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The True Nature of Yoga: A Gentle Reminder

by Leanna Heffner

In a recent conversation with my fellow teachers from The Yoga Collective AK (TYCAK), we started off with a casual check-in regarding where we each were at with our personal yoga practice. When it was my turn to speak, a subtle feeling of guilt gradually set in. I described how, since the pandemic, I had transitioned to doing my asana (i.e. physical) practice at home. And following a groin injury that left me with extremely limited mobility for months, as well as struggling with deep grief following the death of a loved one last fall, I had let my physical practice lapse over the last year. Others in the group described how their asana practice ranged from consistent and strong, to also somewhat neglected or erratic.

However, when it was Annie's turn to speak, she lovingly provided the group with a simple, yet very much needed reminder: yoga is much more than a physical practice...there are 8 limbs of yoga, of which asana is but one limb. She described the various ways she had been practicing yoga, in its truest sense, in all aspects of her life. What a gift to receive that reminder!

Many of us know and understand that yoga is not a workout, nor an exercise routine. In fact, it is the cultural appropriation of yoga in the Western world that has perpetuated a vast misunderstanding of what yoga truly is. Here I would love to quote one of the best descriptions of yoga that I've come across, by a young Desi yogi named Meesha, from this amazing article they wrote describing the 8 limbs of yoga through a lens of decolonization:

"Yoga is not an hour that we take to sweat on a mat three times per week. Yoga is a spiritual path that has been lovingly engaged with and passed on for thousands of years.

Yoga is a peek into how humans have explored spirituality, the human mind, the mortal body, and the nature of infinite consciousness since the dawn of civilization. When we call ourselves yogis, we are donning a cloak that protects us with the wisdom of thousands of gurus and spiritual aspirants throughout the ages."

For those who do not know the 8 limbs of yoga by heart (that includes me!) here is a short list, though I do recommend reading the article linked above for a deeper dive.

  1. Yama (attitudes toward our environment)

  2. Niyama (attitudes toward ourselves)

  3. Asana (physical postures)

  4. Pranayama (restraint or expansion of the breath)

  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

  6. Dharana (concentration)

  7. Dhyana (meditation)

  8. Samadhi (complete integration)

Going back to that conversation with our TYC group, after hearing Annie's gentle reminder, I took a step back in reflection. This past year has been one of the most transformative years of my life, when my whole world broke up due to several coinciding events and I was faced with the deepest, most challenging, and most beautiful aspects of myself, my life, my loved ones, and my spiritual journey. During that moment of reflection, I realized that everything I'd gone through in the last year and how I had chosen to respond - all of it - was and is yoga. I had practiced yoga in the ways in which I worked to soften, to accept, to lean in and surrender, to practice kindness to myself and others, to forgive, to create space for healing, to become quiet, to meditate, to breathe, to spend time outside in nature, to engage in loving acts, to practice non-violence (including in my communication), and to allow myself to be a messy human through self-compassion and self-love. In a year where my asana practice fell somewhat to the wayside, I was fully engaged in many other limbs of yoga by engaging in a process of healing, deepening my self-awareness, and unapologetically leaning into my spiritual journey.

Hopefully I can pass along the loving gift of this gentle reminder from Annie, and from many other yogis, of what it means to engage in our yoga practice, what it truly encompasses, and why understanding this is so transformative. And so I turn the question to all of you, what is the state of your own yoga practice in your life? What does it mean to acknowledge your yoga practice as a philosophy for living, as a way and a state of being? How can you deepen your yoga practice through all 8 limbs, and what doors of possibilities might open when you do so?

As for me, I am grateful for this reminder, and for the ways in which my own life and spiritual journey continues to unfold through my yoga practice, all 8 beautiful limbs of it.

~Blessed be to you all~

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