Yoga Philosophy: The 8 Limbs of Yoga
The physical poses that we know in our Western yoga classes are just the tip of the yogic iceberg. If you want to deepen your yoga practice and learn more about the philosophy that underpins it, Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga offers guidance on how to live a life with purpose and meaning.
It's becoming more common for these 'lessons' to be woven into themes for modern yoga classes, so if you have experienced a class taken by a teacher who has learned yoga philosophy (as opposed to a completely fitness focused class solely looking at body movement) you will likely have already touched on them.
Who was Patanjali?
Patanjali, often referred to a the father of modern yoga, wrote an ancient text called the Yoga Sutras. We don't have a lot of info about him, but in this text the sutras (or strands) are 195 aphorisms about yoga philosophy at the time. It's pretty confusing, so it usually comes with translations and commentary in modern texts.
It essentially looks at the human spirit - not our outward appearance but our 'true' inner self, the atman, or the soul - our relationship to the world around us, and how the spirit can be freed from suffering through self-study and discipline. Freedom, liberation, Nirvana, moksha... whatever you want to call it, this is the ultimate goal and yoga poses are only a very small part of that!
This is about so much more than perfecting your downward dog, listening to your breath or attending a weekly yoga class. This is what true yoga is about.
THE EIGHT LIMBS
According to Patanjali, there is an eight-fold path to liberation called the 8 Limbs of Yoga (incidentally, this is Ashtanga - 'ashta' meaning eight, and 'anga' meaning limb - not the intense form of physical yoga some of you might be familiar with!).
Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows
There are five Yamas which look at values or morals that are beneficial for our soul. Physical yoga poses strengthen our body, but practicing these Yamas helps us to find meaning in our life through our behaviours towards the world around us.
- Ahimsa (non-violence) - this could mean physically, through words or thoughts, such as being kind to yourself and others
- Satya (truthfulness) - not telling lies to others or yourself
- Asteya (non-stealing) - not physically stealing, but also not stealing others' energy and not hoarding clutter you don't need
- Bramicharya (the right use of energy) - putting your energies towards positive things but also finding the right balance across your life between work, social, family, commitments etc.
- Aparigraha (non-greed) - this includes letting go focus on desired or specific outcomes
We've talked about smaller day-to-day ways to practice these, but each can be incredibly powerful; Mahatma Gandhi was known for his dedication to Ahimsa through his peaceful protesting methods.
Positive duties or observances
There are five Niyamas which look at activities and habits that are recommended for healthy living.
- Saucha (cleanliness) - physical cleanliness such as mindfully washing yourself thoroughly and taking care with it, tongue scraping, washing hair, brushing teeth etc.
- Santosha (inner contentment) - practicing gratitude, finding balance between the thing you 'should' do and the thing you want to do, self-care and self-love practices, pursuing hobbies and spending time with people who bring you joy
- Tapas (discipline or inner fire) - what are you passionate about? What gets you excited? How could you pursue it more?
- Svadhyaya (self-study or study or spiritual texts) - especially learning more about yourself and your emotions/patterns/tendencies/past experiences - how do they affect the way you interact with the world and the people around you?
- Ishvara Pranidana (surrender to a higher power) - you are not alone in this world, that there is 'something' or 'someone'; a universal energy that overlooks and connects everything and everyone together, and that if you trust in it, it's got your back.
The one most of us are already familiar with, this 'limb' is about the physical postures that we practice, however, even this has a deeper meaning. Asana refers to 'seat' - postures that we can hold steadily and comfortably.
Did you know yoga was originally created for physically fit and flexible Indian men? The poses and alignment cues we still practice today have changed very little in many classes, however now yoga is being more commonly practiced by Western women with skeletal and anatomical differences (especially around the pelvis), and many of us spend extended periods of time sitting down or performing repetitive tasks that lead to muscular tightness.
Modern yoga has us challenging our body beyond it's physical capabilities in pursuit of Instagram-worthy pretzel shapes, but practicing yoga in this way can take its toll on the body. When you practice yoga, how steady and comfortable do you feel? This might be something to bear in mind next time you're thinking about tackling an advanced option, or given the opportunity to use props to support your practice.
'Prana' refers to energy, and with pranayama it's more specifically talking about breathing practices. By controlling our breath in different ways, we can generate heat in our body or cool and soothe it, we can calm our nervous system, or lift our energy.
This limb is about removing all external influences so we can focus on the thing we are trying to concentrate on. In a yoga class you may have experienced this in a guided meditation when you have your eyes closed, no longer notice the sounds around you and are brought down to your breath inhale and exhale.
Have you ever been so involved in something that you don't notice or think of anything else? That is what this limb is about. This is often associated with meditation, whether it's visualisation, trataka (candle flame gazing), or observing your breath.
Leading on from Dharana, this limb is about being able to sustain focused concentration. Meditation is not about clearing everything out of your mind - for most of us there's a lot flying around in there! It's about being able to hold focus on something steadily while all that other stuff is still going on in the background; but having the ability to not dwell on it.
In a traditional yogic sense this may mean being seated in stillness on your mat, but there are many pathways to meditation if you struggle with it. Some people find it through the repetitive automatic steps of going for a run or walk, or working on a carpentry or art project, or being guided through it by an instructor.
Bliss or enlightenment
The ultimate goal! Sound pretty amazing right? It doesn't come easy. And you probably won't levitate (sorry). After all those other limbs are in order, this is what comes next. Forget what you've seen and heard from the hippie movies, Samadhi is about the realisation of your life as it is and as it lays ahead, without being affected by mental conditioning and disturbances.
Our past experiences and impressions, likes, dislikes, our parents' likes and dislikes, our environment, physical pain or discomfort... they all shape our perception of the world and therefore the way we react to it. If we can observe these in ourself and go beyond them to acknowledge, but not dwell in them, Patanjali says we can reach a state of pure joy.
Sound a bit 'woo', but as an example, if a person has a near-drowning a a child and develops a fear of water, there is nothing technically scary or bad about water itself. Their perception of water has changed because of that past experience. If they can find a way to get past their fear of water, it's one less thing in the way of their happiness.
Samadhi is not a permanent state though - stuff keeps coming up in life every day! - so you have to do some decent work to continue getting back there.
What to do now?
So there you have it, the 8-Limbed path to enlightenment! Together these eight limbs make up a lifetime's worth of work. They can't be achieved in a weekend yoga retreat, and Samadhi isn't going to happen overnight. The further down the list you get, the more dedication is usually required to your yoga practices - however, you may still touch on parts from the 8 Limbs in a regular yoga class.
A good way to begin is to pick a single one of the Yamas or Niyamas and start focusing on it for a few weeks or a month.
How could you incorporate it into your daily life? How are you already doing it? Who already displays those qualities? How do you feel when you practice it? Then begin putting it into action.
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