Yoga is More Than a Physical Practice -- Here's How You Can Approach Yoga Holistically
“Yoga is not now, nor has it ever been, a practice aimed at physical mastery for its own sake. Nor is it a practice aimed at “stress reduction” so we can function as better producers and consumers in a capitalist society.” - Susanna Barkataki
When I first decided to try yoga, I thought it was exactly what I needed to help me deal with the stress of going through a divorce. I didn’t expect it to be a “good workout”, but I also thought it would be a chill class involving a lot of stretching that would help me physically calm my nervous system. Within the first 15 minutes of class, I realized that yoga could actually be a physically challenging exercise -- a.k.a. “a good workout.” For almost two years, I practiced yoga several times a week for the stress relief and the sweaty workout. I never had a teacher that talked about yoga much beyond the physical poses and using the ujjayi breath. (For those not familiar with that term, it involves breathing through your nose with your throat constricted so your breath makes a rushing noise.) Even when teachers would talk about linking the breath to the movements, there wasn’t much explanation behind it -- it was just something you did in yoga. I purposely avoided any teachers that would chant “OM” before or after class because it felt inauthentic to me, and I never had been given a good explanation as to why that was included in the class. To be fair, I didn’t do any research on yoga to better understand it or how I could deepen my understanding of its roots and the practice of it. While I knew that yoga wasn’t just a physical activity, I only tapped into that aspect of yoga because that is what was portrayed to me as yoga in the classes I went to, in the ads I saw online and in magazines, and from the social media “influencers” that I followed. That was until I went to my first yoga teacher training.
It was at this training I realized that yoga was an all-encompassing practice of the mind, body, and spirit. We did a physical practice everyday along with breathing exercises and meditation. We also had daily lectures and discussions on the history and philosophy of yoga, including the paths of yoga and the yoga sutras. I am definitely no expert, but I am grateful that I have a more complete understanding of the practice. Knowing more about yoga has helped me to “take the yoga off the mat” (as some say) and apply it to my life in ways that make me a better person. And I firmly believe that everyone who does the physical postures of yoga (known as the asanas) will benefit immensely from learning more about its other aspects. So let me give you a crash course in yoga as a whole and how you can start to incorporate the other parts of yoga into your everyday.
Yoga Philosophy: The Yoga Sutras
(Important note: this is a quick, beginner’s guide to yoga philosophy and specifically the yoga sutras/eight limbs of yoga. There are scholars who have dedicated their lives to better understanding this philosophy, and I’ve listed some of my recommendations for where you can learn more on this topic. Please don’t stop with just this post.)
Quick history lesson: evidence of some form of yoga dates back to 4000 BCE. And while there was some early yoga philosophy that pre-dates the Yoga Sutras, it is widely accepted that the Yoga Sutras, written by the ancient Indian sage Pantanjali somewhere between 200-400CE, are the basis for modern yoga.
What are the Yoga Sutras and why are they important? The text of the Yoga Sutras comprises 196 brief phrases that are divided into four sections (consciousness, practice, powers, and liberation). It is meant to serve as a guide on your spiritual journey. In it, Patanjali outlines the obstacles you may face:
Excessive attachment (raga)
Excessive hatred (dvesa)
Fear of death (abhinivesha)
Reading through the list, it becomes pretty clear how and why these are obstacles to personal and spiritual growth. Luckily the sutras continue beyond just naming the pitfalls to become a guide to overcome them. This is where the eight limbs of yoga come in.
Yoga Philosophy: The 8 Limbs of Yoga
The eight limbs of yoga is where the mind-body-spirit connection of the practice really comes together for me. As you read through these, make a mental note of what aspects are things you already do and what are areas that you could improve or want to learn more about.
Yamas: ethical values and moral restrictions.
Ahimsa - nonviolence and compassion
Satya - truthfulness, including being genuine and authentic
Asteya - not stealing (both material things and others’ ideas, time and peace)
Brahmacharya - moderation
Aparigraha - not being greedy
Niyamas: disciplines and moral practices for how you should live your life
Saucha - purity of body, mind and environment
Santosha - contentment and accepting what is
Tapas - self-discipline
Swadhyaya - self-study/Introspection
Ishvarapranidhana - recognition that there is a force larger than us
Asanas: physical poses/practice. Besides the health benefits, the asanas are used as a tool to steady the mind and emotions (particularly in preparation for meditation.)
Pranayama: breathing exercises that can be done in conjunction with the asanas as well as alone. Breathwork is used to prepare the mind, body and nervous system for deeper concentration.
Pratyahara: shifting your senses and awareness to your inner world from external stimuli.
Dharana: concentration by bringing your focus to one point; meant to train for meditation.
Dhyana: meditation; be present.
Samadhi: union with the Divine; enlightenment
The eight limbs are laid out in such a way that the first four limbs are meant to prepare the body and mind for the next three with the goal being the last limb. Because I find enlightenment to be a lofty and somewhat nebulous concept, I’ve personally come to interpret the eighth limb as the goal of connecting with the universe, source, God, universal energy (or however you name the “something bigger than yourself”) in a way that I’m no longer holding on to my ego and identity. Still an incredibly high goal, I know, but I find that it’s easier to catch glimpses of what it might mean to drop my attachment to the idea that I’m separate from everything/everyone else and want to feel a connection to something bigger than myself.
How to Incorporate These Practices into Your Life
June 21st is International Yoga Day so I usually take time each June to reflect on my practice of yoga and where I’m at in my personal journey as it relates to the eight limbs of yoga. Here is my process for checking in on my yoga practice.
1. Become familiar with the 8 Limbs of Yoga through additional reading - This post is just an introduction that hopefully inspires you to learn more. Between podcasts, books, and articles, there is so much out there for you to go deeper into understanding each of the eight limbs.
2. Reflect on each of the limbs - For me, this is about reading a little on each of the limbs and jotting down notes in a journal of whatever comes to mind as I review each limb. This helps me for steps three and four.
3. Pick one of the yamas or niyamas to focus on for a few weeks or months - I go on a gut feeling for deciding which to focus on. Usually when I review the yamas and niyamas one will stand out as something that either triggers me (usually with feelings of shame) or jumps out as a value that I want to cultivate. Once I pick what I will focus on, I set a daily reminder for five minutes at the end of each day to reflect on how I embodied that characteristic during the day and instances where I could improve on it. It helps to have a journal to take some notes.
4. Decide if there is another limb you want to spend more time working on for a few weeks or months (beyond the yamas and niyamas) - Usually after reflecting on the limbs, I’ll notice that I felt inspired to incorporate a daily breathwork practice or find ways to be more present in my daily life. If there is another limb that I want to focus on, I set aside 5-10 minutes each day to practice it. For example, I’ve recently been working on being present (dharana) when I’m having conversations with family and friends by turning my phone on silent and putting it out of sight.
5. Set a calendar reminder to spend time at least once a year on reviewing yourself through the lens of the eight limbs - Yoga is lifetime practice. Even though I like to think I’m perfect sometimes, I think we can all agree that, as humans, we will always have room for growth. Spending time each year on your development through the lens of the eight limbs of yoga can only help you on your journey.
Being completely honest, I still focus a lot of my yoga practice on the physical or asana limb. But at least once a year, I will pull out my teacher training notes and read a book on yoga philosophy to check-in on myself and my personal growth. I’ve found that it’s very easy for me to do the physical practice and the breathwork as both of those things bring a more immediate, positive shift in how I’m feeling. But it has been interesting for me to notice when my attention is pulled in multiple directions so I can bring it back to one point of focus (dharana or the sixth limb), which leads to me being present (dhyana or the seventh limb). And while I believe that I’ve made overall progress on the eight limbs of yoga, this practice is not linear. For example, take self-study (swadhyaya) of the niyamas (second limb). I have times that I actively avoid being introspective because I don’t want to acknowledge the faults that I have and the work that I need to do. But when I recognize this, which becomes apparent when I review the niyamas, I make it a point to be more introspective.
Ultimately yoga, all of its limbs, is called a practice for a reason. I think it is very important to remember that. Whether or not you reach enlightenment, I believe that the personal growth you will experience by taking a more holistic view of yoga is worth it.
Want to learn more?
A Seeker’s Guide to the Yoga Sutras by Ram Bhakt
Embrace Yoga’s Roots by Susanna Barkataki
The Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar