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 Yoga: What is Yoga? 
 
All people wish to be happy. This seemingly simple desire appears to elude the best-intentioned efforts of even the most intelligent among us. Yet almost everyone has had glimpses of deep peacefulness when they have felt connected both to themselves, to others, and to nature. Curiously, the state of feeling good and whole does not seem to be something we can order up on demand but rather appears to happen spontaneously.

In such moments we experience a sense of translucence such that that which we see, feel, sense, hear, or touch no longer feels separate from us but is experienced as a part of our own totality. When our hand resting over the heart of the beloved merges and becomes one with his or her body, when we become the same midnight sky that fills us with awe, we remember, however briefly, our place in the scheme of things. These brief flickers of remembrance imbue our vision with freshness and innocence so that we can see things as they truly are.

Because these moments of lucidity are so blissful, we wish that they may become the base state of our lives rather than the brief and oftentimes tenuous experience to which such happiness is usually assigned. These moments of clarity have nothing to do with the caricatures of happiness presented to us through the media or popular culture. These moments have always been there. The beloved's heartbeat and the sky have always been there. These moments are simply awaiting our arrival.

Yoga is a technology for arriving in this present moment. It is a means of waking up from our spiritual amnesia, so that we can remember all that we already know. It is a way of remembering our true nature, which is essentially joyful and peaceful. Developed as a pragmatic science by ancient seers centuries ago, yoga is a practice that any person, regardless of age, sex, race, or religious belief, can use to realize her full potential. It is a means of staying in intimate communication with the formative core matrix of yourself and those forces that serve to bind all living beings together. As you establish and sustain this intimate connection, this state of equanimity becomes the core of your experience rather than the rare exception.

Through observing nature and through intense self-observation and inquiry, the ancient yogis were able to codify the conditions that must be present for realizing our intrinsic wholeness. Although such realization can occur spontaneously, more often than not it is the result of a sustained commitment to practice over a lifetime. This is not to imply that yoga is a goal which we strive toward, or that there is some kind of chronological progression toward "self-improvement." Rather, it is the recognition that each individual can achieve understanding only through his own exploration and discovery, and that all of life is a continual process of refinement which allows us to see more clearly. When we clean the windshield of our car, we suddenly see the road ahead as bright and defined. The road, the image before us, is exactly as it was before we cleaned the window. The trees are the same green, the sky the same vivid blue, and the markers just as defined, only now we see what is there. We start to be able to see the potholes in the road ahead and to avoid them. We start to remember such dangerous roads and steer our way clear to safer routes in the future.

In the same way, yoga is not about self-improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world. This tenet is an extremely important one because the effort to change and improve ourselves is fraught with the risk of subtle self-aggression that only produces more unhappiness. We cannot strive toward something that we already are.

Nonetheless, there is work to be done. And this work is not about following a formula, or strictly adhering to rules, because yoga is not a paint-by-numbers affair. Nor does yoga require blind faith in an outside authority or dogma. Nor is it a religion, although the practice of its central precepts inevitably draws each individual to the direct experience of those truths on which religion rests. Rather, yoga is a way of living and being that makes real happiness possible. Yoga is also a science that incorporates a broad range of practices and techniques that can be tailored and adapted, to best suit your personal constitution and personality. We are not asked to believe anything until we have experimented, tested, and found our direct experience to be sound.

The great paradox of this "work" is that there is no reward to strive toward, because the practice is the reward. In the very moment you focus your attention by coming back into your body, your breath, and your immediate sensate reality, you will experience a deep sense of vibrant stillness. This feeling is so pleasurable, so joyful and revitalizing that you will be drawn toward lifestyle choices that nourish your well-being. This work is not about forcing yourself to give up anything, because that which is no longer nourishing to you will gradually drop away effortlessly. There is no waiting and no delayed gratification because yoga is both the means and the result, and the seed of all that is possible is present at the very beginning. This experience of stillness is possible in the first ten minutes of your first yoga class. It is possible in this very breath. Sadly, if we approach and practice yoga with the same cultural dictum of striving and effort, force and self-coercion that we may have applied to other aspects of our lives, we may practice diligently for decades while never allowing our self to appreciate the simple truth of its own wholeness.

Although there are many branches to the tree of yoga, from devotional methods to more intellectual approaches, from schools that emphasize service toward others to those that focus on physical purification, Patanja Sutras, clearly defines an eight-limbed path (ashtanga) that forms the structural framework for whatever emphasis upon which an individual wishes to concentrate. The Yoga Sutras, or "threads," consist of four books produced sometime in the third century before Christ. Such was the clarity of Patanjali's vision of wholeness that he consolidated the entirety of yoga philosophy in a series of 196 lucid aphorisms. Each thread of the Yoga Sutras is revealed as a part of a woven fabric, with each aphorism merely a mark or color within the whole pattern. The threads, however, begin to make sense only through a direct experience of their meaning. This is not a linear process but rather an organic one in which colors and markings gradually become more clear until a pattern forms. And this pattern that Patanjali weaves for us is a description of the process of unbinding our limited ideas about ourselves and becoming free.

The eight limbs of yoga are traditionally presented as a hierarchical progression, but this linear progression toward an idealized goal tends only to reinforce the dualistic idea that yoga is something to "get." It may be more helpful to imagine the eight limbs as the arms and legs of a body--connected to one another through the central body of yoga just as a child's limbs grow in proportion to one another, whatever limb of practice we focus upon inevitably causes the other limbs to grow as well. People who begin yoga through the limb of meditation are often later drawn to practice more physical postures. Those who are drawn to vigorous physical practice later find themselves being drawn into the quieter, more meditative practices just as each limb is essential for the optimal functioning of your body, every limb of yoga practice is important. Growth in practice happens naturally when a person is sincere in her wish to grow.

The eight limbs emanating from a central core consist of the following:

Yamas and Niyamas: Ten ethical precepts that allow us to be at peace with ourselves, our family, and our community.

Asanas: Dynarmic internal dances in the form of postures. These help to keep the body strong, flexible, and relaxed. Their practice strengthens the nervous system and refines our process of inner perception.

Pranayama: Roughly defined as breathing practices, and more specifically defined as practices that help us to develop constancy in the movement of prana, or life force.

Pratyahara: The drawing of one's attention toward silence rather than toward things.

Dharana: Focusing attention and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.

Dhyana: Sustaining awareness under all conditions.

Samadhi: The return of the mind into original silence.

The greater part of this book on yoga will focus on the most down-to-earth practices--the asanas and the practices of breathing and meditation. These form an embodied approach to spiritual practice, where we use the body and all our sensual capacities in the service of regeneration and transformation. This is contrasted to many approaches in which the body is seen as an obstacle that must be transcended. Let us first look at the core principles for living, the yamas and niyamas that form the central vein from which all other yoga practices spring.


The Ten Living Principles
The first limb, or the yamas, consists of characteristics observed and codified by wise people since the beginning of time as being central to any life lived in freedom. They are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and in a subtler sense, our relationship to ourselves. The sages recognized that stealing from your neighbor was likely to promote discord, lying to your wife would cause suffering, and violence begets more violence; the results are hardly conducive to living a peaceful life. The second limb, the niyamas, constitutes a code for living in a way that fosters the soulfulness of the individual and has to do with the choices we make. The yamas and niyamas are emphatic descriptions of what we are when we are connected to our source. Rather than a list of dos and don'ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest, and, peaceful.

In the West we are taught from an early age that what we do and what we own sole components for measuring whether we are "successful." We measure our success and that of others through this limited vantage point, judging and dismissing anything that falls outside these narrow parameters. What yoga teaches us is that who we are and how we are constitute the ultimate proof of a life lived in freedom. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure success in your yoga practice through the achievement of external forms. This tendency has produced a whole subculture of yoga in the West that is nothing more than sophisticated calisthenics, with those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures being deemed masters. Because it's easy to measure physical prowess, we may compare ourselves to others who are more flexible, or more "advanced" in their yoga postures, getting trapped in the belief that the forms of the practice are the goal. These outward feats do not necessarily constitute any evidence of a balanced practice or a balanced life. What these first central precepts the yamas and niyamas ask us to remember is that the techniques and forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we are.

One of our greatest challenges as Westerners practicing yoga is to learn to perceive progress through "invisible" signs, signs that are quite often unacknowledged by the culture at large. Are we moving toward greater kindness, patience, or tolerance toward others? Are we able to remain calm and centered even when others around us become agitated and angry? How we speak, how we treat others, and how we live are more subjective qualities and attributes we need to learn to recognize in ourselves as a testament to our own progress and as gauges of authenticity in our potential teachers. When we remain committed to our most deeply held values we can begin to discern the difference between the appearance of achievement and the true experience of transformation, and thereby free ourselves to pursue those things of real value.

(Excerpted from Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness ISBN: 0805059709)
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 About The Author
Donna Farhi Donna Farhi is a Yoga teacher who has been practicing for 30 years and teaching since 1982. She leads intensives and teacher training programs internationally. Donna is best known for her unique ability to help......more
 
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