When most people contemplate yoga, it is the physical yoga asanas or poses that come immediately to mind. You may be surprised to know that asana is only one of the eight limbs or paths of yoga.
Yoga was never designed to be practiced as a physical exercise only. It was designed to be a lifestyle, and when all aspects of yoga are followed, the ‘goal’ is to reach a place of enlightenment, self-realization and ultimate bliss.
The birth of yoga dates back between 4000-5000 years and stems from the ‘Vedas’ which are ancient Hindu scriptures that have been passed down from teacher to student in the form of verses and poems. Eventually a sage and revered scholar in the yogic tradition, known as Patanjali, has been credited with authoring the Yoga Sutra, a foundational text for classical yoga. The Yoga Sutras describe yoga as an 8 Fold Path that progresses from the external to the internal on a journey towards pure consciousness.
The practice of the 8 Limbs of Yoga is referred to as the practice of Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path. The eight steps or branches act as guidelines to living a purposeful life with moral and ethical codes to ensure self-discipline, good health and a commitment to the spiritual path. Throughout time, yoga has been practiced in an effort to transcend suffering, to move beyond the chatter of the mind and remember where we come from- a place of pure awareness. The human tendency towards thought, needs, desires and emotions causes this suffering, and the eight limbs of yoga are designed as a template to help us transcend the confines of the ego.
So what are the 8 limbs of yoga
1// The Yamas
The Yamas are moral or ethical codes that refer to how we relate to others and how we conduct ourselves in the world. The five Yamas are:
- Ahimsa – Non violence
- Satya – Truthfulness
- Asteya – Non Stealing
- Brahmacharya – Chastity/fidelity/ to live in higher awareness
- Aparigraha – Non-coverting/ absence of greed or possessiveness
The Niyamas refer to our relationship with ourself and inform our self-discipline and world view. The five Niyamas are:
- Saucha- Cleanliness/ purity
- Santosha- Contentment
- Tapas- Will power and Self discipline
- Svadhyaya- Self-Study
- IshvaraPranidhana- Surrender to the divine
Asana is the limb most people are familiar with and refers to the physical yoga poses that are practiced for strength, flexibility, detoxification and balance. Traditionally, asana was practiced to ready the body for the following practices.
Pranayama is the breathing techniques used in yoga to expand our energy and move our awareness inwards towards our more subtle self. Prana means life force, and the practice of pranayama is designed to cultivate and control this life force energy. When we can control the breath, we can also begin to control the mind and create a space of tranquillity, peace and focus.
Pratyahara refers to sensory withdrawal, shifting attention away from the information that continuously bombards our body through touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. This trains our mind to avoid and disconnect from external sensory stimuli in order pave the way for meditation and to open the door to our own inner voice.
Dharana involves taking our concentration to a single point of focus. Having removed external stimuli from the mind, the next process involves alleviating the distractions of the mind itself! Slowing down the thoughts and becoming removed from the chatter of the mind is often done by silent repetition or focus on a sound or mantra, a candle flame, a chakra, a deity- something that affords single thought. When we practice in this way, the mind gets peaceful, we are in control, and we find a place of rest.
Dhyana involves being aware, without focus or attachment. This is a complete meditative state that precedes complete bliss. The mind has been stilled to little thought and distraction. This deep place of concentration is where we can begin to separate illusion from reality and step towards pure awareness.
Samadhi is a state of complete bliss or ecstasy. It is a place of utter transcendence, a connection with the divine, a union with the universe, an understanding that all is one. It is not an emotion as such, as the experience of self and ego have dissolved. Rather it is a space of pure consciousness. Here, everything physical dissolves, we own nothing, not even our body, we become spirit- everything and nothing in the same moment. In essence, we are this state of pure bliss and consciousness. The practice is not to learn something new, but to remove the layers and find our way back to where we began.
Essentially, understanding the 8 limbs of yoga can add depth and meaning to your yoga practice. The lessons we learn from Patanjali and the yoga sutras help us to take yoga off the mat, into our everyday lives. Here, we are encouraged and reminded to live authentically, to live a moral and ethical life with compassion unto ourselves and others. Living yoga means to integrate these lessons into our thoughts, words and actions.