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Yoga is More Than Asana - The 8 Limbs of Yoga

By Elana Love

WED AUG 04, 2021

When most people think of yoga, they picture people doing physical exercises that might resemble stretching or working out, and think that yoga is simply a way to get fit. Well, practicing yoga can certainly help you get in shape and improve your physical wellbeing, but did you know that this is only one part of a much bigger picture? More specifically, it is one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, outlined as Ashtanga Yoga by an ancient Indian Sage called Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Let's break it down, shall we?

1. Yamas

The Yamas are the five moral principles for external life. In other words, they outline how to live harmoniously in society and how to treat others. They include non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), non-stealing (Asteya), continence (Bramacharya), and non-possessiveness (Aparigraha). These can be what we are referring to when we talk about yoga philosophy or living a yogic lifestyle. Click here to read about the Yamas more in depth.

2. Niyamas

The Niyamas are also an aspect of yoga philosophy and the yogic way of living. But this moral code pertains to our internal world. The five Niyamas are the observations for a harmonious being. Essentially, they outline the five internal practices for a healthy yogic life, or how to care for oneself. These include purification (Saucha), contentment (Santosha), self-discipline (Tapas), self-study (Svadhyaya), and surrender to the Divine (Ishvara Pranidhana). Click here to read about the Niyamas more in depth.

3. Asana

The limb I would bet you know all too well - postures! "Asana" literally means "seat." Asana are the set of physical postures that help us attain physical health and balance to prepare us for the yogic path. It is a tool for helping us calm the mind and body so that we can sit in meditation. Because how are you going to live a spiritual life and reach your highest potential if you are dealing with physical health challenges? The poses also offer the yoga practitioner the opportunity to explore and gain control over our awareness, mind, and emotions. They help us bring harmony between our breath and our body, our body and our mind, as well as our physical and energetic bodies.

4. Pranayama

"Prana" means "vital life force" (you can think of this as the breath) and "yama" essentially means "regulate," so Pranayama literally means control of life force energy. These are the breathing practices that help us balance energy flow in the body. Breathwork helps us soothe the nervous system and calm the body and mind, helping us become more present and making us fit for the spiritual path. It also strengthens our respiratory system and purifies the Nadis, or subtle energy channels (you can think of these as nerves) that run throughout our body. In some schools of yoga, the goal is to direct the energy in and upward through the Chakra system, toward our highest self and the universal consciousness.

5. Pratyahara

Often one of the most overlooked and underrated limbs, Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. This limb is all about practicing retreating from the external world to turn our attention inward, drawing our energy to the path of Self-realization. Patanjali believed that the chaos of the external world was often a distraction, leading us to be servants to our five senses, rather than masters. Much of our emotional imbalance is due to being influenced by outside events, factors, desires, and sensations rather than by our own inner knowing. So Pratyahara is a practice of listening deeper and having control over where we shine the flashlight in a dark room.

6. Dharana

Dharana is concentration on one specific object of focus. "When the body has been tempered by asanas, the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama, and the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara, the seeker reaches Dharana." This stage is characterized by a deep contemplation, having a single activity of the mind, everything else fading away into the background. Iyengar states that the objective is to achieve a mental state where mind, intellect, and ego are all restrained.

7. Dhyana

Often seen as the limb of meditation, Dhyana actually means meditative absorption. From intense contemplation of the nature of an object of Dharana, comes a sense of oneness with that object of meditation. Therefore, it is more like a state of being, or a quality of knowing - knowing the true essence of life. Dhyana, or meditation, is our tool for seeing things clearly and perceiving reality beyond the illusions that cloud our mind.

8. Samadhi

Finally, we reach the stage of what is generally known as "enlightenment" or Self-realization. Samadhi is the experience of Unity, of total fusion with the Divine consciousness. The conscious mind drops back into the unconscious oblivion from which it came, and it is just pure awareness. The mind does not distinguish between self and non-self. The body and sense are at rest, but the mind and reason are awake. This is liberation (Moksha).

Conclusion

Some yogis believe that these eight limbs are a path you climb, starting at one. Other yogis believe that we can be in constant practice of all of these limbs, all at the same time.

Have you ever gotten a taste of the spiritual or philosophical sides of yoga in any of your classes? Has your teacher recited a verse from the Yoga Sutra or the Bhagavad Gita, maybe offered a mantra, or talked about the chakras? Maybe you've gotten a hint or had a feeling that yoga is so much more than what you experience in those studio or gym classes. Well now you know, it is. It is more of a way of life than something you do. It is a (w)holistic practice meant to nourish your body, mind, AND spirit on a deep deep level, help you realize the true nature of life, and your own true essence. If you take some time to discover the other branches of yoga, you will be able to feel it in your own life. And maybe even, it will change your life for the better, as it has changed mine and many others'.

If this has sparked your curiosity and you want to dive deeper, check out the Living Yoga Membership, where we peel back the layers to discover what yoga is truly about, and practice embodying these aspects of yoga on and off the mat.