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Natural Awakenings Boston

Naturally, the Tree of Yoga is for Every Body

Aug 30, 2016 11:43AM ● By Meredith Musick

The wise sage Patanjali, who wrote The Yoga Sutra thousands of years ago, defined an eight-limbed tree, with a specific order of steps to climb to the top. This eight-limbed path forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Calling upon this ancient wisdom may be useful when choosing a yoga practice.

The lowest limbs are yama (universal morality) and niyama (personal observances), and everyone can climb these branches. Encompassing five ethical standards and five spiritual practices, lifestyle techniques and disciplines used to follow them, yama and niyama create harmony and a code for living soulfully. They are based in personal development and mutual respect for shared values, happiness, collaboration and peace. This mighty trunk provides the support for learning yoga.

The third limb is asana, the practice of physical postures. Through intensely concentrated effort, physical postures develop focus and attention for health and vibrancy, inside and out. Recent modern yoga trends lean toward physical fitness, making asana the limb that a student may need to spend the most time researching in order to discern which method is best for them. Regardless of the numerous styles of yoga individuals can choose from, perfecting poses is less important than sincerity of practice, whether gentle or vigorous. The joy is in the process, the time and the application of yoga to everyday life.

As focus and concentration increase, climbing the tree becomes attainable. In the modern world, where constant acceleration, distraction and movement hold our attention, asana helps individuals embrace the present moment, leading to the fourth branch of the tree of yoga, pranayama, or control of the breath. This highly evolved and multi-faceted practice is taught after the student, through the first three limbs, develops enough focus. Essential to all life, the breath work is some of the most rewarding work any student can practice, on and off the yoga mat.

Pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses from the external to the internal, is the fifth branch and the basis of a meditation practice. This branch is the practice of paying close attention to fluctuations of the mind and aspirations of ego versus the soul. Cessation of thoughts can seem almost impossible, but in time, one learns to sit comfortably, watch thoughts oscillate, and replace them with healthy and useful practices. Mastering pratyahara is essential to reach the top three branches.

The sixth branch, dharana, takes concentration to a single-pointed focus, as in mantra, or focal point in order to bring about stillness. The discipline required for this state of attention leads to dhyana, where eventually there is no need to explore thoughts, for they have vanished and a vast sense of conscious well-being takes their place. The highest and most elusive limb on the tree is samadhi, or complete bliss state. In this realm, one is both completely aware and awake to the realization of connection to source. A sense of complete contentedness is realized as one experiences union with all other living beings.

September is yoga month, so consider climbing a tree. Be safe, start low and steady oneself until the strength and agility to soar is felt. Choose teachers and methods that enhance climbing skills and enjoy every step of the journey.

Meredith Musick, LMT, E-RYT500, leads residential, back-to-nature hiking retreats in southern Vermont. She has been teaching yoga and practicing therapeutic-based massage for more than 23 years. For more information, call 239-269-8846 or visit FoxMeadowRetreat.com and MeredithMusick.com.

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