s what made you want to come to the mat. Perhaps your intention was in no way metaphysical. You may just have wanted to stretch your hamstrings. If so, you’re not alone. And, there’s nothing “wrong” with those reasons. Just by wanting to come to yoga, you are already deepening your mind-body connection. You can choose how much, if at all, you want to develop a more spiritual side to your practice. And, remember, there’s no “right” answer.
While that might seem a very modern way to approach an ancient practice, the idea that it’s okay to be motivated to begin a yoga practice for purely physical reasons goes back a long way. In some yogic thinking, the physical practice of yoga poses is held to be the starting point for all yoga students.
Many modern branches of yoga are based on the so-called eight-limbed path. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (written 1800 years ago), these eight principles are laid out to govern the physical, moral and spiritual conduct of yogis. They consist of Yama (ethics), Niyama (self-control), Asana (physical yoga practice), Pranayama (breathwork), Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (enlightenment or peace).
This might sound like the ultimate reminder that asana is just one part of what makes a yoga practice, but many teachers contend that you can’t focus on the mental or spiritual side of yoga until your body is cared for. Many teachers remind their students that their yoga practice is a metaphor for living. It combines ease and struggle, challenges and opportunities. It requires the student to understand what discernment can mean — where the edge is, and the cliff is. The goal is still unity — not only of mind and spirit, but also in a physical body that is strong, balanced and flexible. A body that has all of this in place gives you a better foundation from which to nurture your mind and spirit, as well as to support those in need. Feeling physically energized and capable is a powerful catalyst for building confidence. That “Yes, you can” feeling flows over into your mind and spirit, enabling you to let your authentic self shine.
In Ashtanga yoga, it is believed that students have to learn the first four limbs of yoga first in order to prepare themselves for the others. And, what those principles mean is up to you. As you deepen your appreciation for yoga, you can find your own way through them. Maybe for you, concentration isn’t so much about not being distracted by noises outside the window as it is making clear priorities in your day so that you can focus on one task at a time. Maybe you will never enjoy meditating for extended periods of time, but you can reflect as you walk. Similarly, as Yoga Journal points out, enlightenment can mean, more simply, being at peace with yourself and the world.
Featured Yogis in a "stacked" Eka Pada Koundinyasana II: @yoga_james & @gintareyoga