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Why the Mind is More Important Than the Body in Yoga

As we know it today, yoga is a practice of strength, flexibility, and balance. However, ancient yogis spent much more time sitting quietly in stillness than holding a downward-facing dog!

The practice was developed thousands of years ago in India and was used primarily as a tool for spiritual liberation. To that end, the original yogis were much more concerned with the state of their minds than their physical flexibility or strength.

Here’s what you should know about the original intention of the yogic practice.

Mind Before Body

Yoga is an ancient tradition. In fact, it’s so old that we know very little about its earliest practitioners. For much of its early history, yoga knowledge and practices were passed orally from teachers to students.

The earliest written accounts of the practice come from sacred Indian texts such as the Vedas. Sometime between 500 BCE and the 3rd century CE, yogic sage Patanjali codified what he knew about yoga into the seminal text The Yoga Sutras.

The Yoga Sutras were–and still are–one of the most comprehensive resources about yoga. They start with a simple definition of the practice: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuating states of the mind.”

If you read the entire Yoga Sutras, you may be surprised that they barely mention physical postures at all. In other words, yoga has always been a practice primarily of the mind.

What Yoga Poses Are For

Although yoga is primarily a mental practice, the poses we know today still play an essential part. They’re just one piece of an eight-step system designed to foster mental clarity and spiritual liberation.

Ancient yogis designed the physical postures of yoga, known as asana, to create the bodily strength, flexibility, and balance needed to sit in meditation for long periods of time.

Of course, yoga is such a vast practice that it is not a monolith. Although classical yoga prioritized meditation over physical postures, other yogic schools, such as the lineages of Hatha Yoga or Tantra, saw the body as a gateway to enlightenment, not an obstacle to overcome.

Interestingly, the physically focused practices we know and love in yoga studios worldwide can trace their origins directly back to Tantra and Hatha Yoga.

The Other Eight Steps Of The Yoga Sutras

As mentioned earlier, yoga poses (or asanas) were just one part of an eight-limb practice meant to foster spiritual freedom. Even in body-focused lineages like Hatha, these other steps still play an essential role.

These are the eight limbs of classical yoga practice:

Yamas: Moral precepts that govern a yogi’s actions toward others. They include nonviolence, truthfulness, and refraining from stealing.

Niyamas: Ethical observances that should determine a yogi’s actions toward themselves, including discipline, cleanliness, and self-study.

Asana: The yoga poses that we know today. Originally, they were meant to prepare the body for long periods of seated meditation.

Pranayama: Breathing exercises meant to control the flow of energy through the body. This is also a preparation for meditation.

Pratyahara: A practice of withdrawing the five senses inward. Essentially, shifting your sensual experience from the outside to your inner microcosm.

Dharana: Single-pointed focus as a meditative tool. The best example of this practice is mindfulness meditation.

Dhyana: True meditative consciousness. This is a state of mind achieved from the prior six steps on the eight-fold path of yoga.

Samadhi: Translated as absorption, you can think of Samadhi as enlightenment or the stilling of the mind. It is the ultimate goal of yoga and the result of a yogi diligently practicing the other seven steps.

Importantly, these steps were designed to be done in order over a yogi’s lifetime. For example, a yoga practitioner was expected to get their moral precepts and ethical observances in order before continuing on to yoga poses, breathing exercises, or meditation.

What This Means For Modern Yogis

The history of yoga is a fascinating study, particularly for those who know and love the practice today. With that in mind, however, knowing the true intention of yoga doesn’t necessarily mean we’re practicing yoga “wrong” today.

Instead, we should see the mental intention and variety of practices in classical yoga as an encouragement to explore the other seven limbs.

If you’re a current yoga practitioner who focuses on asana, perhaps carve out some time to learn the Yamas and Niyamas or try to incorporate meditation into your daily routine.

On the flip side, if you practice mindfulness meditation from an app or a lineage like Zen Buddhism, give yoga poses or breathing exercises a try. Since they were specifically designed to enhance meditation, they might just give your own mindfulness practice a major boost!