You may or may not have heard of Pantanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga… we gave you an article on the first two limbs - the Yamas and the Niyamas - a few months ago. If you missed that, click here to know more. And if you are interested in learning about the other six, read on!
These eight limbs or steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a purposeful and meaningful life and each step prepares us for the next one. They create a moral and ethical compass to assist us in navigating our way through the world and help us focus our attention on our health and connect to something bigger. Sounds pretty profound, right?
The third limb is Asanas, which are the yoga postures or poses we all know and love. In the yoga world, our bodies are our temples, and we must take good care of them so that we can address the higher aspects of yoga beyond the physical practice we enjoy on our mats. Through this physical practice, we cultivate discipline and the ability to concentrate, both which are vital to meditation - the end goal in the life of a yogi.
The fourth limb is Pranayama, which to us westerners means learning how to control our breathing so we can build concentration and manage our stress and emotions. Breathing techniques such as the three-part breath, Ujjayi breathing (Victorious breath), Anuloma Viloma (alternate nostril breathing) and Kapalabhati (skull-shining breath or active exhales, passive inhales) are accessible even to beginning practitioners, as a way to gain mastery over our breath. Yogis believe these breathing practices can not only clear our heads and better our moods, but can actually extend our lives! You can create a home pranayama practice to go along with your asana practice or you can weave it into your asana practice on the mat. These techniques are powerful, so make sure you practice with a teacher before embarking on your own!
The fifth limb is one of the more difficult ones, Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses. In this process, we draw our awareness away from the external world of cell phones, televisions, computers, etc and direct our awareness inward so we can take a good look at ourselves. For some that can sound pretty scary! The idea is that without all the distractions, we can check out our cravings, habits and blockages that might be interfering with our inner growth. So how can we practice this? Try spending a Sunday without your laptop or phone and taking a walk in nature. Clear out the clutter in your home or apartment. Stop watching, listening to or reading the news for a week. Occasionally get up from your desk if you work at one and take a walk, focusing on each step you make. Take a seat on your couch, put your feet on the floor and close your eyes for one minute. It doesn’t need to be complicated to work!
The sixth limb is Dharana, or concentration, and can be met when we have prepared ourselves through the practice of Pratyahara. Once we have freed ourselves from the outside distractions our lives are filled with, we can then deal with the distractions of the mind itself, which tends to be a bit more challenging! This practice comes before meditation and with it, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by focussing on a single mental object: it could be a color; it could be an image of a deity (that does not include Victoria Secret Models!), or a silent repetition of a sound or mantra. Focussing on one point for increasing amounts of time will naturally lead us to the practice of meditation, but in the beginning this practice could be as simple as stopping yourself from multitasking and becoming fully immersed in your daily activities.
The seventh limb is Dhyana or meditation, which is uninterrupted concentration. If you reach this stage, you no longer have to try to focus or to be aware, you just are. In meditation, the mind has been quieted through consistent practice of the other limbs and very few thoughts swim through it, and the body is comfortable with stillness. For many of us, this stage seems utterly impossible, but yoga is a process and one that lasts a lifetime, so we can all benefit from giving it a go!
The eighth and final stage sounds as sublime as it is. Samadhi is the state of ecstasy or bliss. At this stage, you become one with the world around you and see yourself in everyone and everything. This brings an unimaginable sense of peace. This state of enlightenment cannot be ordered online or found on a yoga retreat. It can only be experienced after continual devotion to one’s yoga journey.
So, no matter where you are on your yoga path, you can decide how far you want to travel. The 8 limbs are there to guide and enlighten you along the way, and each step has something special in store for each of us.