The Eight Limbs of Yoga and Why They Matter

In earlier posts I’ve mentioned that yoga is more than stretching and today I thought I’d dive into that topic in more detail.

Here in the West, yoga is commonly thought of in terms of its postures and movement.  Because of that, many continue with the misconception that yoga is only for the thin and flexible. Completely understandable when you consider the typical cover of Yoga Journal, an American-based magazine focused on yoga and yoga-related topics. 

(Full disclosure: I have subscribed to the magazine since 2008.  The content of the magazine has changed during this time to focus more on what I call “pop yoga.”  Still the monthly Wisdom column continues to inspire and the Basics column always provides interesting variations.)

However, movement and postures are only one element of Yoga.  The word “yoga” is Sanskrit and means “to join” or “union.”  In this case, the joining of body, mind and spirit.  We spend a lot of time in our heads — thinking, worrying, planning, remembering.  We spend less time nurturing the body and spirit.  Yoga recognizes that all three aspects need to be developed and in balance to live a healthy, full life.

In its fullness, yoga has eight elements or limbs.  The reference to limbs, as in on a tree, is to help us remember that they are not steps that lead from one level to another.  But, branches that mix together and support each other as they grow and develop.  These limbs were introduced in one of yoga’s oldest texts, Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, verse 2.29.  Below I will provide two translations for each limb.  The first will be a more traditional translation taken from The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar.  The second is from The Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi, the first translation of the the Yoga Sutras from a feminine perspective.  I will use TKV and NJD to indicate each author.

1. Yama (there are 5 yamas)
     TKV: our attitudes toward our environment
     NJD: reflection of our true nature

2. Niyama (there are 5 niyamas)
    TKV: our attitudes toward ourselves
    NJD: evolution toward harmony

3. Asana
    TKV: the practice of body exercises
    NJD: comfort in being, posture

4. Pranayama
    TKV:the practice of breathing exercises
    NJD: enhancement and guidance of universal prana (energy)

5. Pratyahara
    TKV: the restraint of our senses
    NJD: encouraging the senses to draw within

6. Dharana
    TKV: the ability to direct our minds
    NJD: gathering and focusing of consciousness inward

7. Dhyana
    TKV: the ability to develop interactions with what we seek to understand
    NJD: continuous inward flow of consciousness

8. Samadhi
    TKV: complete integration with the object to be understood
    NJD: union with Divine Consciousness

Taken together, the yamas and niyamas provide a type of guide for living in harmony or good relationship with yourself and the world.  Because there are five of each, they have been called Yoga’s Ten Commandments.  But they are not commandments.  There is no cosmic penalty for not adhering to their guidance — beyond, perhaps, how you feel when you are out of sorts or at odds with your environment.  Concepts contained within the yamas and niyamas are quite helpful for managing illness and healing from trauma.  Therefore, I’ll be bringing them up in more detail in future posts.   For now, I just wanted to mention their existence and general role.  

The Yoga Sutras do not mention a particular asana (pose).  In fact, it only mentions that a posture be “steady and comfortable” (2.46). Many have interpreted this to mean easy seated pose, which is a common position for meditation.  Others that it can be any pose that is done with comfort and ease. For an interesting article on the roots of asana practice check out this article from the November 2010 issue of Yoga Journal.

If you’ve taken a yoga class, you’ve probably experienced pranayama, even if the teacher didn’t call it that.  In yoga, prana is the universal lifeforce energy that exists in everyone and everything — similar to the concept of qi in Chinese medicine.  (And I read something the other day that also related it to concepts in quatum physics. But can’t remember where that was.)  Asana practice helps to open areas in the body where the energy (prana) is stuck or to help keep what is open open.  Pranayama moves prana throughout the body via the use of breathing techniques.  If your teacher has instructed you to breathe in a particular way (i.e., ujjayi or ocean sounding breath), they were instructing you in pranayama.  

Limbs 5 through 8 are stages of meditation.  If you’ve never tried meditating, or done so only to discover that your mind zips around like a happy puppy greeting a room full of newcomers, don’t let this intimidate you. The fact that Patanjali addressed meditation in stages makes it more doable — at least to me.  I mean, if he’d jumped from pranayama to samadi, I’d feel hopeless.  There are days when I have trouble calming my mind for even a few minutes, let alone become completely integrated with the Divine. 

Why are the Limbs important?  When looked at through their lens, we can see that there is no requirement that one be thin or Gumby-esk to take up yoga.  In fact, postures make up only a fraction of the full practice.  We can see that we needn’t become a master at headstand to reap yoga’s benefits.  And we begin to realize yoga isn’t just something done on a mat once a week or even once a day.  It is a practice that can be integrated into all aspects of life so that it can help sustain us day-to-day. 

With this in mind its easy to see that anyone can “do yoga.”


2 thoughts on “The Eight Limbs of Yoga and Why They Matter

  1. Pingback: Trust the Process | Clear Reflection Yoga

  2. Pingback: Brahmavihara | A Cup of Yoga

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