Yoga in the United States is still largely a practice of performing postures: a fitness regimen.
An attraction to asana practice was what brought me to yoga in 1995. During my first three years I enjoyed the strength, flexibility, and balance I felt because of my practice, and it satisfied my curiosity. I felt no need to look further.
Then I met my main teachers, Maya Tiwari and Swami Nirmalananda who would be my mentors for the next 28 years....and present. They introduced me to Yoga philosophy, Ayurveda and meditation. Their commitment to living the principles of yoga was inspiring, and I became consumed by spiritual curiosity. I wanted to deepen my study in a way that would allow yoga to be fully alive as my life experience.
By blending my asana practice with the eight limbs of yoga I’ve come to understand yoga (and my life) on a whole new level. The "whole of yoga" has taken me way beyond just the mechanics of poses. It has led me to greater understanding of what it means to be human.
Many western teachers express a great deal of trepidation in sharing the entire system of yoga with students. I once received an e-mail that promoted classes assuring a “sweat-based fitness regimen without the cumbersome spiritual baggage.” I believe many people still fear that yogic philosophy will somehow interfere with their existing set of beliefs or will try to make a believer out of someone who holds no beliefs. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Yoga itself is neutral. It is a catalyst that allows us to grow in whichever direction is natural and life-supporting. Its methods work on the physical seat of consciousness, the nervous system, and, as far as yoga is concerned, a Hindu nervous system is no different from an Islamic, Christian, Catholic, or agnostic one. Each obeys the same laws that govern the operations of mind and body. Whoever practices yoga becomes enlivened in his/her unique way.
Yoga means “union.” In the West this is interpreted as the union of mind and body. While this is true, it means more than that. The unification that takes place while practicing all eight limbs is an integration of all aspects of our lives.
Through practicing yoga poses we can reap amazing benefits. Practiced in the context of the eight limbs, yoga becomes a more satisfying way of living in the agile, strong, and open body you develop with the physical practice.
The limbs relate to each other kind of like the limbs on our bodies. They extend out from and feed into a central source of energy. The practice of one limb strengthens all the others. Patanjali introduces the eight limbs in the second pada or chapter of the sutras, verse 29.
Below I summarize each principle to give you a very basic understanding. These summaries are brief. Each one is worthy of volumes of interpretation and discussion.
Please don’t take these descriptions as unbending law. Look at them as a starting point for your own study. The yoga sutras only have meaning in the context of an individual’s life. They have the power to transform only when investigated and then integrated.
The eight limbs are a living entity. Understanding of them evolves over time and will vary depending on the awareness and karmas of the reader.
The First Limb: Yama
Precepts for Living Harmoniously in the World
The yamas and niyamas are meant to be understood as guidelines, not as commandments. As practitioners grow in consciousness, understanding and practice of the yamas and niyamas becomes more subtle and creative. It is helpful to remember that every situation invites conscious interpretation of each one. The practice of the yamas and niyamas are a lifetime study that yields increasing wisdom and compassion.
1. Ahimsa, non-harming or non-violence: The first yama, ahimsa is arguably the foundation for all the rest of the eight limbs. All the other yamas are rooted in the intention not to cause harm. The intention not to harm can be a compelling reason for becoming more conscious in our lives. Ahimsa can be practiced in word, deed, thought and intention. Imagine how different our world would be if everyone committed to following just this one precept.
2. Satya, commitment to the truth: Satya is impeccable truthfulness in thought, action and speech. Honesty forms the foundation of all our relationships. A relationship built on falsehood has no strength or stability, no ground on which to stand. Because dishonesty causes harm to ourselves and others, the practice of satya can be seen as a branch of ahimsa. The foundation of practicing satya is the exceedingly challenging practice of being true to ourselves. While practicing satya may not always be easy, it brings with it a great abiding peace.
3. Asteya, non-stealing or integrity: Asteya asks us to take only what has been freely given. This includes material things—money and goods—as well as intellectual property—ideas, writings, etc. The practice of asteya can include refraining from monopolizing others’ time and energy. Practicing this yama cultivates a sense of respect for others.
4. Brahmacharya, conservation of energy, also wise use of sexual energy: In its broadest sense, brahmacharya is the practice of conserving our life force. The practice teaches us how to not leak our energy through over-activity, careless speech and unconscious or harmful use of energy, including sexual energy. Brahmacharya is often translated as chastity, a troublesome definition in that it has been widely misinterpreted as the suppression of sexuality. This misunderstanding has resulted in a great deal of sexual misdirection and abuse. Brahmacharya is not suppression; it is the wise and compassionate expression of this powerful energy to create positive effect in the world. It is practice of discovering the delicate balance between suppression and unhealthy indulgence. Life force energy can take the forms of creative as well as sexual energy, so its potential for positive expression is infinite.
5. Aparigraha, non-grasping, also generosity: Aparigraha is the practice of non-grasping. Grasping comes from dissatisfaction with life as it is. When this condition is present there is no way to be content. Grasping includes attachment to material goods, relationships and our beliefs and ideas about ourselves and others. Aparigraha also includes the practice of taking only what you need in terms of resources such as water, food, shelter, material goods—the practice of living simply. Practicing generosity helps to uproot the habit of grasping.
The second aphorism in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, sums it all up nicely. It translates as, “Yoga is the stilling of the mind.” Its a big moment when we finally realize we are not our minds, rather, we HAVE a mind. -Sarita-Linda Rocco
The Second Limb: Niyama Cultivating Harmony within Ourselves
1. Saucha, purity or cleanliness: Saucha is the practice of care of the body-mind. The practice aims to keep the body free and clear of physical pollutants such as chemical-laden foods and other toxins and the mind clear of mental pollutants such as violent and harmful images and ideas. Aligning ourselves with kind and inspiring people helps us stay emotionally clear. The cleaner the body-mind, the more clearly we can taste and enjoy the simple and subtle pleasures in our lives.
2. Santosa, cultivation of contentment: Being content with our lives as they are in the present moment is at the root of happiness. Contentment does not, however, depend on our lives being “perfect”. Contentment is a condition of inner peace that is not reliant on external conditions. This doesn’t mean that we reluctantly tolerate unhealthy circumstances in our lives. Rather, we nurture patience while we take the steps necessary to effect change and we learn to appreciate the gifts that present themselves along the way.
3. Svadyaya, study of the self: In its essence, the practice of yoga is svadyaya. Consciously studying the nature of ourselves opens us to an understanding of our fellow travelers on this journey. Everything we need to know is within us. Sitting quietly and watching the parade of mind-body phenomena is a good way to begin seeing what mental/emotional habits we have developed over the course of our lives. Many activities can lead us to ourselves—meditation, yoga, music, writing, raising children, painting, walking, reading, exercise. Anything we enjoy doing can be a gateway to understanding ourselves.
4. Tapas, discipline, or commitment: Tapas is the fire that compels us to practice. It is translated most directly as “discipline.” The word, discipline, shares a root with the verb, “to learn,” and can be interpreted as the desire to learn. Tapas is more than a simple desire to learn, however. It is also the enthusiasm and inspiration with which we approach our practice. The qualities of discipline and enthusiasm feed each other thus inspiring greater commitment to practice.
5. Isvarapranidhana, recognition of the spiritual in our lives: Isvarapranidhana is the practice of seeing and celebrating the spiritual in our practice and in our lives. Isvarapranidhana is the acknowledgment of an intelligence larger than our own, and an understanding of our part in that intelligence. The practice teaches us to trust the unfolding of our lives in a larger context than our own immediate desires and needs.
The Third Limb: Asana The Practice of Physical Postures
Sutra 2.46 describes asana thusly: shtira sukkham asanam. Its most common translation is “The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.” Another interpretation given by Judith Lasater, Ph.D., is “Abiding in ease in asana.” The practice of asana is about finding our calm center during activity. The practice is intended to prepare the body for meditation by freeing blocked energies and refining body awareness so that we can resonate with subtle frequencies.
The Fourth Limb: Pranayama The Practice of Refining and Expanding the Breath
Breath is the carrier or our life force (prana). Pranayama is breathing practices designed to liberate whatever blocks the ease of breath and the flow of prana. This strengthens and calms the nervous system. Together, asana and pranayama practices form the discipline hatha yoga. The practice of hatha yoga aims to refine the nervous system, making us strong enough to explore the subtle states of consciousness required for meditation.
The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara Refinement of the Senses
Pratyahara is the gateway between the inner and outer. In pratyahara we withdraw from the habit of seeking sense stimulation as a way of trying to escape our inner world. It ultimately leads to the practice of being in the world but not of it. Practicing pratyahara (as in shavasana) refines the senses, opens us to bliss.
The Sixth Limb: Dharana Steadiness of Mind
Dharana is the heart of yoga practice. This is where we practice taming the mind by focusing our attention on a single object. Traditional objects of attention include a physical object, a mantra, or our own breath. This practice settles and collects the mind. We become the owner of our mind, not a victim of our mind.
The Seventh Limb: Dhyana Meditation
Dhyana is the refinement of the mind. In dhyana our concentrated mind can sustain awareness as its activity becomes more subtle and refined. We gain the ability to watch and identify without “identifying with”.
The Eighth Limb: Samadhi Merging with the One
Samadhi is the state of a translucent mind. It is the most subtle state of awareness. In samadhi the mind’s boundaries expand and shift vibration, opening it to the profound connection to all that exists. Samadhi is a state of being beyond the divisions of time and space, self and other.
Each limb in the eight-limbed practice of yoga aims to bring peace to the mind its own way. It is an effective yoga map that brings all aspects of our lives together to create a whole being at peace in his or herself and in the world.
We invite you to practice the eight limbs of yoga at The Nest Collaborative with us. The practice is immensely fulfilling. Plant the seeds of self-awareness within yourself as you learn. Watch your life flower.