I’m guessing it’s got something to do with the physical practice, or asana as it’s called in Sanskrit. You might imagine a long and lean-looking woman in a downward facing dog. Or the well-defined physique of a man standing on his hands. These images, and what the vast majority of people—including yoga practitioners—would conjure up in response to this question, is actually just a miniscule part of the practice of yoga.
Yoga is a practice of integrating mind, body, intellect and spirit. It is a path of spiritual and personal growth. It is a process whereby we learn to connect to our deepest, most authentic selves and all the selves that walk this earth with us.
That might sound pretty lofty and esoteric. But the practice of yoga, as broken down and defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—one of the quintessential texts of all of yoga history and philosophy—is actually an accessible path of living that even the most skeptical among us can use to great benefit.
The Sutras provide an eight-limbed path of yoga, and asana is only one of the eight limbs. Thus, if we consider the state of modern yoga, most practitioners are only engaging with one-eighth of the practice.
The eight-limbed path begins with the yamas, or external restraints. These are five guidelines focused on how we relate to the world around us. There is ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (non-excess), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The second limb is the niyamas, or internal restraints. These are five guidelines focused on how we relate to our own selves. There is saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender).
By learning and then incorporating the yamas and niyamas into our lives, we start to live more in alignment with our highest values. And when we do so, life feels a little more peaceful, regardless of the vicissitudes of daily life.
The third limb of yoga is asana, the physical postures. This is the part of the practice we typically see glorified on Instagram and other social media. Particularly when it is practiced in concert with the other limbs, though, asana is an amazing way to keep the body supple, strong and full of vitality.
The fourth is pranayama, breath control. The breath is an incredibly powerful force in regulating our physical and emotional selves. If you’ve ever stopped to notice your breath when you’re feeling anxious or angry, it’s inevitably been shallow. By deepening the breath, you literally send a signal to your brain to slow down, to move from the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) to the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). When we learn to shift ourselves to the parasympathetic nervous system, we are poised to move through the world with more self-awareness and grace.
Next along the yogic path is pratyhara, sensory withdrawal. While in ancient times this limb was practiced by retreating into the nearest cave for days on end, modern yogis can find refuge from the incessant stimuli that continually confronts us by finding pockets of stillness and quiet in our lives. It is only when we get still and quiet that we can truly get in touch with our deepest selves, the part of us that knows who we are apart from the trappings of our professional and personal lives.
The final three limbs of yoga pertain to the practice of meditation.
For the ancient yogis, meditation was yoga, plain and simple. The asana practice was simply a means to this important end: Make the body flexible and supple enough so that it could sit comfortably for prolonged periods of meditation.
The sixth limb of yoga is dharana, or concentration. Here the practitioner finds the power of a focused mind by repeatedly drawing the attention back to the point of focus (perhaps a mantra, the breath, or even a physical sensation).
The seventh limb of yoga is dhayana, translated as meditation itself. Here the process of interiorization—going inward to our truest selves—deepens. There are countless meditation methods to achieve a deepening of our spiritual practice. What the various meditation practices have in common is that they bring the practitioner more fully into both her individual and her universal self.
Thus, the practitioner starts to feel into the truth of the idea that we are all connected, simply by virtue of the fact that we walk this earth simultaneously.
Moving from the transcendental to the mundane, meditation has the added practical benefit of helping the practitioner develop space between stimulus and response. When the yogi cultivates the ability to reflect and respond rather than simply to unthinkingly react to that which arises in her life, she will know more peace and spread more peace.
The final limb of yoga laid out in the Sutras is Samadhi, or enlightenment. It can be said that most of the time, we are like waves who have forgotten that we are part of the ocean. In Samadhi, though, we realize that we are the ocean. We feel in our bones that what we once perceived as separation between us is illusory.
Much of the eight-limbed path may sound aspirational rather than attainable. That’s perfectly okay, so long as we recognize that even the smallest of steps along the path can create tremendous movement in our quests to live our best lives, to become our best selves.
If we can start to dip our toes into the practice of yoga—whether by cultivating compassion for another, gratitude for the gifts in our own lives, or simply finding some time to sit in stillness and appreciate the sensation of our breath—we are practicing yoga.
Sindy Warren is a certified yoga and meditation teacher and a lifelong student of the practice. She is passionate about sharing the wisdom and beauty of the practice of yoga with others. In her new book, Radi8: Using the Practice of Yoga to Cultivate Your Inner Shine, she makes a persuasive case for the continued relevance of the philosophical underpinnings of yoga for the modern yogi and even simply the yoga-curious.
Editor: Dana Gornall