Entries in Prayahara (1)

Sunday
Jun172012

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Eastern Philosophy in a Western Life

The physical poses - asana - are only a small part of the Ashtanga practice, but a 90 hour yoga class leaves little time to discuss all the things that yoga also is and what makes yoga yoga - the other 7 limbs. In this write-up I’ll try to look at Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga in a way that will enable them to be implemented in the life of a contemporary Western practitioner, so please try not to take words like God or celibacy too literally...

1. Yamas 

Christianity has the 10 commandments and even though yoga is not a religion we have similar codes of conducts. The Yamas are our ethics for interactions with others - or restrains if you will. Broken down into five characteristic - most of them easy to follow -  they tell us about our fundamental nature of being compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful. The Yamas teach us non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness, Satya, non-stealing (Asteya), celibacy (Brahmacharya). Right. Let’s not jump to conclusions here. Celibacy is the tradition but a more modern interpretation is preserving the energy. Feel free to interpret that as you wish. The last one is non-possessiveness (Aparigraha), which again we need to adjust to our Western lifestyle, but practicing aparigraha might just mean considering if we really the newest version of the iPad.

2. Niyamas

The Niyamas are the ethics for interactions with yourself - the more intimate and personal commandments. The directive include internal and external purity (Shaucha), being content (Santosha), discipline or austerity (Tapas) self study (Svadhyaya) and Ishvarapranidhana which means to surrender - traditionally to God, but don’t take that word too literally. Maybe you need to surrender or give up some control to your Higher Self,  the Universe, coincidence or whatever you call the power that is larger than you. 

3.  Asana 

This is the one that we understand by the word yoga - the physical poses. You’ve probably noticed how all the poses’ names ends on asana? The practice of moving the body into asana helps in improving health, strength, balance and flexibility; it’s a bloody good workout. On a deeper level, the practice of asana is used calm the fluctuations of the mind and moves us into the inner essence of being.

4. Pranayama 

Pranayama is the control and directing of the breath. In Ashtanga we use the Ujjayi pranayama to heat up the body from the inside and to focus our mind on the breath. Breathing is powerful stuff. Just think about child birth or on how it makes you feel to take a few deep breaths in a stressful situation. 

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara means withdrawal from the distractions of the senses. The natural tendency of the senses is to go out towards the objects of the world, but in order to keep or obtain a balanced and peaceful mind a yogi must be able to pull the senses within.

6. Dharana

Dharana is immovable concentration of the mind. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction. In Ashtanga we let the mind focus on the bandhas, the breath and the dristhi (gazing points). 

7. Dhyana

Dhyana is what happens when you do Dharana for a while; meditation. The concept holds that when one focuses their mind in concentration on an object the mind is changed into the shape of the object. The Ashtanga practice is a moving meditation where we withdraw the mind from the distractions of the senses and concentrate on our breath, bandhas and dristhi. 

8. Samadhi

Samadhi It is the final step in the eight-fold path of Yoga. In this state, the body and senses are at rest, but the faculty of mind and reason are alert. It can be compared to the state that the Buddhists call Nirvana or enlightenment and it is said to come after years and years of daily practice of all 7 limbs of yoga. I don't know about you, but as for now I am happy when I can stay in Dhyana for a couple of minutes at a time so I won’t be expecting Samadhi any time soon :)


There you have them. The stuff that basically distinguishes yoga from gymnastics and makes yoga a path of never ending self discovery.

Om shanti.