The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga outline a very clear path to joy. When yoga came to America, somehow the first and second limbs weren’t emphasized, probably because the third limb, the ‘asanas’ or postures, were so exciting to look at, that the more subtle and powerful aspects of the practice weren’t given as much attention. The first two limbs, the yamas and niyamas, provide the foundation for the yoga practice. Every time I come to my mat I re-dedicate myself to these principles.

The First Branch: The Yamas

The first limb, called the yamas, contain five disciplines or ethical principles that address how we should treat others. “Yama” has different meanings. It may mean to “rein, curb, or bridle, discipline or restrain.” In the present context, it is used to mean “self-control, forbearance, or any great rule or duty”. Every living sacred tradition has guidelines for right behavior: the five precepts, the Six Perfections, the Eightfold Noble Path the Ten Commandments as well as the Vedic Smritis and the Confucian Analects. Of the yamas, four restraints tell us what not to do. Since I prefer learning about what to do rather than what not to do, I have rephrased the other four for a clearer understanding of the action to take.

You will notice that the word ‘practice’ comes before each word. That is because we are human beings and to be honest about it, these things are hard to do, but with practice we can transform the way we think and therefore how we act.

Nonviolence – Ahisma

Practice Compassion
Hippocrates said, “Above all else, do no harm.” This precept was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi who once said “Ahimsa is not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to those that do not do good in return. When we can identify our own self within the eyes of the other, we are more likely to ‘to unto others in the way we wish to be done.’

In regard to the natural environment, no matter what we do, we are doing harm if by nothing more than using the earth’s resources in the process of living our daily lives. We will inevitably cause pain to others and to nature at large. We do everything we can to find ways of alleviating suffering whenever we can.

On the mat we are compassionate with ourselves. We exercise strength without violence. It is what Buddha calls practicing the ‘middle way,’ where we learn to work neither too hard nor too easily so we are in a place we have never been before but just beyond a place that is easy and familiar. It also means attending and respecting the varying climate of the body every time we come to the mat as well as respecting those that we are practicing with by being on time, being generous with our space and props and looking for ways of offering good will to others.

Truth – Satya

Practice Being Truthful
Our body and our life is a gift. We have a unique imprint on the world in our speech and actions. That imprint contributes to everything around it. We can’t be what we were made to be if we are busy trying to be other than what we are. If we have a truth that we are ashamed to admit to others, then work needs to be done to free ourselves from the habits that produced the action we are ashamed of in the first place. Likewise, if we are afraid to share the truth of our own nature with others, bring our gifts forward to the world, we should work on that as well. We are here to be who we are.

Lying keeps the mind fluctuating with thought and anxiety. It also defeats the whole purpose of yoga, to calm the fluctuations of the movements of the mind. When we lie, we are assuming there is a place in the universe that we can keep from others. Knowing when to say what to whom is an important quality of discrimination, especially as it relates to the first yama, ahimsa, or non-harming. If what we have to say will harm someone else, then it shouldn’t be said. But if we’re not telling the truth because we are afraid of another’s reaction, we are living in fear, denying ourselves and the other a chance to be known and seen.

On the mat the truth is essential in constantly recognizing the state of our body and mind in any given moment. Being honest with ourselves means we’re listening to the very clear messages that our body is sending and we’re a lot less likely to hurt ourselves.

Non-stealing – Asteya

Practice Gratitude
Asteya means non-stealing in its broadest possible sense, including not wishing to have what another has. The desire to steal comes from a misperception of the universe as lacking. Asteya does not only consist of “not stealing,” but also of rooting out the subconscious beliefs of lack and scarcity that cause the variety of manifestations of greed.

When you feel the desire to take, do what the Dalai Lama recommends to people who confess they have negative thoughts. He says reverse the thought to make it positive. Employing your ability to act, should you feel the desire to take, be grateful for every little thing you can think of instead. This way you are reinforcing that the universe is an abundant place and that you are ultimately, enough.

On the mat this principle relates to being satisfied with where we are in our practice and grateful to those who practice with us who can inspire us to continue practicing.

Chastity – Bramacharya

Practice Acting with Integrity
Traditional yogic philosophy states that unbridled sexual activity is one of the quickest ways to deplete our energy. By living a chaste life, the traditional idea is that a Yogi is able to transmute sexual energy into spiritual energy. In its most severe application brahmacharya includes not only refraining from sexual intercourse, but not thinking about sex, or not looking at another with desire. My response is, “Good luck with that.” The practice of brahmacharya, instead of being an archaic form of moralizing, can serve as a reminder that if we use our energy wisely, we will live a fulfilling life.

We practice brahmacharya when we consciously choose to use the energy of our life to express our sense of our highest purpose as a human being, known in Buddhist terms as the dharma, rather than to dissipate it in an endless pursuit of fleeting pleasure. Rusty Wells, one of my favorite teachers says that we act according to how the ‘God of our own understanding’ would act. Integrity means wholeness and of course, this is the aim of the yoga practice, to achieve a sense of union or wholeness.

On the mat, we want to learn to use our energy wisely. This means learning how to reserve energy when needed, to bring our minds into the present moment so that our bodies do not become fatigued. Channeling lines of energy will assist in not depleting our energy.

Nonattachment – Aparigraha

Practice Being Present
The third Noble Truth of Buddhism is that suffering ceases when you free your mind from attachment to things. Aparigraha asks us to use what we need and live with as little attachment to possessions as possible. When we are free of attachment, it doesn’t much matter what we own or possess.

This Yama also means that nothing should be hoarded or collected beyond that which is required in the moment. This principle also relates to living without expectation about the way things should be. Being present requires that we live as though what we have is enough, that what we are is enough, and that this moment is enough.

On the mat, Aparigraha requires that we stay present with our practice and release our attachment to our practice looking or going a certain way. It is easy to become attached to the security of practicing a certain way. On the mat we stay open and flexible, and let go so we are accustomed to loss and change.

The Second Branch: The Niyamas

A Sanskrit word meaning rules or laws, the Niyamas are guidelines for the qualities that we ought to cultivate in our relationship with ourselves. If we remain attentive to cultivating a strong inner life, we are much more effective as human beings.

Purity – Saucha

Create Clarity
The first of the five niyamas is Saucha or purity, sometimes referred to as cleanliness. The Yoga Sutra states, “As a result of purity one achieves purification of the heart, cheerfulness of mind, and power of concentration, control of the passions and fitness of vision of the Atman.” (2:41)
By the practice of mental purity one acquires cheerfulness, one-pointed mind and clarity. All the world’s great traditions talk of inner purification and every form of inner purification involves an active practice of love and compassion. Keep your external and internal environment clean and clear and seek clarity in all your interactions with others.

On the mat, this principle refers to coming to the mat in ‘beginner’s mind,’ as if it were the first time and not taking the time we practice for granted. We are often asked to create an intention for our practice when we first come to the mat. Being clear about what we are seeking to experience provides a context for our practice each time we come to the mat.

Contentment – Santosha

Be Content
By including contentment as an active practice rather than a reaction to events around us, Patanjali points out that peace of mind can never finally rely on external circumstances, which are always changing in ways beyond our control. Santosa requires a commitment to enjoy exactly what each moment brings. We can easily practice contentment when circumstances are going well, but when we can be content in the midst of difficulty can we be truly free. When we can remain open in the midst of pain we understand what it means to be open. In our relationships, when we accept those around us as they truly are, not as we want them to be, we are practicing santosa.

On the mat, we have the opportunity to gracefully accept ourselves regardless of what our practice looks or feels like. There are times in our lives where circumstances are difficult and it may seem hard to even come to a place of contentment. When we arrive on our mats, we ask ourselves to take whatever issues are there and set them on a shelf in our minds. We can bring them down off the shelf again after the practice is over, but during the practice we dedicate ourselves to finding the contentment that is inherently present in each moment.

Discipline – Tapas

Consistently Challenge Yourself
The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of tapas is “fiery discipline,” the fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of union. Think of tapas as consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat or sitting on the meditation cushion every day, or forgiving your partner or your child for the 10,000th time.

On the mat tapas relates to our ability to consistently practice with the aim of constantly breaking through what we thought was possible. This means letting it get ‘hot in the kitchen,’ working with a degree of intensity that challenges our own notions of what we were capable of, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Self Study – Swadhyaya

Self Inquiry and Learning
The meaning of “svadhyaya,” is derived from “sva,” or Self (soul, atman, or higher self); “dhy,” related to the word “dhyana” which means meditation; and “ya,” a suffix that invokes an active quality. Taken as a whole, svadhyaya means “actively meditating on or studying the nature of the Self.” In the context of the niyama the term is often translated as “the study of ancient texts.”

On the mat, the practice is practicing ‘pratyahara,’ in a manner of speaking, turning our attention inward to study and learn from our moment by moment reactions and responses. Ultimately, deep introspection will tell us more about ourselves than any source outside ourselves.

Surrender to God – Isvarapranidhana

Be of Service
Isvarapranidhana means “to lay all your actions at the feet of God.” The concept of God in yoga is radically different from the idea of God in many of the world’s religious traditions. In yoga, God is said to be dwelling in us, and in fact is us – even though God is all-pervading, without beginning or end. In other words, God is seen both as pervading all that exists and as residing at the core of our being; indeed God is the core of our being. As a word-by-word analysis of sutra 1.23 shows, the purpose of practicing yoga is (to borrow a phrase from the Bible) to “Be still and know that I am God.” Stillness is a prerequisite to knowing oneself, to knowing God, and to knowing our relationship with this world. Patanjali says if you wish to still the mind without wasting energy on the process, surrender yourself completely to God.

In the context of the Niyamas we can define Isvarapranidhana as the attitude of a person who usually offers the fruits of his or her action to God in daily prayer. In either case, the essence of isvara pranidhana is acting as best we can, and then relinquishing all attachment to the outcome of our actions. Only by releasing our fears and hopes for the future can we really be in the present moment. This requires that we give up the illusion that we know best, and instead accept that the way life unfolds may be part of a pattern too complex to understand.

On the mat, the combination of Tapas, exercising our will and Isvarapranidhana, surrender, produces a complete practice. The two might seem to be so in contrast to one another that they couldn’t possibly be employed simultaneously. Hatha yoga is the unification of the sun (active) and moon (receptive) aspects of our own nature. Once we have brought our intention on the posture, have addressed alignment and how we are conducting lines of energy in any given posture, the breath and the ability to receive feedback from what we have created out of ourselves, we want to release the surface of the body without sacrificing the posture’s integrity. We want to quit trying so hard, giving ourselves to the present moment so that the power of the practice can affect us in the deepest way. Strength and softness, mind and body meet and we have the experience of integration.

The Third Branch: The Asana Practice

The purpose of the asana practice is to wed the body, mind and breath. Most of us who have lived long enough to observe ourselves are regularly reminded that between a lifestyle that is often sedentary and habitual thinking, we end up not fully utilizing either or body or mind. In the beginning of our practice when we are getting used to sitting with unpleasant sensations we come up against what our mind will do to avoid discomfort. We may find ourselves thinking about yesterday or what we’ll eat for dinner tonight, feeling aggression or hostility arise as a result of the discomfort of the posture or impatience at how slowly time seems to be moving. We might become overzealous and try to force ourselves into a posture, all the same kinds of resistance we encounter in our day to day lives. As we experience a posture, we will invariably find what is often referred to as ‘our edge,’ where in order to create more space in the body we must sit with the sensation of the muscle lengthening without either withdrawing or forcing the muscle. But with practice the body slowly opens. And with time and an understanding, we are able to sit with feelings and thoughts that arise, learning how to release into the sensation rather than ‘fight or fly.’

Every time we return to our mat, we become more skilled at discovering the climate of the body and mind on any given day, where accumulated energy may be storing itself in the form of tension, and how the thoughts and feelings of the day are affecting the body. We become more perceptive of physical and emotional sensations. A sensation is any internal or external vibration that we observe through our senses. The vibration carries information which we sense and interpret in terms of sound, texture, color, flavor, and smell. By itself, the sensation has a neutral value. Only when a sensation is processed by the mind is a value assigned to it. A feeling is an emotional or cognitive response to a sensation. Feelings can be categorized into those that are pleasurable or painful, i.e., energetically expansive or energetically contractive. The general spectrum of emotions can be observed as various grades of joy, love, peace, sadness, anger or fear.

In yoga, there is nowhere to arrive. We are constantly challenged to be present to whatever is occurring in the moment. Eventually we move beyond our own ideas of what is possible. In time we begin to see this in our lives as well, ideas we had about who we are change and we begin to realize that our experience of life as well as our perception of ourselves is far more elastic than we had originally thought. We approach life as we approach any given posture. We look to fully inhabit whatever circumstance we are presented, breathing and observing our response, giving ourselves to the moment.

The Fourth Branch: Pranayama

Pranayama, or breathing, is the fourth branch. Some yogis might argue for having Pranayama as the first limb because the breath is so essential to one’s yoga practice. In fact, anyone in any physical state can practice yoga by simply breathing.

Understanding how to breathe gives us the ability to direct our energy through our bodies, often uncovering stuck or unconscious areas, emotional residue that might initially feel like an area of tenderness, anger or sadness, or hardened parts of the body where emotions have been storing themselves for a long time. We can learn to use the breath to penetrate the areas of the body that we weren’t aware of, bringing life and vitality to areas where it is needed or relaxing areas where there is chronically held tension. The breath will always tell us how we are feeling, we are always learning about ourselves through observing the breath. And when we spend time on a regular basis observing our breath we notice its subtle differences. In time we are able to transform emotional energy into calm simply through practice.

The Fifth Branch: Pratyahara

Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses. Over time, we can learn to take attention within, past sights, tastes smells and sounds into the deepest most observant place within ourselves. There is a great deal of talk about the stillness that lies within and that is what we are aiming to find. My experience is that the stillness is a result of strengthening our capacity to observe the sensations in and around us, the thoughts and emotions that pulsate through us. It is the capacity to be present and contain all experience that is still, because as long as we are alive and in fact the more sensitive we become, the more we are able to experience everything in and around us.

The Sixth Branch: Dharana

One metaphor that is sometimes used to understand the distinction between concentration and meditation is by using rain as an analogy. When rain starts, the moisture of clouds and fog (everyday awareness) coalesces into concentrated moisture and becomes distinct raindrops. These raindrops represent dharana—intermittent moments of focused attention. When the rain falls to earth and creates a river, the merging of the individual raindrops into one stream is like dhyana or meditation. The separate raindrops merge into one continuous flow, just as individual moments of dharana merge into the uninterrupted focus of meditation.

Dharana means the capacity for concentration, or focus. We develop over time the ability to fix our attention, sometimes at the inside of the forehead, the top of the head or on the breath, which we’ll initially be able to do successfully for about three to five seconds. A thought creeps in, we are usually taken on a ride from one thought branching into another and before we know it, we have entirely lost sight of the focus. When we realize we got lost, we go back to focusing. Eventually we become more adept at remaining still and one-pointed in our focus.

The Seventh Branch: Dyana

In Patanjali’s system, the mind is likened to a lake. Like a body of water it is potentially calm and crystal clear, but the thoughts, “modifications of the mind,” stir it into activity and obscure its true nature. These thoughts or modifications are called vrittis and are compared to waves appearing in the body of the lake. They may arise from the lake bed (memories), or from the effects of the outside world (sense perceptions). When the waves are quieted, the water is clear, and one can see through it to its innermost levels. If this process of calming and quieting is successful, the water becomes completely transparent and the highest consciousness comes into evidence. By gradually training the body so that it can relax, and gradually minimizing the distraction of poorly organized nervous energy, the mind can be more detached and observant, impartially witnessing the mental flow.

In meditation both the experience of what one is experiencing and the quality of thoughts are improved. The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground. Zen doctrine states that it is nature alone that teaches us about itself. Only red can tell us what red is; no human being can do so. Only a cow can tell us what a cow is. And only the self can tell you what the self is. Buddha said that when you touch the ground with your foot you should feel two things – the ground and the foot. When you think of a cow you should be aware of the cow and the thought of the cow. If you are not aware of the thought as well as the cow, how will you know you are thinking and not seeing? In that case, you could be in a state of delusion. The pressure of the thought on the cow and of the cow on the thought will become greater if the thought is not merely a casual notice of the idea, but is close full and with prolonged attention. Close, full and prolonged attention in thought is what is called meditation. And just as increased pressure of thought upon the idea of the cow increases the knowledge of the cow, so it also should increase the knowledge of the thought – just as the pressure of the foot on the ground increases the knowledge about the ground and the knowledge about the foot, that is, improves the contact both ways.

The Eight Branch: Samadhi

Samadhi, also known as supreme bliss or self-realization, the ultimate objective of a sustained yoga practice, is called different names throughout a variety of the world’s traditions – the heart, the inner Self, the Tao, pure Awareness, Zen or basic emptiness.

Joy is our natural state and is available to us in every moment. It is usually covered over by conditioned mind, habitual thinking and reacting, greed, desire and any number of less than noble qualities, all of which are very familiar to all of us. The joy that I think is most useful is not a blissed out state that we can only reach after years of withdrawing ourselves from society and that is only sustainable not interacting with the world. Rather than being anywhere else, I want to be adept at being right here amidst the messiness and mystery of life.

When we open ourselves to the moment, everything is amazingly joyful. This capability is possible for everyone at all times with practice. That joy while achievable through meditation should be arrived at any time, doing the same activities day in and day out. Keeping Samadhi as real and simple as that keeps at bay the lure of attaining some grand spiritual state somewhere in the not so immediate future. Joy is already where we are. Ssustaining that experience during all circumstances is the ultimate practice.

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