Beginner Yoga Series: Eight Limbs of Yoga
Welcome back to the last of our 6-week Beginner Yoga Series. Today, we are diving into the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which jump into more of the lifestyle practices of yoga. You may not know this, but yoga is not all about twisting ourselves into impressive pretzels. It's not about looking good in yoga pants or working up a sweat. Yoga is about embodying a lifestyle that helps you thrive and connect with yourself on a whole new level. We do this through the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Yoga is Sanskrit for "yoke" and is casually translated to unite or connect. It is about understanding our true selves and our connection with all aspects of the universe. The eight limbs are designed to give us the tools to do just that.
These instructions originated from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, where he laid out the path of "liberation." Sutra translates to "rule" in Sanskrit. The Yogic Sage Patanjali gathered 196 Indian sutras on the practice of yoga from practitioners prior to 400 CE.
I encourage students to study up on the eight limbs and see what resonates with them. The yamas and the niyamas act as a moral baseline for yogis. These practices are open to interpretation and I hope you explore what works for you and experiment a bit. The other limbs dive into the physical practice, breath work, and meditation.
Heads up; we might be getting a little woo-woo today. Just stick with me friends!
What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga
For those who aren't ready to fully dive into this article just yet, here is a quick look at the eight limbs of yoga:
- Yama - These are considered the moral disciplines to live by or actions to restrain yourself from.
- Niyama - These are the positive duties and behaviors one should embody.
- Asana - The physical yoga practice, or postures.
- Pranayama - Observing the breath or practicing breath work.
- Pratyahara - This is the first level of meditation, which withdraws the senses.
- Dharana - The second level of meditation, which is most commonly practiced. It is focused concentration.
- Dhyana - Meditative absorption
- Samadhi - Bliss or enlightenment
yama = restrictions
Yamas are self restraints. This limb of yoga refers to the discipline one needs to express when dealing with society and the world. These are considered yoga’s ethical guidelines in which one wishes to restrain in their lives to find enlightenment. These practices include the act of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, not overindulging, and to only take what is necessary and no more.
Ahimsa: a = absense of, himsa = injustice or cruelty
Ahimsa is the first yama which is described as non-violence, which includes the absence of all criticism and judgement. This is the practice of reacting to a situation in a peaceful or loving way to create long lasting change, as criticism and violence only leads to temporary problem solving. (This is also the reason many yogis practice a vegan diet.)
Satya: truth, reality, being at ease
Satya is described as truthfulness, which is a powerful action, as truth deals directly with reality. It is the art of not only being honest with those around you, but also being true to yourself and not lying to protect the ego. This is to restrain oneself from dishonesty in any form.
Asteya: a = lack of, steya = to steal
Asteya translates to not steal, which includes physical items. It also goes far past that. This is the practice of not looking outside of ourselves for anything, including other people or situations, in a search for happiness. This is the art of not stealing time, energy, or attention from others.
Brahmacharya: brahma = divine consciousness, car = to move
Brahmacharya has very many meanings. It can be described as having the restraint and balance within to not overindulge or become addicted to anything. One could also describe this yama as the consciousness of moderation. Being established in this way of life can help attain energy and the release of unhealthy obsessions.
Aparigraha: a = lack of, parigraha = covet
Aparigraha is the lack of hoarding or keeping unnecessary items which one does not need. Moderation should be practiced, for one who is greedy is insecure and untrustworthy. One should be content with what they have. (aka minimalism)
In my opinion, it is best to look at these restraints as something that you are always aiming for. It does not need to be strict or anything that doesn't feel right to you. Always interpret things on your own and see what works.
ni = inward or within, yama - restriction
Niyama is the second of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga and are the act of living with discipline and focus. This could also be described as the set of things you want to have in life or the ethical discipline used with ourselves and in engagements with others. These five practices offer direction to the lifestyle choices of many yogis around the world.
Saucha: purity, simplicity, refinement
Saucha is the act of keeping clean to avoid distractions in order to engage internally. This relates to both spiritual and physical cleanliness which protects the sanctity of the energy we surround ourselves with. In my life, I practice Saucha by keeping my home and practice environment clean. It is a constant struggle to keep my mind from feeling cluttered.
Santosa is to be content with ourselves and what we have, not becoming attached to passions and items out of our possession. This can also be the challenge of letting go of how one would want things to be or how things are being perceived in order to find happiness and contentment. I practice Santosa by keeping a gratitude board to remind myself of the contentment I should have in the things I am already blessed with. I also make a practiced of honoring the abilities of my body without longing to do more than I can.
Tapas: fire, austerity
This reflects the necessity for physical practice to purify the body in order to reduce mental and physical illness. Extended effort and repetition of yoga asana allows one to find stillness in their practice which starts the art of healing. I remind myself of the need to engage tapas when I am not “in the mood” for practice or do not feel like fully energizing a posture; I remind myself that I am cleansing all depths of my body.
Svadhyaya: (sva = self, adyaya = examine)
This is the fourth Yoga Niyama, or ethical discipline and attitude, which is known as the self reflection. This is the study of Divine to guide us to our supreme self and closer to God/Universe. This act of study could be anything reflective, such as prayer, art, scripture, chanting, etc. I also believe this is the art of getting to know our true selves better. I find my Svadyaya through a combination of my physical practice, reading, meditation, and art.
Isvara-pranidhana: (surrender to God/Universe)
This is the ability to become limitless and obtain complete understanding by dedicating yourself to Spirit, whatever that means to you. It is through dedication that all things are manageable and we are able to see clarity, becoming aware of our possibilities. This is one Niyama I struggle with, as I am quick to find reasons for failure instead of trusting in something greater than myself.
These Niyamas simply offer some guided focus to what we might need to implementing more of in our life. Again, translate as you'd like. Niyamas can be the monthly practice of taking a night to yourself in self care or attending your annual festival. Do your own thing.
asana = seated posture
Ahhh.... Western yoga. This, my friends, is the practice of physical yoga. Just one piece to the 8-limb puzzle. While the translation of physical yoga continues to build, I think we must honor whatever fits best for our own bodies. A couple weeks back, we covered a number of different types of yoga. All types fit into this category.
I may not agree with all yogis on this one, but I believe any kind of conscious body movement can be considered asana. When we can move our bodies in a way that brings focus, whether it be through dance or running, it can act as a form of asana practice.
prana = life force, a = lack of, yama = restriction
Pranayama is best described as unrestrained life force, or to expand the life force and vitality by releasing control. The act of pranayama is the art of mastering the breath in a way that one can become conscious of their breath to eliminate erratic breathing, which will alleviate misapprehension. Ujjayi breath is an example of pranayama in which the practitioner uses a slowed, deep breath through the nose with a constrained throat.
For more ideas on how to practice pranayama, check out our blog post and video on four breathing techniques to bring better focus and concentration.
This is the last limb that focuses on the "outer world." For the next four limbs, we turn inward for deeper connection to ourselves and consciousness.
prati = take away, ahara = any outside nourishment
Pratyahara means “the mastery of the external influences." It describes the ability to direct the mind away from external senses to find who is directing attention. When one allows themselves to break free from their senses, they are able to shift their perspectives and disentangle from reactions. This develops the capability to move to higher limbs by perceiving everything in the world as sensory objects, and disentangling the objects from the true self.
In easy terms, this is the art of quieting the noise of the chaos around us so we can tune into something more internal.
root word: dhri = to hold
Dharana is the sixth limb of yoga which describe the art of holding unbroken concentration on one object. According to Yoga Sutra 3.1, the mind has the ability to be directed one pointedly; this is experienced in Dharana. Allowing the mind to focus on one thing can clear misapprehension, as our minds are not entrapped in distractions.
This is a great way to begin meditation practices. When you can focus your attention on one this, whether it is a flickering candle flame, your breath, or a mantra, you learn the art of concentration.
root word: dhyai = to contemplate, meditate
Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga in which the practitioner becomes one with their focal point and become absorbed into their concentration. This is the very act of observation or meditation in which all the five senses are eliminated. According to Yoga Sutra 3.2, once focused, a direct link develops between the mind and the object; this is Dhyana.
This is sort of the practice of "just being." It is when meditation takes over, and you just are.
samadhi = extreme bliss
This is the goal. This is what yogis and those who follow many Eastern religions are aiming for. Complete, total bliss. It is said that when one finds this state, they find freedom from the external concerns, which cause suffering. This is the state that the Buddha found in his lifetime.
This is also where we find our "enlightenment." It is pure joy, extreme knowledge, and effortless peace. To get really woo-woo, this is when we stop being separate from the universe, but merge together as one with everything.
This is the path of the yoga sutras. I believe it is a very personal journey and one that cannot be taught through books or lectures. It must be explored and experienced for yourself. The lessons here are to be translated into what works best for YOU.
This is not to be used as a strict religious practice or to make you feel ashamed or guilty if not following these sutras. They are simply tools. They are to be used as you see fit. Take what you will and leave the rest!
Questions?! Today's topic can be a bit heavy, but I want to break it down for y'all as best I can. Comment below and let me know if you have any questions or concerns about the sutras or limbs.