For a lot of people, yoga is limited to the practice of ‘asana’. Twisting and bending into impossible knots excites everyone and it is often the ultimate goal. But yoga is not limited to and is certainly not defined only as the performance of complex postures. The vastness of what can be described as yoga is beautifully detailed in the ‘Yoga Sutra’ by Maharishi Patanjali. The book consists of 4 chapters and 196 verses, the first of which is exponentially meaningful and intriguing. The very first of these sutras is Atha Yoga Anushasanam- Now the discipline of Yoga! Understanding this particularly brief sutra has changed my life in more than one ways.
Atha= Now; Yoga= Union; Anushasanam= Discipline
I delve into the meaning of the very first verse here because of its significance to all yoga practitioners. At first glance it simply comes across as meaning- Let’s start practicing yoga. But if we look deeper, there is significance to each of the three words.
Atha, meaning now, seems like the least important word in the sutra. In our eagerness to get to ‘Yoga’ we often forget about the ‘now’. A very important aspect of yoga is being mindful of the present. One of the hardest aspects and deepest arms of spiritual practice is staying focused on the here and now. You can only practice yoga now. Even the practice of asanas or postures is designed to keep us mindful of the present. Concentrating on our muscular movement, our breathing pattern or the energy change in our body keeps us tied to the present in a very real way. Atha is, therefore, very meaningful here. It encourages us to be focused on our present at all times. Yoga is not in our past and neither is it in our future but is at the moment that we practice it. Atha transforms yoga into a living and current teaching that is just as valuable today as it was in our scriptures.
Yoga by definition comes from the root word Yuj or Yoke. It means to join together various aspect of human existence (mind and body, prana and jiva, atma and paramatma). So yoga isn’t just asana practice. In fact, Patanjali lists 8 branches or Ashta-anga to the practice of yoga. Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (social restraint, personal behaviour, posture practice, control of breath, withdrawal of senses, concentration, meditation, absorption) make up the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. Different schools of yoga propagate varying ideas about whether these limbs should be followed in a particular order or be done in combination with each other. Personally I believe that the sum total of these limbs is certainly better that any individual limb alone. That brings me to my understanding of the last word in the sutra.
Discipline or Anushasanam is not isolated to the practice of asanas alone. Discipline should be the mantra of all aspects of life. Yoga itself, through advocacy of the eight limbs helps us understand that the inward journey begins when we are disciplined in all walks of life. Our body is the totality of everything that we consume and our mind is a summary of thought we absorb and retain. It takes discipline to control what goes into our body and mind. Even Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita-
“Yuktahara Viharasya, Yukta cheshtasya Karmasu |
Yukta svapnavabhodasya, Yogo Bhavati Dukha-ha||”Bhagavadgita
Regulated eating, sleeping, working and recreation as performance of yoga will diminish pain in life.
As a person who never understood the need for moderation as a youngster, I ended up becoming diabetic at a very young age. My yoga journey unlike most people’s began with meditation, went on to kriya and then I very recently took up asana practice. This gave me time to understand the importance of waking up early, eating in moderation, and never indulging in excesses. Although it took a while coming, I now understand that the practice of yoga is applicable in every walk of life by applying moderation, discipline and mindfulness to everything that we do. This is how we truly become practitioners of yoga.