More than Poses - Understanding the 8 Limbs of Yoga
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
You do not need to seek freedom in some distant land, for everything already exists within your own body, heart, mind and soul. ~ B.K.S. Iyengar
Before I began to learn and practice yoga, I really didn’t understand what it felt like to belong - to be wholly and completely accepted. Now, I can hear you thinking, "Do I have to twist myself up into a pretzel to feel acceptance?" The answer is an overwhelming, "NO - absolutely not!" But not for the reason you might think. You see, here in the western world, we know of yoga as a class where it's WAY too hot and bendy people often contort themselves into positions that defy basic anatomical principles and photograph said positions to elevate themselves to Instagram royalty.
Full Disclosure: I love Instagram and I love looking at some of the amazing yoga pics but I know that this type of posing is just one small slice of the big, beautiful, life-affirming yoga pie.
The fact is that Asana, the Sanskrit word for the physical postures of yoga, is only one of eight limbs of the yogic path and in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (which serves as the definitive text of the origin of yoga) asana is only mentioned briefly less than a handful of times. So if yoga is not those crazy, flexibility-on-steroids photos; what exactly is yoga and why has it become so mainstream in our modern world?
To explain yoga, it’s common to use the symbolism of a tree with distinct branches depicting the eight limbs of yoga. As the above photo illustrates, there are a vast array of mental, emotional and spiritual aspects to traveling the path of a yogi. The first & second limbs of Yamas & Niyamas are likened to the roots & trunk of the tree. Comprising of ways of respectfully treating others: Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya (truthful), Asteya (non-stealing), Bramhacharya (abstinence from energy depleting behaviors), Aparigraha (releasing greed and letting go of excess) and ways of respectfully treating ourselves: Saucha (practicing cleanliness in words, deeds and behaviors), Santosha (finding contentment by remaining in the present moment), Tapas (engaging in self disciplinary practices), Svadyaya (studying the self to encourage continuous growth), Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to the idea of a power greater than the individual) these ethical and behavioral guidelines provide a framework for establishing the foundation of a grounded existence connecting us with one another and a divine presence of our own definition. In this way, yoga aligns itself with every religious tradition as well as providing a foundation for those espousing traditional religion and instead favoring the idea of a Universal consciousness.
After the examination of our relationship with ourselves and others, the yogic path takes us on a healing journey by providing methods to balance our autonomic nervous system. Pranayama is the Sanskrit term which means both breath and life energy and the breathing practices taught in the tradition of yoga use the breath as a way to soothe the nervous system resulting in a release of the stress response and retreat into the relaxation response. There are a wide variety of breath practices designed to balance, release or stimulate the body depending upon what we most need to return to optimal health. Different systems of yoga utilize Pranayama either by itself or in conjunction with Asana, the physical postures of yoga and the fourth limb on the path of yoga.
Meditation is the invaluable gift that the East has given to the West represented as Dhyana in our eight-limbed yoga tree. From the 1920's when Swami Satchidananda attended the World Religious Consortium and introduced the idea to the 1960's when the Beatles brought Transcendental Meditation into public consciousness, meditation has been slowly but steadily growing as a means of health, wellness and connectedness for the general public. Our modern day society has seen a rise in medical practitioners like Dr. Deepak Chopra, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Timothy McCall and many other doctors exploring the healing benefits that meditation can provide for patients suffering from a wide array of maladies from high blood pressure to cancer to infertility to back pain and everything in between. In addition, scientists have begun studying and documenting the effectiveness of eastern medical concepts such as meditation and pranayama.
Another invaluable tool in our modern society of total electronic connectivity is Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to have time for stillness, to disconnect from the frenzied pace that our lives have become. Without gifting ourselves with some downtime, we can easily find ourselves living to work instead of working to live. This withdrawal can be undertaken daily, through a few moments set aside for breathing practices or during Savasana which is that quiet end to our yoga practice where we lie down and simply breathe. We don't actually need to wait until vacation to stop, unplug and unwind - we can, and we should, do this for at least a few minutes for ourselves every day.
Once we have begun to incorporate the first six limbs of yoga, the last two limbs occur effortlessly. Dharana is the sharpened awareness that naturally occurs when we are enjoying regular practices that reduce our stress levels, relax our minds, remove tension from our bodies and let the energetic life force flow uninhibited through our bodies. We begin to focus on each and every moment and live fully and completely with each breath we take.
Over time, this harmonious balance between body, mind and soul manifests in returning to our natural inborn state of bliss or Samadhi. We use the seven preceding limbs to remove obstacles and illuminate our path. And it is here, that the idea of belonging and acceptance come into play. We are all seeking the same thing - the most peaceful, enlightened, connected version of ourselves. To find that higher self, however, there are many different routes we can choose. We can choose a limb and begin to learn more about who we are and how we interact with the world around us. What we eventually learn is that we are perfectly imperfect and on the journey to be our best self, we find the acceptance I am joyfully celebrating - self acceptance. Take the trip yourself by choosing a limb and beginning to go a little deeper inside. You will learn so very much to surprise, delight and empower you.
Originally Posted: 4/2017