As I continue to write about how yoga philosophy is impacting my life, I find myself repeating the same few sentence explanation of the eight limbs of yoga at the top of each post. The summaries are starting to feel redundant, but they also don’t do much justice to the topic. I realized it would be easier to outline them in a single post and link to it, so here we go.
When you hear the word yoga the image that pops to mind is probably similar to the one above (Google thinks so too, this is a top image search result for “yoga”). Asana, as the familiar poses are referred to in the yoga texts, is just one of eight limbs of yoga. The limbs are ordered with increasing proximity to our innermost self: the yamas (five moral commandments of restraint towards others), the niyamas (five disciplines directed towards oneself), asana (literally meaning seat, asana is the physical poses), pranayama (control of prana / breath work), pratyahara (turning inwards), dharana (focused concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (oneness). Here are the basics of each, future posts will explore them in more depth.
Yamas: behaviors towards others
The yamas are yoga’s five moral commandments, which guide us in our interactions towards others. It’s believed that if we practice the first one, ahimsa, perfectly, the rest of the yamas, as well as the niyamas, naturally fall into place. What I’m becoming to love about the yamas is how much inner peace comes from practicing them.
- Ahimsa: nonviolence (more on Ahimsa here)
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non stealing (more on Asteya here)
- Brahmacharya: abstinence
- Aparigraha: non hoarding
Niyamas: behaviors towards yourself
The niyamas are five disciplines that pertain to our interactions with ourselves.
- Saucha: cleanliness
- Santosha: contentment
- Tapas: effort required to create positive change
- Svadhyaya: study of self, sacred texts, and self observation
- Isvara Pranidhana: surrender to God
Santosha, tapas, and svadhyaya are the bomb, which I wrote about in this post. The last three: tapas, svadhyaya, and isvara pranidhana encompass kriya yoga. Saucha hasn’t been transformative, but I appreciate an extra little push to keep my environment clean. When I lived in Mysore we used to shower before practice and I enjoyed the ritual as preparation for asana. I’m still trying to figure out what isvara pranidhana means to me.
Asana: seat / physical postures.
We all know asana, the practice of putting our bodies into various configurations on a yoga mat. We’re fortunate that asana also gives us a great workout, providing a gateway to yoga for Westerners. For the vast majority of us asana is the extent of our exposure to yoga, but it gives people value far beyond the immediate physical benefits, even if they aren’t directly aware of it. This could come from your yoga teacher integrating the philosophy into the class, or in much subtler ways by giving you an opportunity to quiet the chatter of daily life for awhile.
Pranayama: control of prana / breath.
Broadly speaking pranayama is the control of prana, energy throughout the body. When we are in certain asanas, our alignment affects prana. Mostly though, when we hear the term pranayama it is referring to practices that help us regulate the breath, and in doing directly affect our nervous system. We practice ujjayi breathing in most yoga classes, deep breathing through the nose with a slight constriction in the throat. This breath retains heat in the body and gives us a point of focus. There are many other forms of pranayama. A few are taught in public yoga classes, many are considered too dangerous to teach except to very advanced practitioners.
Pratyahara: turning inwards.
Pratyahara is essentially a transition limb, shifting us from our external body to our internal selves. We turn away from our senses that tell us about external stimuli, which allows us to connect to what’s going on inside. I think of the beginning of an asana practice as an important moment of pratyahara as well. We spend the vast majority of our time and attention “out there” — getting through our to do list, socializing, serving others, etc. Our asana practice gives us a powerful moment to let all of that go and check in with ourselves, observing where our mind, body, and spirit are at that particular moment.
Dharana: focused concentration.
Dharana is the first of the final three limbs of yoga, the inner limbs which make up Samyama (state of deep concentration). Dharana is a relatively easy one: retaining focus on one thing. It could be a mantra, or your breath. We practice dharana inadvertently in many activities such as playing music, dancing, painting or drawing, and coloring, it turns out.
When we retain focus on one thing uninterrupted by thoughts, we enter an altered state. This is dhyana, or meditation. I’ve definitely noticed this happen a few times, usually followed by me thinking “Oh my god! I’m doing it!” Which of course, takes me out of that state.
Apparently if you go deep enough into meditation, you reach a state of complete oneness, where there is no longer a sense of self. I’ll let you know if I ever get there.