Yoga Philosophy: The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The eight limbs of yoga are how most of us get introduced to yoga philosophy.
When you start practicing yoga, you may notice that it positively affects not only your physical body but also other areas of your life, such as the way you think and behave.
You may notice that you’ve become calmer, healthier, and more compassionate. That’s because the essence of yoga runs a lot deeper than posture practice.
What Are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
Around 400 AD, an Indian sage named Patanjali compiled the ancient wisdom of yoga from Vedas and Upanishads into 196 sutras or aphorisms.
At their core are the eight limbs of yoga. They are, basically, guidelines to living a fulfilling and meaningful life and learning how to be at peace with oneself.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga Explained
1. Yama (Moral Disciplines)
What we do or don’t do affects the people around us. Since yoga aims to establish a union, Yama, the first of the eight limbs of yoga, serves as guidelines for interacting with the world in order to clean up the environment around us and establish a harmonious and peaceful society.
There are five principles of Yama:
- Ahimsa (compassion),
- Satya (truthfulness),
- Asteya (abundance),
- Brahmacharya (sense control and moderation), and
- Aparigraha (letting go).
2. Niyama (Personal Observances)
More often than not, we tend to be much nicer to those around us than we are to ourselves. Thus, Niyama, the second of the eight limbs of yoga is a set of guidelines for how you can cultivate a healthy and loving relationship with yourself.
The five principles of Niyama are:
- Sauca (purity, cleanliness),
- Santosa (contentment),
- Tapas (self-discipline),
- Svadhyaya (self-study), and
- Isvara Pranidhana (accepting true self).
3. Asana (Posture Practice)
Asana is the physical posture practice and the most widely recognized aspect of yoga nowadays. It has a number of physical benefits, such as increased strength, flexibility, endurance, and balance. However, it’s not just that.
Translated from Sanskrit the word “asana” means “a comfortable and steady posture,” which is paramount for meditation. Imagine sitting still in Lotus Pose with your eyes closed for over 30 minutes.
If you don’t practice meditation or yoga regularly, you’ll likely end up with your legs falling asleep as your joints, muscles, and mind scream in agony.
Quite the opposite of what you’d expect from meditation, right?
Therefore, due to yogic philosophy, the main purpose of asana practice is preparing the body to be able to sit still in meditation pose for an extended period of time.
4. Pranayama (Breath Control)
Prana is breath as well as life force or vital energy. It’s believed that we live for as long as we have prana left.
If we wish to live longer, we need to extend the prana, which is what pranayama means – extension of breath and life force. It aims to lengthen the span of your breath, get the good prana to all nooks and crannies of your body, as well as prolong your life.
If this sounds a little too out there for you, try looking at it this way. Breathing is something we do every single day of our lives, but as basic and self-explanatory as it may seem, we take it for granted and rarely pay attention to how we breathe.
If you are stressed out, scared, nervous, or angry, and your breath is shallow and short, it’s not good for you, as you’re not getting enough oxygen. When you’re relaxed, your breaths are long, and you receive plenty of oxygen.
I bet you’re willing to be calm rather than overwhelmed with negative emotions. So, pranayama practice, which involves a number of breathing exercises, makes it easier to manage emotions and remain calm.
5. Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal)
Pratyahara is a way of internalizing your yoga practice. It’s thought that emotional imbalance is caused by wasting much physical and mental energy on responding to different external stimuli. Therefore, people need to either constantly suppress some feelings or reinforce others. As a result, they become easily distracted and susceptible to cravings.
When you practice pratyahara, it doesn’t mean that you never respond to any stimuli. It means that you don’t respond to them by impulse but instead consciously choose whether to respond to them and in what way.
In yoga classes, you develop this ability by listening to your breath or gazing at a certain point. Now you see why you are instructed to look in the direction of your thumb, nose, or navel during yoga classes.
6. Dharana (Concentration)
Dharana is the ability to be present and purposefully focus one’s attention on a single task or an object.
Such concentration is considered to eliminate inner conflicts and get your thoughts and actions in sync. This clears the mental clutter, which in yoga is referred to as fluctuations of the mind or the monkey mind. And it will probably help you get things done.
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
Dhyana is a continuous flow of Dharana. It’s a steady focus on an object, situation, person, or pretty much anything with the purpose of identifying the truth about it.
It’s a way of self-discovery as you learn to see illusion from reality and find out who you really are deep down under all the layers and masks you’ve been wearing.
Meditation also works as a wonderful stress reliever as it helps to create space between the world and yourself. You learn to see situations from a different perspective and consciously choose the best possible reaction to them.
8. Samadhi (Enlightenment, Bliss)
When I was in college, once, during an open discussion, one of my professors said: “A friend of mine went to India to find herself, and she said that you had to scrub really hard to find yourself.”
She meant for that to be a joke referring to the dirt you accumulate on your skin due to excessive sweating in the sticky Indian heat and pollution.
Everyone, including me, chuckled at the time, thinking of it as something ridiculous because why would you bother to find yourself when you have bills, work, school, assignments, boyfriends, Christmas presents, and tons of actual stuff to worry about?
Now, years later, I see it differently. You indeed have to scrub a lot to find yourself – distorted ideals, values, and views on relationships, stereotypes, prejudices, obsessions, and fears of what others think of you and expect you to do.
All of those make for metaphorical dirt that prevents you from seeing who you really are and what you really want.
It also distorts the way we perceive the world around us. Things, people, circumstances, and events are our egos’ projections of what they are rather than what they actually are.
The state of samadhi, the final of the eight limbs of yoga, allows you to see everything as it actually is.
That means that enlightenment isn’t something that you can find on top of a spectacular mountain or under a tree. It’s all within us, but we need to work ourselves to be able to see past all the layers.
According to yogic philosophy, this egoless presence is necessary to reach the state of bliss or inner happiness.
Samadhi may seem as tough as the quest for the one ring or a completely unattainable feat. Though, keep in mind that yoga isn’t a boot camp type of activity with a set deadline to achieve Samadhi.
It’s a lifelong journey that everyone can do at their own pace.
If Samadhi or eternal bliss seems a bit too unrelatable for you at the moment and you simply want to do yoga to get in better shape or feel better, there’s no shame in that.
Just get on the mat, practice regularly, and see what happens.
I love how you used positive words for the yamas and niyamas.