When I tell people I'm a yoga teacher, one of the most frequent responses I hear is, "Oh, I could never do yoga," followed by some variation of, "I'm not flexible," or "I can't even touch my toes." It's not surprising; when I google the word "yoga" and search for images, what I find are photos of thin, spandex-clad, mostly white, mostly women, demonstrating a physically challenging pose in Instagram-worthy lighting. The thing is, that's a really Westernized depiction of yoga that doesn't do justice to yoga's roots and history.
What we in the Western world think of as yoga -- the poses, or asana -- is one piece of the practice of yoga. The origins of yoga can be traced back to at least 5,000 years ago, but the first systematic classification of yoga is Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, dating back to approximately 200 BCE. Patanjali organized yoga into eight limbs, and asana is merely one of the eight. Here's a brief description of the other seven:
Yamas: social ethics
Niyamas: personal ethics
Pranayama: breathing practices
Prataharya: turning the senses inward
Dharana: focused attention
Samadhi: bliss or enlightenment
Together the eight limbs are so much more than a physical exercise. They are more of a blueprint for living.
I'm not suggesting that if you enjoy the physical practice of yoga you aren't doing it right. What I am inviting you to do is explore all that yoga is, and to honor its roots.
I'm not suggesting that if you enjoy the physical practice of yoga you aren't doing it right. What I am inviting you to do is explore all that yoga is, and to honor its roots. I practiced the physical shapes of yoga on and off for probably 20 years before landing in a studio where the teachers referenced the other limbs of yoga, and it was a life-changing realization for me.
You don't need to become a student of yoga history or enroll in a yoga teacher training program to begin to incorporate these practices into your life. In fact, you're probably doing some of these things already and not labeling them as practicing yoga. For example, when you extend compassion to yourself and others, or when you are truthful in a way that is also kind, you're practicing the yamas. When you practice self-awareness or you find contentment with who you are and what you have as enough, you're practicing the niyamas. When you are breathing and you notice that you are breathing, you're practicing pranayama.
So for those of you who love hot yoga or enjoy building up to performing a handstand, that's great; also, I invite you to explore how you can take your yoga practice off the mat. And for those of you who have never set foot into a yoga studio and have no desire to put your leg behind your head, I invite you to consider that there may be a yoga practice that is a fit for you.
If you're interested in trying out some gentle physical movement paired with some of the other practices of yoga, you can join me on Zoom on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month. Learn more and register below.