What better topic for a blog post written on 8/8 than the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
When most westerners think of Yoga, they immediately think of the third limb of Yoga, which is the physical practice of the Asanas. But Yoga is much more than just bending ourselves into new and interesting shapes. Yoga encompasses an approach to life that includes both the physical and mental practices necessary to achieve a unity of body, mind and spirit. It’s really, at heart, a system for total wellness. No matter what your spiritual practices or faith traditions are, as you read through this I think you’ll discover the common themes we all share in our quest to become better people. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra which dates from about 200 A.D. lays out the Ashtanga, or Eight Limbs of Yoga:
1. Yama—Universal Morality aka Golden Rule (how we treat others)
2. Niyama—Personal observances (our attitude towards ourselves)
3. Asanas—physical aspect of yoga, the postures
4. Pranayama—breath control and breathing exercises
5. Pratyahara—Control of our senses
6. Dharana—inner awareness and concentration
8. Samadhi—achieving a state of bliss or oneness with the Divine/Universe
Interestingly, in the practice of Yoga, none of the limbs takes precedence over any other. All are equally valuable and necessary. Often when we are working on one Anga (limb) we are developing the skills to lead us to another, as with the connection between Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation). Let’s take a little deeper look at these eight practices, and what they’re all about, bearing in mind that one can spend a lifetime studying these concepts. This is merely an overview.
The Yama, or how we relate to the outside world and others, has five parts. The first of these is Ahimsa, or Compassion for all living things. Most of us learned this concept in elementary school when our teachers and parents taught us to Be Kind to Others. Shouldn’t we all strive to be kind and compassionate when dealing with others? I really like that this is the the very first tenet of the first limb, as I think compassion is the beginning of achieving any sort of understanding and progress, whether it’s personal progress or solving international problems.
Next is Satya, which is Truthfulness. Hmm, another thing we all learned in our early days, right? But this isn’t the “Tell it like is” no-holds-barred, mean-spirited truthfulness that has taken over so many areas of our society. Satya combined with Ahimsa, results in being truthful without being mean; or as your Grandmother might have said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”. I know several teachers who use the THINK acronym in their classrooms, which asks students to consider whether what they are about to say is: True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, Kind. I love this! Truthfulness and compassion, presented in a clear and loving way.
Third, we have Asteya, or non-stealing. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you. Pretty clear, right? Interestingly, in Yoga, this also applies to how we view others’ time and attention. Have you ever felt ‘Time-Burgled’ by someone? I use that expression to describe when someone soaks up my time, unaware of or unconcerned with my needs. We all know those people, we all deal with them, and sometimes we ARE them. Asteya, reminds us to be conscious of that behavior in ourselves and others, and combined with Ahimsa, to deal with it compassionately.
Brahmacharya is our control of our senses, and often uses abstinence as a method of learning control. It is usually applied to our sexual energies and desires. While practicing Brahmacharya does not demand celibacy, it does ask us to be responsible and ethical in our sexual practices, using this gift to create and foster true connection without selfishness or harming others.
And finally, Aparigraha, or non-hoarding. By taking only what we need, we allow others to have what they need as well. If we hoard things, we are showing a lack of trust in the abundance of universe, and creating unnecessary attachments to things. On a much simpler level, as Jack Johnson told us in The Sharing Song, ”if you have two, give one to your friend”. If you’ve never heard this song, check it out here The Sharing Song
So now we have our guide for interacting with others; but what about how we treat ourselves? Let’s see what we can learn from Niyama on this subject. Like the Yama, Niyama has five aspects or rules.
Sauca is the first of these five and means cleanliness or purity. Of course physical cleanliness is important to our health and wellness,and yoga helps us achieve that through the practice of asanas (toning and cleansing our internal body) and pranyama (cleansing our lungs), but Sauca also encourages us to cleanse our minds of unhealthful thoughts and desires such as greed (hmm there’s that non-hoarding again), lust, pride, and anger. Gosh, aren’t those also four of the 7 deadly sins in the Christian tradition? Some things really are universal.
Second, is Santosa or Contentment. This quite simply means being happy with what we have. Have you ever heard the saying “Want what you have”? That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to improve ourselves, but that we shouldn’t be consumed with always focusing on the next thing. Be content. Be happy.
That leads us to Tapas, which refers to Heat and the disciplined use of our energies to burn away our habits and desires that separate us from our goal of unity with the Divine/Universe. Asanas, and Pranayama are key elements to Tapas, literally creating heat in the body.
The practice of Svadhyaya, or self-examination is the fourth Niyama. From Svadhyaya we learn to be conscious and self-aware at all times. We learn to respect our limits, but to also recognize and eliminate our unwanted, self-sabotaging behaviors.
And finally, Isvarapranidhana, or Celebrating the Spiritual. This aspect asks us to recognize that the Divine is a part of everything, running through all things, connecting all things—including us. By making time in our lives to contemplate this (meditate?), we can attune our consciousness to the Divine and feel that connection.
So now we have an outline for how to treat others, and ourselves. But there are 6 more limbs…are you still with me?
The third limb of Yoga is Asana, or the physical postures of yoga. This is the one we’re all familiar with. The benefits of practicing Asana include improved balance, flexibility, strength, health and focus. We can also achieve better emotional health, as we gain more control over our physical body and learn to work with our limitations, and when to push ourselves gently to achieve progress. Developing a regular asana practice through study at a studio can also help us cultivate a sense of community and connectedness, increasing our happiness and health.
Pranyama, Breath Control, is the fourth limb. By learning to control our breath, we can control and direct our energy through our bodies. By linking our breath with our physical movements we can increase our Tapas (Heat), stoking our inner fire and clearing our minds and bodies of unnecessary clutter and distraction. We all know the power of breath-have you ever ‘taken a deep breath’ before tackling a sticky situation? Or said to yourself or friend, “just breathe”?
Pratyahara, is the fifth limb of Yoga, and deals with control of our senses. Unlike Brahmacharya, Pratyahara is concerned with learning to control our desires and attachments in relation to external objects and stimulants. When we learn to control our desires, and cravings, we can eliminate our unhealthy attachments and addictions. Here in the west, we can all do with a little more of that kind of control.
The sixth limb is Dharana. This is the ability to hold our concentration. Most of us have experienced this at some point, often referring to it as ‘being in the zone’. This happens when we are so engrossed, so focused on the task at hand that we are unaffected by everything and anything else happening around us. The trick is to achieve this on-command. This takes regular practice and is aided and enhanced by pranyama work and asana practice.
Dhyana, the seventh limb, flows from Dharana. Dhyana, is meditation, or perfect contemplation. To achieve this, we need the ability to focus, to concentrate wholly on one thought, one concept. We also need the strength and stability we built with through our Asana practice and our Pranyama practice. All our limbs are supporting each other as we meditate.
All Together Now
This brings us to the Eighth limb, Samadhi. Samadhi means ‘to merge, to bring together’. When we achieve this state, we are completely at rest, yet completely alert and aware, we feel connected and at the same time liberated from our physical selves. Some describe this as a state of bliss, a true state of union with all things. Achieving this is the ultimate goal of Yoga, as Yoga literally means Union.
That’s probably more than you ever thought you’d want to know about this thing called Yoga; and not to scare you away, but that’s just the tip of the Yoga iceberg! Thanks for reading…and for a fun musical version of all of this I highly recommend MC Yogi’s Eight Limbs I love listening to his music while I write, and hope you'll dig it too.