What “Practice” Really Means

By Julie Watson

To get to the bottom of this question, we actually need to ask “what is yoga, really?”

We all know in our Western world we have taken the parts of “yoga” that serve us in our modern day lives and made it into our own. There is no question that the physical practice, the Asana, is a necessity for our current, less agile bodies, as we typically spend more time in front of a computer than our ancestors. We can also agree that when we hear the word yoga, we immediately think of the body taking certain shapes, and we think of meditation as an entirely separate practice.

However, the key information we are missing comes in a few parts. As mentioned, in order to answer the question we need to know, what is yoga, what it really means to PRACTICE yoga, and what is meditation. You may have heard what is referred to as the 8 Limbs of Yoga that define the pathway to “becoming a yogi” according to Patanjali in 2nd Century BC.

In our society it is more difficult to follow the steps in a straight line, or even possibly achieve all 8 limbs, but if we translate at least a few ideas, you will be well on your way to understanding that you cannot or rather do not practice yoga without meditation. You will also begin to understand there is more to yoga than just the asana.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga briefly described:

  1. The Yamas are rules of moral code and include ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (sexual restraint), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
  2. The Niyamas are rules of personal behavior including saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline or austerity), svadhyaya (spiritual studies), and Ishvara Pranidhana (constant devotion to God).
  3. Asana refers to yoga postures.
  4. Pranayama is a series of breathing techniques designed to control prana or vital life force. 
  5. Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses.
  6. Dharana refers to concentration.
  7. Dhyana is the practice of meditation.
  8. Samadhi is merging with the divine.

As you can see there is so much more to embodying yoga than just movement or meditation. It might seem overwhelming and even a bit confusing, but if you follow the limbs you might find you can “practice” yoga in your everyday life. Who knows maybe you already do. 

To start, the Yamas are rules of moral code. We can all agree that to get through life we need morals and values that we adhere to. The first Yama, Ahimsa, is translated to mean non-violence, or non-harming.  If we take this at face value, for example, that would mean you would not even kill a fly. Killing a fly is obviously your prerogative, but if we apply this to the environment we live in right now, with social media, social justice, activism, and our efforts to create a better world, then the definition takes on a whole new meaning. Ahimsa means we do not sit back and watch injustices. We do not allow for harm to come to ourselves or others. We call it out and we in turn do no harm. Understandably sometimes it’s harder than it seems.

Following Ahimsa is Satya or truthfulness. This seems an appropriate follow-up to non-violence. Be honest. Be truthful. Be taken at your word. Speak your truth. Easier said than done. When we watch the news, when we take in information, it is also our duty to dig up the truth. It is our duty to distinguish between what is real and what is fake. It is our duty to speak and share truth so we do no harm.

Skipping ahead to the Niyamas, which are behaviors and personal practices, Tapas represents discipline or austerity. We may not like the word discipline or the sternness of austerity, but in an effort to create a whole practice, it is important that we pay attention to creating habits in order to create a life we want. Tapas actually translates to mean fire or heat, which we can use as passion, and drive, to build and grow our own purpose. We hear that all the time these days “find your purpose”,  Patanjali wrote it way back and it still applies today.

Number three on the list is Asana, but in Patanjali’s initial words, it referred to mastering the body to sit still for meditation. The practice of yoga asanas came about eight centuries later, which helped disciples ready their bodies for meditation. In our culture we admire movement, physical activity, and exercise, so it has become the forefront of what we know to be yoga.

Dhyana or meditation is number seven on the list. It’s not that you need to follow all steps before you can meditate, although it’s helpful to rid yourself of other obstacles before you try to calm your mind. In fact as we learn more about the practice of meditation, isolated on its own, we know that there are many different ways we can still our mind, focus, or take deep breaths, that all contribute to this ever growing ritual. There is walking meditation, seated meditation, guided mediation and more that have their own important rung in the complete ladder that defines yoga.

Our physical practice is also a form of moving meditation that is often overlooked.

Now if you want to go back to the initial question, 8 Limbs aside (but can you really just toss them out now that you know them?), when you are practicing the Asanas, you are also doing a form of meditation. By definition, we are focusing the mind, we are breathing in and out, we are taking pause from the external world, and we are doing something that will potentially improve our state of being which in turn can enhance our experience of the world around us. Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves? Now the next question is, can we all begin to see yoga as a whole way of life, and not just a pose?

Julie Watson co-owns Afterglow Studio in the Beaches, Toronto. While juggling 3 kids, a dog and her business, she strives to keep herself sane through yoga and meditation. Most days she succeeds.You can check out the schedule for Julie’s energetic Vinyasa Flow classes at www.afterglowstudio.ca