It all began when I was asked a simple question over dinner last week, “How is our Yoga progressing? Do you see us getting any better?”
This person has been doing Yoga with me for many years. And, there’s not a single thing wrong with her Yoga – she tries every pose, including the tough ones; she looks lovely in her poses; she comes to nearly every class. She is a beautiful and inspiring Yogini!
But, it was a good reminder for me about what it means to “teach” Yoga. Because, Yoga is so much more than just stretching out on the mat. Even if the physical exercise is extremely beneficial to the body and the poses look lovely.
Asana is the limb of Yoga we practice most here in the West. It is the Yoga of movement and exercise. For most Yoga practitioners in the West it is the only Yoga they know.
There’s just so much more to Yoga than a sticky mat and a Sun Salutation. Asana is just one of eight amazing, powerful, and transformational Yogic limbs.
We cheat ourselves if we fail to experience the rest of Yoga.
So, because you talked me into it over dinner … and because it’s so important … I’m going to post more frequently on the larger dimensions of Yoga, the pure essence of the practice, and the philosophy that gives us much more than just a supple back and strong arms.
For today, simply, the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
I’ll hope to go more in depth later. The eight limbs, taken together, comprise a true and complete Yoga practice. One limb can’t thrive without the others. They all support and build upon each other. One without the others is not really Yoga.
Yoga dates back to the Vedas – spiritual and life scriptures that came from ancient India thousands of years ago.
But, the structure of Yoga and its eight limbs was first written by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, which dates to about 200 AD. While Patanjali did not create the limbs of Yoga, he is a considered to be the first sage to put them together into a written framework that can be studied and followed.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
1) The Yamas ~ rules governing moral and ethical behavior toward others. Much like the 10 Commandments, the Yamas warn us against bad behavior and poor lifestyle choices.
2) The Niyamas ~ the keys to personal care, behavior, and healthy lifestyle. Things we should do to be more fulfilled, more vibrant, healthier, and kinder individuals.
3) Asana ~ the traditional exercise and fitness component of Yoga. The practice most commonly known and practiced in the West.
4) Pranayama ~ control of the breath and focused breathing practices.
5) Pratyhara ~ withdrawl of the senses, drawing the senses inward and closing off of external distractions.
6) Dharana ~ one-pointed focus, controlling the mind fully to concentrate on a single point of focus.
7) Dhyana ~ Meditation, absorption in a single thought or point of focus for an extended period of time, particularly meditation on the spiritual.
8) Samadhi ~ the pure bliss that comes through success in the other seven limbs. Samadhi is the culmination of the limbs of Yoga, creating a perfect, sustained meditation that is the complete and pure absorption in the object of one’s attention. The mind must be in perfect balance for this to occur.
Although we think of the Yoga we do in class as simply Asana, we also try to experience some of the higher limbs. We always include Pranayama in our practice. We try to incorporate the spirit of Pratyhara and Dharana into our practice. And, we touch on meditation as a very simple introduction to Dhyana.
The goal is to work at these first seven limbs. The eighth, Samadhi, or purest of bliss, is the gift that comes from our commitment toward perfecting all the others.
For most of us, Samadhi will be a rare and fleeting thing.
And, so our best course is to simply make time for the journey … to explore and experience all of the limbs of Yoga to their fullest. When we do, Yoga can, quite simply, change our lives.
P.S. I would love your questions and comments to keep the discussion going and to help steer future posts and conversations. I’m going to label these posts as Yoga 101. So, you should be able to click on the Yoga 101 label on the blog to see all of these philosophy and deeper discussions in one place.