Behind the modernised physical practices of yoga lie ancient philosophy and spiritual teachings. A system created to bring about complete health and wellness of the mind, body and soul.
Brief History Of The Eight Limbs Of Yoga
The eight limbs of yoga come from a collection of writings called the ‘Yoga Sutras’ (1) written around 400 CE by the Sage Patanjali (2). The Yoga Sutras are a system of moral and ethical guidelines to lead you to a more peaceful life and became of huge importance to the practice of yoga in the 20th Century.
The eight limbs of yoga are at the core of the Yoga Sutras and are a step by step path for purifying the body and mind.
A complete yoga practice would include the integration of the eight limbs in your daily life. The physical side of yoga, asana, is only one limb of yoga, but through working the body you may feel drawn to explore the remaining limbs as your practice progresses.
The Yamas And Niyamas
The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two limbs of yoga and consist of ten ethical and moral guidelines. They are a way for us to take what we learn on our yoga mat out into our everyday lives.
The Yamas are Social Restraints and consist of:
- Ahimsa - non violence
- Satva - truthfulness
- Asteya - non stealing
- Brahmacharya - sexual restraint
- Aparigraha - non-greed
With the eight limbs of yoga being written in 400 CE it’s understandable for the modern Yogi to adapt the limbs to our 21st century way of living. You can begin including them gradually into your yoga asana practice by setting an intention for yourself at the beginning of your class to focus on one of the Yamas.
For example, if you choose Ahimsa, non violence, you can make your intention to be gentle with your body and be aware not to push past your limits and cause any discomfort to yourself.
The Niyamas are Self Disciplines and consist of:
- Saucha - cleanliness
- Samtosa - contentment
- Tapas - discipline
- Svadhyaya - study of the self and spiritual texts
- Isvara Pranidhana - surrender to a higher power
The Niyamas are more personal to you and the attitude you adopt with yourself.
Bringing awareness to the Yamas and Niyamas allow us to see parts of ourselves we may not usually pay attention to. They are a way for us to develop our practice and lifestyle and lead a more fulfilling life.
The Remaining Six Limbs
# Asana - Physical Practice
This is the limb we are most familiar with. When Patanjali discussed asana, he was referring to the posture of seated meditation, as the word asana literally translates to ‘seat’. The postures we practice today are intended to prepare the body for long periods of seated meditation.
Renowned yoga teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (3) developed a physical style of yoga with the intention of integrating all eight limbs. This style of yoga is called Ashtanga which translates to eight limbed yoga.
# Pranayama - Breathing Practice (4)
Prana means ‘life force’ and Ayama means ‘control’ or ‘extension’. The energetic body is refined through breathing practices and with this allows the energy to flow through our bodies more freely.
Pranayama breathing exercises can have a great impact on our nervous system and create a sense of calm and stillness in the mind. (5) Learn some pranayama techniques with yoga teacher Adriene Mishler (6).
Alternate Nostril Breathing
# Pratyahara - Sense Withdrawal
By withdrawing our senses and shifting our focus from the outside world you can overcome distractions such as fear and desire. Pratyahara gives us the opportunity to take a step back from our external world and to look within ourselves.
By detaching from outside influences you create space to observe the influences that may be impacting on your health and state of mind.
# Dharana - Concentration
The objective in Dharana is to steady the mind and keep it from wandering by concentrating solely on one point of focus. By focusing on a single point we begin to still the mind even further, this time becoming aware of our internal distractions.
B.K.S Iyengar, founder of Iyengar yoga, had this to say about Dharana:
“The objective is to achieve the mental state where the mind, intellect, and ego are all restrained and all these faculties are offered to the Lord for His use and in His service. Here there is no feeling of 'I' and 'mine’”
# Dhyana - Meditation
Meditation is the practice of stilling the mind. The aim is to be in a relaxed state while still being aware. Meditation becomes your tool to see things clearly and reduce the illusions that cloud our mind.
There are many proven benefits to practicing meditation. In this Ted Talk, neuroscientist Sara Lazar (7) explains how meditation can actually reshape our brains, affecting the parts of the brain associated with stress, memory and compassion.
# Samadhi - Enlightenment (8)
The final step and reward for your yoga practice. Enlightenment can mean so many things to different people but ultimately it is inner peace. Our aim in life is to be happy, peaceful and fulfilled and Samadhi represents attainment of this.
You can see that not one limb has precedence over another, but are placed in an order to make the next step on the path easier tothe eight limbs it is clear to see how yoga can become a way of life. It doesn’t have to be a strict and rigid following of these eight steps to bring fulfilment.
By gently bringing awareness to these eight steps in your yoga practice and seeing how they can influence your life in a positive way is a great place to start.
The goal of the eight limbs of yoga is to bring peace, happiness and healing to your complete self, mind, body and soul.