To many people, yoga appears to simply be a physical practice that helps achieve and maintain fitness, assists in the healing of injuries, or aids in stress management. And it is all that, but there is also a lot more to it. Yoga is a combination of physical, spiritual and mental practices that unite the mind, body and spirit. Sure, yoga can start off being physical, working on your strength and flexibility and learning about the poses and sequences. But if you want to advance deeper into the lifestyle of yoga, you cannot avoid the spiritual and philosophical side, which are both interesting and practical.
It is said that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are the foundation of yogic philosophy. They were written in India around 200-400 AD by the Sage Patanjali, and are essentially a set of principles to live and practice by. The Yoga Sutras are divided into 4 chapters or books; Samadhi Pada, Sadhana Pada, Vibhuti Pada, and Kaivalya Pada.
You would be able to study the Yoga Sutras in great depth, however my aim today is to simply summarise and outline the main parts, which are known as the 8 Limbs or components of yoga. Ashtanga yoga is heavily based upon these 8 parts of yoga and you cannot properly practice without adopting them all, which undoubtedly takes a great deal of practice and many, many years. To some people this is appealing, as there is no end and you are always a beginner. There is always something to be worked on and your practice is never perfect.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga begins with the yamas, which are a set of universal moral and ethical rules that are desirable to embody. They relate to the Golden Rule that most of us would be familiar with; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Ultimately the yamas help to purify human nature and contribute to the health and happiness of society.
- Ahimsa: Non-violence or non-harming, and having compassion and consideration for other living beings.
- Satya: Committing to truthfulness or to speak the truth. However sometimes this can conflict with ahimsa, in which case it’s best to say nothing. We don’t want to cause harm or negative consequences for anyone.
- Asteya: Non-stealing; take nothing that doesn’t belong to you or that which has not been freely given. Also pertains to not taking advantage of someone who has confided or entrusted something in you, not using something for a different purpose than intended, or not using something beyond the time permitted by the owner. Does not only relate to physical objects, but also others’ time or attention.
- Brahmacharya: This is a tough one, as it can be interpreted in different ways and will mean something different to everyone. It can mean continence, chastity, marital fidelity, sexual restraint or abstinence. But it doesn’t have to imply celibacy, and the meaning I like best and prefer is sense control; meaning that we don’t use our energy in any way that might harm others, that we use it to reconnect to our spiritual selves, behaving responsibly in ways that move us toward our truth, and forming relationships that foster our understanding of ourselves.
- Aparigraha: Non-covetousness, non-possessiveness, and neutralising the desire to acquire and hoard. Do not act greedy, take only what you have earned, do not exploit others and letting go of attachment to things. Have faith in your ability to provide for your future and understand that the only constants in life are impermanence and change.
Next in the 8 Limbs of Yoga are the niyamas, which are more personal and intimate, referring to our attitude towards ourselves.
- Sauca: Purity and cleanliness, both inside and out. This is about keeping ourselves clean, healthy, functioning freely, clarity of mind, removing toxins through asana and pranayama (which will be explained soon), and cleansing our minds from disturbing emotions such as hatred, anger, greed, delusion and pride.
- Santosa: Contentment or acceptance of ourselves, our circumstances, and what we have in our lives – as opposed to dwelling on what we do not have.
- Tapas: Persistance, perseverance, disciplined use of energy and attention or mindfulness of what we do. May relate to keeping fit to handle inner challenges without showing it, heating the body to cleanse it by burning desires that stand in the way of our goals, paying attention to what we eat, our posture, and our breathing patterns.
- Svadhyaya: Self examination, introspection and self-awareness.
- Isvarapranidhana: Recognising that there could be something larger than ourselves out there.
The 3rd Limb of Yoga is asana practice, the poses or postures that we hold. These postures help us to develop discipline and concentration which aid in meditation for spiritual growth. Patanjali describes yoga postures as steady and motionless, pleasant and agreeable. This is the part of yoga that is most commonly known and practiced. Asanas, at the very least, help to advance strength, flexibility, balance, overall health, and calm the mind.
Pranayama, or breath control, is the 4th part of yoga, and is also fairly well known. There is a huge connection between the breath, the mind and the emotions. Just think about when you’re stressed. Don’t you feel almost short of breath, breathing shallowly and quickly? If you consciously begin to breathe in and out through your nose, lengthening each breathe both in and out, and breathing deep into your belly, you will feel better already, despite no circumstances changing. You can practice pranayama on its own, however when paired with asana you will have a very powerful combination. They say that pranayama controls the energy or prana within us, which is able to be directed and controlled. Pranayama can also be used at the beginning of our yoga practice to warm our bodies and prepare for what’s to come. If done correctly, the ujjayi breath will create friction in the throat, which heats the entire body, especially when combined with gentle movements like cat cow pose.
Pratyahara, the 5th Limb of Yoga is withdrawal or sensory transcendence, bringing our awareness inside ourselves instead of to the outside world. We will be aware of our senses, yet detached from them, allowing us to be objective and get a different angle on ourselves and perhaps our detrimental habits. Pratyahara leads to the next step, which leads to the next. It flows naturally from here.
Dharana is next in the Limbs, meaning concentration and focus. When we concentrate on a single point in our minds, we naturally quiet the internal dialogue and lead to the next aspect of yoga, being meditation. You need to focus on a silent sound, the breath, or a mental object. This reduces distractions, stops the mind from drifting, and prepares us for what’s next.
Dhyana or meditation is the next Limb, and it makes sense to come next. It is the uninterrupted focus of the mind. It is easy to mistake dharana and dhyana to be the same, but while dharana is single-pointed focus, dhyana is awareness without focus. The mind is reflecting and contemplating what dharana has focused on, being determined to know the truth about it. It takes much stamina and strength to get to this point.
And finally, the last aspect of yoga is samadhi, oneness and union of the meditator, the act of meditation and the subject of meditation; becoming so absorbed that the mind loses sense of it’s identity. The merging of the thinker, the thought process and the thought. This can result in feelings of liberation.
So there you have it! I have tried to keep it short and succinct, however there is a lot to yogic philosophy. It would be hard to find someone who has mastered all of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, for many it is a constant journey. It can seem overwhelming to do all of that, which is why you generally work your way up. Each step prepares you for what is next. And we are all only human, so as long as we try our best to live these principles, then we are living yoga and are doing well.
We hope to see you in the studio soon! Namaste beautiful yogis and yogis. Love from the Kaizen Yoga team 🙂