Did you know that there is much more to yoga than a physical practice? Most of us come to our mats for exercise, with the goal of building strength or increasing flexibility. But yoga is so much more than sun salutations and handstands.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, considered to be one of the foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy, is a collection of 196 sutras on the theory and practice of yoga. Patanjali complied these sutras into the written text based on thousands of years of oral history and practice.
In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines the 8 Limbs of Yoga – 8 different areas of focus for a yogi to practice. The lower limbs describe the more tangible, physical elements whereas the high limbs focus more on the internal, spiritual elements of a yoga practice.
According to Jenny Lee, “ [t]he stated goal of the Eight Limbs is to awaken our consciousness to its true essence beyond the stories we create about ourselves, others and the world. As we embody these teachings personally, we achieve a clear conscience, an unprejudiced intellect, an unbreakable will, and the ability to manifest what we need when we need it, including wisdom and guidance for right decisions. (True Yoga, pg. 10)”
Limb One: Yamas
The yamas are the ethical qualities one should exhibit to truly connect to their soul nature. They can be considered the rules or code of conduct to live by. By practicing the yamas, one creates a more comfortable, spiritually connected life, allowing them to sustain their relationship to themselves, the world around them and the divine. There are multiple subcategories of the yamas which I will discuss in a later post.
Limb Two: Niyamas
The niyamas relate more to the behaviours or actions one puts out in the world. The niyamas are the integration of our physical and spiritual worlds and consist of both our actions and our attitudes. Like the yamas, there are multiple subcategories of the niyamas that I will address in another post.
Limb Three: Asana
Asana, the physical yoga postures that most of us in the west are familiar with. Downward facing dog, Warrior 2, triangle, tree, lotus. But what most in the west do not realize is that the entire point of the physical practice is to lessen discomfort and create ease in the body to prepare the yogi for meditation without physical distractions.
Limb 4: Pranyama
Breathing practices are such a key part of a yoga practice that they are limb all on their own. Pranyama is a fancy word for controlling the breath, or prana which translates to life force energy.
Limb 5: Pratyahara
Pratyahara is the control of the senses; more specifically being able to disconnect from our senses so that we can focus inward without distraction. By not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the noises around us, for example, we allow our attention to remain within for meditation.
Limb 6: Dharana
Similar to pratyahara, dharana is about focusing our attention. Once we have mastered turning off our external senses, it is training the mind to a single point of focus and not getting taken away by a parade of thoughts.
Limb 7: Dhyana
Dhyana refers to the stillness of the mind and body, drawing consciousness inward for meditation.
Limb 8: Samadhi
The final limb, samadhi, is the ultimate goal of connecting individual consciousness to the divine consciousness of the universe. It is considered to be the highest level of consciousness, a state of bliss
As you can see, there is much more to yoga than just rolling out your mat for a few cat/cow and sun salutes. These postures are intended to bring the body ease and flexibility to be able to achieve higher levels of consciousness through meditation.
While it can be challenging in a modern world to follow all these limbs perfectly, we can use them as guidelines to live a more peaceful yogic lifestyle. Stay tuned for future posts where I dive a little deeper into the 8 Limbs and how they translate to a modern lifestyle.
If you want to read more, I would recommend Jennie Lee’s book True Yoga: Practicing with the Yoga Sutras for Happiness and Spiritual Fulfillment. Jennie does a great job a translating the Sutras into modern language and makes it easy to understand for the everyday yogi. However, if you’re really into scholarly reading, pick up the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali – the version I have read is the translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda. Both can be purchased on Amazon or look for them in your local book shop. Second hand copies of the Sutras can probably be found online from students who have completed yoga teacher training.
Much love, and namaste.