There can be no doubt that in the west we have fallen in love with yoga. But the reason why goes beyond the flashy postures, the nice leggings, and pretty Instagram pictures. It’s that feeling you get after those first few practices, the glimpse of peace and connectedness, which draws us in. Maintaining that feeling over time , seeing progress, and staying motivated to continue the journey, will however depend upon the Yoga that happens off your mat, by embracing a Yoga lifestyle to the fullest.
Asana, the physical postures we practice, are just the tip of the iceberg.
According to the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali yoga has 8 limbs:
*Pranayama/control of breath
*Pratyahara/withdrawal of awareness
*Samadhi/union with the divine.
Asana practice is of course the entry point for most yoga practitioners because the physical body is the easiest thing to connect with and understand. The physical yoga practice can be where we get to know ourselves and start to do the internal work required to extend our yoga practice off the mat and to the Yamas and Niyamas. During Asana practice you will of course start to learn pranayama.
In systems such as Ashtanga Yoga, your focus on the breath, and drishti or gaze point, will introduce you to Pratyahara, as you withdraw your awareness from external stimuli and focus internally. With much practice it becomes easier to concentrate for longer periods of time without distraction, or a restless wandering mind, and at this point Dharana, concentration is achieved. A strong healthy body and a mind capable of this concentration are the essential building blocks for Dhyana, meditation.
As you can see the eight limbs progressively advance from one to the next. But what about those first two limbs, the Yamas and Niymas, if most of us come first to yoga through asana practice? It must be concluded that as the first two limbs they are essential for success in asana practice and all that follows.
The Yamas and Niyamas are observances for ‘right living’ within a Yoga lifestyle.
*Isvara Pranidhana, surrender to God.
Most of these are fairly straight forward pieces of advice to understand, if not always to follow. Certainly they will help to simplify your life and bring a greater sense of peace and happiness. The Yama which seems to be the biggest hurdle to living the yoga lifestyle and the most challenging for many Yoga practitioners to accept and embody is the first, Ahimsa.
Of the first limb, the first instruction is Ahimsa, non-violence. The very first instruction in yoga is non-violence, and so it is from this that everything else must be built upon for success in Yoga! This non violence is explained by many yoga teachers as being kind to yourself and listening to your body. While it could be extended to include that, this is missing the point, and probably avoiding taking about a provocative subject, diet.
Ahimsa is a reminder that every living being is a piece of divine consciousness, and to hurt another is to hurt yourself. This applies to all living beings, including animals, and means that harming or killing, even for food must be avoided. What we choose to eat and nourish ourselves with is the most important thing we do and decision we make. Even yoga teaches that this comes before and is more important than a physical asana practice. As well as being an ethical decision, lowering the accumulation of negative Karma, a plant based diet has countless positive effects on health and the environment.
Yoga is not just an exercise, but a system of living and spirituality. Although I had already been vegetarian for a long time, I noticed many positive benefits when I fully embraced living a Yoga lifestyle. I extended my Yoga practice beyond the mat, by incorporating a Meditation practice and following the Yamas and Niyamas, including a fully vegan diet. My life became simpler and more joyful with less stress, I also feel lighter and stronger when on the mat and made a lot of progress in my asana practice that I previously thought impossible.
While living a Yoga lifestyle can certainly be challenging in the modern world, the benefits far outweigh any minor difficulty. A Yoga retreat can be the perfect opportunity to kick start your journey beyond the physical postures. You can witness the difference a plant based diet makes to your energy and yoga practice, as well as experience the positive side effects to embracing Yoga completely, both on and off of the mat. Experience the joy of living the Yoga lifestyle through the Yamas and Niyamas for yourself!