I like the idea of aligning myself and my activities with the rhythms and cycles of nature and life, working with the seasons, retreating when it is time to lay low, and re-emerging when the time is right to blossom. This year, as I do every year, I have spent the Winter months in a forced hibernation, in contemplation and self-reflection. As the season ends, and in preparation for rebirth and new beginnings in the season of Spring, I have been working towards re-introducing a spiritual practice into my life and have returned to yoga and meditation after a long absence.
Sometimes life gets in the way and we don’t spend enough time with ourselves, to connect with that quiet place within, away from the noise and distractions of the modern world. I believe that devoting a portion of our time to spiritual practice – whatever that means for you – is essential to maintaining connection between our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects, and between our internal selves and the external world. It is important to take time out every day to experience solitude, reflect on who we are, how we are moving through the world and how we are treating others and the Earth.
Many years ago I practised a series of Hatha Yoga postures and breathing exercises every day for an hour. It was my scheduled time with myself in the mornings before I ventured out into the world. Later I would add a meditation technique I was taught in my classes on the principles of Buddhism. I recently became interested in The Eight Limbs of Yoga, from the Yoga Sutra by the Indian sage Patanjali, that form the basis of the style of yoga practice known as Ashtanga (ashta = eight and anga = limb).
The Eight Limbs of Yoga can be conceptualized as the branches of a tree, which is appropriate for me as an Environmental Warrior, as the tree is a symbol of nature. Tree Pose is also one of my favourite postures! Many yoga postures are taken from animals and nature, including Mountain, Fish and Dolphin, and the main style of breathing practiced in Ashtanga yoga is Ujjayi, which means ‘Ocean Breath’ – three lovely little pieces of synchronicity.
Practising yoga for many years gave me a very strong spine. As the trunk of a tree can withstand strong forces, a strong, flexible spine is essential for good health. The spine is the lifeline of the physical and spiritual bodies. The brain and central nervous system control feeling, movement and function throughout the body via spinal nerves that branch off the spinal cord and exit through openings between vertebrae. A strong, supple spine and healthy nervous system are vital.
In musculoskeletal anatomy, the Erector Spinae muscles run parallel along the length of the spine on either side of the vertebral column, from the lower area of the skull to the sacrum. As their name suggests, these muscles assist in helping us stand up straight (along with our core muscles). In yoga, the spine is referred to as brahma danda (the yoga spine), which translates as ‘the walking stick of God’ (or Buddha, or Great Spirit, or whichever name you choose).
In energy anatomy, the spine is the pillar supporting the world, the axis between Heaven and Earth, and the vehicle through which the energy and power of the universe (or higher consciousness, or intelligence, or whatever you want to call it) manifests. This is why it is important in practice for our spine to be vertical, straight and flexible, an ability which the yoga postures help us achieve.
The etymology of the word yoga is the Sanskrit root word yuj, which means ‘to yoke’. A yoke is a wooden beam between two oxen that enables them to work more efficiently as a pair and be strong enough to pull a heavy load. This is a wonderful metaphor for how yoga can unite our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects to create a powerful force. We become stronger, and better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us, able to stand as tall and as strong as a tree. We become a positive role model, a force to be reckoned with, someone who stands up for what we believe in.
Yoga means ‘union’. Practising yoga helps us to unite our inner qualities with our outer expression. Our thoughts match how we act in the world and our intentions match our actions. Buddhism also teaches us that our actions produce karma, but it is the intention behind our thoughts and actions that is most important. Our outer world becomes a reflection of our inner world. We are who we say we are and we do what we believe in. As above, so below. As within, so without.
After being away from yoga and meditation for many years, I have been inspired to make daily practice a permanent part of my life again. This time though, I will also be exploring the deeper meaning of yoga as a spiritual practice, not just a physical one. I try to live in the world, and relate to other forms of life, with a greater level of awareness, and so I have translated The Eight Limbs of Yoga, incorporating principles of Buddhist philosophy, into an environmental ethos for a new approach to my life.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are not strict rules, but guidelines for living a life of meaning and purpose. Each stage prepares us for the next stage. We must master each stage before moving onto the next one. The first four limbs deal with the lower physical aspects of yoga – the personality, the body and developing our awareness. These initial stages prepare us for the final stages. The last four limbs deal with the higher spiritual aspects of yoga – the mind, the spirit and reaching a higher state of consciousness.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we will explore The Eight Limbs of Yoga in greater depth.