By Sheena Caito, September 2021
What do you think of when you hear the word yoga? Most of us think of wearing tight pants and stretching on a mat. While stretching is certainly an integral part of yoga (not the tight pants though, wear something comfy, I do!), the "Asanas" or poses, are only one limb of the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
In this post we will briefly discuss the other 7 limbs of yoga, and how you can incorporate each into your yoga practice and everyday life. The 8 Limbs of Yoga:
Yama: Attitudes toward our environment.
Niyama: Attitude towards ourselves
Asanas: Physical postures
Pranayama: Breath work
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
The Yamas are our external ethics, in other words, how we treat other people, animals, and the environment. There are five guidelines within the Yamas: Ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (responsibility), brahmacharya (unity), and asparigraha (generosity). The idea is that we are practicing yoga when we are doing random acts of kindness, giving our time or money to charity, helping others in need, and standing up for the disadvantaged. As yoga practioners we should deal with others ethically, truthfully, and in a manner that is not selfish. We should bridge barriers between ourselves and others, despite our differences. We should care for the earth and its' inhabitants.
The Nihyamas are our internal ethics and how we view and treat ourselves. We are practicing yoga when we care for ourselves. The five guidelines are Saucha (clarity, purity), Santosha (contenment), Tapas (discipline, sacrifice), Svadyaya (self-study), Ishvara Pranidhana (service to something bigger). Self-love and self-care are the first step in the Nihyamas, including living a healthy lifestyle, taking time for mental health and rest, and allowing ourselves to make mistakes. We must learn to let things go and to heal. Only then can we move on to being our best selves through self reflection.
I will say the least on Asanas, as they are the most well known. A reminder though that the goal of yoga poses is not to bend oneself into a pretzel, but rather to care for the body, stretch and strengthen muscles and joints, improve posture and range of motion, and relieve pain and stiffness.
Pranayama is often referred to as 'breathwork' the idea being that we work at breathing with a purpose. Deep breathing lowers stress levels, sharpens focus, and helps us to turn our gaze inward. Inward seeing is harder than one might think with all of the external stimuli and racing thoughts. Inward focus is crucial to the practice of yoga, as we are literally trying to become our best selves through yoga. Incorporate deep breathing into your yoga practice, your work day, and anywhere else you need calm.
Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. What we often call "meditation" is actually this practice. Once again we are looking Inward, to reflect on and heal ourselves. Withdrawing the senses can be very difficult, how can we ignore the dog barking or the smell of food cooking when we are trying to self reflect/meditate? These distractions are overcome with practice and discipline. It is a difficult journey, but worth the inner peace. My own teacher taught us to honor the senses first, paying attention to first all the sounds, then all the smells, etc. As we identified them, we let them go until eventually we were able to disengage at will from our senses.
Dharana is concentration, which naturally follows withdrawal of the senses. Once we can learn to completely focus our energy on the inner self, rather than external stimuli, is when self-healing and reflection can truly begin.
Dhyana, or Meditation, is what I like to call the 'next level meditation' at this point we have learned to focus our attention completely inward. Dhyana is "part of a self-directed awareness and unifying Yoga process by which the yogi realizes Self (Atman, soul), one's relationship with other living beings, and Ultimate Reality" (The Artful Universe). In other words, this level of meditation is finding our place in the universe and being at peace with it.
Samadhi is the final limb of yoga, where the universal consciousness unites with our own, a state of perfect bliss, harmony, and connection. It is a lofty goal to aspire to, but one worthy of aspiration. We at this time would become one with the energy of the universe, not just becoming our best selves, but our best souls.
Yoga is so much more than a workout. It is a guidebook to life, to becoming our best selves, to finding peace and helping others.