there is more to yoga than just stretching

photo model: desiree barlett

I have been teaching yoga for over a decade now.  My practice and teachings have evolved and deepened in a way I would have never guessed when I started the practice of yoga as a teenager.  I began the practice of hatha yoga as most people do in the West, as a means of keeping my body fit, strong, pliable and relaxed.  Eventually I began to use the breathing exercises to help me fall asleep when I was working three jobs, taking 18 credit hours at college, in a long distance relationship and planning a wedding.

It all worked beautifully for me.  As I continued to practice the physical aspect of yoga (theasanas) my body felt better and better.  But, so did my mind and heart.  I wondered what was behind all this.  So I started to study the ancient wisdom of yoga.  I read the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and lots of other texts from the tradition.  I couldn’t get enough.  I wanted to know how it all came to be as well as what the modern yoga teachers were saying about all this.

The ethics and energy behind the physical practice of yoga was amazing and fit right in with my life.  It was like I was learning about something that I had been practicing my entire life.  Only I didn’t know anyone else had done it before.  I belonged.  And that felt good.

I realized that yoga was so much more than asana.  I recognized that I could live my yoga every day, not just when I was stretching on my mat.

I found myself drawn into Spirit, an odd thing for me growing up Catholic.  I don’t think I really knew what Spirit was.  I just knew the Big Guy upstairs who I always had to please.

I resonated with the fact that I could devote myself to something more than me.  That I could serve my family, community and world in a selfless way and receive so many gifts.

Another practice of this yogic tradition, non-attachment to all things, was a difficult task at first.  But, as I came to find more freedom, moksha, through the release of control and stress I realized I was the one keeping me from my ultimate happiness.

The Yoga of Knowledge (Jnana) helped me (and still helps me today) to recognize the difference between truth and untruth.  It allows me to have a moral compass and cultivate my life on my terms while being guided by something all knowing.

The different paths of yoga are not mutually exclusive.  They overlap and my yoga has become one that suits my needs so that I may find connection to the Divine.  Yoga is not about putting your foot behind your head but finding the best route of yoga for your life.  That’s why it’s still around after 5,000 years.  It can be molded to suit an individual without giving up its completeness.

Today, I fluctuate between practicing a lot of asana and very little.  Yet that has nearly zero effect on my yoga.  Postures and stretching only account for one limb of yoga.  Raja Yoga (or Royal Yoga) consists of eight.  And asana is not even the first limb!

I keep my life moving forward in a productive, calm and centered way through:

1. Yama (interaction with the world)

2. Niyama (observances of self-interaction)

My body stays strong and supple with the physical aspect of yoga so I can do the fun things in my life I want to do like skiing and hiking:

3. Asana (the physical yoga exercises)

I keep my energy flowing smoothly and my nerves calmed with:

4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)

I release the distractions of my senses and the world helping me feel more centered with:

5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)

I sit down daily to find focus and concentration with the practice of meditation which lowers my stress levels with:

6. Dharana (concentration, which helps prepare for meditation)

As I sit more regularly I find my center purely, letting go of the stresses of life in:

7. Dhyana  (meditation)

And lastly, when I am calm, centered, focused, not thinking about my body or the outside world, every now and then I find a glimpse of perfection:

8. Samadhi (absorption, where we are one with the eternal and divine, pure bliss)

Yoga is so much more than Westerners give it credit for and so much of the heart of yoga has been removed and is ignored by today’s world.  If you allow yourself to open to its possibilities, yoga can take you to a world that is joyous and pure even if you stay right here in your neighborhood.  There really is nowhere to go but in.

It is part of my dharma to help pass this on to this world.  Let yoga connect you to You.  Open yourself to the possibilities of seeing beyond the postures to a practice of spiritual light, to freedom, and ultimate love through higher awareness and a deeper sense of consciousness.

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