When people think of yoga, the first thing that comes to mind is an image of someone doing a yoga pose on a sticky mat. But did you know that only one of the four main branches of yoga involves poses, and poses are just one fraction of that branch? This means that the yoga poses you are familiar with are a very small part of yoga.
If you study the origins of yoga, you will learn that yoga began as a way to reach enlightenment. Of the various methods, only one involved the deliberate and systematized use of the physical body. The others were centered on the path of selfless service (Karma yoga), love and devotion to God (Bhakti yoga), and the study of the intellect (Jnana yoga). In the fourth branch, Raja yoga, steps were taken to prepare the body (and the mind) for long hours of meditation for the purpose of attaining union with the divine.
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the oldest recorded books of yoga, these steps consisted of eight parts, or limbs. The first two limbs are comprised of morals and ethics to guide the yogi toward making the proper choices that foster inner peace, purity of mind, and non-violent actions.
Asana and pranayama (yoga poses and yogic breathing) make up the third and fourth limbs. Asanas are designed to strengthen and cleanse the body, no doubt, but the intention then was to prepare the body to sit in meditation without the distracting attributes of physical pain and ill health.
The following three limbs involve sensory withdrawal, one pointed focus, and then finally meditation. The eighth limb brings the yogi to a state of bliss, and this happens as a result of discipline and mastery of the first seven limbs.
With four branches and eight limbs, yoga in its entirety cannot be defined as just a great workout that consists of planks, core work, and balance poses involving rhythmic breathing and focus. It is an ancient method developed as a way to live morally and ethically. It is a means to clear the mind and strengthen the body. It is a practice of selfless giving, a devotion to God, just as much as it is a path to self-inquiry through the study of the intellect.
If you have never stepped on a yoga mat, it certainly does not mean you have never practiced some aspect of yoga. If downward dog or any other yoga pose is not in your future, but you would still like to practice, now you understand the many ways yoga can be part of your life.
image via celebritydoor.com