Yoga 101: The eight limbs of yoga

IMG_0529If you have ever attended a yoga class, you may have come across the term “Ashtanga Yoga“. In this context, “Astanga Yoga” refers to a stream of hatha yoga based on the teachings of Pattabhi Jois (himself a student of the great yogi T. Krishnamacharya), which is characterized by a fixed set of dynamic sequences. While there are three series, normally only the so-called “primary series” is practiced. Pattabhi Jois brought this style of yoga into the Western world. He only died in 2009, so you can see that this school of yoga is a rather new one.

Originally, the term “Astanga Yoga” has quite a different meaning. It goes back to Patañjali, the old Indian sage who wrote down the yoga sutras and refers to astanga as the concept of the “eight limbs of yoga”: each limb corresponds to one step on path of yoga and has a different purpose. Here is a short overview of what the eight limbs are about (The Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar, p. 3, 12-31):

  1. Yama: Universal moral commandments.
  2. Niyama: Self purification by discipline.

In the first two stages, Yama and Niyama, the yogi lays, if you want, the foundations for his path: he follows the common rules of moral for society and the individual, and lives a disciplined, pure life in terms of his body, thought, word and food. „Whether or not to be a vegetarian is a purely personal matter (…) But, in course of time, the practitioner of yoga has to adopt a vegetarian diet, in order to attain one-pointed attention and spiritual evolution“. Niyama also includes the cultivation of a content mind, because this is the prerequisite for being concentrated. „The yogi feels the lack of nothing and so he is naturally content.“

  1. Asana: Posture.

The purpose of the third limb of yoga, āsana, or posture, is to bring steadiness, health and lightness of limb. However, the objective is not just to keep the body strong and elastic, the practice of the postures also trains and disciplines the mind. Further to that, by performing the āsanas, the yogi assumes positions that resemble a variety of creatures at all levels of evolution which should teach the yogi that they all breath the same Universal Spirit.

These first three stages of yoga are hence the outward quests (bahiranga sadhana), before moving on to the next to stages which are called the inner quests (antaranga sadhana):

  1. Pranayama: Rhytmic control of the breath.

The first of these two stages is dedicated to breath (prana), the extension of it (ayama) and its control. The purpose of following a proper rhythmic of slow deep breathing is to strengthen the respiratory system and reduce desires and cravings. The thought is, that by controlling the breath, the yogi can control his mind and can also control its constant movement.

  1. Pratyahara: Emancipation of the mind.

It is the fifth stage, when the process of the withdrawal and emancipation of the mind from the domination of the senses and exterior objects begins. The yogi undergoes a self-examination to learn control his senses and become free of its desires. He can learn to do so by being aware of the qualities that drive him, and will be able to pursue actions prompted by sattva (the ideal, pure or good quality), and will try to eradicate those caused by rajas (the quality of mobility or activity) and tamas (the dark and restraining quality). Ultimately, the sattva quality should remain as the only quality.

The final three stages are also referred to as the „quest of the soul“ as this is what these stages focus on: the Inner Self.

  1. Dharana: Concentration.

The purpose of this stage is for the mind to be focused on one task. There are five states of mental state. It is only in the fourth state (ekagra), when the mind concentrates fully on one thing. The final stage, niruddha, is when the mind leaves behind intellect and surpasses the feelings of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and concentrate fully on the Deity, and its symbol AUM. The Sanskrit word Aum means the best praise or the best prayer, its symbol has many meanings and interpretations, which center around omnipresence, living spirit, creation and the triad of Divinity.

  1. Dhyana: Mediation.

When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the state that arises is dhyana (mediation)“. When the yogi’s mind is illumined by dhyana, this will transform him and he will share its state of lightness, clearness and serenity by becoming „a light unto himself and others“.

  1. Samadhi: A state of superconsciousness.

At the end of the quest or at the peak of the mediation, the yogi’s body is as if asleep yet the mind is fully alert yet beyond consciousness. This state is characterized by a silent feeling of truth and joy.

***

As you can see, the original understanding of yoga goes far beyond the physical practice, it has become known for in the West. While the practice of asanas is an important element to ensure healthiness of the body, it is only one step on the path of yoga. You may choose that this is all you want to take up for yourself. But if you take a deeper look, you may find that there are several other concepts that can also be quite useful to guide you through the  ups and downs and challenges of our hectic daily life, by developing a sort of inner compass of what is right and wrong for you. For example, I have learned to respond much better to what my body and mind need, e.g. when it is time for me to take a break and focus on what I need to recharge my batteries.

If you want to read more about the eight limbs of yoga, you can do this in BKS Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga”, the source for this article.

❤ Kate

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A little introduction into yoga

imageWhile I have been practising yoga for many years now, it always used to be mainly a physical activity for me which also had a sort of calming, meditative effect on me, which I appreciated. When I recently joined a yoga teacher training, I began to learn that there is a lot more to yoga than just its physical side. Following the mission of this blog, I want to share a bit of my newly acquired knowledge and thereby inspire others to look deeper into the story of yoga and what it has to offer. The concepts described below follow the books of A.G. Mohan (Yoga Reminder) and T.K. Desinkachar (The Heart of Yoga).

Why do we speak of ‘Yoga sutra’ and what does ‘yoga’ mean

Yoga is one of the six systems of Indian thought known as darsanas. It originates in the Vedas, which is the oldest record of Indian culture, but it was not systematized until the Indian sage Patanjali wrote it down in a structured “sutra” form. „Sutra“ is a style that uses very few words, but yet captures the essence and is thus very clear.

The word yoga has acquired several meanings. They usually centre around the following: “to unite”, “to attain what was previously unattainable”, focusing all our attention towards the activity we are pursuing at a particular moment, or also “to be one with the divine”. Essentially, it is about being mindful and attentive to our actions, which usually involves change.

Removing cloudiness from your mind and perception

There are some basic concepts that build the foundations of yoga. These include the concept of avidya. Avidya is expressed through its brances of asmita (the ego), raga (having demands), dvesa (rejecting things), and abhinivesa (fear), and through which, individually or collectively, our perception and mind are clouded and we end up feeling dissatisfied with the results of our actions. We want to reduce avidya, as the absence of it is recognised by the absence of unrest or agitation, and an internal feeling of peace.

Everything is subject to constant change

Another basic understanding of yoga is that everything is subject to constant change, a concept which is called parinmavada. The objective of yoga is to lift the veil of the clouded mind to see our deep self within, which is the one thing within ourself not subject to change. Ways of achieving this can be by tapas, to keep ourselves healthy and cleanse ourselves inwardly, e.g. by practising asanas, and pranayama. The second means is svadhyaya, which means inquiry or getting to know ourselves. The third way is the “love of god” or, in practical terms, a certain quality of action which in practise refers to pursuing a career or gain qualifications. It is these three actions that are known as the yoga of action (or kriya yoga).

Reach a state of lightness

Changing something in one’s life is often a motivation to start with yoga. A reason why we feel this way may be that our mind is in the state of duhka. The notion of duhkha refers to a feeling of being restricted in our possibilities, a feeling of being squeezed. The objective of yoga is to eliminate the duhkha and reach a state of lightness and openness within, which is called sukha. Avidya relates to duhkha in that every action deriving from avidya results in some form of duhkha. Duhkha can also be understood by looking at the three qualities of the mind which are described by yoga: tamas, rajas and sattva (all three together are collectively known as the guna). While tamas, the state of heaviness and lethargy, and rajas, the striving for action, restlessness, can produce duhkha, sattva, which refers to a clarity of mind, is the only one leading to a reduction of duhkha. The forces of duhkha limit our feeling of freedom and can limit us. Being aware of these forces within us is one step towards working to reduce duhkha.

***

I am going to stop here, since I am certain this is as much as someone can take when starting to dive into these old yoga concepts. But it already gives you an indication that yoga is, in fact, much more than some gymnastic or breathing excercises.

A much lighter read is A.G. Mohan’s ‘Yoga Reminder’. It is recommendable for everyone who would like to learn more about yoga, its concepts, meanings and different elements.  Here are some quotes of the book that particularly stuck with me and changed the way I used to look at things and approached life:

Unless we cultivate the ability to choose one peaceful thought over other thoughts, we will not be happy, even if all of our wishes are fulfilled“ (p. 11).

From Steadiness arises the possibility of holding to positivity. A scattered mind cannot stay focused on a positive goal“ (p. 38).

To bring steadiness and positivity to the mind, the body, the breath, and our senses, choices, and relationships – this is the goal of yoga“ (p.36).

Reading A. G. Mohan’s book made me realise some perhaps not so fruitful patterns in my lifestyle. The world is always changing around us. So indeed, the only thing we can control is how we approach and feel about these changes. Our minds might want to distract us, but the more steady our thoughts are, the  more complete and content we feel. A scattered mindset can have an impact on our actions, as it diverts focus, and will make it more difficult to keep inner balance and positivity.

I hope this little glimpse into some of the concepts behind yoga will bring you some enlightenment as well.

❤ Kate

Sources:

T.K. Desinkachar: The Heart of Yoga

A.G. Mohan with Dr. Ganesh Mohan: Yoga Reminder – Lightened Reflections

The perks & challenges of the unemployed life

2014-09-27 13.11.00Being without a job is usually considered a uncomfortable, pitiful situation. Of course, one of the main reasons people try their utmost to avoid being unemployed is because they cannot or do not want to put up with the financial consequences. But it appears to me that the second most important reason why people do not want to be stigmatised “unemployed” even though they loath their current job is because generally being unemployed is equated with not performing, not capeable (enough) and unproductive. And no one wants to be thought of that way and be pitied.

However, no one ever pities people who are in jobs which make them feel frustrated, bored or burned out on a regular basis. The difference is: this is how people end up feeling themselves, whereas an unemployed person might acutally be happier than during employment. So the stigmata connected with the status are not actually true. Nevertheless, being unemployed over a longer period of time is draining your spirits and resources, no doubt about that. Here is a list of the five perks and challenges I experienced while being unemployed:

1) No more excuses: “I don’t have enough time for xyz”

Being unemployed comes with a benefit 90% of people claim they never have enough of: time for their friends, family, hobbies or things they have always wanted to do. How often have we read that time is the most precious thing we have? Well, there you go, as an unemployed you have plenty of it. So do not let anybody make you feel sorry for yourself and start doing the things you haven’t had enough time for during your job. This way you will do things you love doing, learn new things and develop new interests, which will give you positive energy and perhaps even new ideas what you want to do with your life. Or what you don’t. If you have been wondering what it is that you really want to do with your life, having the freedom and time to explore different options will show you how much you really care about it. For example, I found out I will not end up becoming a master chef since I just prefer spending my time elsewhere than in the kitchen all the time, even when having plenty of time at hand.

2) Defining your identity without your job

To start with, I am sure there are plenty of people who do not need to learn this lesson because they have never defined themselves very much over their job. Congrats to them. But I have, although less so in recent years than at the beginning of my professional life. If you spend 40-60 hours a week in your job, it just becomes the main element in your life, if you do not have kids, intense hobbies or other engagements on which you spend a large part of your time and dedication.

And second, it is always a challenge to present yourself to a new group of people (or even worse, to a new date) that you are currently unemployed. Without a professional label, one needs to fill the resulting identity vacuum, not only with regard to one’s place in a society, but most importantly to figure out for yourself who your are apart from your job. And this is a challenge much bigger than taking on any new random position, where you easily slip back into the daily routine of an office job, but with a take-away that you may benefit from for the rest of your life.

3) Cleaning up with bad habits and reviewing relationships

Consequences from 1 and 2 will be that you will know better who you are but also who your true friends are. Busy jobs and daily rountine often prevent us from reviewing our relationships, and in fact a lack of time or thought sometimes even solves conflicts before they erupt. Of course, with a lot of time and need for distraction, you may tend to have some unrealistic expectations of your friends, and sure, they may still be busy with their lifes. Nevertheless, you will find out quite soon which of your friends (and it may be those in the most intense jobs and with plenty of other committments) really care about you and want to know how you are holding up, and for which you can change the tag to “aquaintances”.

4) Dealing with loneliness and despair

There is no kidding, at some point not finding an adequate new role will make life very tough, especially if you live by yourself and you do not have people around you with flexible schedules, a partner or really good friend closeby who you can see and call at any time. For me, spending a lot of time all by myself was certainly the biggest challenge of all.  Although I need my alone-time on a regular basis, I am a very sociable person and not seeing anybody (except for talking to a shop assitant/waiter/etc.) for 3-4 days really freaked my out. And the situation was exacerbated due to the fact that all of my best friends live in other cities as I do. I remember the morning before an interview, I actually called one of my best friends from abroad, all in tears, feeling incabable to perform at the upcomming interview because loneliness had dragged my down so far. From that moment on, I made sure never to be alone for more than 2 days as I had realised that the road from loneliness to despair was a very short one for me. Finding myself in this situation allowed me to see how important true and close personal connection was to my happiness and that it was going to be a driving priority in my future decisions in life.

5) Finding a more a more balanced, reflected and positive self

Going through phases 1, 2, 3 and 4 was often great fun but many times also tough and took me to my own limits. It allowed me to build a stronger, more conscious connection to myself and to really appreciate the people that are really close to me in my life. And finally I managed to get rid of the frustration that has accompagnied me many times in almost all of my jobs, and instead I have taken a new friend on board: the optimism to always look at the positive side of things.

Therefore, what I would like to say with this post is that despite financial cutbacks there are a lot of things to gain from being unemployed for a while. Work life will likely be long enough and you may not want to wait to do things in pension which in the end you may not even be able to experience as a happy healthy person So, enjoy the time you have and make the best of it, with a job of without one!

 

A new world

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From one day to the other, the world seems to have changed. I am not sure everyone would perceive it this way but with enough time at hand to follow the events as they unfold, friends in Paris and currently in Brussels, I can’t help but feeling that current affairs resemble a political thriller’s plot.

Terror attacks in Paris. Horrifying. But it is not that we have not seen similar events in Europe before (e.g. most recently Madrid, Brussels, earlier this year also in Paris). But the difference now is that France’s President Hollande decided to coin the attacks not just another act of terror but to declare war und enact a state of emergency of three months. In addition to that, by calling upon the EU’s Lisbon treaty Article 42.7 “mutual defense clause”, France requested help from ist EU Partners. Third, in addition to all the multiple international players concerned, the hacktivists‘ international network Anonymous has decided to step up their efforts in the cyber-aspect of the arena, even if this means cooperating even with those they orginially opposed.

It seems that while technically it is still souvereign France that is “at war”, other European countries are practically forced to acknowledge that as a fact, which leaves me to wonder whether those other countries may be considered to be “the enemy” to the adversary as well.  Furthermore, while all EU foreign ministers have apparently declared their “support” in response to France’s request, this political gesture will yet have to be translated in concrete actions. As for my home country, neutral by constitution and with a rather limited foreign policy agenda,  I seem to have missed if there had been any public debate on the what our “support” will be to France.

6 days later

A few hours ago it was announced that the alleged mastermind of the Paris attacks was one of those killed during an anti-terror operation in Saint-Denis, Paris yesterday morning, which leaves only one attacker left on the run. I am wondering whether this already marks the  beginning of the end of the attention to the subject, like it appeared to be the case earlier this year following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  While France may have done too little back then, we may all have to give credit to Monsieur Hollande and la grande nation now for having moved the fight against the terror organisation up to the top of the agenda of important international players. Furthermore, the joint interest may even bring some parties together at a table which for some could lay grounds for better future cooperation.

While certainly not the core of the problem, Europe and Belgium should remain conscious of the not coincidental link of all the recent events to the Brussels neighbourhood Molenbeek, where several of the recent attacks were apparently orchestrated. Facilitated by what appears to be a result of long-term structural and political failings of the Belgian state, and the Brussels region in particular (some highlighted in Politico here), it seems to be one aspect of the problem that could be tackled “at home”and should thus receive utmost priority and attention from Belgian authorities.

 

Where is my future?

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I have been thinking a lot about my future lately. Not where I want to be in five years, but who I want to be in 25 years. And I am in the privileged position to be able to do so and focus on my own motivations and aims, thanks to my background and the country I was lucky enough to be born in, at the right time. I consider myself very lucky. But not everyone is that lucky.

Refugees too are people who may have been planing their future. They may have already been building it, or they might have already achieved everything they wished for. But then things out of their control happened. And the only way forward may have been to leave and try to find a good place to start over. Every time I am at Vienna Westbahnhof and I see all the people waiting for the next train that should bring them closer to a better future I almost start crying. I cannot even imagine what they must have been through, and what they have left behind – their family, their country, their home, their life. But I understand, that of course they want to go where their chances for a safer, better life are best. And I cannot understand those fellow citizens, who cannot. Wouldn’t we all follow the same approach if we were in their position?

Of course it is scary. Every week, for weeks and months now, thousands of refugees have been pouring into Europe. And there is no end in sight. I don’t really know much about politics in the region but I do understand that the dynamics between the different often religously motivated groups are quite complex, and their strengthening has at least to some extent been fuelled  by external meddling with/removal of regimes and the subsequent absence of  a succeeding stable, broadly supported and legitimate governement. So there will not be an easy fix to the situation. And I truly hope that any interference in the conflict will be multilaterally agreed, preferably led by the UN; I am seriously concerned that any individual moves from certain countries could take the conflict to another international dimension, in particular from the US or Russia.

Europe’s role will most likely center somewhere else. As long as there is no more stability in the region, more people will come to Europe. Europe appears to be the safe haven, the land of opportunities (or at least some of the EU member states). And I believe this is something to be proud of because it has not always been that way. Europe’s history is marked by wars and movement of people from conflict zones. But eventually Europe found a way to move beyond its differences and embrace a joint way forward. The EU.

There are good reasons to support the idea for a more coordinated EU asylum policy and a greater role for the European Asylum Support Office. It is simply not acceptable that countries located at the Schengen borders should take in the  bulk of refugees, in particular not countries like Greece which already have their plate full with their own financial problems, or that others get to refuse taking any at all. So reasonably designed quotas are a good idea, and if some forward-thinking countries like Germany are open to accept more than they would need to, that should be possible as well. I am convinced that the European heads of state and government will eventually find an agreement to a joint approach that should allow effective accomodation and distribution of refugees.

But this will not be enough. The greater challenge will be the subcouncious or conscious fears of the local people. There are great cultural differences, and there are a lot of people arriving. So it is only human to be worried about how these challenges can and will be adressed. But one thing is for sure. Our future is currently not at stake.