What is Yoga?
Although the true meaning of the word "Yoga" is complex, and has seemingly endless branches and interpretations, the literal translation from the Sanskrit word (one of the world's oldest, most beautiful and enduring languages) means "union" or "to yoke". When we refer to Yoga facilitating the union of mind, body and spirit, we are literally referring to yoking or joining them in a mindful or conscious way. It's the fundamental goal of Yoga, whether it's specifically defined that way or not. Originating from India over 5,000 years ago, it was essentially handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition. It wasn't until around 200 B.C. that the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the teachings into what's known as the "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali". The Yoga Sutras are the basis of today's yoga philosophy and also provide practical instructions on how to achieve the benefits of yoga. The benefits and praises of yoga were also eloquently illustrated in about 500 B.C. by the sage, Vyasa, who wrote the famous Bhagavad Gita. These two great literary works provide us with the first and most significant written definitions of Yoga.
The Yoga Sutrasdescribe the eight-fold (or eight-limbed) path to enlightenment or a purposeful life.All wording in Yoga is in Sanskrit. The eight limbs are:
1stThe Yamas-ethical standards or behavior patterns, describing how we should live our lives. They include: Ahimsa (non-violence "do no harm"), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (self-restraint) and Aparigraha (non-covetousness).
2ndThe Niyamas-an attitude that we adopt toward ourselves regarding self-discipline. Guidelines for good, clean and healthy living. They are: Saucha (cleanliness), Samtosha (modesty, contentment), Tapas (heat/cleansing the body…keeping it fit/healthy), Svadhyaya (self-inquiry) and Isvara pranidhana (surrender to God).
3rdAsanas-the physical postures we practice in yoga. The body is thought to be a temple of the spirit, and as such, we should take care of it as an essential stage of our growth spiritually. As we develop a habit of disciplined practice of the Asanas (postures), we detoxify and purify, and increase our ability to concentrate and meditate.
4thPranayama-breath control or "life force extension". Numerous breathing exercises are practiced to move this energy (prana) within us and rejuvenate the body, even possibly extending our lives.
5thPratyahara-the withdrawal of the senses, directing attention inward…which provides a unique opportunity to look at ourselves realistically. Observing cravings and habits, and thus freeing ourselves from negative traits. Closing the eyes facilitates this inward journey.
6thDharana-concentration of the mind with a directed mental stream of energy and mental focus, focusing on a single thing or a sound. This precedes Dhyana.
7thDhyana-Meditation or contemplation. Completely uninterrupted flow of concentration with a quiet or "still" mind.
8thSamadhi-superconsciousness or a state of continual bliss or ecstasy. A "peace that passeth all understanding". Enlightenment.Yoga has been popularized in the West due to its mysteriously beneficial effects to those who practice it with dedication. Once a "practitioner" (someone who engages in the regular "practice" of yoga) becomes devoted, they consider yoga an incredible gift in their life that they wouldn't want to be without. Yoga is not a religion, although most yoga practitioners find that it enhances and deepens their own religious or spiritual beliefs (whatever they might be) in often profound ways. "Hatha" Yoga is translated from Sanskrit as "sun" (heating postures) and "moon" (cooling postures), and refers to the physical yoga…the "exercise" of the physical postures…yoga of the body. Any yoga where you practice the physical postures is Hatha Yoga, no matter what style it is. There are so many different styles and branches, that we couldn't mention them all here!
What are the 5 Elements and what do they have to do with Yoga?
The 5 Elements (bhutas)in Ayurvedic philosophy (springing forth from the same roots as yoga) are Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether (light, life, consciousness, space). They are found in all aspects of life and in all things. They are wonderful to explore both physically, mentally and spiritually while in the asanas (postures). Interestingly, many other cultures integrate a concept of the 5 Elements, such as the Celtic tradition and the Chinese (although slightly different: wood, fire, earth, metal and water). Not much is actually written about the 5 Elements in Yoga, but they are believed to be represented in the first 5 chakras (energy centres or "wheels of light"), climbing in order from the root chakra to the throat chakra.
The Earth Element(Prithvi)in the body refers to our connection with the earth, the place where the raw elements for our bodies came from. We may bring more "earth" awareness into our yoga practice when we focus on grounding, building a firm base of support, connecting with the earth beneath us. Many times in our lives we become too "lofty" in our thoughts and need to come down to Earth to feel grounded and secure. In balancing postures, for instance, our stability is facilitated through deepening our connection with the Earth. Sometimes the Earth also refers to the Planet that we call home…exploring our connection with our Planet and the beauty and wonders that it holds... which we are all responsible to preserve. The Earth element is represented in the 1st/Root Chakra of the body.
The Water Element(Apah, Jala)in the body refers to the water that flows through our veins, or the circulatory system in the body. Health is only possible as the water element remains flowing in the body. While in our yoga postures (asanas) we may need to consciously increase the flow of blood into a particular area of the body. Sometimes the practice also takes on a flowing action, with one movement fluidly moving into the next. Water has almost magical properties and is essential to life (our bodies are 70% water), with incredible healing and cleansing powers. It is a universal symbol for the soul and is the element representing the 2nd/Sacral Chakra, the area where new life is generated.
The Fire Element(Agni)in the body refers to the internal warmth and heat that is generated in certain postures, especially standing postures, and provides the energy and "will" to go on even when we want to quit. It is the source of light and creates and destroys, symbolizing the soul in many beliefs. In our yoga practice, fire is of particular focus in standing postures and in our vinyasa flows, or in any posture where we wish to generate heat, power and resolve. Sometimes your hand (or your mental focus) may need to be placed in specific areas on your body to generate heat in those areas (i.e. your sacrum). It is the element representing the 3rd/Solar Plexus Chakra...the brain for our body.
The Air Element(Vayu)in the body refers to both the breath and creating space in the body. The breath is the basis of all yoga, since without breath; yoga (or life, for that matter) does not exist. Air is what carries the vital energy or "prana" ("chi" in Chinese philosophy) throughout the body and the universe. It is the essence of all life and can be focused on in yoga practice by literally bringing space or air into specific areas of the body in the postures (such as increasing the spaces between the vertebrae of the spine...lengthening). Pranayama, or breath control, sometimes means prolonging or restraining breath, but always requires a mindful awareness and all-encompassing focus on the breath. To practice breathing techniques is to initiate changes in the psychological, physical, neural and cerebral areas, increasing memory and creativity. It will strengthen your willpower and steady your mind. Air is the element representing the 4th/Heart Chakra.
The Ether Element(Akasha)is most interesting! Lots to explore! Some describe it as a "hypothetical medium supposed to fill all space". Its adjective is "ethereal", meaning: "light, airy, spiritual". Usually in yogic realms we refer to is as "consciousness". As we progress in our yoga practice, we become increasingly conscious. Conscious of our true self, our connection or honesty with our thought patterns and motivations. Sometimes it is achieved by bringing a keen awareness on a particular aspect that we need to become mindful of, conscious or enlightened about. Bringing light where there was darkness. This is when we take our yoga practice "off the mat" and begin to live our yoga practice in everything we do. We become aware of our true selves in all situations, not just "on the mat". Internalizing the Yamas and Niyamas (please refer to "What is Yoga?" above) and making them part of our life and lifestyle. This is not a destination, but rather a life-long process of progress and evolution. In our physical yoga practice we may bring the Ether element into the postures through focusing our awareness into very specific aspects of the posture or the body in the asana (posture). Bringing a focused awareness to, for instance, the internal massage of organs and glands deep inside the body that yoga helps to produce. Like a massage from the inside out. Ether is the element representing the 5th/Throat Chakra.
Movement towards enlightenment begins when we become aware of our true thoughts, motivations and perceptions, an "enlightening" (bringing light to) or "awakening" of our faculties. The knowledge and wisdom lies within, waiting to be discovered. One must often first pass through some very dark realities to get to the place where the truth, or light, resides. Once the acknowledgement takes place, you may begin a process of freedom from negative thoughts and patterns, and ultimately achieve a place of peace, calm and stillness in your inner world. This place of inner peace and calm exists in the spaces between the thoughts. It is truly in the centre of your being, both literally and figuratively, so yoga is about a"Journey to the Centre of Calm", since it is a journey rather than a destination. An on-going journey that we are on throughout our lives, receiving deeper and farther reaching benefits as we stay committed to the yoga path.
This level of higher consciousness (awareness) is practiced throughout yoga class, in asanas, savasana (relaxation), pranayama (breathwork), yoga nidra and meditation...but most important of all... taking our yoga off the mat and living it every day. It is an inward journey, and one that is uniquely personal. Your teacher merely guides you in your individual journey, since you are solely responsible to actually take yourself there.