When thinking about yoga, you probably picture somebody in a “downward-facing dog.” Thus, you might be surprised to find out that yoga is not a form of exercise. It’s an ancient tradition that helps you uncover your true essence.
The origins of yoga date back over 5000 years to pre-Vedic Indian traditions. It is thought that yoga started when people started questioning who or what they truly are. For generations, yogic knowledge was passed down orally from teacher to student. Only around 2000 years ago, the sage Patanjali outlined the path of ashtanga yoga in his “Yoga Sutras.”
Ashtanga literally translates to “eight limbs.” They guide the practitioner on how to still the fluctuations of the mind that produce the sense of a separate “I.” This false ego is the cause of all suffering. Therefore, the goal of yoga is to transcend the confines of the ego and to realize oneness with the Divine. Then, you truly attain yoga which means “to unite, to yoke”.
Each of the eight limbs covers a different aspect of yoga: From the outer limbs that focus on the physical body and your interaction with the external world, to the inner limbs that focus on developing your internal world.
1. YAMA (Self-Restraint)
The first limb sets the practitioner on the path of liberation through right intention. The Sanskrit word yama means “to restrain, to rein in, to control”. In order to focus and direct the mind, we first need to rein it in – through yama. There are five yamas:
- Non-violence (ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (satya)
- Non-stealing (asteya)
- Alignment with the Divine (brahmacharya)
- Non-attachment (aparigraha)
Yama is very often explained as yogic morals and ethics, but this is not entirely accurate. Remember that you aren’t trying to change your behavior through the practice of yoga, but to reveal your true Self. Becoming a “better person” and changing your actions and reactions happens naturally on the way to, and most notably after the goal is attained.
However, by living life in accordance with the yamas, your mind becomes less caught up in worries and regrets, allowing you to be fully present and focused. Therefore, yama provides the right mindset for meditation – which leads toward enlightenment. Click here to learn about each of the five yamas.
2. NIYAMA (Observances)
The word niyama means “observance” or “duty”. It describes important mindsets and activities – directed toward body, mind, and spirit – that you should adopt to be successful in yoga. There are five components of niyama:
- Purity (shaucha)
- Contentment (santosha)
- Austerity (tapas)
- Spiritual studies and self-reflection (svadhyaya)
- Surrender to the Divine (ishvara pranidhana)
Practicing the niyamas gives you the inner strength, clarity, and discipline that you need in order to progress on the spiritual path. Click here to learn how to bring the niyamas into your life.
3. ASANA (Physical Yoga Postures)
Derived from the Sanskrit root as (to sit down), the word asana originally referred to sitting postures for meditation. In fact, most of the yoga postures you practice in a modern yoga class were invented much later!
Instead of describing a flawless handstand or impressive backbends, the most important pose according to Patanjali is sthirasukhasana – a “posture that is steady and comfortable”. When the asana is perfected – you can hold it comfortably and motionless – you are no longer distracted by the body and external conditions that might be uncomfortable for meditation.
In your next yoga practice, rather than pushing your body into physically demanding and advanced postures, maybe focus on finding your personal sthirasukhasana.
4. PRANAYAMA (Breath Restraint)
The word prana refers to the “life force energy” within you, the very essence that keeps you alive. It manifests in the body as breath. Therefore breathwork is the best way to control, expand and direct this energy. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of prana in the nadis (energy channels) of the energy body.
Because your mind is linked to the flow of life energy within, how you breathe directly affects your well-being. By directing the flow of prana, we are able to influence the mind and reach a state of calmness. Pranayama provides the tools to go beyond your boundaries and attain a higher vibration.
You have probably experienced how rapid, shallow breaths quickly send the Sympathetic Nervous System into overdrive, leading to feelings of stress and anxiety. Deep breaths, on the other hand, effectively energize the body and calm the mind.
There are different breathing techniques from calming breaths such as Nadi Shodana to activating breaths like Kapalbhati or Bhastrika Pranayama. Click here to learn six important yogic breathing techniques.
5. PRATYAHARA (Withdrawal of the Senses)
Pratyahara means “withdrawal of the senses”. You make the conscious effort of turning all five senses inward, for example by focusing on the breath. It is the last component of Ashtanga Yoga that precedes the actual meditation practice. It bridges the external focus of the previous limbs and the internal focus of the following.
Often misunderstood, pratyahara does not describe a state where you are no longer able to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel things. It rather refers to a changed state of mind where the sensory input you receive does not reach its respective center in the brain. Therefore, it is no longer experienced as a distraction. Pratyahara is an essential step to prepare the mind for the following three limbs.
6. DHARANA (Concentration)
Dharana means “single-pointed concentration”. After drawing the senses inward, away from outer distractions, you now deal with the distractions of the mind itself.
You direct all of our attention to one single thing – such as the breath, an image, or a chakra – establishing mental contact with the object of meditation. If the mind is distracted and other thoughts appear, you simply bring our attention back to your chosen point of focus.
By focusing your awareness, you slow down the thinking mind. The goal of dharana is to achieve uninterrupted single-pointed concentration. This is the stage many people reach when they believe they are meditating.
7. DHYANA (Meditation)
The seventh limb – finally – is the stage of meditation or contemplation. Even though it might seem very similar to dharana, there is a fine difference. In dharana you actively focus on something, dhyana naturally happens when you become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation. At this stage mental contact has been established and connection begins.
No matter how hard you try, the actual state of meditation is not something you can force or push to happen. The mind will naturally calm down and settle into keen awareness without focus.
8. SAMADHI (Self-Realization)
The final stage of ashtanga yoga is samadhi which can be translated as enlightenment, liberation or self-realization. It is the ultimate state of yoga (union, oneness) when your mind is absolutely absorbed by and thus becomes one with the object of meditation.
Samadhi effortlessly follows dharana and dhyana when there is no distraction and you’re not holding on to your opinions or beliefs. When dharana, dhyana and samadhi are all applied to your essence, its eternal unconditioned nature is revealed and you achieve Self-realization.
Bringing the Eight Limbs into Your Life
Most yoga classes don’t incorporate the full eight limbs, focusing only on asana and pranayama. While the physical practice improves your health and fitness, you will benefit much more from practicing all eight limbs. Start your journey on the path of ashtanga yoga with the following steps:
First of all, start observing yourself as you move through your daily life. What situations cause you to “lose your mind” and react out of a strong emotion? What impact does this have on yourself and others? With this newfound awareness – and constant practice – you will eventually be able to catch yourself and choose how you want to behave.
In addition, expand your yoga practice. If you are new to meditation, you can start with just five minutes of sitting in silence. You can also listen to guided meditations that will help you anchor your mind in the present moment.
If you are fully committed to the path of yoga, consider joining a Yoga Teacher Training. In the course, you will dive deep into yogic philosophy. Combined with daily practice, this knowledge will truly change your life.