Ancient Wisdom

How The Eight Limbs of Yoga Can Assist in a More Meaningful Life

Featured art by Cameron Gray

I have been fortunate to have studied with teachers who left North America in the 60’s and 70’s to travel to India and train with the Indian masters. These devoted teachers showed me how to go beyond asana and embrace all that yoga has to offer. These days, it seems as if more and more teachers were trained by teachers that were trained by that that first generation of teachers. And as the connection to the masters becomes more diluted, the meaning of yoga is getting lost in the new translation.

What was once an all encompassing practice is on the road to becoming just another way to sweat in spandex. Sure, we listen to instructors recite Rumi and Hafiz – who were Persian (although Rumi was born in Afghanistan) – not Indian. We do ‘breath of fire’, and we hear about how we can expand our ‘consciousness’. And while some of us are espousing these sacred yogic principles, we’re also acting like selfish brats who can’t bear to not be first while using anjali mudra in the way that many used to use ‘thumbs up’.

Studying and living the Eight Limbs of Yoga is not as simple as showing up to a clean, minimalist studio to be taught for 45 minutes on one’s lunch hour. Sure, it can be said that some yoga is better than no yoga at all. But without the overall philosophy, yoga turns into innocuous, bendy exercise. If you’re nodding your head in agreement when the teacher talks about how we’re all ‘one’ and then going to the juice cafe and being rude to the person blending your smoothie, or cutting off drivers on the freeway, you may be missing something.

The benefit of yoga asana is so great that one could be forgiven for forgetting that it’s part of a greater knowing. Moving the body is always more beneficial than not moving the body. Increasing intake of breath? Absolutely. Breath is life – and a whole other limb of yoga on its own. But fast Vinyasa classes often equal one losing the breath in favor of ‘keeping up’. I heard a teacher say recently: “It’s great that you’re all moving together but this isn’t synchronized swimming”. In spite of being in class with others, our journey with yoga – including our mastery of the breath – is at our own pace and understanding.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga are attributed to Patanjali, from the Yoga Sutras. If we’re truly following the Eight Limbs (also known as the Eightfold Path), they will adjust much of what we see, think, and do.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga can serve as a compass for living a meaningful and purposeful life. And, in this day and age, we need all the meaning we can get.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

1. Yamas

Yamas are “ethical considerations to guide our relationships with others”. A simpler way to describe them would be to reference the ‘Golden Rule’ of do unto others as they would do unto you. Nonviolence (Ahimsa), Truthfulness (Satya), Non-stealing (Asteya), Chastity and Fidelity (Brahmacharya), and Non-Coveting (Aparigraha) may also resemble some of the Ten Commandments. Whatever you call them, putting them into practice is a great way to keep your nose clean, as the idiom goes.


2. Niyamas

Niyamas are an expression of worldview that can also inspire self-discipline. They are spirituality in practice.

Saucha, the niyama of cleanliness would suggest never littering. Santosha, or contentment, could speak to appreciating and treating with respect what we have. Tapas, which is willpower and self-discipline, asks us to stay the course when things become difficult. Svadhyaya is the niyama that suggests we not only reflect on spiritual concepts, but that we also use them as a mirror to reflect upon our own behavior. Finally, Ishvara Pranidhana is the practise of surrendering to a power greater than ourselves.


3. Asana

Interestingly, Asanas, the poses we are all familiar with, are not actually considered the most important part of yoga practice. Asanas are not actually used to get us physically flexible or strong but to prepare the body for meditation. Asana isn’t an invitation for us to do multiple sun salutations (although we may and we do) but is, instead, the way in which we care for our body, which is the temple that houses our precious spirit. Asana is an opportunity to move in ways we are unaccustomed to, to practice discipline, and find the teacher in all things.


4. Pranayama

Pranayama is the practice of controlling our breath, or prana. Our breath connects our body, mind, and emotions. Breath is our life force; a mastery of Pranayama is said to be able to expand our lifeforce, as well as extend our lifespan. Breath can also help us to maintain our peace of mind when our emotions get out of hand. The ‘One Minute Breath’ is just one example of how Pranayama can assist us in working through anger, and allowing it to move through us before its expression works against us. Working toward breathing in for twenty seconds, holding onto the breath for twenty seconds, and exhaling for twenty seconds is a marvelous way to calm ourselves when we are ready to lash out.


5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing from the world without actually losing contact with it. If you’ve ever experienced a deep savasana, in which you feel on the edge of sleeping while your mind stays alert, yet non-reactive to what it senses, that’s Pratyahara. Many of us are under the impression that living the ultimate spiritual life means cutting out or cutting off the world around us. In fact, Pratyahara assists us in moving through the world, and all its distractions, annoyances, and conflicts, while staying connected to our inner peace. Rather than react to what goes on around us, or attempting to escape it. by practicing Pratyahara we can observe, go within, and make choices.


6. Dharana

Dharana refers to using a single point of focus during meditation. Using Dharana, we learn to concentrate on – and in – the present moment. Rather than become caught up in each possible distraction, we stay with one thought, one sound, one image. Dharana is a fundamental part of meditation practice – as thoughts float in and out, forever threatening to derail us, we can always come back to our focus.


7. Dhyana

Dhyana takes us past the concentration of Dharana into the quieted mind. In this stillness, only a few thoughts – or none at all – disturb the meditation practice. In Dharana, we are focused, we concentrate. But, in Dhyana, we are keenly aware without focus. And, in this keenly aware state, we can get closer to the truth. We can separate illusion from reality. And, as the illusion falls away, we get closer and closer to our ultimate goal: Samadhi.


8. Samadhi

If we practice each of the limbs with devotion, we will find ourselves at Samadhi. The literal translation of Samadhi is ‘putting together’, which speaks to the Eight Limbs as being specific steps to reach enlightenment. Without practicing each and every limb, we cannot attain this state of being. Samadhi, in every day practice, means immersing yourself in the enjoyment of each part of your day.

As many of us do when we set a goal to attain, we overlook the value of the path to the goal and instead, focus on the desired outcome.

Many find a false sense of Samadhi in drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, excessive exercise, and unhealthy, codependent relationships. Unfortunately, declaring a state of enlightenment (in the way we dress, speak, or in the identity we give ourselves) is a far cry from it’s actual attainment. Enlightenment is not something we can hold, but something we can only experience in a given moment, which is why the Eight Limbs of Yoga is a practice of ongoing devotion.

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