8 Limbs of Yoga for Dummies
Yoga is about doing things with your body, right?
Stand like this, breath like this, touch your toes, wiggle your nose… before you know it you’ll be a legit Yogi, AKA: Bendy-Lady-Doing-Handstand-On-Beach-In-Bikini (no dissing, I’ve been there!).
Turns out there’s a bit more to it that the physical act of Yoga Practice. Ashtanga Yoga, the original Eastern philosophy based on the teachings of Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra texts, directly translates as Eight (Ashtau) Limbs (Anga). This refers to the 8 components which make up Yoga as a whole; a complete guide to life. ‘Asana’, the physical practice, is only one small side to the octagon. There are many layers to the 8 Limbs of Yoga, practiced in a billion different ways by people all over the world; In this brief post I’ll aim to give you the basic low down.
Introducing: The 8 Limbs of Yoga
1. Yama – The Social Disciplines
The Yamas are guidelines for the way we interact with the world around us: people, the planet, and every living thing. There are 5 bullet points within this Limb:
Non Violence. Kindness to all living things in thought, speech, and action. Some people are Vegan, some people don’t kill mosquitoes, some people just try not to bitch about other people or kick kittens. Everyone is different, but for anyone interested in living a yogic lifestyle, it’s worth taking a second to work out what Ahimsa means to you.
Truthfulness. When your thought, speech, and action align as one, you are practicing Satya. This is a really interesting one, and most often the stumbling block at which people find themselves miserable. As well as the basic practice of truthfulness to others around you (i.e not lying about the dog eating your homework), Satya refers to the genuineity with which we live our lives. Working a job you hate/ buying things you don’t really like/ hanging out with people who annoy you/ not doing what you actually want to do with your life? You are not being true to yourself. As Shakespeare wrote, ‘to thine own self be true’; Satya is the core of fulfilment.
Non Stealing. Don’t nick things. Don’t nick people. Don’t nick resources from the planet. Don’t nick peoples time, energy, happiness, head space. Don’t nick your housemates milk.
Non Indulgence. Control of the natural urges. We do this automatically to some extent; without this discipline, we’re only one step away from binge eating brownies or raping and pillaging the neighbouring village. Being aware enough of our human desires for food, sex, comfort (etc) to not completely overdose is the name of the game here. Some spiritual practitioners take celibacy in the name of Bramacharya. Some people allow themselves desert only once per week and mindfully savour Every. Last. Bite.
Non Possession. This is a tricky one for us hordy homemakers. Minimalists are the Aparigtaha Angles, but if you don’t fancy chucking everything in a skip and living in a white room with two T-shirts, you could try just going camping for the weekend and only taking 10 things with you. The basic idea is to not rely on possessions for happiness, and to not be greedy. You can practice Aparigraha in some very gentle ways; giving half your sandwich to a homeless guy, donating money to charity, even just cooking dinner for a group of friends. The act of giving in any form is Aparigraha.
2. Niyama – The Self Disciplines
While the Yamas refer to the external world, the Niryamas are focused on the internal. The groovy ‘Self Love’ catchphrase is becoming an increasingly popular concept, and is probably most closely linked to the Niryama practices:
Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Keeping yourself physically clean and ‘detoxified’ is important, and there are many yogic ‘cleanses’ which I will go into another time (stay tunes for The Shat Krias for Dummies post). Traditionally Yogis would wash before Asana instead of after – arriving at the mat with a clean body in respect of the practice, and refraining from washing directly afterwards in order to absorb the Pranic work!
Love this one: Maintaining a general feeling of Contentment, Happiness, Positivity and Gratitude. Just as much as any of the other guidelines for living, this is as big (and sometimes harder!) a discipline to maintain. There are loads of ways to practice Santhosha; keeping a gratitude journal, practicing smiling in the mirror, and making an active choice to be a positive human.
Discipline, Motivation, and Hard Work! Whatever your jam, just do it with gusto. Get up at 6am and train for that half Marathon. Battle your way through 3 years of Uni. Bake the best damn cake there’s ever been.
Self Study. Being open to learning. Always considering yourself a student and making efforts to increase your knowledge and skills.
· Iswara Prandhana
Surrendering to the Devine Love in your own heart. Naaawww. The idea behind this cutie is that despite spending a fair bit of time feeling like grumpy grinchy bitchy kitten kickers, we are actualy nothing but gloriously sentient beings with outstanding empathy for the world around us. We are pure, beautiful Love! Yippeee!
3. Asana – Control of Body
We know this one! This is the one we know and love, practiced in the East and West alike, in Yoga Shala's, gyms, bedrooms, gardens and, of course, on the beach at sunset in your bikini. In the West, we love physical practice. Perhaps it’s because it’s the part of yoga which is most excusable in our culture. Going to a morning yoga class before work? You’re obviously an applaudably high functioning health enthusiast.
Meditation in your lunch break and flossing your nose?
Legit Hippy Weirdo.
‘Asana’ is one of the easiest parts of Yoga to engage with, and is often the gateway drug to the other Limbs.
4. Pranayama – Control of Breath
The original Yogi’s believed that you only have a certain number of breaths in your life. If you breath fast and shallow, you use up your breaths much quicker than if you breath slow and deep. There are tons of 'Pranayamas' (breathing practices) to choose from, ranging from alternative nostril breathing to breath retention and chanting. The most basic of all is the simple 'OM' chant - take a deep breath and make sound 'A-U-M', drawing out eat letter evenly. See if you can make this last for 15 seconds, and then inhale deeply and repeat until you have done 4 rounds; this should take you 1 minute. Only 4 breaths in 1 minutes is a considerable difference to our norm, and a great way to slow down and relax the mind/body.
5. Pratyahara – Mastery of Senses
Withdrawal from the Senses. We live in a world of sensory
overload. Perfumes! Music! Bright colours! Chocolate! Sex! Coffee! All of these things are awesome, in moderation.
Too much of them can stress us out, and burn our ‘Prana’ (yogic life force) to a crisp. Our brains don’t know the difference between being awesomely over excited and totally stressed out, so its good to give it a break from stimulation once in a while; take a walk in the woods and listen to the silence, set yourself an internet curfew, eat a gently flavoured meal without salt or spices.
6. Dharana – Focus of Mind
This Limb is about concentration. Training your mind in preparation for a meditative state (next Limb!) by applying complete focus to one thing. It’s pretty open here on what you can focus on; the breath, a candle flame, the sounds you can hear. Anything goes, as long as you can pen in your scatty brain for long enough to really notice just this one thing – even if its just for a second. Once you’ve practiced this for a while, you can progress to the next stage, Dhyana.
7. Dhyana – Meditation
Dhyana is the practice of maintaining a continuous meditative state for an extended period of time. This comes naturally after disciplined practice of Dharana, and is considered to be one of the most important levels of Yoga practice.
8. Samadhi – Oneness
Ah, the elusive Samadhi. This level is reaching a state of Super Consciousness, or Oneness.
Only very few true Yoga Gurus are believed to have reach Samadhi (think living in caves for 10 years eating only sunshine), and it’s not something your average-joe yogini should anticipate from their practice. Don’t worry – you’re not expected to become enlightened. You many not even want to. An Indian philosophy teacher on my 500hr Yoga Teacher Training explained that the Samadhi Limb is there to keep Yoga practice as a positive, onward journey for all. The real aim is not to become a God, but to become the best human being you can be by following the path towards Samadhi.
A Note on Discipline
This is a massive part of Yoga. It’s not really about becoming awesome at headstands. It’s not about being able to meditate for 2 hours straight without thinking about falafels. Its about doing the work; daily practice, daily positive energy, daily consideration of the guidelines for living. It’s about using the 8 Limbs of Yoga to make choices which help you to a) not screw up your life b) not screw up the people/world around you, and c) generally have a nice time and be happy. As strange as it is to admit for a born-and-raised Atheist with an adversity to organised religion, making an honest effort to strive for a better self based on ancient written teachings, with the support of a truly nurturing community certainly has its benefits. Who doesn’t like peace, love, and adults making silly shapes/sounds at 7 O’clock in the morning?
Man, Yoga’s awesome.
Peace, Love, and Masala Dosas,
*Note – The usual disclaimer applies: these writings are based on my continued training and study of Yoga and its philosophies. Everything I’m passing on comes from traditional Indian teachers and texts, with a little re-wording based on my own experience and personal practice. This ain’t no science, I ain’t no Guru. Namaste x