“How liberating it is: to pursue wholeness instead of perfection.” -Morgan Harper Nichols.
“Enlightenment is when a wave realizes it is the ocean.” -Thich Nhat Hanh.
On the first day of a yoga teacher training, one of my mentors invited the group to introduce ourselves, share a personal anecdote, and answer the question: what is yoga to you? We were allotted a few moments to write down our answers before we went around in a circle to share.
I scrawled the initial thoughts that came to me in my notebook. “Yoga is a way to release excess energy before it manifests as anxiety. It is a time to sit with myself and really think about and process past trauma. It is a way to connect with those around you without words.” My classmates each had varying narratives about how yoga had impacted them, eventually bringing them to the room we were sitting in together.
At that time, I thought of this as my first day venturing into adikara: studentship. Of course, I had practiced asana, the physical exercise aspect of yoga, for several years before I began the teacher training. My motivation was the physical benefits: better sleep, toned muscles, relaxed nervous system, improved joint longevity, and greater mobility, as well as the mental clarity, peace, and sense of belonging I felt after leaving a yoga class. In retrospect, I became a student of yoga long before I ever embarked on an official 200 hr and 300 hr training.
Although my perspective is limited to the confines of my own experiences, I feel comfortable expressing this conjecture: most of us live the early stages of our life in a state of curious avidya: an absence of knowledge, or ignorance of who we truly are. Inevitably, questions arise: “who am I?” which leads us to “what is my purpose?” and “am I walking the path of my life in alignment with dharma, doing the right thing?” We all differ in how we choose to move forward with these questions and the way we seek answers to them.
For me, that first day of training did not mark the beginning of my adikara but instead the beginning of my journey of abhyasa, or consistent practice. It is important to note that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines practice as “to perform a task habitually or regularly in order to achieve or maintain proficiency” and although it is true that yoga must be a continuous, life-long practice for efficacy, the idea of being proficient in yoga is not really what it sounds like. Here it is helpful to invoke Patanjali, a Hindu sage who authored many texts but is most famed for his Yoga Sutras, which are revered and studied as a path to enlightenment.
2.42 santosha anuttamah sukha labhah
“From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction are obtained.”
This means that one should be content with what one has and accepting of one’s situation unconditionally; this makes perfect sense when we consider that we can only ever be as happy as we are grateful. In this way, just by practicing at all, you are already a proficient yogi whether you can find ease in advanced asana poses or you are still having trouble sitting in sukhasana for more than a few minutes.
This illuminates a profound concept: that there is no “hierarchy” in yoga. Yogis respect and honor ourselves and each other at all levels. We meet each other wherever we are at on our individual journeys. This realization freed me from the invisible shackles of shame, uncertainty, shyness, and self-doubt I had been wearing on my wrists like bracelets for years. My dear mentor, Jennifer Bonadio, once defined freedom as “the ability to experience the present moment unencumbered by conditioning, filtered by perception, or weighed down by the past.” When I found confidence and freedom on the mat, I felt more inclined to seek out confidence and freedom in all areas of my life- intellectually, socially, and spiritually.
This free state of being I am attempting to describe is reminiscent of the state of kaivalya: “spiritual liberation that is achieved by realizing one’s existence is separate from physical matter.” At some point between studying the physiological effect different yoga poses can have on the body, hearing the phrase “moving meditation” repeatedly, and shouting “mudita!” whenever another yogi achieved a goal in asana class, I think I became more aware of kaivalya than I had ever been previously. I sensed it within me and around me: an intangible energy that connects me to myself, my community, the earth we live on, and the spirits we pray to. That’s what yoga is to me.
However, there is so much more to yoga beyond the realm of my individual narrative or the scope of an hour long class at your local gym. Yoga is an heirloom tradition that is thought to have originated over five thousand years ago and was first mentioned in writing in the sacred Hindu texts, the Vedas. Although most Westerners have primarily embraced only the physical exercise aspect of yoga, it is a much more expansive practice than this, and practitioners will also find that it broadens spiritual horizons with awareness and creates opportunities to build strong communities. It is acknowledged as a science because of the research, anatomy, and possibilities for therapeutic applications. It is an art because each practitioner applies the tools in a unique way and with personal intentions.
In Ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga, it is implied that eight parts come together to make a whole. Picture this “whole” as a tree with eight large branches swaying in the wind, somehow solid and fluid all at once. It is flexible, ever-changing, and grows organically without limits. All the branches are connected to each other, each vital in their own way to nourishing the whole unit. If one branch of the tree atrophies, the tree might not be balanced and will consequently fall over or become too ill to bear fruit.
The first branch is composed of the yamas, or ethical codes of external restraint, which are further broken down into five parts: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha. Ahimsa is the principle of non-harming or non-violence, meaning that the yogi should do as little harm as possible in every situation. Satya means truthfulness, so the yogi should always tell the truth as best they can while adhering to ahimsa. Asteya means non-stealing, so the yogi should never take something that doesn’t belong to them or share information they were entrusted with in confidence. Brahmacharya implies celibacy but can also mean responsibility with one’s body. Aparigraha means non-holding or non-grasping, which means that the yogi should resist the urge to hold tightly to material things, feelings, or plans.
The second branch is composed of the niyamas, which are observances of internal restraint, also further broken down into five parts: saucha, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya, and ishvara pranidhana. Saucha is cleanliness and it implies that keeping one’s body, mind, and environment clean is essential to living a pure life. Santosha is contentment, meaning that the yogi should be humble and content with what they have, accepting of situations as they come, and at peace with life as it is. Tapas is often described as “the inner fire” or discipline, and it means that the yogi should choose productive ways to expend energy. Svadhyaya means “self study” and it means one should cultivate self-awareness during all activities as they perform them. Ishvara pranidhana directly translates to “celebration of the spiritual” and is often interpreted as meaning “surrender to the divine.” This final niyama ties all of the yamas and niyamas together: it means to surrender to forces greater than yourself, to have faith that life is unfolding in a way that is only for your highest good, and to walk this path of awareness lightly, with humility, grace, and gratitude.
The third branch is asana, the physical postures of yoga that are often the most recognized aspect in Western culture. Each asana class is as unique as the instructor guiding it. There are thousands of different asanas and specific poses render benefits, such as lumbar pain relief in forward folds and sciatic pain relief in pigeon pose variations. The asanas can be sequenced together in an infinite number of different ways to create a variety of flows, or practiced individually to reap specific benefits.
The fourth branch is pranayama, or restraint/control of breath. Breathwork is celebrated for being relaxing to the nervous system. Pranayama is essential when practicing asana and requires concentration. The fifth branch is pratyahara, which means withdrawal of the senses to clear the consciousness of outside distractions so that one can become more self-aware. The sixth branch is dharana, or concentration and focus. This was already mentioned in pranayama, which illustrates how interconnected and important all the branches are to each other. This is even further evidenced by the seventh branch: dhyana, which is meditation. Meditation is the act of concentrating for a prolonged time with senses withdrawn and pranayama employed. The eighth branch is samadhi, which describes a state of oneness in effortless meditation. Almost every previous branch is at work when the yogi achieves samadhi, true enlightenment. In samadhi, one can find ananda, or bliss, in the harmonious balance of mind, body, and spirit. This is awareness of satnam: “one’s true identity” or “one whose name is truth.” This is the answer to the questions we asked earlier in our journey: “who am I? What is my purpose?” Another trusted guide of mine, Dawn DeLeonardis, said that “satnam is your true north.” She meant that whenever one is seeking direction, this inner truth should be the guide, the fixed point as the world moves around you.
Patanjali himself shared wisdom to aid us in tuning in to this true north:
1.33 maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam
“The mind becomes purified by cultivating feelings of friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion for those who are suffering, goodwill towards those who are virtuous, and indifference or neutrality towards those we perceive as wicked or evil.”
This sutra is a reminder that the yogi walks lightly, gently, and consciously. They choose compassion, humility, empathy, and connection over ego, pride, selfishness, and self-importance. The yogi assumes a position of neutrality whenever possible; when called to action, the yogi answers the call with love.
All of this sounds wonderful and is attainable, but as my advisor Shakta gently reminded us when we graduated from that teacher training: “yoga is a constant practice” and you must habitually perform a practice in order to maintain proficiency. Luckily for us, proficiency is achieved just by showing up- whether it’s to your mat, to your favorite meditation bolster, or adhering to the yamas and niyamas on occasions when it may have been easier not to. This dedication and commitment to your abhyasa is a perfect example of tapas… and tapas is an act of radical self-love.
May we be peaceful, happy, and loved. May we keep showing up for ourselves and each other. May we celebrate our journeys with gratitude always.
The light in me sees, honors, and cherishes the light in all of you. I bow to you with utmost humility. Namaste.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” -Rumi.