The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Claudia Blaxell
There is no better place to discover the wisdom of the body-mind connection than on our yoga mats, where the physical postures or āsanas we do cultivate strength, flexibility and vibrant health, as well as an awareness of the psychological effects of the practice. However, yoga entails much more than stretching, twisting and balancing.
Eight limbs of yoga were first described by Patañjali in his Yoga Sutras over five thousand years ago. Aimed at the regular person, they are practical steps you can take to reach enlightenment – a sustained and profound happiness.
Today we take a look at the eight step plan of yoga in the hope that you can deepen your yoga practice and liberate yourself from suffering. Read on, absorb the teachings, do a bit of self-inquiry, and create positive change in your life!
Restrain your actions by not harming others (ahimsā), being truthful (satya), not stealing (asteya), being sexually appropriate (bramacharya) and not being greedy (aparigraha).
Ensure the actions you take toward your own body and mind cultivate purity (sauca), contentment (santosha), self-discipline (tapas), self-study (svādhyāya) and devotion (ishvara pranidhana).
Āsana literally means ‘comfortable, steady seat’. But the āsanas or physical postures we practice are only comfortable and steady if the mind and body are free of toxins. When we feel stiffness, tension or pain in the spine, legs, hips or hands it brings our awareness to areas of the body that need our loving attention. In this way we work towards creating a supple healthy body and pure mind that can sit comfortably in meditation. A well sequenced āsana practice works on multiple levels. On a physical level, it squeezes and milks our internal organs, releasing them of toxins; improves blood circulation and lymphatic drainage; releases tension in the nerves and muscles; and increases strength and flexibility. On a mental level āsanas purify the mind by bringing it into the present moment. If you’ve ever tried balancing on one leg while stretching the other toward the ceiling, you will know it is near impossible with an agitated mind! Āsanas also purify the network of subtle energy pathways in the body known as nadis, and improve the flow of energy or prāna.
Prāṇāyāma refers to specific breath control techniques designed to nourish the quality and flow of prāṇa in the body. Central to prāṇayāma is the notion that the breath is inextricably linked to the mind. When practiced appropriately, over time, prāṇayāma cultivates a steady mind and a higher state of awareness. It also expands the prāna that pervades the body through the nadis, strengthening our aura or energy field. Nāḍī śodhana or alternate nostril breathing is suitable for the beginner and advanced student alike. It clears the nadis known as ida (feminine energy) and piñgalā (masculine energy), promoting a calm, clear and balanced mind.
Withdrawl of the senses is an important part of yoga because the input we get from the external world through the sense organs pulls our attention wildly from one thing to another, causing an agitated mind. When the sense organs are withdrawn from objects that cause unwanted thought waves to arise, the mind is more easily stilled. So take some time each day to turn off your television and phone, close your eyes and just be. Sense withdrawl can take place on the yoga mat, too. Simply closing your eyes in tadāsana or when bringing your head to your knee in seated poses such as janu śirāsana or paścimottanāsana, promotes inner focus and a quiet mind. With consistent practice over time, prātyahāra happens automatically during yoga practice; your awareness moves within, unaffected by the external world.
Dhāraṇā means ‘to hold’. Fixing the mind exclusively on one object of concentration cultivates focus, creating the conditions necessary for your thought waves to go in one direction instead of in many different directions. The object of concentration can be anything, from an external object such as a candle flame or a point on the floor, or something internal such as the breath or a mantra. On the mat, particularly during balances, it is helpful to have a ‘drishti’ or point of focus where the gaze rests (a) so that you don’t fall over, and (b) to focus and engage the mind so you can move into a state of deep concentration. Each asana has a specific drishti. For example in trikonāsana the gaze is up along your raised arm. In virabhadrāsana II the gaze is along the middle finger of your front outstretched hand. In vṛkṣāsana the gaze is softly fixed at a point on the floor in front of you. Using drishtis, where appropriate, intensifies concentration, a necessary precursor for meditation.
Dhyāna is the state of meditative absorption that happens when you can effortlessly hold the focus of dhāranā. When you stop identifying with your thoughts and the fluctuations of the mind, you come to rest like a lotus flower floating tranquilly on the surface of a pond. At this point you go into a time warp and merge with consciousness, no longer aware of your body or the external world. The mind is clean, and with clear perception can reflect your soul or true self, happy and free.
When all mental activity ceases and you become ‘one’ with your environment, making no distinction between yourself and the objects you experience, then there is samādhi – bliss, ecstasy! The mind completely merges with the true self, the all-pervading pure consciousness that exists in us all, which is who we really are. Reaching a state of samādhi is what we are working towards and is an attainable goal in this lifetime. So keep up your practice and make time each day to tune into the divine presence that is you, and all around you.
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Just as a river without water isn’t able to transport a boat, the human body without energy isn’t able to deliver nutrients where they’re needed. A good yoga practise should increase the level of ‘water’ as well as making it flow more powerfully (increasing circulation so that it feels like a magnet, a heaviness that can be directed to any part of the body at will). In this way, we are able to unblock the blockages and go back to our natural state – free movement, empty mind, connection on all levels.
Hatha yoga talks about the 8 limbs but it complicates the simple idea that the human body should strive to be a natural ‘baby body’. A ‘baby body’ always has smooth, fluid 3D movement (no blockages) and an empty mind. Our children will always have more pure insides than us, our physical practise will never match theirs. With freedom of movement and reflex mind, happiness is automatically cultivated. This is why we naturally trust children, they are inherently good and natural and pure and without alterior motive. This is true Samadhi, the sea of happiness that exists within us all.
If we concentrate too much on asana and neglect the energetic practise we burn ourselves out, drying our organs and skin until they don’t have the support they need (bbq skin!) and ultimately limiting our lives. If we train ‘correctly’ we will look younger, feel better, be healthier and live longer. This is when our cells start to smile! Our cells make new memories and change the very blueprint of our DNA. The highest level of yoga then is threefold: living long, living healthy and passing away naturally and without pain.
This is a nice summary.
Just a bit of trivia: Patanjali is credited as the first person to compile and write down the yoga sutras. Traditionally the sutras are compact aphorisms that are designed for easy oral transmission, so Patanjali simply did us all the favour of writing them in a volume for posterity.
The yoga sutras existed long before Patanjali, which only strengthens their position as excellent principles by which to reach peace.
I like this 8-limb summary because it is easy to relate it to daily life and practice. Thanks for taking the time to share it.