We have been writing off and on this year about yoga’s ethical foundation, the yamas and niyamas, and how they inform our Christian faith. But we thought we had better back up and put them in context. The yamas and niyamas are part of yoga’s eight fold path, or “limbs” of spiritual growth. Over the next few weeks we’ll be writing about each of the limbs and showing how, in total, they form a transformative spiritual path for all, regardless of whether you are churched, unchurched, or a none.
The yoga sage Patanjali, in the 2nd century of the common era, wrote a series of short aphorisms about the practice of yoga, referred to as the yoga sutras. The practice of yoga as a spiritual practice had originated thousands of years earlier, some say as early as 5,000 BCE. Patanjali’s sutras capsulized the wisdom from the ancient yoga practices, but did so in a particularly non-religion specific way, although the sutras clearly anticipate connection with the divine. There was vast religious diversity on the Indian subcontinent when Patanjali wrote the sutras. Clearly he saw yoga as a spiritual discipline benefiting all who practiced it, regardless of individual religious beliefs.
In the yoga sutras, Patanjali outlined the spiritual technology of yoga, referred to today as the eight limbs of yoga or ashtanga. And while we love, love, love our asana practice, you’ll notice that asana is only one of the eight limbs. What we particularly appreciate about Patanjali’s eight limbs for spiritual growth is how the practice informs and uplifts our own Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Like meditation techniques that may be applied in either a secular or religious fashion, the eight limbs of yoga are experienced more deeply and profoundly when they are joined with one's own faith and beliefs.
The first four limbs of yoga prepare our body and mind to be joined to the spirit. The path begins with the ethical foundation of the yamas (right action or principles) and the niyamas (right practice or observances). There's lots of similarities here with the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Next comes asana, right posture. Asana is what we most commonly associate with yoga today, the physical practice that prepares our body for meditation. After asana comes pranayama or breath work. In yoga, as in our Judeo-Christian heritage, the breath is key to joining the body to the spirit. Consider the following words that may be translated either as spirit or breath: ruach (hebrew), pneuma (greek) and spiritus (latin.)
The next four limbs of yoga open us to God’s healing presence. Pratyahara is the practice of sense withdrawal, becoming still so that we may hear the voice of God. We start exploring pratyahara when we are in savasana. Dharana is the practice of concentration or focus: being present. When we practice mindfulness we are exploring dharana. Dhyana is the practice of meditation, awareness free from body and ego. We practice dhyana when we practice centering prayer and surrender our will to God's. At the top of the tree is Samadhi--the practice of contemplation. Every time we experience God within us and surrounding us, resonating through our complete being, we experience samadhi--abiding in God as God abides in us.
Next week: Yoga’s Ethical Foundation – The Yamas and Niyamas