Touching Your Toes Has Nothing to Do with It

What would you think if I told you that a paraplegic could become a sophisticated and very advanced yogi?

You might do a mental double-take: What? Don’t you have to be able to twist yourself into some insane human pretzel to be considered an advanced yogi? Don’t you at least have to be able to touch your toes?

No way, José.

The truth is, what we in the West consider to be “yoga” — the part where you move your body and stretch and strengthen and balance — is only a fraction of the full practice of yoga. One eighth, to be precise.

The Yoga Sutras, written by an author named Patanjali perhaps over 2,000 years ago, is considered to be one of yoga’s most sacred texts. In it, Patanjali lays out an eightfold path to attaining a higher state of consciousness, one in which the practitioner learns to still the craziness of his or her mind.

This path is yoga.

It’s often called the Eight Limbs of Yoga, but I like to envision it as a flower with eight petals. Below you’ll find my original interpretation (it’s really big so you can print one out for your fridge). If you like it, you’ll have to thank my teachers for passing on the lessons so very well.

patanjali's eight limbs of yoga

You’ll notice that the practice of asana, or the physical postures of the body, doesn’t even come along until the third petal! Furthermore, yoga scholar Chip Hartranft says to practice asana means to cultivate “profound physical steadiness and effortlessness in meditation.” So, really… touching your toes has very little (if anything) do with it.

I hope you enjoy looking over the eight petals of a flower I’m becoming increasingly infatuated with. Each of the individual pieces of information — each petal, each yama, each niyama — could be explored infinitely. This infographic barely scrapes the surface.

Which of the eight limbs (or petals) surprised you the most? Do any of them speak to you in some way? If you were already familiar with the eight limbs, I’d love to know your interpretations of the original Sanskrit. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!

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Whatever you do, don’t try to meditate

Have you ever taken time to meditate or sit quietly in the hopes that it would help you through a stressful time, only to find yourself even more wound up afterword? What went wrong?

Or how about this: have you ever said something along the lines of, “I’d love to meditate more often, but I’m just so bad at it. I can’t get my mind to stop thinking about things!”?

buddha statue - MindBodyPlate

Well, I’ve been reading an excellent translation the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali by Chip Hartranft, and he has something to say about the process of stilling the mind that I think addresses some of these meditation issues pretty well.

Hartranft tells us that, “as we sit in stillness – meditation – we inevitably find ourselves struggling to acquire more power over some aspect of our lives. Without necessarily knowing it, we are trying to feel happy or to conquer a physical or emotional problem or to become more attractive to others or simply to do a better job of meditating than we did last time. Each of these types of effort arises from attachment to previous thoughts or actions. Even our desire to let go of all this is mired in concepts about what letting go should feel like or what it might bring us.”

In other words, it’s natural for us to get somewhat tangled when we attempt to still our mind, because the very act of trying to still the mind is – paradoxically – the opposite of stilling the mind.

So what the heck are you supposed to do when you meditate, then? I mean, if you can’t try to still the mind and the mind is going crazy, with thoughts zigzagging across your consciousness like a bad laser show, what then?

Luckily, Hartranft doesn’t leave us hanging.

He explains that “exerting the will to arrest or blockade thought… [is] unlikely to succeed though certain to perpetuate suffering.” Instead, he says, one should try “repeatedly relaxing back to the ever present object. Concentration (dhāraṇā) builds spontaneously as the yogi softens and opens to experience, not through steely attempts at mind control.”

Did you catch that? When we meditate, our aim isn’t to do anything at all; our aim is to relax into the present moment, to stay soft, and to open to experience

That means just noticing those thoughts as they ping pong inside your head – just noticing them: hm, isn’t that interesting. That means giving yourself space to be “not good” at meditating. That means accepting that there is nothing wrong with whatever you are experiencing at this very moment.  And again in this new moment. And again in this one. And again and again.

Not so intimidating after all, when you break it down like that.

So, whaddya say? You up for 5 minutes? xo