The Eight Limbs of Yoga

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I hear it often, students expressing their desire to deepen their yoga practice. But what does this actually mean, what are they longing to experience? For some a deeper practice is believed to be in the physical body, a new challenge or advance asana. For some what they seek is harder to find in a general studio setting as what they seek is something deeper than the physical.

In the West we often start our yoga journey with asana, the physical practice of postures. We use the postures to wake up the body, we become aware of how our bodies move and we use the mind to understand and analyze our body. In starting with asana our practice may not feel complete as we lack the beginning, we lack the roots of the yoga practice.

The practice of waking up both body and mind is described by Patanjali as Ashtanga yoga, the eight limbs. These limbs are placed as stepping stones to help us unfold and deepen our practice while restoring balance. If we begin to jump ahead we may bypass important developmental aspects critical to our growth.

The first limb is Yamas. These address external restraints and ethical principles. It addresses your relationship with the world, people, animals, objects, elements and of course your own inner state. There are five yamas: Ahimsa – nonviolence. This includes actions, thoughts and words, Satya – honesty, Asteya – not stealing, Brahmacharya – conscious in the use of energy, including sexual energy – being in cosmic self and

Aparigraha – indifference to possessions, not being greedy.

The second limb is Niyamas, internal restraints and personal principles. There are five niyamas: Saucha – purity and cleanliness. This includes physical cleanliness, purity of food and purity of thought/speech, Santosha – contentment with yourself and your life – appreciation and gratitude, Tapas – simplification of life, avoiding clutter, Svadhyaya – self-study and scriptural study – study the yogic text and Ishwara-Pranidhana – devotion and dedication of the Spiritual path.

The third limb is probably the most familiar limb in the West. Asana- posture used to cultivate physical and psychological steadiness.

The fourth limb is Pranayama. Regulation of the breath through observation. Pranayama also purifies the nadis, our energetic flow that ties into our health.

The fifth limb is Pratyahara. This limb is a withdrawal of the senses as awareness interiorizes.

The sixth limb is Dharana, concentration. It is being aware of yourself, an object and the relationship between the two allowing the awareness to become a singular focus.

The seventh limb is Dhyana, meditation. As concentration deepens to the point when the subject (self) and object dissolve we move into a place of meditation.

The eighth limb is Samadhi, absorption. This is the state when meditation becomes so deep there is a pure awareness that there is no separation, all is one.

All eight limbs are interdependent. The same way an illness effects our overall health, a lack of study in one of the limbs will hinder the steps to self-realization. To deepen our practice all we have to do is follow the stepping stones, allowing us to travel lightly on the yoga path.


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