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The 8 Limbs of Yoga

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Wellness related image Photo: Getty Images

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. In meditation, for example, the mind is acutely focused, and the senses are less readily distracted.

A yoga practitioner can then move toward the sixth limb—"dharana," or intense concentration. In this state, the mind focuses on one single point without experiencing unrelated thoughts.

The seventh limb is "dhyana," or meditation. This meditation builds upon the ability to concentrate fully. Through meditation the yoga practitioner can clear the mind completely.

Only when a yoga practitioner successfully masters the first seven limbs of yoga can she achieve "samadhi," the eighth limb—true bliss and union with the Divine. Sometimes this is called “enlightenment.” Samadhi is the ultimate goal of a yoga practice. In fact, the word yoga translates literally as “union.”

Yoga is a union between body, mind and spirit. It is also, ultimately, a union of self with the Divine and the universe.


Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar


Hillary Easom is a writer and yoga teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her website is www.hillaryeasom.com.

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