Yoga is a practice for the mind. According to Yoga Sūtra (1.2), “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions”; and B.K.S Iyengar also commented about what yoga is in Light on the Yoga Sūtra of Patanjali: “This vital sūtra contains the definition of yoga: the control or restraint of the movement of consciousness, leading to their complete cessation.” To easier understand the meaning of yoga, we can look at an ancient Indian story.
A group of warriors were studying under their trainer Drona. They had practiced hard, and they were all strong, brave and had confidence to defeat enemies. But Drona knew they were not ready to fight. As warriors, at least one more skill was needed to stand firm amid turmoil.
Drona had set up a small wooden bird in a distant tree and these warriors were supposed to strike the eye of the bird with their arrow. Before they acted, Drona asked them what they saw. “I see the wooden bird, the leaves beside the bird, the branch the bird is sitting on, the tree.” “I can see grass under the tree, other trees around, the sky, the clouds…” One by one, warriors gave similar answers. They named off everything. Drona asked them to put down their bows as he knew they would not hit the eye of the bird.
It was Arjuna’s turn. “What do you see?” Drona asked.“The eye of the wooden bird”, Arjuna answered clearly.
“Is this the only thing you can see? Are you sure? There are lots of things around. Your eyesight must have some problems.” Drona was teasing Arjuna.“The eye of the wooden bird, this is the only thing I see.” Arjuna answered firmly.
Drona was pleased with this response and ordered Arjuna to shoot. Arjuna held his bow steady, gazing at the target and shot the arrow which hit the bird’s eye.
From the story, we can see that to stop the fluctuations in consciousness, we need a subdued mind. A mind that can be used as a tool to lead the way instead of being distracted by the movements in the consciousness. To cultivate the ability to direct the mind and control it, Yoga Sūtra (2.29) introduces eight components of yoga, and they are:
- yama, our attitudes toward our environment.
- niyama, our attitudes toward ourselves.
- āsana, the practice of body exercises.
- prāṇāyāma, the practice of breathing exercises.
- pratyāhāra, the restraint of our senses.
- dhārāna, the ability to direct our minds.
- dhyāna, the ability to develop interactions with what we seek to understand.
- samādhi, complete integration with the object to be understood.
Even though there are eight components of yoga, the component that has been practiced the most now is āsana, the practice of body exercises. Of course, after we comprehend the concept of yoga, then āsana practice is not only a physical movement; instead, it’s through body exercises to train the mind to concentrate on our goal. For example, when practicing Warrior I, we can consciously lead the mind to focus on breathing while holding the pose. Thus, the state of mind turns a posture exercise into a yoga practice.
Yoga not only physically improves our flexibility, balance and strength, but more importantly, it helps us concentrate. This ability gives us the willpower to achieve our goal like a warrior: firm and stable without being affected by diversion.
- Quotations of Yoga Sūtra from T.K.V.Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a personal practice (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1995), 149, 174.
- B.K.S Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtra of Patanjali (London: Thorsons, 2002), 50.
- The story of the warrior Arjuna is rephrased from B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga (London: Thorsons, 2001), 28
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