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The 8 Limbs of Yoga

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In the Western world, yoga has gained popularity as a vigorous physical workout. Classes tout opportunities to practice “Cardio Yoga” and “Yoga for Strong Abs.” Certainly, physical strength and flexibility are appealing benefits of yoga practice. But there is more to yoga than meets the eye.

Patanjali, often called the “father of yoga,” spoke about ashtanga—Sanskrit for the “eight limbs” of yoga. His Yoga Sutras provide a framework for yoga philosophy. The eight limbs are the pathway to achieving inner bliss by creating stillness and tranquility in both body and mind.

The first two limbs of the eightfold path are guidelines for ethical, purposeful living. "Yama" guides our personal conduct; "niyama" relates to self-discipline and contemplation.

The five yamas include ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (nonstealing), brahmacharya (self-control, especially related to sexuality), and aparigraha (nonattachment). Yamas encourage yogis to work toward internal peace.

“The deeper I learn about [satya] the more I realize that speaking or living truthfully is about being without conflict to what is,” noted Janya Wongsopa, a yoga teacher in northern California. “That is to attend to what is real whether it is difficult, painful or wonderful and be with that realness rather than trying to manipulate it one way or the other.”

The five niyamas include sauca (purity, cleanliness), santosa (contentment), tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-reflection), and isvara pranidhana (spirituality). Niyamas address our spirituality.

Most Westerners associate “yoga” with the third of the eight limbs: "asana." These are physical yoga postures. Many classes also incorporate the fourth limb, "pranayama," or breathing exercises. Breath stimulates energy or encourages relaxation. Pranayama uses breath to balance the body and energy channels, simultaneously purifying and calming both mind and body.

The fifth limb, "pratyahara," is a withdrawal from the senses. Through pratyahara, the yoga practitioner becomes nonattached to sensorial distractions.

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