Taking Yoga Off the Mat
Yoga is as much about practising off the mat as it is on.
Exploring the eight limbs of yoga can help us to live a happier, healthier and more fulfilled life.
The eight limbs of yoga, known as Ashtanga Yoga (ashta meaning eight and anga meaning limb) are clearly defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as Yamas (ethical disciplines), Niyamas (self observances), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyhara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (bliss).
Although here in the west most people come to yoga through the physical practice, asana, the third limb of yoga, the eight limbs set out a right path of living and one which is in accordance with the natural laws of the universe.
This is not to say that it’s a list of do’s and don’ts but more wise advice from a culture which the Vedas (knowledge) are said to be among the oldest sacred texts.
Although generally given in this order, there is no definitive sequence for practising the limbs of yoga and the path which is right and true for an individual will be the one that reveals itself.
Within the first limb of yoga there are five yamas which relate to ethical disciplines and can be considered as our attitude towards our environment.
Reading between the lines, these are not too dissimilar to what the Bible teaches us about the Ten Commandments or the Buddha about the Noble Eightfold Path. The essence of all great teachings carry a simple message which is one of living a greater and more peaceful life which is nurturing to ourselves, others and our environment.
Ahimsa, meaning non-violence, teaches us to be kind and loving towards ourselves and in this way our kindness will extend outwards to others and all living things. This is particularly prevalent when dealing with those less fortunate than ourselves.
The depths to which ahimsa is practised will depend on individual interpretation. For some, and certainly my own interpretation and belief, ahimsa also encompasses becoming vegetarian because the act of eating meat constitutes harming animals.
Satya means truthfulness; to be truthful in all our thoughts, verbal and written communications and actions. When we live by the truth we are in accordance with the natural universal laws and as such all our volitions will be fulfilled.
Asteya means non-stealing; not to take things which do not belong to us. Whilst this includes material things such as property or possessions, it also extends to thought; not being envious of others and desiring what does not belong to us.
Brahmacharya means responsible behaviour; acting in accordance with our highest truths.
This yama is often interpreted to mean refraining from sexual actions. However, it is more intended to mean moderation in all actions, sexual or otherwise.
Aparigraha means non covetousness; only taking from a situation what is necessary and appropriate. This extends to many aspects of our lives including what we eat, therefore, only taking in what our body needs rather than what is desired.
The five niyamas are self observances or our attitude towards ourselves.
Saucha teaches us to keep ourselves clean, both internally relating to a healthy mind and body and externally relating to personal hygiene and the cleanliness of the environment we live in.
This niyama encourages us to seek purity of mind and body.
Santosha means contentment; to feel content with what we have in all aspects of life; from our work to our thoughts and activities. If we can simply be happy with what is, rather than always focusing on what we don’t have we are practising santosha and through acceptance of what is comes joy.
Tapas means austerity; keeping the body fit and healthy, paying attention to what we eat, our habits and keeping a routine which is nourishing and nurturing to our mind, body and spirit in every way.
Svadhyaya means self inquiry; to explore oneself through learning and reflection using reference texts such as the Yoga or the Bible and repeating mantras.
Personal growth is achieved by progressive self evaluation and continued study.
Ishvarapranidhana literally means surrendering to God or divinity; offering our thoughts and actions to something higher than ourselves. Believing that we are part of a greater whole and acknowledging the omnipresence which is our true source.
This niyama is about asking that our actions be wisdom guided by God (or whichever term is right and true for you) and for serving God without thought of reward or reciprocation.
The yamas and niyamas encourage us to take an exploration of self. By observing our actions and behaviour, we can learn more about ourselves and how we interact and respond to others and the world around us.
Although I would encourage studying these two limbs in their own entirety, in my own experience they begin to evolve naturally.
As one begins to practice yoga on the mat, yoga becomes woven, subtly at first, into other areas of our lives.
This is because the practice of yoga unites you with universal consciousness (God, divine or universal spirit) and so any adverse thoughts and actions to your higher self, which is of course at one with universal self, become apparent and you begin to choose to think and act differently and more in accordance with the path the eight limbs sets out.
A few examples I can give would be suddenly feeling at odds with practising yoga on a PVC mat. This is not to say this is wrong, simply that it would feel more ethical and in alignment with the true essence of ahimsa to practice yoga on a more environmentally friendly material such as cotton, natural rubber or TPE.
Wanting to give up smoking or other bad habits such as over eating or drinking alcohol can happen quite naturally through the practice of yoga.
As can choosing a more sattvic (pure) diet, surrounding yourself with more peaceful stimuli and activities and choosing friends and situations which are more in accordance with your higher self.
Of course any change should be allowed to happen naturally as merely trying to force a new way of thinking or being becomes a paradox within itself.
Over time, yoga becomes a way of life rather than just a practice on the mat.
Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) usually happen in unison. When we focus on an object without distraction we are engaged in dharana and pratyahara occurs automatically, we are then performing dhyana.
During the physical practice of yoga we focus on the breath and so can be said to be performing a moving meditation.
Although in essence then, yoga and dhyana can be considered as one of the same thing, the physical practice of yoga prepares our mind for meditation; asana purifies the body and quiets the mind and following pranayama at the end of a practice dhyana naturally follows.
Dhyana can also be practiced at any time simply by bringing your awareness to the present moment and focusing on an object.
In our day to day lives we can apply dharana and dhyana to our actions, both in thought and deed.
By focusing without distraction on just one thing it is possible to perform a series of mini meditations resulting in heightened creativity and clarity of mind.
This can be applied to anything from sitting in the park and focusing on a tree; watching as it sways in the wind completely immersing yourself in the tree, its colour and its form, to the simple task of making a cup of tea. Bring your awareness to the moment you are in and immerse yourself within it. Breathe in and savour the smell of the tea, observe each action you make as it happens.
In whatever you choose to focus on simply observe as though you are your own silent witness, without thought or judgement, being aware of each moment and action as they occur.
By bringing conscious awareness to something so simple you are applying the principles of yoga to your daily life and as you do this in many situations you will find it easier to become more aware of your thoughts and actions, making more positive choices possible.
Change doesn’t occur overnight but to understand how the eight limbs of yoga can become an intrinsic part of your life I refer to the words of the great T.K.V. Desikachar in his book, The Heart of Yoga; ‘on the path of yoga all eight aspects develop concurrently and in an interrelated way’.
For example, through asana and pranayama we might come to know saucha and tapas; becoming healthier by cleansing and detoxing our mind and body.
Over time during asana, pratyahara occurs, leading to dharana and dhyana and through dharana and dhyana we might come to know svadhyaya and ishvarapranidhana, nurturing a deeper relationship with ourselves and higher realms of consciousness.
Achieving samadhi, meaning bliss, is the goal of yoga, when having focused on something without distraction we understand it fully and we become at one with it.
Practising yoga in our day to day lives leads to self realisation and oneness with universal consciousness.
Ultimately, practising yoga off the mat gives us greater peace and happiness within resulting in a happier, healthier and more fulfilled life.
If we adopt a better way of being this has a ripple effect radiating out to others impacting positively on the lives of those around us, our family, friends and people we come into contact with.
Remember, you do not need to improve or change yourself in any way to find this new of being, it is already right there within you. You simply need to seek this greater higher self that is truly who you really are.
Yoga is both the open door and the journey inviting you to discover your true self and enabling you to realise your full potential. Along the way past conditioning, habits and ways of being which do not serve you and are not aligned with your higher self will naturally and effortlessly fall away.
To become a yogi is to live a full life of yoga on and off the mat.
As the great legendary yogi Sri K Pattabhi Jois said “Practice, practice and all is coming.”
Shelley Costello is a freelance writer and author of Holiday Road and Champagne Friday. She has also published several articles with the international Yoga Magazine and is currently writing her third book.
Shelley has a diverse career history in management and marketing and has a passion for creating websites which is part of her freelance services. She is a qualified life coach, yoga and meditation teacher, Indian Head masseuse and has studied Buddhism, nutrition and many other areas of self development.
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