Although modern yoga practice primarily focuses on the physical practice of postures accompanied by meditation and breathing techniques, traditionally, yoga involved much more than that. For example, Patanjali writes in his ancient text, the Yoga Sutras, that yogic practices are comprised of eight limbs. Thus, the modernized version of yogic methodology that most people are familiar with has actually been simplified a great deal. This can easily be seen in what comprises Patanjali’s eight limbs: Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
The first two limbs comprise moral and ethical values while the next two, asana and pranayama, relate to the body through physical postures and breathing techniques. The next four limbs all have to do with the mind. Many students find pratyahara, the mental withdrawal from the five senses, to be particularly interesting since it combines the external and the internal in a unique way. Dharana and dhyana represent concentration and meditation while samadhi culminates in a heightened form of meditation.
Ultimately, most modern practitioners learn about the deeper ideas that comprise a traditional yogic practice fairly gradually. Most become familiar with certain principles but still only regularly practice asana, pranayama, and limited forms of dharana or dhyana. Clearly, restricting our practice to the poses themselves along with some combination of meditation and deep breathing leaves out a great deal of the internal elements of yoga training.
Although the Yoga Sutras are not the only ancient text that expounds on ideas behind yogic philpsophy, many yoga schools turn to it for its basic information on the mental concepts of yoga. It teaches that in combination with the ethical and physical disciplines of yoga, the yogi’s mind must learn to shed awareness of external factors, which is hard to do with all the sensory input we are used to. After achieving a withdrawal of the mind from the senses, the mind must learn to concentrate. However, this is not the sort of concentration that, say, studying for a test would require; instead, the student must turn that concentration internal. Often, this is done in combination with asana as the student holds a pose and concentrates on what is going on inside the body during that pose.
Eventually, the student will begin practicing meditation but must constantly fight his or her own wandering mind. With the daily onslaught of quick-succession media images that today’s students face, it has become quite a struggle for us to discipline our minds to the art of meditation. This is probably one reason that the mental concepts of yoga do not get as much attention with the practitioners of today. However, as yoga becomes more widespread and better understood, we can expect for these aspects to become more of a regularly taught as part of the yogic disciplines.
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