The 8 Limbs of Yoga
If you have been practicing yoga for a period of time, you will be familiar with asana – postures, pranayama – breath work and meditation. But you may not have been introduced to the other limbs of Yoga. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s – the must read textof Yoga, there are 8 limbs of Yoga.
Each limb refers to a different aspect of the yoga practice and illuminates a different step on the ladder to self realisation.
The 8 Limbs are:
Yama (moral discipline)
Yoga is not just about posture, focus, awareness and mindfulness on the mat. It’s about taking this to every moment of our lives. Yoga deep and life affirming. Sure, we may initially come to class for the physical benefits, but the reason we stay is because we awaken our awareness to the cosmos it unfolds. And to unlock the magic we need to honour the yama’s or moral discipline. Now the Yama’s are not rules to follow blindly but a set of principals that we need to understand. And some texts list 5 while others list 10 of these moral principals.
The 5 Yama’s are:
- Ahimsa (non-violence),
- Satya (truthfulness),
- Asteya (non-stealing),
- Brahmacharya (right use of energy), and
- Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding).
Niyama translates as beneficial duties or observances. They are recommended habits for living a wholesome existence.
The 5 Niyama’s are:
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (discipline, austerity or ‘burning enthusiasm)
- Svadhyaya (study of the self and of the texts)
- Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher being, or contemplation of a higher power)
Asana (physical postures)
The physical postures of yoga is only one limb or the third step on the Yogic path. The word asana doesn’t refer to the ability to perform a handstand or an impressive backbend. Asana means seat – specifically the seat you would take for the practice of meditation. And the only instruction that Patanjali gives for this asana is “sthira sukham asanam” – the posture should be steady and comfortable.
We practice the other asana’s so we may find our steady & comfortable postures from which to navigate life.
Pranayama (breathing techniques)
The word Prana refers to ‘bio-energy’ – the very essence that keeps us alive. It could also refer to the energy in the universe. Prana is the breath. By working with the breathe, we affect our mind, our emotions, our bio-energy & physiology, the universe around us & other living beings.
Furthermore… Pranayama can be read as ‘prana-yama’ which means ‘breath – disclipline’ or it could be read as ‘prana-ayama’ which means ‘freedom of breath’, ‘breath expansion or liberation’.
Pratyahara (inner awareness)
Pratyahara means ‘taking inward’. Wrongly described as withdrawal of senses – pratyahara asks not to we stop sensing but that we change the locus of awareness from outwards to inwards. The practice of drawing inward may include inner focussing on the way we breath, so this limb would relate directly to the practice of pranayama. In Asana practice we are asked to develop inner awareness on the way we maintain a posture.
The phrase ‘sense withdrawal’ suggests switching our senses ‘off’ through concentration – this is why this aspect of practice is often misunderstood.
Instead of actually denying the ability to hear and smell, to see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of consciousness so that we become so absorbed in what we are focussing on, that the things outside of ourselves no longer bother us. When we achieve this we are able to meditate without becoming distracted.
Experienced practitioners bring pratyahara into everyday life – being so concentrated and present to the moment at hand, that things like sensations and sounds don’t easily distract their minds.
Dharana means ‘focus’. Dha means ‘holding or maintain’, and ana means ‘something’. Dharana closely follows on from pratyahara. In order to focus on something, all attention has to be maintained on that one thing. We cannot allow ourselves to get distracted. Candle gazing, guided visualisation and focus on the breath are all practices of dharana. When we experience dharana – we think we’re ‘meditating’. And for a short while we are are. Because as soon as the thought “am I meditating? ” arises, then you are no longer meditating. You see, you can’t let even your own thoughts distract you.
Dhyana (absorption or meditation)
Dhyana s ‘meditative absorption’. This happens when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation. This happens spontaneously.
All the things we learn in a meditation class or from a teacher are merely techniques offered help you to relax the body and mind, focus and concentrate. The actual practice of meditation is definitely not something we can consciously ‘do’. It is spontaneous, a result of everything else.
Just a tip – if you are really meditating, you won’t have the thought ‘I’m meditating!’
Samadhi (enlightenment or bliss)
Many think of samadhi as the final step of the Yoga journey. But its’ really only the beginning.
Our we develop a real understanding of our outside world and our own inner world, we come to a point we we can create balance. And this balance brings bliss.
When we experience samadhi we discover that ‘enlightenment’ or ‘realisation’ does not mean floating away in a state of ecstasy. No we understand what need to do to maintain that state of ecstasy.
‘Sama’ means ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘dhi’ means ‘to see’. There’s a reason it’s called realisation – and it’s because reaching Samadhi one realises how to see everything equally.
The ability to ‘see equally’ -without ego demands, unhampered by our conditioned likes, dislikes or habits, no need to judge, become attached or repulsed by anything or anyone – gives you a freedom to just be and that is bliss.