Yoga is so much more than just yoga poses; even when this seems obvious it can be difficult to articulate what that “more” is. The 8 limbs of yoga outlined by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras over a millennium ago describes a progression from foundational behaviors, through the physical postures to the breath, the senses and finally focus and concentration of the mind. The 8 limbs of yoga helps to define yoga and is common to all styles and systems of yoga.
Even though classes composed of yoga poses are the face of yoga in the West, the entire 8 limbs of yoga system encompasses all of life. The first two of the 8 limbs of yoga are called Yama and Niyama respectively and describe the activities of mind and body that support the practice of yoga and meditation.
Yama, or Restraints, describe things we should avoid for optimum clarity and functioning:
Ahimsa - Non-violence
Aparigraha - Non-grasping
Asteya - Non-stealing
Brahmacharya - Conservation of life energy (sometimes interpreted as celibacy)
Satya - Truth
Avoiding violence toward ourselves or others is the foundation of all other activities. Non-grasping means not comparing ourselves or reaching beyond the present moment. Stealing leads to all sorts of other subterfuge that muddles the mind and distracts us in everything we do. Wasting our precious life energy and attention on things not relevant to our intentions and purposes dissipates our efforts and dilutes our efforts in ways that can easily lead to loosing focus or becoming entangled in distractions. Honesty with ourselves first clarifies all our interactions and allows us to act appropriately to where we are.
The Niyama, or observances help us in growing our focus and practice:
Saucha - Cleanliness, purity
Tapas - Fire, intensity, focus
Samtosha - Contentment
Svadyaya - Self-study
Ishvara Pranidanani - Surrender
Cleanliness in our own person is mirrored in our environment which in turn effects our mental state. Tapas is the drive to practice, to return day after day and to be as fully present in each moment as we are capable. Samtosha helps us find the beauty in what is once we’ve practiced Satya and Tapas. Self-study invites us to observe our own actions and reactions with compassion in an effort to discern our patterns and become aware of our tendencies. This very awareness begins to shift the underlying patterns as much as any planning and intentions we set to change our habits and tendencies. Surrender reminds us that after we’ve honestly assessed our situation without grasping for it to be any other way, and applied ourselves honestly with an open attitude of observation, to release the results of our efforts. Once you have done all you can do, adding worry to the mix won’t help. Surrendering the results of your efforts honestly made is a nod to the natural order and the fact that not all variables are under your control.
These attitudes are supportive of a safe, vibrant practice of yoga asana, which is the third of the 8 limbs of yoga. In fact, during any given class you will find yourself practicing one or more of these values. The practice of yoga asana leads naturally to awareness of the breath, or the fourth limb: Pranayama. As you practice yoga poses more and less vigorously, your breath will provide immediate feedback about your state of mind and effort. As you become familiar with the poses your refinement of the breath follows naturally.
The next three of the 8 limbs of yoga grow from the practice of the ones before, and taken together define meditation; they are often referred to as “Samyama.” Dhyana and Dharana refer to focus and concentration, the two components of meditation we can influence. The final limb of the 8 limbs of yoga is Samadhi or enlightenment: oneness with the one that underlies it all. While we can practice and refine our focus and concentration in both yoga pose and seated meditation, enlightenment has an element of grace, much like the final Niyama, surrender. Enlightenment is not a final state to be reached and maintained, rather an experience of flow that we experience when we are aligned, focused and concentrated.
The 8 limbs of yoga describe the elements common to all styles or systems of yoga and form a kind of definition of the practice. Regardless of where you enter the path described by the limbs, your particular path will afford many opportunities to discover and practice each of the 8 limbs of yoga that make up a complete practice of yoga.