It is common to think of yoga as primarily about getting on a sticky mat and putting your body in different positions and shapes – like Downward Dog or Headstand – for the purpose of physical exercise, but classically, the poses (called asana in Sanskrit) are only one eighth of the practice of yoga!
In The Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali laid out an eight limb path of yoga, which is most simply a guide to living a joyful life. Here is an outline of the eight limbs of a classical yoga practice:
1) Yamas – Ethical practices or guidelines for engaging with the world. There are five yamas:
- ahimsa (non-harming or dynamic peacefulness)
- satya (truthfulness)
- asteya (non-stealing)
- bramacharya (wise use of energy)
- aparigraha (non-grasping)
2) Niyamas – Internal disciplines or ways of engaging with yourself. There are also fiveniyamas:
- saucha (purity)
- santosha (contentment)
- tapas (consistent commitment or discipline)
- svadhyaya (self-study)
- ishvara-pranidhana (surrender)
3) Asana – The postures. The practice of moving the body to awaken a deeper experience of awareness and to prepare the body for stillness.
4) Pranayama – Breath work. Prana can be translated as life energy and the suffix yama means to expand or draw out with control.
5) Pratyahara – A turning inward of the senses.
6) Dharana – Concentration. A practice of bringing one’s awareness back to a focus.
7) Dhyana – Meditative absorption. Being able to hold the concentrated focus of dhyana.
8) Samadhi – An experience of interconnectedness with all living things (often translated as enlightenment).
I like to think of these Sanskrit words as murals that are slowly painted with years and years of practice. As our exploration of the eight limbs continues and our understanding begins to deepen, our murals slowly begin to fill in, to expand, and to more actively guide our practice.
A recent study at the University of Southern Mississippi found that the impact of a holistic yoga practice (incorporating breath work, meditation, and spiritual and ethical teachings) to be considerably more beneficial for students than a practice just involving asana. While this post only offers a basic understanding of the eight limbs, I hope it exposes you to the possibility of deepening your practice in new and different ways.
Photo Credit: Sarah Jamieson