For the next several weeks we will be going through the eight limbs of yoga during class, so I wanted to dive deeper and devote a blog post entirely to these eight limbs.
First, I want to take a look at our yoga practice in daily life. Asana, or posture, is only the third of Patañjali’s eight limbs of Yoga. Before we even get to what we consider our ‘formal practice’ — which, back in Patañjali’s time most likely consisted of seated meditation — we are told to see to the way we interact with the world around us and the way in which be behave towards ourselves.
The first 4 limbs
The observances (yama), the disciplines (niyama), the postures (asana) and the control of life-force (pranayama) through the breath are referred to as bahiranga sadhana, or the outward, external practice of yoga.
YAMA: The observances towards others; the five restraints which Patañjali calls the Great Vow of Yoga
Ahimsa: Non-violence; to not cause pain to any living being, including ourselves
Satya: Truthfulness: mindful communication
Brachmacharya: Control of the senses and celibacy/conservation of energy; soul moving into action with intelligence
Asteya: Non-stealing; the ability to resist desires
Aparigraha: Non-greed; moderation and the ability to accept only what is appropriate
NIYAMA: The observances towards oneself; the five behavioural guidelines or ethics; the disciplines
Saucha: Purity; cleanliness of the body, mind and surroundings
Santosha: Contentment; to be comfortable with what we do and do not have
Tapas: Action/discipline; accepting mental and physical pain as an opportunity to learn
Swadhyaya: Self-study and the study of scriptures
Ishwara Pranidhana: Surrender; allowing ourselves to be guided by the truth
ASANA: As mentioned earlier, asana refers to the actual physical poses of yoga. This is what most people think of when they hear the word ‘yoga’.
PRANAYAMA: Is the practice of breathing exercises. Prana means life force.
PRATYAHARA: Is the withdrawal of the senses from the external world. In other words, the outside world is not a distraction from your own inner world. It could be thought of as “being in the world but not of it.”
DHARANA: Means focus or concentration on a particular thing. It is the ability to remain centred in your mind on one point regardless of both internal and external distractions.
DHYANA: Is meditation. Like dharana, it involves the ability to focus. However, rather than paying attention to one thing, it goes a step further and means all encompassing awareness. In essence it is being mindful of all things around you.
SAMADHI: Is enlightenment or bliss.
Long term goals
If the long term goal of a yoga practice is to deepen our awareness, to expand our consciousness and to radically change our philosophical perspective, we need to practice for less lofty short term benefits.
Many of us come to yoga looking for better health, for the release of stress, for an easing of the challenges of daily life. A yoga practice that is not grounded in constructive behavior in one’s daily life, however, will often only reinforce destructive patterns, such as competitiveness, body image issues, muscular tension and potentially injuries. Holding patterns will not miraculously dissolve simply because you do sun salutations and a few standing poses every day.
The intention behind your efforts and the manner in which you execute your practice will make all the difference. Even if your asana and pranayama practice is flawless, if you hit the street and fall back into negative behaviors, your hour or two of good work can be completely undone.