Beyond the pose: The 8 Limbs of Yoga
With the growing popularity of yoga, most are familiar with the practice: challenging movement and postures, loud Ujjayi breathing, (lots of) chaturangas, and that amazing zen-like feeling afterward. But yoga was actually designed to be so much more than physical movement and stretchy pants - in fact, yoga is meant to be an entire way of life.
Let’s start at the beginning:
More than 2,000 years ago yoga was only practiced by spiritual gurus. It was a completely sacred practice and lifestyle - these yogic gurus did not work regular jobs but instead meditated for hours at a time and relied on the good people of their villages for food and shelter.
Around the second century B.C., a sage named Patanjali decided the general public should be able to experience the bliss of yoga. He soon realized that most humans aren’t able to meditate for hours each day (not surprising, right?).
Thus, Patanjali created a roadmap for the average person to experience the magic of yoga. He constructed the Eight Limbs of Yoga: a guide to leading a more meaningful and purposeful life.
Postures (also called Asana) are one of the eight limbs. Breath (Pranayama) is another of the eight. At Highland Yoga you have probably heard your teacher mention both Asana and Pranayama several times over the hour. But what are the other 6 limbs of yoga?
The Eight Limbs of Yoga, Explained
Limb 1 - Yama
The Yamas are made up of five ethical points that should be observed when interacting with the world around us.
Ahimsa (non-violence): Ahimsa is fairly straightforward by asking us to lead a life of non-violence. This can mean practicing kindness toward yourself as you take a yoga class, with others in your life, and to the earth around you. Some modern yogis also interpret Ahimsa to mean leading a Vegan lifestyle to avoid hurting animals.
Satya (truthfulness): Satya aligns with a moral code you may have learned in kindergarten - tell the truth and support others who tell the truth.
Asteya (non-stealing): Asteya can relate to not taking someone else’s personal property, but also can relate to staying original in ideas and work.
Brahmacharya (celibacy): Brahmacharya originally meant practicing celibacy. In today’s world, it might be better interpreted as the ‘right use of energy’ - whatever that means to you personally.
Aparigraha (non-coveting): Aparigraha is relatable to all yogis across time - restraining from jealousy, envy and greed. Not only that, but if those emotions do arise, Aparigraha means to not attach oneself to those emotions when they are present. Easier said than done, right?
Limb 2 - Niyama
The Niyamas complement the outward-looking Yamas by asking us to look inward. The Niyamas are practiced for self-improvement.
Saucha (cleanliness): Saucha can mean physical cleanliness - yes, taking care of yourself - and also emotional and mental cleanliness. Keeping the mind free of clutter and negativity can help with a focused life.
Santosha (contentment): Santosha could be an entire blog post on it’s own and might be the most difficult of all the Yamas and Niyamas. Today’s lifestyle of social media makes it easy to compare and feel like you’re not “good enough.” The more we can capture contentment, the more at peace we will feel, no matter what your IG friends are up to. Finding Santosha doesn’t mean settling and giving up. It’s possible to be completely content while continuing to push yourself to grow.
Tapas (discipline or heat): Tapas translates to “heat,” which can be interpreted in a few ways. Sometimes tapas might be a super sweaty Vinyasa practice. Other days it’s the self-discipline to simply get yourself onto the mat and see where the practice takes you. It’s the focus that’s required to remain centered with your breath and stay with whatever arises when holding an asana for several minutes. It’s your inner fire.
Svadhyaya (study): Svadhyaya can be interpreted as “study” or “self-study.” It involves maintaining the mind of a diligent student to learn more about the world around us.
Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher power): Ishvara Pranidhana is different for every yoga student, but in summary, it’s worth noting that yoga is a spiritual practice that involves the mind, body, and soul.
Limb 3 - Asana
Asana is the physical movement, or postures, of yoga. This is often the entry point to yoga for most people. The OG Asana was a simple seated pose. Patanjali recognized that sitting for hours was tough (yep), so he created a series of postures to move through.
Today, there are hundreds of postures that are creatively linked together to make a vinyasa yoga class. The goal? Make the body work so the mind can’t. To stop the constant chatter of the mind and instead get into the body.
Limb 4 - Pranayama
Pranayama, or breath, is often introduced alongside Asana in our classes at Highland Yoga. The steady rhythm of breath creates a way to connect to the present moment. Once you find yourself distracted during class, all you have to do is take a breath in, then a breath out, and you’re back.
Limb 5 - Pratyahara
Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses. It moves slightly beyond Asana and Pranayama - which are designed to bring you to the present moment - by turning your focus completely inward. Pratyahara can be practiced during meditation or savasana by making a conscious effort to stop paying attention to everything around you and instead look inward.
Limb 6 - Dharana
As you might have guessed, each limb takes us a little deeper into a state of bliss or enlightenment. Dharana means concentration. Since Pratyahara’s goal is to reduce outside noise, Dharana’s goal is to reduce inner noise. This can be practiced by focusing on one particular thing while meditating, such as a silent mantra, a “white light,” or a particular image.
Limb 7 - Diyana
Diyana refers to meditation, or being keenly aware without focus. The mind is quiet. There are little thoughts and ideas. While this may seem daunting, don’t give up. It’s important to remember that yoga is a practice, not perfect.
Limb 8 - Samadhi
The ultimate goal of yoga is Samadhi, or pure contemplation. This happens when you find a divine connectedness to the universe. The outcome: peace.
Learning about the Eight Limbs of Yoga might be information overload, but it’s important to remind yourself that it’s a practice for a lifetime. Over time, practicing the Eight Limbs will lead to a more meaningful life.
So, what now? Continue to work on Asana and Pranayama during your classes at Highland Yoga. Be mindful of the Yamas and Niyamas in daily life. If you’re looking for more, ask your Highland Yoga instructors about starting your own meditation practice so you can dive deeper into the remaining Limbs - you’ll experience the best yoga in Atlanta! All of this practice will help you get closer to the ultimate goal: pure bliss.