Yoga is Not What You Think It Is
A sweaty bamboo mat, spandex leggings, six-pack abs, a kale smoothie – all images that might come to mind when someone says “yoga”, right?
What about 8-limbs? And no, I’m not talking about a spider. Patanjali (the Sage who compiled the original text on yoga) wrote in the Yoga Sutra about the “8-limbs” of the yogic path. Physical postures, or “asanas”, only comprise one of these eight limbs. And you know what? The only posture that Patanjali speaks of is a seated posture. That’s right, there was no triangle, downward facing dog or tree pose. So what WAS written about in this foundational text? And how can you translate all the hard work you do in a yoga class into a more enlightened life off the mat?
To start, let’s discuss the 8-limbs.
Yamas – How we act outwardly in the world. There are a total of five yamas - two that might be familiar are ahimsa and satya, nonviolence and truthfulness.
Niyamas – How we act inwardly toward ourselves. Similar to the yamas, there are a total of five. One that often pops up in contemporary yoga classes are tapas, or heat and austerities.
Asana – This is where a Western yoga class would fit. However, in the Yoga Sutra the postures were expressly performed to prepare the body and mind for meditation. And as mentioned earlier, a seated posture was the only physical pose explicitly mentioned.
Pranayama – Breath work focused on developing awareness of the connection between breath, mind and emotion. Ujjayi and Breath of Fire are common breathing techniques used to complement a yoga class.
Pratyahara – Bringing the attention inwards. It is the practice of withdrawing from external stimuli and practicing self observation.
Dharana – Focus. This is not clearing the mind entirely, but rather practicing on focusing on one item at a time, for an extended period of time. This is the natural precursor to meditation.
Dhyana – Meditation. Defined as finding oneself in a constant flow of awareness – cultivated by all of the prior six limbs of the yogic path.
Samadhi – What many call enlightenment. In a word, samadhi is joy. By practicing the prior seven limbs, the final limb, samadhi, may be achieved.
So, how many limbs of yoga are you practicing today? As you can see, yoga is an entire system of action, thought and lifestyle dedicated to the ultimate goal of Samadhi, or enlightenment. While committing to the physical movement of asana is emotionally and physically beneficial, incorporating some of the other limbs of yoga into your daily routine gives you the chance to put a yogic attitude into practice! If you’re up to the challenge, I suggest starting with the Yamas. Set aside five minutes each morning for a week to think about how you will enact the Yamas in your life. Journal about the results at the end of the week – have you noticed any changes in your thoughts or actions? Comment below with your reactions!
Click here for a more detailed description of the five Yamas.