Yoga is a mind-body practice, a moving meditation, it involves an piece of spiritual awakening and self-understanding that goes beyond the physical activity on the yoga mat. Setting an intention can bring your yoga practice to a deeper level. An intention can guide your practice as you stretch through increasingly challenging asanas (poses). An intention can also help direct your actions and decisions off the yoga mat to help you make more sound decisions, feel calmer and have an overall peace of mind.
Often in a yoga class an instructor will invite students to silently set an intention for their practice. Even if you practice at home on your own, you can still take a moment to set your focus during practice, as well as in your life. An intention can be a simple word you dedicate your practice to that represents a value you'd like to bring into your life. For example, love, trust, openness, compassion, truth or tenderness. Powerful intentions directly address feelings you'd like to modify. Feeling weak? Set strength as your intention. Feeling unsure? Go with belief.
To be fully effective, intentions are not a once-uttered wonder. During your practice, perhaps during your most challenging pose (Wheel or Shoulderstand) remember that intention, whether it be strength or belief in your abilities, and allow it to guide you through the posture. In the same way, when you are having difficult times in life, once your intention is set you'll be able to use it when you need it; to guide your decisions and actions and base them on your values. Intentions can keep you grounded so that you can connect with your true self, no matter what comes your way.
Intention vs. Goal
What really sets an intention apart from a goal is how an intention comes from a place of presence while a goal is a future plan of the mind. An intention represents your authenticity in the current moment and stays with you for as long as you need it. A goal, however, you have to use your mind to create images of what you want your future state of being to look like, which may or may not be a reflection of your authentic self/truth. While you may work hard to achieve certain goals, achieving them won’t necessarily keep you content or satisfied for very long afterward if you didn’t set an intention first.
Another way to look at intention in the setting of yoga practice is to ask yourself why you practice daily. What were you hoping to achieve? If you answer these questions with an open mind and heart, you will find your intention. When you begin to understand what you are seeking from your yoga practice, you can see how to direct energies and actions. Your intentions may change over time as you grow. Take the time to listen, and you will always discover your intention.
Yoga can be transformative, and though the advanced yoga postures are in fact difficult to the beginner, the changes that yoga can bring into one’s life belie the apparent simplicity of just stretching muscles. After all, we stretch muscles at the gym during a warm up. So, what is the difference between yoga and regular workouts? Yoga integrates the breath with movement and consciousness with physical stretches as a way of strengthening the internal muscles of the body; particularly the pelvic floor.
In yoga, through the breath, and focusing on it within our body, we come to a greater understanding of both our body and ourselves. We begin a more conscious relationship with our individuality. We meet that unique expression of ourselves expressing physically in that moment. We can begin a process of changing that which is blocking the vital flow of our energy.
That is why it doesn’t matter what state we are in when we begin practicing yoga. We might not be flexible, or perhaps we are in pain, or distracted. It is a journey of discovery, not of trying to fit ourselves into an external idea, even if that idea is represented in that moment by the yoga posture we are trying to do. T.K.V. Desikachar (son of the great yoga master Sri Krishnamacharya ) wrote that the body can “only gradually accept an asana”. We should not strain ourselves, or judge ourselves, if we cannot fit into that posture. That posture is a possible outcome, yes, but what we do in our practice of yoga is to take the journey.
T.K.V. Desikachar makes another important point: “We should remain flexible so that we are still able to react to changes in our expectations and old ideas. The more distanced we are from the fruits of our labors, the better we can do this… Paying more attention to the spirit in which we act and looking less to the results our actions may bring us – this is the meaning of Ishvara pranidhana—surrendering. ”
The asanas are a way of preparing us to more fully meet the challenges of life in a way that does not throw us off balance, but increases our capacity to adapt to those changes that are inherent in life. They allow us to be more sensitive and aware to what is really going on inside and in life itself. This growing self-knowledge then provides us with a complete picture in which our responses to whatever situations confront us more accurately reflects what is truly present. There is a deeper engagement that goes beyond the wandering of the mind, the self-doubt, the domination of our preconceptions and expectations, or our need for something to be a certain way.
When we are distracted or preoccupied with doubt, worry, fear, and even hope that is attached to an outcome (need), the vital energy of our whole being is leaking, diffused. Through yoga practice, we can clear the debris, to redirect our subtle energy within, to sit within the body, our being, again. This is an energetic aspect of self-mastery. Integral to this is the knowledge of oneself as whole, and simultaneously a part of the wholeness that is within everything.
References: The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar
While many consider Yoga to be a form a physical exercise, it is also known to be an exercise in spiritual development. Most would agree that the true “goal” of Yoga is to provide the individual with the means to achieve inner peace and balance. To achieve these goals, students are encouraged to become familiar Yoga’s eight fold path. The eight fold path consists of eight disciplines; Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samhadi.
The first fold, Yama, advises students to engage with the world from a moral standpoint, and is actually broken down into five distinct elements. The first element, Ahimsa, teaches the student to respect the world around him. The second, Satya, teaches that one should be honest with themselves and with others. The third, Asteya, teaches not to steal from another. The fourth, Bramacharya, advises against overindulgence of any form. The fifth, Aparigraha, teaches the student to live a simple life that is not distracted by material things.
Niyama, or the second fold, is considered the path of self-restraint and consists of three distinct elements. Shaugh, the first element, teaches students to keep the body and mind clean and pure. Santosh, the second element, teaches the student to be happy and contented with the task at hand and to give an honest effort in all endeavors. Tapa, the third element, suggests that certain pleasures must be given up in order to attain one’s goals.
Asana is the third of the eight fold path, and it is concerned with physical training and building stamina. Asana is made up of 84 yoga poses, which are focused on developing strength, increasing health, and preparing for meditation. This stage is as much about physical conditioning, as it is mental or psychological discipline. Pranayama, the fourth fold, concerns controlled breathing. Proper breathing is important for mastering true relaxation and self-discipline. The proper way to breathe while practicing yoga is to breathe in, and breathe out while pausing in between.
Pratyahara is the fifth of the eight folds, and is concerned with the individual’s control of sensory stimulation. The intent is to induce a sense of inner peace and quiet, by tuning out external stimulation. Dharana is the sixth fold, and it is primarily concerned with focusing one’s concentration on meditation. When a meditative state has been attained the student is then on to the seventh step, Dhyana. The final step, Samhadi, is attained when all previous steps have been completed and the individual experiences a true oneness with all things. The student is, as of this point, in tune with the universal flow.
The term yoga іѕ generally used in the west to mean hatha-yoga practices of asanas (postures), ѕоmеtіmеѕ including pranayama (breathing exercises) and dhyana (meditation). The word yoga derives frоm the Sanskrit word (yuj) meaning union оr tо join. In thе west, yoga іѕ often taken tо mean а union bеtwееn thе body аnd thе mind; whіlе іt originally signifies thе union bеtwееn thе individual self-Atman wіth thе universal soul Paramatma оr Bramhan, аlthоugh different terminologies mау bе used іn different texts.
Yoga and Indian philosophy
Yoga іѕ one оf thе six schools оf ancient Indian Hindu philosophy. Thе оthеr five Darshanas, аѕ thеу аrе called, аrе Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsa аnd Uttara Mimamsa оr Vedanta. Yoga has arisen frоm thе epistemology оf thе Samkhya philosophy, but іѕ more practice oriented. Its primary text іѕ thе Bhagavad Gita. Among оthеr major texts establishing thе basis fоr yoga аrе Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, Upanishads and Hatha Yoga Pradapika.
The goal of yoga
Whіle thе history оf yoga strongly connects іt tо Hinduism іtѕ essence саn bе found іn thе spiritual/esoteric practices оf аll religions аnd оf thоѕе whо do nоt consider thеmѕеlvеѕ аѕ being religious. Thе goal оf yoga, enlightenment оr liberation (moksha) frоm thе cycle оf birth-death-rebirth (samsara) comes frоm thе Hindu tradition. Othеr goals have bееn claimed bу оthеr cultures, аѕ fоr example, аn increase іn wisdom, insight аnd compassion.
For the average person, who considers themselves being far from enlightenment, yoga саn offer а way of increasing spiritual awareness, emotional wall-being, mental clarity and of course physical health. Given that our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual ѕеlvеѕ are one integrated whоlе - оurѕеlvеѕ аnd nоt disparate beings, іt ѕhоuld nоt bе а surprise. An integration оf thе different aspects оf being оr а search fоr thе meaning оf thе self іѕ again а western interpretation of the goal.
Thеrе аrе four main branches аѕ specified іn thе Bhagavad Gita аnd аn array оf combinations. Thе four main systems аrе:
1. Karma yoga аѕ thе path оf selfless work оr action іn thе world
2. Jnana оr Buddhi yoga аѕ thе path оf discernment, knowledge аnd intellectual endeavor
3. Bhakti yoga аѕ thе path оf love, devotion оr surrender
4. Raja оr Dhyana yoga аѕ аn eight limbed path оf discipline emphasizing meditation.
Thе eight limbs оf raja yoga (8 limbs) include:
1. Yama thе five abstentions оf violence, untruth, theft, illicit sex аnd possessiveness.
2. Niyama оf thе five observances оf purity, contentment, austerities, study аnd surrender tо God.
3. Asana means 'seat' аnd originally referred оnlу tо seated postures but have come tо include thе whоlе array.
4. Pranayama the control of breath through various breathing exercises
5. Pratyahara а reversal of the sense organs by turning them inwards rather than outwards
6. Dharana concentration or fixing the attention on а single object
7. Dhyana meditation
8. Samadhi super conscious state or trance
Therefore, asana, whісh іѕ what Hatha Yoga primarily concerns іtѕеlf with, іѕ а small fragment of the enormous content of Yoga.
Today, there are several types of yoga depending on the interpretation of the teacher or the lineage of the specific type of yoga such as Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar Yoga as taught by B.K.S. Iyengar, or Ananda yoga: a gentle hatha style that comes from the lineage of Parmahamsa Yogananda (the author of the classic book, Autobiography of a Yogi); just to name a few. The various styles of yoga is a never-ending list. The style of yoga you choose is your personal decision; so long as you make it a part of your life!
Knowledge (Jnana) does not come about from the practice of yoga alone. Perfection in knowledge is in fact only for those who begin by practice of virtue (dharma). Yet, without yoga as a means, knowledge does not come about. The practice of yogic methods is not the means by itself, yet it is only out of that practice of yoga that the perfection in knowledge comes about. “Yoga is for the purpose of knowledge of truth,” said Shankara.
All things rest upon something else-that is, all things are supported by one another. This is because a foundation is needed for anything to exist. Being Himself the Ultimate Support of all things, God alone is free from this necessity. Yoga, then, also requires support. As Trevor Leggett said in his introduction to Shankara’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras: “This is yoga presented for the man of the world, who must first clear, and then steady, his mind against the fury of illusory passions, and free his life from entanglements.” Patanjali very carefully and fully outlines the elements of the support needed by the practitioner, giving invaluable information on how to assure success in yoga.
The first Yoga Sutra says: “Now the exposition of yoga,” implying that there must be something leading up to yoga in the form of necessary developments of consciousness and personality. These prerequisites may be thought of as the Pillars of Yoga, and are known as Yama and Niyama.
Yama and Niyama
Yama and Niyama are often called “the Ten Commandments of Yoga.” Each one of these Five Don’ts (Yama) and Five Do’s (Niyama) is a supporting, liberating Pillar of Yoga. Yama means self-restraint in the sense of self-mastery, or abstention, and consists of five elements. Niyama means observances, of which there are also five. Here is the complete list of the ten Pillars as stated in the Yoga Sutras 2:30,32:
1) Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness
2) Satya: truthfulness, honesty
3) Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness
4) Brahmacharya: sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses
5) Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
6) Shaucha: purity, cleanliness
7) Santosha: contentment, peacefulness
8) Tapas: austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline
9) Swadhyaya: introspective self-study, spiritual study
10) Ishwarapranidhana: offering of one’s life to God
All of these deal with the innate powers of the human being-or rather with the abstinence and observance that will develop and release those powers to be used toward our spiritual perfection, to our self-realization and liberation.
These ten restraints (yama) and observances (niyama) are not optional for the aspiring yogi-or for the most advanced yogi, either. Shankara states that “following yama and niyama is the basic qualification to practice yoga.” Mere desire and aspiration for the goal of yoga is not enough, so he continues: “The qualification is not simply that one wants to practice yoga, for the sacred text says: ‘But he who has not first turned away from his wickedness, who is not tranquil and subdued, or whose mind is not at rest, he can never obtain the Self by knowledge.’ (Katha Upanishad 1.2.24) And in the Atharva text: ‘It is in those who have tapas [strong discipline] and brahmacharya [chastity] that truth is established.’ (Prashna Upanishad 1:15)And in the Gita: ‘Firm in their vow of brahmacharya.’ (Bhagavad Gita 6:14) So yama and niyama are methods of yoga” in themselves and are not mere adjuncts or aids that can be optional.
The practice of yoga assists the aspiring yogi to follow the yamas and niyamas, not be discouraged from practicing yoga in the present, believing you must wait until you are “ready” to begin yoga. One should should practice yama, niyama, and yoga simultaneously. Success will follow.
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