Contrary to common belief (now a days) yoga is not just about asana and physical form. Asana is just one part of the eight limbs that is yoga. As a practitioner of yoga it is important to know about them and have a conscious relationship to the meaning of this practice.
To know the different aspects of the yoga practice on a personal level can help us gain a deeper more meaningful practice when we are on our mats practicing the physical part of yoga. The eight limbs of yoga act as guidelines for us, to help us live meaningfully and purposefully. They ask us to cultivate self-discipline, to direct our attention towards our health and to acknowledge the spiritual and mystical part of our own nature and to recognise it in others as well.
In part one, we will focus on the first four limbs of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. The first four limbs concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing awareness of ourselves and how we operate in the world. This is the first step, and prepares us for the second step and the last four limbs, where we deal with our senses, the mind and how we can come to a higher state of consciousness.
Read on to get to know the first four limbs of yoga a little better, and deepen your practice, both on and off the mat.
The first limb of yoga is Yama. Yama refers to our ethical standards and integrity. It focuses on how we behave. This is a universal practice and can best be described as “the golden rule”: Treat others how you want others to treat you.
There are five Yamas:
Brahmacharya: right use of energy
Ahimsa, non-violence, and to me maybe the absolutely most important one of all. Non-violence is non-violence when it comes to all living things, also nature. To me, being a vegan is aligned with this, and is also a practice of self-discipline. Non-violence is also about what we think about ourselves and others. To check ourselves and our judgement, and become aware when we violate ourselves or others through hurtful, judgmental and negative thoughts. This is a constant battle, as we all judge, and it can be a difficult part of ourselves to face. But just the more important. For me, this is also about gossip and back-talking. To recognize when we are being part of it, and ask; does this serve the good of me and others? The answer is “no, it does not”. So we stop, and remind ourselves to practice non-violence, again and again and again, and we never ever stop practicing this.
Satya, truthfulness. I try to be truthful, most of all with myself, by learning to understand my feelings and not hiding from what’s going on beneath the surface. To recognize my shadow as well as my light, and understand that it is all part of the whole. To speak my truth when it is important, but also knowing when to listen. This is also about understanding that we are not just our thoughts. Our thoughts, emotions and moods are all part of a whole, so through practicing Pranayama and Asana we try to create a little space so we can realize that we are more than what goes on in our minds.
Asteya means non-stealing, and seams pretty self-explanatory, but this goes deeper than that. This also refers to whether or not we are stealing energetically or emotionally from ourselves and others. Thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have enough” arises from the lack of faith in ourselves. We must strive to move towards feeling that we already have enough and that we are enough just the way we are, and so are the people around us. Yoga means to “unite”, “connect” or become “whole”.
Brahmacharya is often translated to “celibacy” and therefore often considered irrelevant in our modern culture. Directly translated it means “behavior which leads to Brahman”. Brahman is “The Creator”, the creator of the world in Hinduism. I think of it as “right use of energy”. To me, it is about finding the balance between pleasure, being of service and work. Also to be able to direct our awareness away from external desire and the material world, and find peace within ourselves, so that our inner peace and happiness doesn’t solemnly rely on our material possessions.
Aparigraha is an important one. “Non-greed”, “non-possessiveness” and “non-attachment”. To take only what is needed. To share when there is abundance. To keep only what serves us in the moment, and know when to let go.
‘Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action. Do not let the results of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction’. This is what Krishna says in the Yogic text The Bhagavad Gita. One of the central teachings of the book is this, the fifth Yama, Aparigraha. What this essentially means, is that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. We are asked to not be concerned with the outcome, but to be fully present with the process. To put our energy into the actions and the work, without being attached to the result. This way, we fill our actions with purpose every step of the way, and no matter the outcome, it will have been meaningful
The second limb of yoga asks us to meditate and cultivate self-discipline. To develop our spiritual rituals, whatever they might be. To turn inwards and contemplate.
There are five Niyamas:
Tapas: heat, inner wisdom, dicipline
Svadhyaya: self study
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to the divine
When it comes to Saucha (cleanliness) it is not just about physical cleanliness- I think we’re all pretty good at cleaning ourselves up. It is also about inner cleanliness. Recognizing our bad habits and being willing to let go of the things that does not serve us. Bringing our bad habits to our mat makes the practice a lot harder. It is hard to change a habit, but by cultivating our ability to recognize them, we are already on the path of change.
Santosha, translated to contentment. “I will be happy when/if..”.. recognize it? Santosha encourages us to accept and appreciate what we have and what we are, right now. I try to practice this every day, to appreciate what I have and practice gratefulness. This is a challenging one, but so so important. Recognize what is good, in every moment, appreciate the life you have and all the things you have that are good. When we cultivate being content and grateful, that’s when we can move forward in life and create more.
Tapas can also be translated to discipline or “burning enthusiasm”. How it translate to each individual is different, so find what resonated with you. For me this is about passion and courage. The fire within, my intuition and gut, inner wisdom and what feeds my sense of purpose. Inner fire basically. This inner fire comes alive when I practice asana yoga, and it fuels me. I try to be courageous enough to listen to what it tells me, listening to my inner passion, wisdom and intuition.
Svadhyaya asks us to practice self reflection. When we study and observe ourselves we become more aware of the things we do that harm us and others, as well as the things we do that serve us and others. Through this practice we get in closer contact with our true selves. To me, this is also about educating myself in what inspires and fascinates me, to deepen my knowledge and wisdom in those fields. An example of this is my continuing study of yoga, also the philosophy, history and symbolism that it is built on.
Isvara Pranidhana is one that I have had a lot of challenge with. More commonly this is translated to “Surrender to God”. I am not religious, and find it easier to relate to this as God meaning a higher power. To me this one is about letting go of control. In our culture, we flinch just reading that, because we want to control everything, all the time. This is about recognizing that there is only so much that we can control, and that’s actually very little. To practice surrendering, accepting, letting go, moving on. Not to cling to an outcome. To do our best, be authentic and live fully, but let go of “the story”, the façade, our expectations to what life should look like. This one is a tricky one. But explore it a little before you dismiss it all together. Yoga teaches us non-attachment, not to cling, but to be graceful and let go when we have to. My personal experience is that by practicing this, I actually experience feeling more empowered, not less. More aligned with myself, not less. It also makes life a lot easier.
This one we know, and is by far the one we know best here in the west. Asana literally means posture, and refers to the physical part of yoga, the practice that we do on the mat. The asana practice has in many ways become just about exercise, and I challenge you to challenge that next time you step on your mat in a class. In the yogic view, the body is the temple of our spirit. The care of the body, the temple, is an important part of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation which comes later.
This one is also well known, if not as well-known as asana. Pranayama is breath, the life force, and without pranayama there is no yoga. Pranayama consists of different techniques of breath control. Pranayama is practiced to awaken and work with different energies in the body, to wake them up. Also, we practice pranayama to recognize and become aware of the link between breath, mind and emotion; mind, body and spirit. Literally, Pranayama translates to “life force extension” and it is believed that the practice of Pranayama rejuvenates not only the physical body but can extend life itself. We can practice Pranayama separate in seated meditation, and also while we practice asana.
Take a moment to reflect on the first four limbs of yoga. How can you implement these in your life? How can you start to cultivate a deeper practice of yoga off the mat as well as on the mat?
Good luck, and stay tuned for part 2 and the last four limbs of yoga- that’s where it starts to get really deep and mystical.
Please comment with questions or share your own experience.
From my heart to yours,