|| THE 8 LIMBS OF YOGA ||
Even though I did history at university and love reading historical books, I find the philosophy and history of yoga complex and can be hard to get your head around. I have very simply broken down key points to help understand the philosophy and how you can integrate it into your practice.
Firstly let’s very briefly deal with who Patanjali is and what the Yoga Sutras are.
Very little is known about Patanjali but it is known that he compiled the Yoga Sutras, an important set of aphorisms (sutras) on yoga practice. Modern scholars believe that Patanjali wrote the sutras in the second or third century CE but it is also argued that it was written during the second century BC.
The Yoga Sutras offers practical methods to practitioners to bring peace and contentment into modern life. It systematically explains what yoga is, the obstacles on the path of yoga, and the method for achieving enlightenment (Samadhi). In chapter 2 & 3 of The Yoga Sutras Patanjali writes about the 8 limbs of yoga (also known as Ashtanga Yoga) - a guideline on how to live your life with more meaning and purpose.
The 8 limbs of yoga highlight the philosophical and practical elements to help you find a more balanced and enriched lifestyle, one that will eventual lead you to Samadhi/ enlightenment. Below is a brief description of The 8 Limbs of Yoga and practical tips that you may want to try in your everyday practice.
1) Yamas: Ethical Consideration
Yama has to do with ethics and how we approach our lives off the mat. The 5 yamas are non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), non-stealing (Asteya), moderation (Brahmacharya) and non-possessiveness (Aparigrapha). We can interpret and relate the yamas as we wish to our everyday life. As an example, many yogis are vegetarian due to the first Yama, as they do not condone the killing of animals, but this does not relate to all yogis.
Practical tip: choose 1 yama each week and put it into action and discover what it means to you.
2) Niyamas: Self-observation
Niyama has to do with self-discipline and observation. There are 5 niyamas including cleanliness (Saucha), contentment (Santosa), fiery cleansing (Tapas), self-study (Svadhyaya) and devotion to the universe (Isvara Pranidhana). Like the yamas you can interpret the niyamas in a way that resonate with you. The niyama is a lot more personal and they refer to the attitude we adopt towards our self and the lifestyle we lead.
Practical tip: like yamas, choose 1 each week and discover what it means to you.
3) Asana is our physical practice. In the West this is the limb we resonate the most with. It’s important to note that Patanjali however, when discussing asana was referring to a posture that we could find stillness and comfort in e.g. seated, lying down or standing.
Practical tip: start practicing yoga 3 times a week, whether it’s for 10 minutes or an 1 hour. Start moving the body and see how it invigorates you and energises you.
4) Pranayama is considered the bridge between the body and the mind. When we’re stressed and anxious the breath can become short making us more agitated. When our breath is long and smooth it is calming on the mind. The breath is a good reflection on how we’re feeling in that moment.
Practical tip: when the mind is in a state of flux take a few minutes to find a comfortable seated position. Inhale for a count of 5 through the nose and exhale for a count of 5 out of the nose, repeat this but see if you can gradually lengthen the exhale up to 8 counts (if this is comfortable for you). You can place one hand on the belly to follow the flow of the breath in and out of the belly. Belly rises on the inhale and deflates on the exhale.
5) Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the 5 senses (touch, taste, see, hear and smell). When we withdraw from the sense we detach ourselves from the outer world and we’re able to therefore draw sense and awareness internally. We remove ourselves from dual thinking likes/dislikes, pleasure/pain etc.
Practical tip: This is best experienced in your yoga practice. When practiced diligently our gaze is fixed and we’re concentrating on the breath and so external influences fall away.
6) Dharana is concentration. It’s the contemplation of a single object in the mind. In a yoga class it’s often the breath we focus on – this is our object. Dharana helps us stay focused and when the mind gets distracted we draw the focus back to our object/breath.
Practical tip: choose a positive word / affirmation and repeat it for a few minutes. If the mind wonders then gently draw the focus back to the mantra.
7) Dhyana is meditation. There are two understandings. 1) When concentration is no longer disturbed we’ve reached meditation. 2) The mind is at rest and is not fluctuating with thought.
Practical: Try and sit for 10 minutes a day for 1 week in meditation. The app headspace offers a 10 day free trial.
8) Samadhi is the state of enlightenment, when the sense of being falls away. We’re free from the ego-conditioned mind and we’ve reached a supreme state of consciousness. For a Westerner it’s quite an abstract concept. Think of it as liberation from social constraints, judgments and the ego, which is developed and influenced by our surroundings.
Practical tip: not so easy to give an exercise for this one but keep practicing all of the above and in Savasana we may experience moments of bliss.