The 8 Limbs of Yoga
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is an eightfold path to liberation, known as 8 Limbs of Yoga, or ‘Ashtanga’ –
“ashta” = eight | “anga” = limb
The 8 limbs are:
1. YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows (outer world)
These are broken down into 5 categories:
2. NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances (inner world)
These are broken down into 5 categories:
– isvara pranidhana
3. ASANA – Posture (seated position)
This is less about all the physical postures you will come across in class, and more about finding ‘sthira sukham asanam’ – a steady and comfortable seat – to prepare you for meditation.
4. PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques; expansion of prana (vital energy)
Gaining mastery over the breath to connect to, control and expand prana. Our breath is directly linked to our mental and emotional states, and by controlling the breath in various ways, we can alter these states.
5. PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal
When we sit for meditation, we “draw in” our senses from the external world to the internal – for example, closing our eyes or awareness of breath.
6. DHARANA – Focused concentration
After withdrawing the senses, we are able to draw the mind away from distractions – for example, focusing on one point, repeating a mantra, visualisation, awareness of breath
7. DHYANA – Meditative absorption
Becoming so absorbed in our meditation (due to the last two limbs – sense withdrawal and focused concentration) that you are no longer ‘in the mind’.
8. SAMADHI – Bliss; enlightenment
A state of ecstasy, of being ‘one’ with the Divine.
To delve in a little deeper into the Yamas and Niyamas, read on.
To summarise, the Yamas are about our relationships with others, whilst the Niyamas are all about our relationship with our Self.
1. AHIMSA = non-violence / non-harming
The absence of violence in thought and action, in body, mind and soul, towards other beings, and to yourself.
2. SATYA = truthfulness
To live your truth all of the time – what does that mean? Truth in thought, words and actions towards others and ourselves.
Complete honesty with ourselves – on the mat, what do I need from my practice today? Oftentimes we will push ourselves past our limitations or injuries because we want to be able to do something. Take a moment to tune in to what you need TODAY.
Finding truthfulness in our daily lives – how am I feeling? What am I dealing with, or not dealing with? What am I carrying today?
And with others – how can I be truthful in my interactions? Honesty is the foundation of any strong relationship, but maintaining ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) is also important. Finding a way to be kind, whilst being truthful is an ongoing challenge for most of us.
3. ASTEYA = non-stealing
It can mean so much more than the obvious ‘stealing’ that we all immediately think of.
On the mat – have you ever pushed yourself a little too far past your ‘edge’ because you wanted to achieve a particular pose, even though your body might not have been ready for it? This is robbing yourself of presence – striving towards an outcome instead of focusing on the NOW. Remember that your body changes day-to-day. What you can achieve today is different from yesterday and tomorrow.
Other people’s peace – have you ever stopped to think that perhaps yoga class is the only time that some people can experience peace in their day? Perhaps try to take extra care to be quiet and respectful of other’s space when entering/leaving class.
Off the mat – are you always wishing something would happen, or regretting something that has happened? Worrying about what might happen? Constant desire and aversion are stealing your peace in the moment – allow yourself to feel the good and bad. They will pass, as everything does.
4. BRAHMACHARYA = best use of vital energy
Often translated simply as ‘celibacy’, this yama is often misunderstood, overlooked or seen as outdated, when in fact it is more important than ever in modern times, particularly with all of our distractions.
“The word Brahmacharya actually translates as ‘behaviour which leads to Brahman’. Brahman is thought of as ‘the creator’ in Hinduism and Yogic terms, so what we’re basically talking about here is behaviour which leads us towards ‘the divine’ or ‘higher power’.
Regarding Brahmacharya as ‘right use of energy’ leads us to consider how we actually use and direct our energy. Brahmacharya also evokes a sense of directing our energy away from external desires – you know, those pleasures which seem great at the time but are ultimately fleeting – and instead, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves.” (quoted from Ekhart Yoga)
Ever heard the saying ‘You give life to what you give energy to?’ So – where is your energy going? Can you pull it away from those things that are not serving your higher purpose, and channel it towards where you want to be heading?
5. APARIGRAHA = non-attachment / non-possessiveness / non-greed
Words from Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita – ‘Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action. Do not let the results of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction’.
What does this mean? In everything you do, can you let go of attachment to the outcome, and just be present with what you are doing?
On your mat, can you bring yourself back to the present moment and enjoy the connection to the body and breath, instead of striving towards nailing a pose, or being better than the person next to us?
1. SAUCHA = Cleanliness; purity
What does Saucha mean? Taken at the most superficial level, cleanliness and purity of the body – bathing, cleaning yourself, eating clean foods, finding a place clear of clutter to roll out your mat. Showing respect to your practice.
On a deeper level, Saucha helps us to remember who we are at our core when we burn away distractions and obstacles. Recognising what no longer serves us, and letting it go.
Pranayama is a way of purifying the body and mind through breath. Meditation helps us to purify the mind, de-clutter and find stillness within.
2. SANTOSHA = Contentment
Contentment. Sounds easy enough, right? But how often do we tell ourselves “I’ll be happy when…”? Working towards goals is not a bad thing – it can be extremely helpful. But when we come to rely upon these things for happiness, we are losing the present moment. There will always be something to long for – and that makes this contentment unattainable!
We live in a constant flux of craving and aversion ‘I wish this would happen’ or ‘I wish that hadn’t happened’. Now that doesn’t mean we should just sit back and not do anything at all, it means that we can practice appreciating where we are and what we have achieved so far.
What about on the mat? Ever look around in a class and wish that you could look like that person in that pose, wish that your hips were a little more open or your legs a little more flexible? How about trying to keep the focus on how the pose really FEELS for you today… and whether your breath and body will allow you to go deeper, or if you’re staying right where you are today. Tuning in in this way is what is going to take you deeper in your practice. Sometimes physically, but always mentally/emotionally/spiritually.
3. TAPAS = Discipline
Finding your ‘Tapas or discipline doesn’t mean you need to strictly adhere to getting to class 5-6 times a week, it might be more like this – if you can’t make it to a class, finding 5-10 minutes to connect to your breath and your body, and observing your mind. Maybe you manage to get on your mat for 10 mins and just move intuitively. You know your practice makes you feel better (even when you don’t feel like it), so tapping into that knowledge and allowing that to fuel your discipline.
A quote from Eckhart Yoga explains it further – “Making the decision to go to bed a little earlier so you can wake up early to practise is Tapas; not drinking too much or eating unhealthy foods because you want to feel good in your practice is Tapas; and the way you feel after an intense yoga class, a blissful Savasana and deep meditation? That’s Tapas too – ‘burning’ away the negative thought patterns and habits we often fall in to.” The discipline to keep going even though you don’t feel like you’re ‘getting better’ – that’s Tapas.
In your daily life, learning to sit with yourself through intense emotions, to breathe through it. Practicing believing in yourself, your strength, your ability, your creativity and persevering – that’s Tapas!
Keep going, you’re doing a great job.
4. SVADHYAYA = Self-study
To break it down, ‘Sva’ translates to ‘self’ or ‘own’ and ‘Adhyaya’ translates to ‘reading’ or ‘lesson’.
Studying our ‘self’ can help us build a deeper connection to ourselves and to others, becoming more aware of our actions and reactions, our habits and thought processes.
On the mat, we learn to study ourselves, without the distractions of our daily lives. We are reminded to tune into how our bodies are feeling, and to tune into our breath. We notice thoughts and attitudes that come up. Perhaps you begin to notice things that you were too distracted to notice before.
How do we take this practice off the mat and into our daily lives?
Practice bringing this state of awareness into your every day. When you wake up, take a moment to check in with your breath, your body and your mind. What’s going on today?
Read books or articles or watch inspiring and thought-provoking films or documentaries, talk to inspiring people, anything that helps you to question who you are, what you believe, where you want to be and where you are headed.
5. ISVARA PRANIDHANA = To surrender to one’s highest self
This is a huge one with many interpretations – here are just some thoughts.
To dissolve the endless afflictions and agitations of the mind that cause pain and suffering and to move away from the ego.
To surrender to your yoga practice is not weakness. Surrendering requires strength. Sitting with discomfort is not easy, and it’s a constant practice – we try and try each time. This is applicable in asana practice when we find a challenging pose, in yin and savasana when we feel a lot going on inside but we try to stay still, in meditation when we have monkey mind, bouncing from one thought to the next. To let go of the ego and listen to what your body needs requires strength and the ability to listen.
To surrender in your daily life might mean accepting what is and practicing being okay with it, rather than fighting it all the time, rather than wishing for things to be another way. This requires us to trust in ourselves, to trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. To let go of labels and the habit of pigeon-holing ourselves to conform to what we think we should be or what we think others want us to be. Trust in your highest self and get to know yourself as you truly are, without the expectations and desire to be another way.