The Eight Limbs

Yoga is everywhere these days. If you spend five minutes on social media you are likely to see a picture of someone doing a yoga pose. Even the latest AFLAC commercial has the duck doing yoga. But yoga isn’t about striking poses.         

The “goal” of yoga is to prepare the body and mind so that a person can sit in meditation for extended periods of time with minimal distractions. When the body and mind are quiet and still, the process of self-discovery begins.  

As such, yoga is much more than just a set of physical postures or asanas--and the asana practice alone, does not promise spiritual awakening.  In fact, the asanas are just one of Eight Limbs of Yoga which offer guidelines for living a good and meaningful life.                                  

Let’s think of a tree: If you wanted to climb to the top of the tree, you would have to climb up many branches to get there. Asanas represent just one of those branches and each branch of the tree represents different steps for living a moral, ethical, self-disciplined and ultimately, a fully authentic life. Unfortunately, for many, “asana” has become synonymous with yoga. Isolating the asanas from these other components makes it just another ordinary exercise program.

Let’s take a look at these Eight Limbs:

The first four limbs work to transform us from the outside in.

The Yamas are the first limb and they reflect how we interact with the world around us. They provide a set of moral and ethical practices to help us conduct ourselves in an honest, peaceful, and socially responsible way. Think: The Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The second limb, the Niyamas, offer guidelines for treating ourselves well by living a healthy life through self-care, self-discipline and spiritual practices. This means being content with who you are, remaining open to new ideas and letting go of preconceived notions.

The third limb is the one we are most familiar with, Asanas or poses. Through our asana practice we release physical tension and stress in the body.

The fourth limb is Pranayama, which refers to breathing techniques that help quiet the mind and shift our attention inward. When we learn to regulate and control our breath we trigger the part of our nervous system that helps us move away from “fight or flight”  and move towards “rest and digest.” Breath is the heart of the whole entire practice; without breath, there is no yoga.

The next four stages help us attain a higher state of consciousness.

The fifth limb, Pratyahara, means withdrawal of the senses. We can experience pratyahara when we become so immersed in our meditation practice or pranayama or asana that we become unaware of what’s happening around us.  This allows us to experience our “inner world.”

Dharana, the sixth limb, refers to concentration and helps prepare us for meditation. The point of Dharana is to further steady the mind by picking something (breath, mantra, whatever!) to focus on and stay connected to it.

Dhyana, the seventh limb is the practice of meditation. When we meditate, we still the mind and become fully present in the moment.  This heightened sense of awareness allows us to connect to ourselves at the deepest level.

During the final stage, Samadhi, you and the divine merge to become one, indicating that there is no separation or difference between you and the divine.  It is also the union of all eight limbs.  

A well rounded yoga practice incorporates these Eight Limbs. This eightfold path offers physical, mental, and emotional tools to develop a deeper sense of self, a deeper connection to the world around us, and ultimately union with the Divine.

Written by - Laurie Jordan, Yogi & Instructor at Tovami Yoga