Yoga is an ancient system of physical and mental practice, supported by a complex philosophy and teachings. Is it relevant to modern-day? And what are the main principles?

What does Yoga mean?

Yoga isn’t just a word, it actually holds a key message in those four letters. Yoga means union. Simple, right? But this union has multiple layers. First, it is union within yourself – mind, body and spirit. It’s why in Yoga practice, we synchronize movement with breath and focus on the present moment. 

The second layer of the meaning is union between you as an individual and the world – everyone in it and, as some may say, the universal consciousness. Whoa! Too spiritual? Ok, imagine it as seeing yourself as a vital particle of the Earth’s ecosystem, it’s like that!

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

The main Yoga teachings are accredited to a man named Patanjali, who lived sometime between the fourth and second century BC. Not much is known about him but his Yoga Sutras is a book at the center of Yoga. Just to be clear – he didn’t ‘invent’ Yoga, he just put the philosophy into a coherent and practical text form.

He also formulated the 8-fold path of Yoga – or 8 limbs of Yoga – which is meant to guide you on your journey of self-development. The first four limbs are very practical and relevant now as ever. The second four are more about your spiritual development, meditation and reaching an elevated state – nothing to sniff at but much harder to put into practice in everyday life.

These are the first four limbs of Yoga:

  1. Yama – a set of guidelines for how we should behave in relation to others and the world around us. Sometimes, they are simply called the ‘don’ts of Yoga’:
  • Ahimsa – nonviolence in our actions, thoughts, consequences of our choices. This is a wide concept covering our diet, how we deal with emotions, our bodies, people around us, and the environment. Essentially, it’s about causing the least amount of harm in any situation.
  • Satya – truthfulness in speech and actions. Or, in other words, not-lying, no dishonesty to others but also to yourself, no skewing or disguising the truth to gain popularity.
  • Asteya – non-stealing, not just of things but also other people’s time, ideas, attention. Aside from the material side of things, this is also something to consider when it comes to our social media lives.
  • Brahmacharya – moderation and discipline when it comes to sensory pleasures. Some people interpret this as sexual continence but it has a broader meaning – it’s not about total restraint but about self-control. You can enjoy life’s pleasures but shouldn’t overindulge and get greedy.
  • Aparigraha – non-grasping, not being greedy whether it’s material greed or for example wanting more and more on the Yoga mat, disregarding your body’s limits and needs.
  1. Niyama – a set of guidelines for how we should conduct ourselves. They are also called the ‘dos of Yoga’:
  • Saucha – cleanliness of body, speech and mind. It teaches us to look after ourselves, both physically and mentally and avoid toxic thoughts and behaviors.
  • Santosha – contentment with what you have. In all situations, we always have something to be grateful for – it’s about appreciating what we have and how far we’ve come.
  • Tapas – cultivating self-discipline, for example with physical practice. This is about self-development and pushing ourselves further. It can be something simple like setting a goal to hold the plank for a minute every morning or meditate for five minutes.
  • Svadhyaya – continuing to study both yoga philosophy and yourself. This guideline encourages us to go deeper, carry on learning and trying to understand yourself.
  • Isvarapranidhana – surrendering to a higher principle, letting go of our ego. It’s basically about acknowledging that there’s more to life than what we have or what we see, that we are a part of the universe.
  1. Asana – you know this one! It’s the physical practice of Yoga poses. According to the Yoga philosophy, your body is your temple. By practicing the postures you are not just looking after it but also quieting the mind.
  1. Pranayama – and you know this one too! It’s the breathing techniques. They don’t just make you feel better, Yogic wisdom teaches us that they rejuvenate your body and can help to extend your life. The latter isn’t guaranteed but working with your breath certainly does have a number of benefits!
  2. Pranayama – and you know this one too! It’s the breathing techniques. They don’t just make you feel better, Yogic wisdom teaches us that they rejuvenate your body and can help to extend your life. The latter isn’t guaranteed but working with your breath certainly does have a number of benefits!

Ok, now we’ve gone through the first four limbs of Yoga. It’s not that mysterious, is it? Essentially, it’s all about living our lives well, looking after ourselves and not being total tools. Most likely, you already follow many of these principles! They are at the core of Yoga and the philosophy teaches us to follow one after another, like a ladder. It means that stepping on the mat for your daily practice isn’t everything. If you fly to multiple Yoga retreats, polluting the environment, feast on animal foods, always use disposable products that end up in landfills or oceans, hoard latest fashion items or gadgets, or pretend to be a different person for popularity, you’ve not yet understood the nature of Yoga. There’s no Yoga-police to slap you on the wrist but it’s a good idea to remind yourself of these principles once in a while for inspiration.

The next four limbs of Yoga are all about the internal work and meditation, and take many years of practice to develop. Here they are for completeness but don’t feel like you have to go that far. Sticking with the first four is plenty!

  1. Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses. Not that you can switch them off but it’s about directing your attention away from the external stimulation and disruption, and focusing within. You may have experienced this in the state of flow – that’s when you’re so focused and absorbed in what you’re doing that you literally can’t hear anything and don’t even notice what’s going on around you. 
  1. Dharana – sustained attention and concentration on an object, body part, imagined picture or sound. This is preparation for meditation – being fully focused.
  1. Dhyana – uninterrupted flow of concentration where you stop being fully aware of your own self. This is actual meditation. We’re getting into the deep stuff now! The difference between concentration and meditation is that when you concentrate, you are still very much aware of yourself and the object you’re focused on. When you enter the meditation stage, the distinction becomes blurry as your mind everywhere but nowhere in particular.
  1. Samadhi – ecstasy! When you enter Samadhi, it is said you transcend your own self and experience bliss, freedom, peace and the feeling of being at one with the Universe. Who wouldn’t want that?

ALSO READ: Too many new terms? Here’s the basic language of Yoga explained.

It may sound a bit far-fetched and only very few people reach the ultimate stage of Yoga, but somehow we can generally relate to wanting that. We know that happiness isn’t in external things. And we know that sometimes adjusting our own attitude is all it takes to feel better. Yoga enables us to get a little taste of just how good we can feel in ourselves. Maybe you started doing Yoga to stretch your hamstrings but somewhere along the way realised it makes you less angry – and that’s essentially what it’s all about.

The three tendencies

Another tasty morsel of Yoga wisdom, very much relevant to our daily lives and training, comes in the form of three natural tendencies, called gunas. These are present in all of us and Yoga teaches us to balance them out.

  1. The tendency towards laziness, lethargy, inaction, material attachment, disinterest, depression.
  1. The tendency towards frantic activity, unbridled enthusiasm, restlessness, change, but also anxiety.
  1. The balanced state, where we have a tendency to see things clearly, feel at peace, be calm, empathic, friendly, in control of our thoughts and emotions.

You can probably recognize these mental states. They are like a lens that either skews your perception or helps you be in charge and get a grip. But how do we work with them?

The ancient teachings have a simple answer that pretty much reflects modern self-care advice:

  1. To reduce the slow tendency, avoid heavy and fatty foods, overeating, sleeping till noon, finding excuses for not doing things, hiding from the world.
  1. To reduce the frantic tendency, avoid over-training, working overtime, stimulants, spicy and sugary foods, impulsive buying, ego-driven decisions.
  1. To increase the balanced tendency – surprise, surprise! – practice Yoga, spend some time outdoors, choose your company wisely, take some time for yourself, eat wholefoods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, remember all the things you’re grateful for.

See? Yoga philosophy isn’t that difficult to wrap your head around. It’s kinda cool how all these millenia-old teachings are still relevant and valid for modern life. 

In a nutshell

You can study Yoga philosophy for years – it has so much to offer. At the same time, the basic principles are beautifully simple. They teach us to look after our body and mind, encourage self-development, healthy routines, diet and sleep. A lot of this may seem like common sense and self-care practice but we do need to remind ourselves every now and then. Yoga simply offers a cohesive system that helps us make the most of the time we have – on and off the mat!

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