The Eight Limbs of Yoga: Part 1

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With yoga we have a choice - well lots of choices actually - but one that each of us face when we step onto, and off of, the mat: we can choose the physical practice of yoga - focussing on the asana and enjoying the benefits that it brings to our body, or we can choose to incorporate yoga into our lives beyond the asana practice. When I first came to yoga, it was very much a physical thing, but over time my curiosity expanded faster than my hamstrings lengthened and I realised that I could actually get so much more from the incredible teachings of yoga by learning more and beginning to live it every day. I have noticed that with my students the same thing is happening - the more that they enjoy a physical practice, the more open they become to enquiry beyond the asana and so I thought it would be cool to start talking a little about yoga philosophy in an approachable way from time to time. Not only will this hopefully give you a place to come and learn a little about yoga beyond what you may be experiencing in class, but it will also give me a kick to read and learn more myself, so I hope that it helps us all in one way or another!

I then thought to myself, 'where do I start?'  and decided that really there was only one place: The Eight Limbs of Yoga - or the first four of the eight limbs for today!

Some of you may already be familiar with Patanjali. For those of you that are not, Patanjali was the father of modern yoga and the author of the Yoga Sutras, a text which so much of what we learn and teach is derived from. This historic text provides a thread which each practitioner, student, person, human can then use to weave into their life in order to better understand humanity and conciousness.

Within the yoga sutras are the eight 'limbs' of yoga (named ashtanga in the sutra, derived from ashta - eight, anga - limb) which provide us with moral codes to help us live our lives with. They are by no means rules, but more points of guidance.

The wonderful thing about these eight limbs is that although they are taken from an ancient text from many years ago, the codes are still very much applicable in modern day life.

1. Yama

The Yamas relate to the way in which we conduct ourselves, particularly in relation to ourself and to others. These universal practices (which I will break down in a future post) are as follows:

Ahimsa: nonviolence

Satya: truthfulness

Asteya: nonstealing

Brahmacharya: celibacy, fidelity 

Aparigraha: nonpossesiveness

2. Niyama

The second limb is niyama, which relates to our observation of spirituality. This can mean totally different things from one person to the next, such as  attending temple, practicing meditation, or other mindful practices which all incorporate the same concept. Again, a blog post of their own to follow, but by way of introduction, the five niyamas are:

Saucha: cleanliness

Santosa: contentment

Tapas: spiritual austerity

Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self

Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God/True Self

3. Asana

Asana refers to the physical postures that most of us are already familiar with. In yogic philosophy, the body is the vehicle for the soul and so taking care of the body is part of our spiritual growth and practice. Not only do we help to keep our bodies healthy but we also develop discipline and concentration which are necessary habits for meditaion. Therefore, asana is just one part of, but a valuable and important limb of our yoga practice.

4. Pranayama

Pranayama can be translated most literally to breath control. We can use pranayama techniques to help us create and deepen the connection between the mind and body. Again, lots more on this to come, but for now you can get started with a simple pranayama exercise here!

I think that probably gives you enough to think about for now - I want to offer this in a way that doesn't seem overwhelming but perhaps offers insights in a manageable way to help you expand your curiosity. Let me know what you think and please do share your own learnings, teachings and questions - I am always so happy to learn from others and will always share what I can with you too.