I thought an appropriate subject for my first blog post would be the eight limbs of Yoga. The physical practice that we do in a Yoga class in fact comprises only one of eight elements that make up Yoga. Click through to see a breakdown of all eight in order below.
(photos: Lululemon athletica)
These eight 'limbs' were laid out thousands of years ago by a sage called Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (the holy grail for all yogis). The eight limbs are a breakdown of different qualities that can be applied to one's daily life in order to achieve a more yogic existence. At first, these guidelines may sound extreme and restrictive, however, looking more closely they are all achievable, and, amazingly, still relevant despite being so very old.
The first is Yama. There are five Yamas, all of which pertain to one's ethics and integrity. They are; ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (nothing in excess) and aparigraha (non-coveting). These might seem like passive ways of behaving. But, I like to think of the Yamas as ways of kindness. Each second of every day we are having an effect on the world around us, and therefore, every small action we make has either a negative or a positive impact upon others. I ask myself - how can I give the most kindness possible today? Some ways I do this are through being Vegan (not eating or using any animal products), making conscious purchases (such as eco-friendly cleaning products and ethically made or recycled clothing) and smiling at everyone I see :) It is also important to remember that the Yamas not only imply kindness and non-harming to others, but kindness to oneself, which is sometimes the hardest thing to do. Allow yourself enough nourishing and delicious food to give you energy for life, give yourself time off and time doing things that make you happy. When we are kind to ourselves, it is much easier to be kind to others.
There are five Niyamas too. They are; saucha (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapas (effort), svadhyaya (self and sacred study) and isvara pranidana (surrender to God). Although a couple of these explicitly mention religious words like 'God' and 'sacred,' they can still be translated into a more modern and inclusive context. By no means do you have to subscribe to a particular religion in order to lead and benefit from a yogic way of life. I like to see the niyamas more generally as a reminder to give time to reflection, mindfulness and contemplation as well as dedication to what you believe in, and being grateful for what you have.
Asana, is the word we are all most familiar with; meaning the different yoga poses we do in a class. However, in the early writings about yoga, no poses are mentioned except seated postures for meditation, and the word asana in fact means 'a comfortable seat'. The countless other postures that we know now as 'Yoga' were developed later, as a way to control the mind and prepare the body for more focused meditation.
Pranayama encompasses the many different ways in which the breath can be controlled, each of which has a different effect on the mind and body. There is an inextricable connection between the mind and breath - if we can control the breath, so too the mind will come under our control. It is really amazing that the sages knew this thousands of years ago, when science is only just beginning to explore the subject now.
Pratyahara means the withdrawal of the senses. If we always react immediately to what our senses are telling us, the unconscious mind takes over and in turn we make unintuitive decisions. Withdrawing from the senses allows us to take a step back, and be the observer of the ways in which the mind reacts to sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. Then we can notice habits and thoughts that are counterproductive, and work on them. Focusing on the breath during asana and meditation practices allows us to quiet the mind, and take a objective view of what the senses are telling us.
Dharana - concentration, single pointed focus.
Dhyana is deep meditation; complete awareness without focus, and a totally quiet mind.
Samadhi means bliss, or ecstasy, and is the 'goal' of meditation. When I first learned about the concept, I saw it as esoteric and very, very distant. However, I now view it as a much more human thing. A state in which you feel totally content, totally yourself, grateful for and aware of all that is around you. I feel my version of Samadhi when I go for winter walks with my dog and feel as small as a blade of grass and as big as the sky all at once. To me, Samadhi means being totally in the moment - not looking to the future or the past but enjoying the very moment you are in.
In the modern world, the eight limbs of yoga can be seen as a helpful breakdown of positive qualities that have the potential to exist in everyone. Yoga is bringing these aspects into conscious focus, and making them your way of life.