Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Yoga is a several-thousand-year-old practice that originated in India and was brought to the United States during the New Age movement. Though many people see yoga as a form of physical exercise, yoga offers much more ad is actually a path to spiritual growth. The word spiritual here is used with caution: not to be confused with religious, it means a deeper, unifying connection with yourself and the divine. Yoga was passed from teacher to student orally, and according to that particular student’s needs. After each “lesson”, a teacher would give a student a sutra, or a phrase that summarized that part of the teaching.
Then, a man named Patanjali, around the second and fourth century B.C. took on the challenge of writing sutras in a book. He did this in a way that could be understood and studied by many people, regardless of their access to a guru or teacher, and regardless of their level of spiritual knowledge. This book, known as the Yoga Sutras, is still recognized as offering the path to a meaningful and purposeful life. According to the Sutras, this path requires eight elements, known as the 8 limbs of yoga, and practicing yoga poses on the yoga mat is actually only one of them.
Learning about these concepts would not only enhance your yoga practice but also lead to a more fulfilled existence outside the yoga mat. Here is a quick overview of the eight limbs:
The yamas are a set of five principles and practices that focus on ethical living. The word itself refers to “control” or “reigning” but the meaning is more closely aligned with discipline or self-restraint in the way we treat ourselves and the world around us, offering important ethical values that we can all practice in everyday life:
● Ahimsa (non-violence)
● Satya (truthfulness)
● Asteya (non-stealing)
● Brahmacharya (sexual restraint, often interpreted as chastity or fidelity)
● Aparigraha (non-greed or non-possessiveness)
The niyamas are a list of personal duties, intended to build character when we follow them. They serve as a complement to yamas, with a further focus on yourself. The suffix ni means “within” in Sanskrit. The five niyamas are:
● Saucha (purity or cleanliness of body and mind)
● Santosha (contentment or acceptance)
● Tapas (discipline or austerity)
● Svadhyaya (self-reflection or study of self)
● Ishvarapranidhana (contemplation of higher power)
Asana refers to the physical part of the practice, the part most people are familiar with. Although in hatha yoga the word asana is used to mean “posture”, the term is actually derived from the Sanskrit word for “seat”. The deeper meaning of the asana practice is the process of preparing the body for the stillness required for meditation. This is why we often practice meditation at the end of yoga practice when the body can experience more stillness.
The word prana can be translated from Sanskrit as “life force”, the energy of the universe that flows through us and sustains us. In the context of yoga, the term is often used to refer to breath, and as we already learned, yama means “control”. Pranayama is the physical act of breathwork intended to guide the practitioner into the right state of mind. When done well and consistently, the breath practice can have a calming and rejuvenating effect on the mind. Those who practice pranayama, experience more clear-mindedness, calm, less reactivity, stress, anxiety, better mood, and an overall sense of wellbeing.
Pratyahara can be broken down to pratya (withdraw) and ahara (senses, taking in). Therefore, pratyahara is the process of separating oneself from the sensory stimulations. That’s not to say you will no longer see or hear, but rather that you will have the ability to concentrate enough to not let these senses distract you. This is an important and necessary step in practicing meditation, enabling the mind to expand when it is not distracted by noises. The simple act of closing one’s eyes for meditation is a form of separating themselves from visual stimulation (sense of vision) to concentrate on the breath.
Speaking of concentration, dharana refers to the act of maintaining focus. Dharana can be practiced in many forms, such as visualization, sound baths, or breathwork, among others. The ability to withdraw from one’s senses is instrumental in order to achieve dharana.
The seventh limb is dhyana, the very concept of meditation or contemplation. Once you have mastered asana enough to embrace stillness, as well as honed your ability to focus, you should be able to reach the state of meditative absorption. Dhyana is an important part of the journey to self-realization.
Finally, samadhi refers to the state of enlightenment, or “bliss”. It can also be interpreted as reaching a higher state of consciousness or merging with the divine. In yoga, samadhi is the ultimate goal, which can only be achieved if you commit and regularly practice the other seven limbs.
If you would like to learn more about the eight limbs, I recommend reading the book The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Sri Swami Satchidananda. The eight limbs offer practices and values that can be adopted by anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs. They also offer a way for us to connect with ourselves, our bodies, and our minds in a way that is unique to our experiences. Our yoga classes are open to all levels of yoga practitioners because I recognize that the path is our own, we just practice together.
Priscila Norris, MS, MSW, LCSW, RYT
Psychotherapist, Yoga Teacher.