Yoga Philosophy 101 - The 8 Limbs of Yoga

Lesson 1: There's more to yoga than just poses. Did you know the philosophy behind yoga practice is called the 8 Limbs? The 8 Limbs are a guideline of yogic practice. Surprisingly, only a few of the 8 limbs actually involve 'yoga' as thought of by the western world i.e. on a mat, in a class, stretching and breathing. Yoga is actually a science, dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. 

The word Yoga means ‘to yoke’ or ‘union’ it's a science that is dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. This science has been developed and practiced in India for a long time. The foundations of yoga philosophy were written down in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali in approximately 200 AD.  This text talks about the 8 limbs of yoga, which are actually a set of guidelines on how to live and practice. The objective of the 8 limbs of yoga is to enable you to become aware of your ‘self’ as part of the ‘whole’. It's all about creating balance and equanimity so you can live in peace, good health and harmony with the universe. 

Lesson 2: Yoga is a science not a religion

Before we explain the limbs, let’s talk about yoga as a science. When people first learn about the 8 limbs they often think ‘These are rules...hang on...is this a religion?’ It is not. Why? Well, these guidelines (8 limbs) are about making commitments to yourself and how you live your life. You do not have to answer to anyone, particularly not any sort of higher deity.

Lesson 3. The 8 limbs of yoga

The 8 limbs of yoga are:

  1. Yamas - universal morality
    • Ahimsa
    • Satya
    • Asteya
    • Brahmacharya
    • Aparigraha 
  2. Niyamas - self-restraint / personal observances 
    • Sauca 
    • Santosa
    • Tapas 
    • Svadhyaya
    • Isvara pranidhana
  3. Asanas - poses
  4. Pranayama - yogic breathing
  5. Prathayara - withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana - focusing on one point
  7. Dhyana - meditation
  8. Samadhi - enlightenment

Things you need to know before we continue;

  • There are 8 limbs of yoga in total
  • The first 6 limbs are things you do, the last 2 limbs are things that happen to you
  • There are 5 Yamas and 5 Niyamas in each limb, whereas all other limbs are singular
  • The first 2 limbs, Yamas and Niyamas are guidelines. They suggest how we should deal with ourselves and people around us. The Yamas are our basis of fundamental ethical principles, they are the attitude we have toward people and things outside ourselves. Whereas the Niyamas are moral observances about how we relate to ourselves inwardly. 

Now lets take a look a closer look at each of the 8 limbs in detail.

Yamas (universal morality):

  • Ahimsa (Nonviolence/Non-harming/Compassion for all living things): The word ahimsa literally means not to harm. However, it is more than just lack of violence; it means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. As a wise woman once said ‘never leave someone worse off than when you found them’. But, it also means we should show this same kindness to ourselves. So stop those negative self thoughts!
  • Satya (Commitment to truthfulness/Being sincere, considerate, genuine and honest): Satya means ‘to speak the truth’. However, consider what you say, how you say it, and the way it could affect others. For example, if speaking the truth has negative consequences for someone else, then it is best to say nothing. Satya should never conflict with your efforts in practicing ahimsa.  
  • Asteya (Non-stealing/Not taking anything that hasn’t been given freely): Asteya mean to take nothing that doesn’t belong to us. This of course means not stealing physical property. But it also means that you shouldn’t steal people’s time, ideas. If you are in a situation where someone entrusts something to you, do not take advantage of him or her. Non-stealing includes not only taking what belongs to another without permission, but also using something for a different purpose to which it was intended, or beyond the time permitted by its owner.
  • Brahmacharya (Self-control in sex and the senses/Resistance to seduction): Brahmacharya was traditionally thought to mean abstaining from sex. In modern times, it is thought that it means you should form relationships that foster your understanding of the highest truths. Practicing brahmacharya means that you use your sexual energy to regenerate your connection to your spiritual self. It also means that you don’t use this energy in any way that might harm others.
  • Aparigraha (Non-grasping/not being greedy/non-hoarding/letting go of your attachments to things): Aparigraha means you must take only what is necessary. Do not take advantage of a situation or act greedy. If you take more than what you have earned you are exploiting someone else.    

Compared with the Yamas, the Niyamas are more intimate and personal. They refer to the attitude we adopt toward ourselves.

Niyamas (disciplines of self-restraint and personal observances):  

  • Sauca (Purity of body and mind): Sauca has both an inner and an outer aspect. Outer cleanliness means keeping your body clean and your life neat and uncluttered. Inner cleanliness has to do with the healthy functioning of our bodily organs and with the clarity of your mind. Keeping fit and eating healthy food is as imperative as cleansing the mind of its disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride.  When you clear the clutter from your personal environment and mind you are less distracted by outside stimulations that take you away from being centred and grounded.
  • Santosa (Contentment with what you have): Santosa is having a sense of modesty and the feeling of being content with what you have, it doesn’t mean the absence of ambition. You can be at peace with what you have and still want more for yourself. Simply put, be happy with what you have rather than being unhappy about what you don't have.
  • Tapas (Disciplined use of our energy/burning desire to reach self-realisation): Tapas literally means to heat the body and, by so doing, to cleanse it. Tapas is ‘the work’, it is the idea that when you can direct your energy to enthusiastically engaging life, you will achieve your goals. Tapas helps you burn up all the desires that stand in our way of your goals.
  • Svadhyaya (Self study and observation/cultivating self-reflective consciousness): Sva means “self” adhyaya means "inquiry" or "examination". Any activity that cultivates self-reflection is svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all your activities and efforts. It even means welcoming and accepting your limitations.
  • Isvara pranidhana (Celebration of the Spiritual within us and all things/concentration on and surrender to divine flow). Isvara pranidhana means the contemplation on the divine (Isvara) in order to become attuned to the natural expression of love in all our relationships. The practice requires that we recognise that there is some omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing the course of our lives.  

Asana

This is the limb that most people consider ‘yoga’ in its entirety. It is the physical practice of moving the body into asanas (postures). They relax, rejuvenate and energise the body and aim to bring the body and the mind into a harmonious union. Asana is important because it can keep the body strong and flexible, and helps you to develop concentration and discipline skills necessary for meditation. Every asana needs to be balanced with qualities of Sthira (steady, stable, effort, steadfast) and qualities of Sukham (ease, delight, and joy). 

Pranayama

Pranayama means the control of life force/energy (prana).  It is the control and regulation of the breath through the practice of breathing exercises. The duration of inhalation, retention, and exhalation of breath is regulated with the aim of strengthening and cleansing the nervous system and increasing a person's source of life energy (prana). It also makes the mind calmer and more focused. Here at WW we practice the Ujjayi breath with our asana. Pranayama can also be done on its own. 

Prathayara

Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses, it is the practice of tuning out the outside world by removing attention from the senses. It can help you prepare for meditation, but it can also occur during pranayama or asana when you are so focused that you become unaware of outside situations.   

Dharana

Once pratyahara is achieved, you can move into the stage of dharana, or concentration. You can train your mind to focus on one object at a time without any distraction. You can focus intensely on one object, sound, or word in the mind, repeating it over and over and thinking about every little detail. This also serves as a preparation for meditation. 

Dhyana

Dhyana is mediation, which is the practice of constantly observing your mind. It means focusing the mind on one point, stilling the mind in order to perceive the True Self. It is an uninterrupted flow of concentration aimed to heighten one's awareness and oneness with the universe. The process of quieting the mind has many physical and mental benefits, however, beginners may find it quite hard (but don’t give up!). 

Samadhi

This is the ultimate goal of Yoga. Patanjalii describes the 8th limb of yoga as a state of ecstasy, achievable only with much practice and mastery of the first seven limbs. It is a type of transcendence, when one becomes aware of his or her connection to The Divine and all living things. It is a state of peace and completion, awareness and compassion with detachment.

Lesson 4: How to Live the 8 Limbs

The 8 limbs are presented in a specific order, traditionally one would master the first limbs before they could achieve meditation and enlightenment. Nowadays, one limb is not generally considered to be more important than another, they all work together.

Initially it may seem like an impossibility to live by all 8 limbs. We suggest starting with one that resonates with you and practice it for a week. Then chose another for the following week and see if you can continue until you have had an experience of each limb. It can help to keep a journal of your experiences. Write down how it made you feel, or the rewards/challenges you had, maybe noting which one was easier/harder to practice. Even if it they don't become your lifestyle, you will learn more about yourself, and that can only be a good thing.

Namaste 

Western Wellness Team

(Your friendly neighbourhood yogis)