Ancient Texts and Downward Dogs


When Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras came into existence many thousands of years ago,  the thousands of yoga studios now in existence with rows and rows of sweaty bodies on rubber mats striving to achieve the perfect asana was, I am sure, unimaginable. Yet despite such an immense lifestyle changes between then and now, amazingly the message and notion of each of the Sutras feels as though it could have been written yesterday, serving as a salient reminder that we are no different to those that came before us and those who helped to shape our practice today.
Beginning yoga; looking around the room wondering if we are doing the right thing, assuming it is all about the downward dog, an awareness of the vast philosophy is quite often unspoken and unknown, yet after a little time it is not difficult to start to feel as though something within us has changed. Maybe our perceptions and our outlook on life have switched, we are starting to take a little more care of ourselves or just noticing the things, people and emotions around us a little more. There are so many different styles and backgrounds of yoga and one of the great things is that different aspects have importance for each individual. Therefore, each person’s practice becomes so very personal. For some, the philosophy carries a lot of meaning, for others less so. However, coming to the Yoga Sutras is often a good place to start. Whilst yoga must be lived and experienced rather than learnt from a book, the Sutras can connect us with the foundations of what it is that we do on the mat each day, and through this the pieces of the puzzle can start to make a little more sense.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are said to have been written around 400 CE and are a seen to be a summary of the many thoughts and traditions of yoga which came before this, divided into 196 sentences and four chapters known as Padas. Within the first chapter, lie the Ashtanga Yoga, meaning the Eight Limbs of Yoga – an eightfold path to guide us to live our lives with humility and take us closer to something much deeper within ourselves. There are many interpretations of the text with differing viewpoints, however many believe that the limbs are not supposed to be a ladder that we climb from beginning to end, but rather, an all encompassing journey whereby one limb leads to another and we practice simultaneously. These limbs are:
  1. Yamas = moral notions of how to be both internally and in relation to how we communicate with others.
  2. Niyamas = personal observances.
  3. Asana = physical postures.
  4. Pranayama = breath.
  5. Pratyahara = withdrawal of the senses.
  6. Dharana = concentration.
  7. Dhyana = meditation.
  8. Samadhi = enlightenment (perhaps a little more difficult to be all encompassing!)
So how are these aspects related to yoga practice? Having more awareness of the Eight Limbs of Yoga can actually help you to get your heels on the ground in downward dog way more than you realise…
The Yamas
The first limb, the Yamas, are five ethical disciplines for “right living” which can lead us to live a more peaceful existence and supposedly, if every person were to practice, could bring about a better world. Their translations can be seen to be quite obvious in a literal sense, however it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong interpretation and each one is open to what is meaningful to the individual. Looking at them from how they implicate our practice on the mat and how they influence us during a class serves as a reminder for us not to let our focus drift from our true reason for practice and not to get sidetracked by things like the way that we look, competing with or comparing ourselves to others or getting frustrated when there’s an asana that is not yet within our reach.
Here I will write about each Yama and how I have come to interpret it. Please feel free to comment 🙂
  1. Ahimsa = Non-Violence
At first, this seems like an obvious rule for life – not to harm others. Yet how often do we think about harming ourselves? Would we say the things we tell ourselves to others? Before I established a regular practice, I would often work and work until I burnt out, often not giving my body what it needed in terms of fuel and energy and pushing myself to complete as much as I could every day. In hindsight, perhaps I was avoiding the stillness I have gone on to find in yoga and surrendering to the moment without worrying about what it is that I need to achieve next. Not that this was a lightbulb moment of any sort as it is still something I have to remind myself of during busy times in my life but dedicating time to yourself and your body and your mind actually gives you more of a focus for those tasks. I have actually found that when I am rushing, my productivity is slower than when I am grounded and calm.
Ahimsa also shows up in injury. Having an injury, practising with injury and our response to injury. At some point, every one of us will experience this in some way, be it through sport, unmindful postural habits or our practice itself. Yet it is through injury that we can often learn the most about ourselves and perhaps, our response in other areas of our life. When my practice started to become more regular, I damaged my hamstrings through pushing too hard and shortly after that, I experienced a strain in my shoulder. Maybe I was excited at what my body was able to now do, or wanted to demonstrate progress to the teacher and those around me. Whatever it was, I certainly hadn’t been aware of or listening to the signs from my body as I was only listening to my ego. After injury, I didn’t want to rest. I wanted to keep giving, to push more and to push harder. I didn’t want to be the student in class who had to bend my knees or skip out on chaturanga, but I was harming myself. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest with ourselves about the aspects of our lives that are detrimental yet often, the more that we listen, the more that we can see.
As we begin to observe our body, we start to become aware of each and every subtle sign, and we realise that actually these messages are not even that subtle. It is precisely in the busy times and the painful times and the times that we are running from something that we can listen. We can surrender to what our body is asking of us and we can heal. Our ego may be damaged at first, but if there is someone in the yoga class who is judging because you took the easier version, then they have got a lot of soul searching to do too.
Ahimsa has a lot to answer for. As my practice grew, so did my attitude towards myself. My diet changed, I started carefully putting spiders out the window instead of hoovering them up and gradually my reactions and the way I deal with stress transformed. It is not possible to change overnight and these are certainly not requirements for yoga but Ahimsa certainly starts with ourselves.
“You must want to spend the rest of your life with yourself first” – Rupi Kaur

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