When you think of yoga, what comes to mind? Most of us will imagine postures and some of us will also think of breath control practised during these postures. These are important aspects of yoga, but this discipline goes far deeper. Its ultimate purpose is to create a strong bond between mind, body and spirit, resulting in a richer life.
Yoga Sutra was written at least 1,700 years ago, by a sage named Patanjali. This guidebook of classical yoga serves to structure the practice into eight limbs, each covering an aspect of a purposeful life.
While no one expects you to approach yoga holistically from the start, it is beneficial to be aware of the eight limbs that form the complete path. Instructors may touch on some of these aspects in class and you can always choose to focus on them one at a time in your daily life. Let’s explore the eight limbs of yoga.
1. Yama: Universal Morality
Yamas deal with your moral conduct and values. There are five yamas that encompass a moral code in yoga: Ahimsa is non-violence; satya is truthfulness; asteya is non-stealing; brahmacharya is right use of energy and aparigraha is non-attachment. Together, these guidelines help you to choose respectful and peaceful behaviours. As an ethical standard, they help you to develop a sense of integrity.
2. Niyama: Internal Observances
The second limb teaches you to be closer to the divine through self-discipline and meaningful habits. Personal observances give you a purpose in your own life and build up character. There are five niyamas in this limb: saucha is purity by living with clarity and single-pointedness; santosha is authentic contentment; tapas is purification through discipline; svadhyaya is the study of wisdom teachings and the self; and isvara pranidhana is finding your connection with the universe.
3. Asanas: Body Postures
The asanas form the most recognizable limb of yoga; many modern practitioners focus on this limb as an immediate experience of yoga. Asanas are yoga poses, movements, bending and stretching that use your body strength and balance. Yoga postures help you heal the body and calm the mind. As they are learned and practised, asanas connect your body and mind, bringing you closer to a spiritual experience.
4. Pranayama: Breathing Exercises and Control of Prana
Pranayama is the formal practice of controlled breathing, connecting your respiratory process with your mind and emotions. The breath is the source of your prana, or vital life source. Learning more about pranayama can transform your stamina, posture, confidence level, state of mind and peacefulness. You can practise pranayama by yourself in daily life or combine it with the asanas.
5. Pratyahara: Control of the Senses
The fifth limb of yoga is pratyahara and it focuses on withdrawal of the senses. By practising pratyahara more profoundly, you will learn how to focus your senses inward and isolate all external distractions. Withdrawal of the senses does not imply that you shut them down completely. Rather, this state releases you from knee-jerk reactions to external stimuli, so they no longer cause disturbances in the mind or body.
6. Dharana: Concentration and Cultivating Inner Perceptual Awareness
This limb of yoga is the training of the mind to meditate. It could be said that dharana is the effect of pranayama and pratyahara achieving a balance and working together. Dharana is the active state of concentration that precedes the next limb, dhyana. Dharana involves concentrating on an image, breath or mantra, and then repeatedly redirecting the mind back to the subject. Once redirection is no longer needed, the next limb, meditation, has been achieved.
7. Dhyana: Meditation on the Divine
The seventh aspect of yoga is a state of meditation. Mediation interrupts the fluctuations of your daily mental activity, such as sensory knowledge, memory and imagination. When the mind becomes silent and its functions are regulated to work together as one, you can stop acknowledging meditation itself and just embrace it. Achieving this mental state requires intense practice and control over the other limbs. This deeper concentration of the mind enables you to separate illusion from reality.
8. Samadhi: Union with Your Divine Essence
Samadhi, the last of the eight limbs of yoga, is a state of consciousness that transcends the confines of ego. You are fully absorbed in the present moment in total awareness. Feelings of worry, judgment and fear no longer control you. You feel fully connected and in a state of bliss.
Now that you have a taste of the depth of yoga practice, you can continue your journey by digging more deeply into those limbs that might pique your curiosity through reading, online research and listening to your yoga class instructor. You decide to what extent you wish to take on this yogic way of life. But once you go beyond yoga postures and start working on your mind and spirit, you are being reborn into a different world perspective.