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The 8 Limbs

1. Yama: The Great Universal Vows

Altar for Sri K. Pattabhi Jois at Jivamukti right now
Altar for Sri K. Pattabhi Jois at Jivamukti right now
“Yogash chitta-vritti-nirodah.  Yoga is realized when identification with the fluctuations of the mind ceases.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    -Yoga Sutras I:2
“Jati desa kala samayanavacchin0nah sarvabhauma mahavratam.  The Great Vows are universal, not limited by class, time or circumstance.”                                                                                                                                                                                                    -Yoga Sutras II:31
Ashtanga means yoga following the 8-limb path, as elucidated by Patanjali in his yoga sutras.  The 8 limbs begin with guidelines for interacting with others and finish with ultimate bliss and Self-realization.  They show us the path for gaining control of the mind and escaping constant mental clutter and emotional ups and downs.  The 8 limbs are yama (social discipline), niyama (individual discipline), asana (the physical practice we all think of as yoga), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense control), Dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (self-realization).

The Yamas are the first limb of Ashtanga yoga and are meant as guidelines for how we interact with society.  They are social, moral codes thought of as great, universal vows.  The yamas are:

  • Ahimsa: Non-harming.  Do not cause pain to others through thought, word, or action.
  • Satya: Truthfulness.  Be true to yourself and to others, always and without exception.
  • Asteya: Non-stealing.  Do not take what isn’t yours.
  • Brahmacharya: Moderation/Continence.  Practice moderation sexually and materially.
  • Aparigraha: Greedlessness.  Do not desire that which isn’t yours and don’t hoard.

The purpose of the yamas is to begin to focus your intention and purify the mind and body.  Undertaking these moral restraints is the first step in trying to live yoga.  Think about your efforts as creating positivity and fairness in your own life and the world.

2. Niyamas: Personal Discipline

“Mana eva manushyanam karanam bandha mokshayoho.   As the mind, so the man; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.”
-Sanskrit saying common in India

“Yoganganusthanad asuddhi ksaye jnandiptir a vivekhyateh.  By the practice of the limbs of yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                              -Yoga Sutras II:28

tree outside the retreat in India, sunlight peaking through the cracks.
The Niyamas are the 2nd limb of Ashtanga yoga, after the yamas.  The Niyamas are guidelines for how you should treat yourself and how to develop and improve your personal qualities.  Whereas the yamas present guidelines for how we should treat others, the niyamas tell us how to treat ourselves, moving us ever so slightly deeper along the path towards enlightenment.  The niyamas are:
  • Shauca: Cleanliness/Purity.  Keep your self (internally and externally) and your environment clean.
  • Santosha: Contentment.  Distinguish between true happiness that comes from doing good and happiness that comes at the expense of others.  Distinguish between temporary and lasting happiness.  Practice being a content and joyful person for the benefit of all.
  • Tapas: Discipline.  Tapas means fire.  It is our burning desire and dedication to the practice of yoga.
  • Svadhyaya: Study of the Self.  Are you implementing the morality you know is right?  Continual work on one’s self to become a better person.
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: Devotion to God.  Be grateful, every single day for your life.  Have faith in your dedication to yoga.

The niyamas are further methods of refining your person and preparing yourself for the path of yoga. They prepare us for the next limb of yoga, the asana practice and for eventually moving onto the more internal limbs of Ashtanga.  Think of them as practices that will help you become the person you want to be.

3. Asana: The Postures

Julie Kirkpatrick from Jivamukti.
Julie Kirkpatrick from Jivamukti.

“Sthira sukham asanam.  Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.”                                                                                                                                                         -Yoga Sutras II:46

“The Hatha yogis realized that by developing control of the body through asana, the mind is controlled.  When you practice asana, steadiness develops, prana moves freely, and there is less chance of disease occuring”                                                                    -Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Asana is the physical practice of yoga.  It is the postures that we take to strengthen the body, activate and detoxify our internal systems, and prepare us for moving deeper into the practice and study of yoga.  It is what most of us think of when we think of yoga, and often the first element of yoga that we are introduced to.  As the mind becomes more calmed through the physical practice, the desire to learn more about yoga and travel deeper along the 8 limb path happens naturally.  When we do asana, we quiet the mind and control the body to open our consciousness and breakdown the separation we feel from everyone else.  We take an internal gaze and approach the postures with humility and grace as an act of purification, transformation, and devotion.  The asana practice can be physically demanding and vigorous like the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois taught, or restorative and completely relaxing.  I like to think of my asana practice as a daily practice… it keeps me coming!

4. Pranayama: Control of the Breath

Prana is life force.  It is our vital energy and our breath.  It sustains life and creation and permeates all the layers of ourselves and the world.  Yama means control.  Pranayama is breath control.
Pranayama is control of the breath for the sake of going deeper within and gaining mastery over the body and mind.  It is the 4th limb of Ashtanga yoga.
When we practice pranayama, we focus and regulate the breath, taking control of those involuntary actions within the body. When you focus your attention on the breath, the mind has no choice but to follow, bringing one-pointed attention and concentration. The benefits of practicing prananyama are multi-fold, ranging from the purification of the gross, physical body to the toning of the subtle, spiritual self.  Patanjali writes, “Tatah ksiyate prakasavaranam. As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed” (Yoga Sutras II:52), meaning that pranayama helps to destroy the illusion of separateness and give way to the shining light of union within each of us.
In the practice of yoga there are many pranayama practices, like Nadi Shodhanai (Alternate Nostril breathing), Kappalalbhati (Skull Shining breath), an Ujjayi (Victorious breath). Ujjayi breath should be practiced while doing asana, whereas Nadi Shodhana and Kappalbhati should be practiced while sitting in a meditative seat before or after the asana practice.
If you want to begin to tap into breath control and begin to harness your mind and strengthen your body through pranayama, begin to pay attention to your breath. Try to even out your inhales and exhales and slow down your breathing without straining. Notice how when your stressed or nervous, your breath becomes very shallow and taking a deep breath can instantly set the mind a ease.

5. Pratyahara: Sense Withdrawl

sense withdrawl doesn't meant you can't stop to smell the roses. from my mom's garden.

sense withdrawl doesn't meant you can't stop to smell the roses. from my mom's garden.

Pratyahara means sense withdrawl. It is the practice of withdrawing the senses from outside stimulation for the purpose of focusing on your internal development. As Sharon and David write, “Through pratyahara we can journey from outer fixation to inward revelation” (Jivamukti Yoga: Practices for Liberating Body and Soul). Essentially, the senses bring information into the mind, creating how we view the world. Our senses intake so much and fill our minds with so much outside stimulation that it can distract us away from our spiritual development. If we focus on the superficial differences that our senses relate to us, we forget the true universality of all.

Withdrawing the senses back to their source is the next step in subtly refining yourself for experiencing the unity of yoga and the changelessness that is truth. It quiets the mind and retains prana within the body. When the senses are under your mastery, you are free from the control of the external and can understand and experience happiness as coming from within. After the sense are mastered, you can begin to refine the mind for the practice of concentration and meditation, the next limbs on the 8 limb path of Ashtanga yoga. Practice quieting down, emptying your mind, and controlling the reactions and mental fluctuations that come from sense experience.

6. Dharana: Concentration

practice, practie, practice.... working on my arm balancing... unrealated

practice, practie, practice.... working on my arm balancing... unrealated but cool.

“Desbandhas cittasya dharana. Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” -Yoga Sutras III:1

Dharana is the 6th limb of Ashtanga yoga and takes us from the external to the internal. Dharana means concentration and it is the precursor for meditation. Before we can actually meditate, we have to be able to concentrate and hold one-pointed focus. The ability to concentrate has been developed by the previous limbs; the body has been made supple through Asana, the breath work under Pranayama has begun to focus the mind, and the senses have been directed away from outside stimulation through Pratyahara, but still concentration must be practiced before it seamlessly becomes meditation. The awareness draws us deeper and deeper within as the fluctuations of the mind begin to fall away. This limb is about assuming the mental focus and internal gaze neccessary to meditate.

7. Dhyana: Meditation

Rene Magritte's "The False Mirror."

Rene Magritte's "The False Mirror."

“Tatra pratyaikatanata dhyanam. Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition toward that object.” -Yoga Sutras, III:2

Dhyana is meditation. It is the 7th limb of Ashtanga yoga. Sharon and David write, “It is an effortless state that can arise only after you have trained yourself to sit still and concentrate on one object without distraction” (Jivamukti Yoga). It is the realization of one-pointed focus, continuous and unbroken. It is merging with the object of meditation and transcending body consciousness. It is listening within and freeing the mind from thoughts. Meditation allows you to merge with the source and experience union. It frees you from the mental chatter and the fluctuations of the mind by revealing the truth within.

Meditation, like all of yoga, is a practice. It is extremely challenging, physically and mentally to sit still but the more you practice, the easier it becomes. There are endless methods to meditate, but they all begin with finding a comfortable seat. Once you have established your seat, whether it be in front of an altar or not, the choice of object to meditate on is endless. You can think about union, connection to God, repeat a sacred mantra, watch the breath, or focus on a chakra. Truly, you can meditate on whatever feels right to you and this may require trying out different methods. To meditate, simply sit down, close your eyes, draw your attention inward and be quiet.

Magritte... the meditator has become one with the object of meditation.

Magritte... the meditator has become one with the object of meditation.

8. Samadhi: Enlightenment

sky over the Nilgiris.

sky over the Nilgiris.

Samadhi is the final limb of Ashtanga yoga and the goal and purpose of yoga. It is the experience of truth, bliss, and ecstasy. It is Self-realization and enlightenment. It is the ultimate experience of union, merging with the source and truly understanding that we are all the same. In samadhi there is no distinction between knower, knowable and knowledge because there is no differentiation. If in Dharana we look at the water and Dhyana we are in the water, in Samadhi we have become the water. We are that which we meditate upon and so much more because we are limitless.

What does this mean to our physical form? Do we spontaneously burst at the moment of Samadhi or do we remain in our bodies? There are different levels of Samadhi and it can be both a temporary and permanent experience. In permanent, nirbija (seedless) samadhi we leave our bodies and and merge with the cosmos, however I think you can remain in your body in the experience of temporary samadhi and in the other levels of samadhi. Go find an enlightened being and ask them :).

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