Yoga: A Road Map to a Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Life - An Introduction to the 8 Limbs of Yoga
What is yoga, really? You may be surprised to learn that the practice of yoga is so much more than doing poses on your mat. In fact, most of yoga can actually be practiced off your mat! Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means to “yoke” or “to unite” and is a practice that cultivates the interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit. Yoga is not just a physical practice, it’s an entire lifestyle---a way to live your life more mindfully to help you be happier and healthier.
Yoga is a Way of Life
A great resource for this practice is Patañjali’s ancient text, the Yoga Sūtra, which is considered to be the foundation of yoga. Within this text is an 8-limbed path known as the 8 Limbs of Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga. It is a road map on how to mindfully navigate through your life. Chip Hartranft describes the 8-limbed path in his book, The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjail, as follows:
“Patañjali conceives of the yoga program as a holistic process with eight components. Ashtanga-yoga literally means “eight-limbed yoking,” with each “limb” meant to address a different aspect or threshold of being….Like the limbs of an animal, the eight components of the yoga program work together in concert. Structurally, ashtanga-yoga addresses eight strata of personhood, moving from an externalized to an internalized perspective.”
The eight components include ethical principles, self-care practices, physical postures, breath work, and meditation practices. Each limb is interconnected with the next and they are designed to be practiced in a circular and ongoing manner.
Benefits of the 8 Limbs of Yoga
There are many benefits you can receive from yoga, but the one concept that threads through the entire yoga philosophy and practice is that it opens your hearts to create more intimacy in your life. Intimacy with yourself, with others and with all of life. This yogic path can also help you understand 3 powerful concepts:
1st – yoga teaches you to feel and listen with your heart instead of your head,
2nd - that everything is impermanent, and
3rd, that everything is interconnected.
When you are able to see the world through these 3 lenses, you tend to respond more skillfully (instead of reactive) and, therefore, able to create conditions for a healthy, happy and fulfilling life.
Overview of the 8 Limbs of Yoga
Here is a brief overview of the 8 Limbs of Yoga:
Limb 1 is the yamas. The yamas are a set of ethical principles that serve as a guideline on how we treat others and our planet. They emphasize our connection to other beings as an integral part of yoga because everything is interconnected. We are not separate. What we think, feel and do has a direct impact on our world. We are therefore encouraged to be mindful of our actions, because every action we take has an effect. The yamas breakdown into 5 ethical practices for us to consider:
Ahimsā – not harming
Satya – honesty
Asteya – not stealing
Bramacharya – the wise use of creative energy
Aparigraphā – non-possessiveness
Limb 2 are the niyamas which are personal practices that teach us to respect ourselves on every level: body, mind and spirit. These ancient teachings are still very relevant today and provide self-care guidance that is so needed in our world. It is only when we are healthy and happy (or content) that we can give to the rest of the world. And being in this healthy state requires continuous practice. The niyamas breakdown into five habits that help us to maintain this state:
Saucha – purity, cleanliness
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – discipline and fire in the belly
Svādhyāya – self-reflection and study
Īshvara Pranidhāna – devotion or surrender
Limb 3 is āsana which is the physical practice of yoga. Interestingly, the Yoga Sūtra contains 196 verses of which only 2 are dedicated to physical postures.
Limb 4 is prānāyāma and is the practice of controlling the breath to create health in the body and peace in the mind.
Limbs 5 through 8 are dedicated to various meditation practices and consist of the following:
Limb 5 is pratyāhāra, the withdrawing of the senses, so that when we feel, hear, see, taste, touch and smell, we let go of reacting.
Limb 6 is dhāranā and teaches us about focused concentration.
Limb 7 is dhyāna, which is deep meditation.
Limb 8 is samādhi, which is the culmination of practicing all the other limbs of yoga which brings you to an understanding of truly knowing and feeling that everything is interconnected.
Just like any mindfulness program, it takes continuous practice to reap the benefits. Fortunately, there are many ways you can incorporate the 8 Limbs of Yoga into your daily life. To obtain specific examples to kick start your practice, refer to the OM Matters Website. Namaste!