There are many reasons for stepping on to the mat and practicing yoga. For some, it is a purely physical exercise developing flexibility or improving posture and for others it may be to find a space to work through the physical body towards peace.
For me, it was a need. I was physically ill, having been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or M.E.), stressed out to the max and generally burnt out physically, emotionally and mentally. I remember my first class, having actually left home with plenty of time but ending up walking in late due to my satnav taking me on a wild mystery tour of the local countryside. When I finally arrived at the class, tears burning my eyes, a lump in my throat and fear in my stomach, I just wanted to go home and go to bed.
But the thing is I had learnt that willingness isn’t when you want to do something and are happy to do it. Willingness is when you don’t want to do something even when you know it will be good for you and you do it anyway. So, I stepped on to the mat, despite of the overwhelming sense of wanting to run.
I can’t say anything about my practice was impressive, apart from the fact I was there, but it didn't (and doesn't) need to be. I obviously had no idea of the sequences, the postures, couldn’t turn my neck without pain, was unable to touch my toes and balancing on one leg was nigh on impossible. Everyone else seemed to be floating and extremely bendy and I was like the tin man in the corner. But I actually didn’t care, I literally felt like I had come home.
After a while of practicing in classes and regularly at home, my body, mind and life began to change. Change that was sometimes painful, sometimes joyful but through it all yoga provided me an anchor, my mat became a safe haven and my breath brought peace. I began to wonder if there was more to it and decided to learn about the philosophy of yoga.
Yoga - meaning to yolk, to unify - offers us a way of transformation and after a time of falling over (alot), balancing, stretching and generally feeling healthier and calmer, we may want to move past the branch of Asana and see the different aspects from the tree of Yoga.
A great place to start is with The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which explain yoga of the mind (or Raja Yoga). Considered to be the Father of Yoga, Patanjali is believed to have systemised the already existing practices of yoga in the form of the Yoga Sutras, somewhere between 5000BC and 300AD. There are almost 200 sutras (196), divided into sections regarding Contemplation (Samadhi Pada), Practice (Sadhana Pada), Accomplishments (Vibhuti Pada) and Absoluteness (Kaivalya Pada).
Within the Sutras (Portion on Practice), Patanjali laid out the 8 Limbs, which are the basis of the yoga we have today.
Sutra literally means thread. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are words threaded together and one can expand on them for the benefit of self-examination. The Sutras explain the things we need to do in order to fulfil the aim of Raja Yoga; which is to bring about a thorough transformation of a person.
I believe the philosophy of yoga to be non-shaming and non-discriminatory; rather says it how it is and suggests each and every one of us take personal and collective responsibility for the greater good. I often find it astonishing just how relevant the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are to life in the modern Western World. This is probably because the human condition does not really change; regardless of the outside world.
Today, attachment to the material is dominant. We have never before had such comparative wealth and access to choice and comfort. However, somehow through this, we can forget our true self. The first of the 8 Limbs (1) Yama (Universal morality) and (2) Niyama (Personal morality) offers direction for us to re-connect with our true self and cultivate a deep sense of peace.
In Book 2, v3 of the Sutras, the Yamas are referred to as vows (Book 2, v31) ‘These great vows are universal, not limited by class, place, time or circumstance.’ and by thinking of them as vows, or solemn promises or oaths, they take on a new meaning and reverence. They are practical ways to live in accordance with Raja Yoga and are inclusive to all regardless of prestige, wealth, race, religion or age.
That’s the beauty of yoga. You can take it as far as you want to. Yoga is for everyone and anyone can practice; anyone can learn the science that is yoga. You don’t have to be a gymnast or a spiritual guru - I’m certainly not. But the most important thing I’ve learnt is to show up and keep showing up, have an open mind and an open heart. Then the magic happens.